Dundalk vs Legia….Where the tie was Lost

An underdog in any sport needs to maximise their strengths to increase their chances of success. Dundalk FC missed a trick against Legia Warsaw and paid the price. Playing the first leg of their play off at the Aviva Stadium may have cost them their Champions League dream.

So Dundalk’s Champions League dream is over for at least another year as they crashed out of the competition last night, succumbing to the flair and exuberance of their higher ranked Polish opponents. If only that was the case. Whilst Dundalk can hold their heads high for capturing the imagination of a nation, they must surely be cursed with thoughts of what might have been.

The sad truth is that Legia Warsaw, over the two legs, showed very little to suggest they are anything but a distinctly average side. Indeed, they were there for the taking and their current form in the Polish Premier League would suggest the same. In fact, such was their ordinariness, it’s safe to say that an Irish side will never have a better opportunity to qualify for the Champions League proper. So, where exactly was the tie lost?

WARSAW, POLAND - AUGUST 23: Robert Benson of Dundalk FC scores the goal for his team during Legia Warsaw v Dundalk FC - UEFA Champions League Play Off 2nd Leg at the Wojsko Polskie Stadium on August 23, 2016 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images)

I’m not going to delve into the tactics used or the technical differences between the teams as both are governed by the quality of players available to each manager which is in turn dictated by finance. For starters, Legia have a ground that can cater for European football and I’m sure they pay their players 52 weeks of the year. On both counts, Dundalk don’t. Legia, quite rightly were the higher ranked side and consequently, the more established European side. They were supposed to steamroll little Dundalk, right? Wrong.

In spite of the gulf in turnover between the sides, it didn’t turn out that way. Football’s great like that. The underdog always has a chance but it needs help.

Unfortunately, Dundalk didn’t help themselves. They couldn’t. Their ground was deemed unfit for purpose and so needed a Champions League approved stadium to fulfil the fixture. The game was lost not on the field but on the decision to play the first leg at the Aviva Stadium. Prestige aside, there’s not a great argument supporting the view that playing at the Aviva Stadium would improve the team’s chances of achieving the seemingly impossible feat of Champions League qualification. In fact, quite the opposite.

WARSAW, POLAND - AUGUST 23: Michal Kucharczyk of Legia Warsaw (L) fights for the ball with Sean Gannon of Dundalk FC (R) during Legia Warsaw v Dundalk FC - UEFA Champions League Play Off 2nd Leg at the Wojsko Polskie Stadium on August 23, 2016 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images)

Unquestionably, the game wasn’t big enough for the grandeur of the Aviva Stadium. It would have been more suited to a smaller capacity ground albeit one that would have to meet UEFA requirements. Irish football needs investment. It needs forward planning. In games of such magnitude, maximising home advantage is critical. Creating a partisan crowd is essential.

A home crowd can intimidate as much as it can inspire. As it stood, the game was played out in front of 30,000 spectators spread out between upper and lower tiers at the Aviva. The Home of Irish football accommodated not only the Dundalk bandwagon jumpers but also the large Polish community living in and around the capital. Any opportunity for Dundalk to capitalise on home advantage was lost. At the top level, these things can make the difference.

I would also hazard a guess that the dimensions of the Aviva pitch weren’t altered in line with that of Dundalk’s Oriel Park. It certainly didn’t look that way. I say this because if dimensions weren’t altered, then playing the game at the Aviva would prove as much of a handicap to Dundalk’s players as it would Legia’s.

Maybe this explains the Dundalk player’s inability to attack with any real gusto in the latter stages of that home leg and instead concede a killer second goal. A goal that ultimately cost them the tie.

Investment right throughout the League of Ireland is needed. Especially now when we have a team on a European adventure and capturing the imagination.  As a footballing nation, we continue to sabotage ourselves. We seem to persevere with mediocrity when the real prize is there for the taking. At the top level, small decisions make big differences. Whatever about other sports, the footballing mentality certainly needs to change and when it does maybe we’ll all be celebrating an Irish side winning the euromillions of Champions League qualification instead of the football pools of the Europa league.

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Congrats Dundalk, but nothing will change

So, once again, we have an Irish side, in the form of Dundalk FC, guaranteed Europa League football and one tie away from the holy grail of the Champions League group stages. They could be joined in Europe ‘proper’ by Cork City in a few weeks. Surely, it’s time to get excited. Hang on though, we’ve been here before haven’t we? Remember Shels vs Deportivo in 2004 or more recently, Shamrock Rovers European exploits in 2011. 
I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd to witness ‘the hoops’ against Spurs at White Hart Lane and I remember the level of excitement I felt. Seeing old team mates and old adversaries fighting it out against the household names of the Premier League. I would have loved to have been out there testing myself against the best, albeit in a Rovers jersey. However, that envy stretched only to European nights. I wouldn’t have traded my position in England’s League 1 to return to our domestic league. Why? The League of Ireland is the same now as it was then and always has been. There’s been no investment and no improvement in structure. If anything, it’s declined. Where’s the desire to keep aspiring Irish footballers in Ireland.  
Despite many trips to Turners Cross as a kid, the League of Ireland failed to inspire me. A combination of poor weather, poor style of play and the pull of English football. What’s changed? A shift to summer football has to a certain extent improved conditions for play and supporters but as a footballer, England will always be the place to be. That needs to change and investment is much needed. We’ve been saying it for years. Of course it’s a tall order, but any sort of attempt by our home association would be nice. We now have, like we’ve had in the past, teams in positions where they are capturing the imagination of the footballing youth in Ireland. Teams that are fighting it out to dine at Europe’s top table. These clubs are actively promoting the league at a time when they have the nation’s undivided attention due to the English close season. They are showing what our league could be and it could be great. 
Sadly, our domestic league is seen as nothing more than a skidmark on the underpants of Irish football by our home association. To use their own words, “a problem child”. Right now, we should be excited, dare I even say it, optimistic. However, both Cork and Dundalk are playing in a league, governed by a national association, that oversees the common practice of professional footballers training for six weeks without pay in pre season and then sign on the dole as soon as the final whistle blows at the final game. 
Here, we have Dundalk, a team on the cusp of Champions League qualification and the strongest domestic side over the past few years, who must play European games miles away in Dublin as their home ground is inadequate. Where’s the investment? The sad truth is, many League of Ireland grounds wouldn’t look out of place in England’s non-league Conference North. 
For starters, the winners of the Airtricity Premier League wins a measly €110,000, but I suppose they can always rely on the €350,000 a year FAI chief’s €5000 ‘strategic plan’ loan proposal. Such a proposal is pitiful and a prime example of the contempt shown to our domestic league by our own association. When real measures need to be put in place, what we get is nothing more than a patronising rub of the hair for our league, followed by a “here you are, go on away and don’t be annoying me”. 
Unfortunately, aside from the clubs concerned in Europe, nothing will change. They will earn their money and continue to dominate, while the rest of the league ambles along in disguised, or worse still, deluded professionalism. Irish clubs are doing their best and undoubtedly deserve better. I hope I’m wrong, but like every other League of Ireland success story, time will pass and the forays of Dundalk, and hopefully Cork City tomorrow night, will be consigned to nothing more than memory and the FAI’s ‘problem child’ will remain as problematic as ever.

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Stand up for the Boys in Green

So the Irish adventure is over but at least this was an adventure with purpose and pride rather than the previous foray
into tournament football which ultimately saw the Irish team as nothing more than ‘also rans’. As an Irish fan, there was nothing more annoying than hearing reports that the outstanding support in the stands wasn’t matched by performances on the pitch.

Indeed, Roy Keane was damning in his assessment when a pundit on ITV. It was about time that the national side gave the fans and the nation something worth celebrating. Something worth spending money on, and more importantly, something worth remembering. Irish football needed it. I grew up watching Italia 90 and my childhood was taken over trying to recreate Kevin Sheedy’s goal against England and Quinn’s equaliser against Holland. I can’t even tell you how many goal kicks it took to provide the perfect Packie Bonner kick out, together with his hop, to recreate that one but the important thing was we were out there trying it. Fast forward to 1994 and we had Alan McLoughlin’s equaliser in a qualifier against the Northern Irish to whet the appetite and get the kids entranced in Irish football. This feel good factor was rammed home by Ray Houghton’s goal against Italy which got us all back on the street trying to recreate that golden moment. Whether on grass or on concrete it was always followed by that famous forward role of his.

2002 provided Matt Holland’s moment against Cameroon, Robbie Keane’s rocket against Germany and Damien Duff’s mesmerising skills in the Irish attack. The kids were back on the streets and they had, once again, home grown heroes to aspire to. Since then, it’s been flat. Yeah, we’ve had our moments and near misses but the football has lacked a certain something, perhaps a certain “Irishness” to recapture the national imagination. The qualification campaign for France was a mixed bag, the lows of defeat to Scotland coupled with the highs of victory against world champions Germany.

It was Long’s strike in the latter, similar to McLoughlin’s in 1993, which got the nation believing. Here was an Irish team and manager which went a long way to restoring the Irish doggedness that was so fruitful in the Jack Charlton era. Just like the teams of Charlton and McCarthy, when an unlikely result was needed, just like Northern Ireland in 1993 and Holland in 2001, it was usually delivered.

The bar was set with that result against Germany and so, the tournament performance needed to follow suit. The Sweden game was cagey. We should have won but at least the next generation of Irish footballers got their moment to recreate in the form of Wes Hoolahan’s perfectly executed volley. The Belgium game was forgettable and this led to a do or die clash with the Italians. This was the game that recaptured the Irish imagination.

An inspired team selection followed by an inspired team performance and the birth of a new Irish footballing hero. That man was Robbie Brady. When a team performance is needed, a team needs a star and Brady delivered. He was everything Irish football needed. Home grown, technical, hungry and passionate. That moment against the Italians was special. The euphoria, the passion, the tears. With one flick of his head, he united a nation in optimism and joy but more importantly he got the kids back on the streets with a ball.

For 56 glorious minutes against the French it looked like the jubilation would continue but alas, it wasn’t to be. We might have gone out, but at long last we went out matching the performance of our fans and providing much needed memories for young Irish players to aspire to. I’m happy to say that, despite the defeat, I’m a proud Irishman. Now, let’s hope the wave of positivity created is capitalised on. COME ON YOU BOYS IN GREEN.

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Leicester City’s Rise was Stockport County’s Fall

With Leicester City sitting pretty at the top of the Barclay’s Premier League and Stockport County languishing in the middle of the Conference National North table, it made me think back to a game played between the two sides in 2009 which would, unknowingly at the time, prove to be a watershed moment in the history and fortunes of both clubs.

The date was the 3rd of March 2009. The venue was the ‘Walkers Stadium’, or what you all know today as the ‘King Power Stadium’, and the opposition facing Leicester that night was a fresh faced, newly promoted Stockport County side in which I was a starter. For highlights of the game and to refresh memories of the occasion then just follow this link: https://youtu.be/iD6bD4z2d0w . However, the highlights and result are, to a certain extent, immaterial. Undoubtedly, not many people will remember that game or hold it in high regard, but they should, particularly Leicester City fans and certainly Stockport County fans. For this was a game that, you could argue, defined the rise of one club and the decline of another.

Going into the game, Leicester City, under the guidance of Nigel Pearson, were flying high at the top of League One. They were nine points clear of second placed Peterborough United and had the additional benefit of a game in hand. Further to this, they were unbeaten in 21 games and seemingly coasting towards promotion. Nevertheless, it was this apparent coasting which was unnerving Leicester City supporters. Undeniably, previous years of continued failure were the root cause of this strange sense of angst amongst ‘Foxes supporters’, and on the night of that Stockport clash, those feelings provided a very apprehensive atmosphere.

In contrast to the Leicester City juggernaut, Stockport County went in to this game in 8th position. We found ourselves three points off the play offs only a mere eight months after gaining promotion from League 2. The reason I say ‘in contrast’ is that, we, as a club, had just gone through a January jumble sale to stave off administration and the general consensus was that the team’s performance and play off push would be adversely affected. However, two months after the club saw it’s most saleable playing assets stripped, we were still managing to continue our grapple with the League One big boys. The off-field financial troubles seemed to galvanise both fans and players and in spite of the uncertain future, everyone was enjoying the ride.

Going into that game, I distinctly remember our tactical brief, outlined by our manager Jim Gannon, which was to simply “out football” them. For him, it was clear the score was immaterial. What he wanted, on a stage like ‘the Walker’s Stadium’, against the league leaders in front of 17,000 bellyaching home supporters, was to prove his side played the better football and showcase our ability as players and his ability as a coach. And boy did he get his wish. The teams for that night were as follows, I’m sure you’ll recognise a few names

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 12.09.24As the highlights show, we went behind as early as the first minute to a somewhat fortuitous goal. The stadium relaxed. You could sense the relief, an almost collective sigh signalling a “we should stuff these now” mentality which reverberated around the ground. But, that’s as good as it got for the home side. From that point on they were out played in every department. We equalised within five minutes through a superbly taken goal by Leicester City old boy Chris O’Grady and with that, we just relaxed into the role of underdog. Nothing to lose but a lot to gain. The crowd grew in frustration and this transferred itself onto the players. Who were this shower, and how dare they, with their team of nobodies come down here and give us a game.

We went about executing Gannon’s instructions with great confidence and composure, and should really have taken all three points. The two styles contrasted greatly that night. Leicester’s tactic of long punting the ball up to Steve Howard didn’t sit well in the stands, especially when the lesser known opponents were playing out from the back, switching play and interchanging positions akin to some sort of footballing red arrows. In the end, we had to settle for a draw and on the whole, the result bore little significance in the promotion race. However, what happened at the end of that 90 minute showcase proved very significant indeed. As we went to applaud our away fans in the corner section of the ground, we were applauded by all sections of the stadium. As the home side trudged off to unsatisfied grumblings, the vast majority of the crowd that night stayed to clap us off the pitch and down the tunnel. It truly was a surreal moment. It was a real moment of footballing appreciation and having been released by Leicester City six years previous without kicking a first team ball, made it all the sweeter for me.

In the dressing room after the game, the manager gushed in his pride of his team’s performance. We spoke about sticking together and continuing to try and achieve the seemingly impossible. We were a team full of belief in our own ability and in how our manager wanted us to play. The arrogance of youth you may say, to go and take on a League One super power at playing football in the right way, but that’s exactly what we did. If you take our elder statesman at the time, Matty McNeil, out of the equation, then the average age of that Stockport County match day squad was a shade over 21 years of age. The future looked bright. Everything about that tie was David versus Goliath, and to use a boxing comparison, although the result may have said 1-1, we certainly won on points.

The aftermath of that game however, couldn’t have been more different to the performance on the field and the feelings of hope and confidence it instilled. Leicester City went on to win the division and gain promotion to the championship. In 2014, they gained promotion to the premiership, again under Nigel Pearson, and are now top of the pile under Claudio Ranieri with 9 games to go. As for Stockport County, well, you can’t help but think what might have been. After that March night, we lost 8 of our next 11 games and went into administration before the last game of that 2008-2009 season, just avoiding relegation despite a ten point deduction. However, the following season, after a significant turnover of players and management, the club were relegated from League One with a record low points total and in the following 2010-2011 season, finished bottom of League Two and were relegated out of the Football League.

Those of you that know football, will look at the above team sheet from March 2009 and recognise a lot of familiar names from that Leicester City side. I’ll draw your attention to one in particular, Andy King. From that night in 2009, he remains the only survivor of Leicester’s rise from the ashes. Forget your Vardys’, Kantes’ or your Mahrez’, how fitting would it be for English football for King to lift the Premier League trophy. A wonderful story of loyalty and development where a one club man rose through the ranks and the divisions, winning the most coveted crown in English football. We can only but wait and see.

I’m guessing, apart from the fans of the clubs us County boys played for, not many of our names will register the same level of familiarity to those of our Leicester counterparts. But on that night in 2009, like Leicester City are doing right now in the Premier League, the underdog outperformed it’s superior and was revered for doing so by those who witnessed the audacity of it. Unlike Stockport County, let’s hope Leicester City can give their underdog story a fairytale finish and like the Leicester fans did that night in 2009, the rest of us will stand and applaud.



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Cobblers and The Great Escape

So the fight for survival started on the 27th of January with me signing a deal until the end of the season. If I’m being honest, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting upon signing. The team was seven points adrift at the foot of the table staring openly at a non league future and with a horrendous goal difference and similarly poor “goals for” column, I think it’s fair to say that safety looked an insurmountable task. So, the wheels of change were set in motion and no greater statement of intent could have been issued than by the chairman’s actions of appointing Chris Wilder as manager and backing him to the hilt by ‘paying up’ some current players that weren’t in the new managers plans and financing the arrival of new faces to lighten the burden of negativity, improve the quality of the squad and give the club a fighting chance of survival. Arriving at the club were signings with big game and promotion experience and which the now, new manager described as “men, who knew how to win football matches”, whom he now entrusted to secure football league status. But would it all gel?. It’s always a risky business culling a team and recruiting in numbers, and this is applicable in the close season, so to do it at the end of January with little over three months of the season remaining could have been deemed lunacy but something drastic needed to be done and change was in full swing. The club was, indeed, in free fall and heading head first through the football league trapdoor. It was a team devoid of a defensive base and any real attacking intent, all in all a team in disarray, so the objective upon signing was “come in and let’s make a fight of it”, so I did and “the great escape” was on.

As I walked into training on that first day, I was very surprised to see how upbeat everything was. Despite all the uncertainty of players coming and going and all the trepidation the arrival of a new manager can bring, it certainly didn’t strike me as a club in crisis. On the one hand this was a good thing as the training ground needs to be an upbeat place of enjoyment to maximise work done and results, but on the other it probably showed the comfort zone mentality that had infected the group and got the club in the position they were in, but as I looked around at the quality now in the squad, I always felt on paper we’d have a chance but could we transform this into results which is a whole different ball game?

The first game came upon us fast, an away trip to Cheltenham who by their own expectations were having an average season but still harboured hopes of the play offs. I started the game on the bench that day and the reality of the task facing us was soon apparent as, before we had even taken our places on the bench, we were 1-0 down due to a long ball that bounced freakishly over our goalie. So much for the final instruction of keeping it tight. At that point you think, ‘we’re seven points adrift, don’t tell me ladyluck is against us aswell’, but thankfully we rallied second half. I made my Cobblers debut coming on after sixty minutes and we equalised through a well taken Matty Blair strike which injected hope and got us off the mark under the new managerial regime.

The following week gave us a full week to prepare before our next game at home to Plymouth which was important for the new lads to integrate into the group, get a grip on how the manager wanted us to play and work on partnerships all over the pitch. The weather right throughout February and March was atrocious so training was confined to astro turf which was far from ideal, and the fact we only had use of the facility for one hour at a time limited the task of coaching and hampered preparation no end but it was just another minor obstacle in comparison to the major objective of clawing ourselves off the foot of the table.

The Plymouth game the following Saturday was an absolute farce. I think it’s fair to say that everyone that witnessed that game will now agree there was no way it should have been played. The wind was probably the worst I’ve ever witnessed on a football pitch. The ball wouldn’t stay still for dead balls and at one point, Plymouth even took a free kick with someone lying and holding the ball a la American football. Goal kicks were kicked into the wind and once they reached the halfway line it seemed like someone was reeling the ball back towards goal which led to comical football. The importance of the pre game toss never mattered so much, but no surprise we lost that. We faced the wind for the first forty five minutes and conceded two terribly easy goals which cost us the game. Another game down, nineteen to go, but still no worse off than seven adrift. In the words of Steven Gerrard, “we go again”.

We didn’t have long to dwell on the Plymouth result as we faced a massive game at Torquay away on the Tuesday night which was the proverbial six pointer. Torquay occupied the place directly above us and to lose the game would have seen us move further adrift at the bottom, so if momentum was to be ceased and a message sent out that we were on the move then this was the game to lay the foundations for the great escape. We set off from Sixfields at 9am with the plan of getting down early enough to stretch the legs and have a sleep prior to the game. However, all plans were scuppered as we were stuck at a service station for almost two hours waiting for replacement windscreen wipers to arrive for the team bus which couldn’t go on in in the rain due to safety reasons. We arrived at the hotel long after the scheduled time, walked and ate pre match almost simultaneously before a swift return to the bus and onto Plainmoor. If we were looking for excuses for a poor performance then we certainly had them, especially upon arriving at the ground and realising the pitch was ridiculously soft and made of porridge like mud on the side of the main stand. If there was ever a game where you needed to start well, then this was it and thankfully, we raced into a two goal lead thanks to two well taken Emile Sinclair strikes. Although we conceded just before half time we saw out the second half relatively comfortably. Well, as comfortably as it can get when your bottom of the league with a one goal lead away from home against your closest rivals. To say the mood in the dressing room afterwards was jubilant would be an understatement, that game was a real turning point. It brought us together as a group and gave us the belief that when our backs were against the wall, like they were with the preparations, we’d fight tooth and nail for one another. That trip home, unlike the journey down, was very sweet and optimism was high.

We followed this result up with a loss away to Fleetwood conceding avoidable goals, one in each half, which then piled the pressure on the following two home games against promotion chasing Southend and play off chasing Hartlepool. We played Southend on a Tuesday night at Sixfields and not only was it a game for us to pick up points but we needed to get the crowd on side with a good performance and let them know we were fighting and wanting survival just as much as them. We scored an early goal from a corner which settled us but like so many games, conceded an avoidable equaliser. The message at half time was ‘are we now going to collapse or fight?’. We chose to fight and went ahead in the second half after great work from Sinclair down the right, who bullied their centre half and teed up Hackett who slotted home from eight yards. We went onto dominate the game and when a passing side like Southend began to go very direct, then we knew the three points were safe.

The fact that we had now beaten a promotion chasing side was worth more than your average win. We were now a team, predominantly, playing percentage football, putting the ball at minimum risk but more importantly, we felt we were now tough to beat and in times of struggle, this along with results was more important than being pleasing on the eye. Getting back in the dressing room after the game, sky sports went on to see the other results and not for the last time the other teams around us had won. This provided a certain sense of deflation but the manager always reiterated that if we do our job then the table will look after itself. So, onto Saturday against one of my old clubs Hartlepool. We started well and it was nice to be involved in our opening goal, getting taken down just outside the box resulting in the free kick that led to our opener. We led one nil at half time and this turned to two shortly after the restart and we comfortably saw out the game.

We now had back to back wins. Unbelievably, the teams around us had all picked up results but for us psychologically, we were now off the bottom, clawing back Torquay, and made the teams around us realise we still had a pulse and were getting stronger. Mission one was accomplished, the great escape was looking possible and if we could beat teams gunning for promotion then why couldn’t the seemingly impossible be done?

We welcomed Bristol Rovers to Sixfields at the start of March, who at that point in time looked relatively safe although a win for us would have dragged them to within five points of the relegation zone. From what I can recall, it was a terribly drab game with little or no chances for either side. I think it was fair to say that both teams didn’t want to lose more than they wanted to win, so a point was a just result and, at the time,9 I felt failing to beat them put them just out of our reach in the relegation fight. How wrong was I?. Another game down though and another point on the board, we were now building some definite momentum. Next up was a nice easy away trip to top of the table, unbeaten in twenty, Scunthorpe.

We went into that game with high hopes of getting something and again, the way the ninety minutes unfolded epitomised the new and still growing spirit in the camp. We played some of our best possession football in the opening forty five minutes, moving the ball well up until the final third yet lacking that bit of guile and end product to make our dominance count on the scoreboard. The mood was buoyant at the interval and we felt if we stuck to our gameplan then the goal would eventually come. The opening fifteen minutes of the restart couldn’t have gone much worse. We gifted Scunny a very soft goal, conceding from a corner and then had our skipper sent off on the hour for a second bookable offence. Our backs were well and truly against the wall but we were a different side now to the one that would perhaps have buckled pre January. We hit back from a set piece almost instantly with Zander Diamond flicking in a Carter delivery and produced a tremendous defensive display for the remaining twenty five minutes which ensured a point. I don’t think there’s a much better feeling as a defender than grinding out a result with ten men and hearing the home crowd boo their team off for a lack of penetration. It was a very significant point, and one which cemented our fans belief that we were now a team worthy of their unwavering support. All was good, until other results came through post game where third bottom Accrington had beaten high flying Chesterfield 3-1 to keep us six points adrift of safety. We weren’t the only ones fighting for our lives.

Although every game since I joined in January carried huge pressure, some games were undoubtedly more important than others and we faced Exeter away on the Tuesday night which was our game in hand on others around us and a game we simply couldn’t lose. Unlike the Torquay game, preparations went smoothly and we were fully able to rest up in a hotel prior to the game and get the journey out of our legs. Football is a very strange game at times and unlike the Torquay game where preparation was poor yet we shot out of the blocks, this was the polar opposite. For some reason, though the pitch was well sodden, Exeter decided to drench the pitch pre game making it almost unplayable, which was strange as it seemed to affect their game more than ours. To say we were awful in that first half would have been very kind but looking back perhaps playing with ten man the previous Saturday had taken its toll. We should have went one down early but their right winger contrived to miss a sitter from three yards. We got to half time largely untroubled after that early scare where for the first time the gaffer gave us a right rollicking. Gregor Robertson even got a rap on the chest for sitting too close to the arm gesturing of the gaffer in mid rollick stage which was one of those moments like at school where we all wanted to laugh but daren’t. We upped our performance second half and a moment of quality from Hacks on the right produced a delicious cross which Ian Morris done well to convert. That was all we needed and it was as comfortable a 1-0 win as you could wish for as they offered very little going forward. It was such a great feeling to get the win whilst not being at even close to our best, and for the dedication of the forty seven Cobblers that made the journey to support us I’m sure it was a journey well made.

That was now eleven points out of a possible fifteen, we were now three points behind Exeter and we had Mansfield at home on the Saturday who were a strong physical side but going through their own sticky patch of form. Confidence was high going into the game and we felt this was the weekend we’d get back on an even keel with the teams above us and set ourselves up nicely for the remaining ten games. We started the game very well and perhaps could and should have been two nil up after ten minutes but our inability to make life easy for ourselves was to haunt us as they played one ball over the top and a moment of indecision resulted in us being down by one. Half time was one of frustration as we should have been out of sight but found ourselves behind but we were told to keep playing the way we were and relax more in the final third. The second half commenced and we started the second period like we did the first and lady luck finally started to smile on us. They had a man sent off for handball on the line as he failed to deal with a cross from the right and Carts dispatched the resultant penalty to draw us level. Mansfield were now on the ropes but defended pretty doggedly and we just couldn’t find a second goal, although Hacks shot a great volley unmarked over the bar from six yards in the dying moments. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel like two points dropped but it was another point on the board, another game unbeaten and we were now only two points away from third bottom, as for the first time since my arrival, other results went our way. Lady Luck, it seemed had just bought a Sixfields season ticket and she was ready to play her part in the final ten games.

The 18th of March saw the two form sides in the division face off as high flying Rochdale arrived at Sixfields. At some point after a sequence of positive results, a blip occurs, an unexplainable performance that nobody sees coming and this was ours. Our Achilles heel of gifting an early goal struck again and Rochdale never looked back. They controlled the game from start to finish and even though they had a man sent off for over-celebrating a goal, we had nothing of note to offer despite playing against ten man for half an hour. In fact, they appeared more in control being down to ten men then they did with eleven. We lost 3-0 and the dressing room was dead afterwards. To be fair to the gaffer, he never got too excited with a win and never went the other way in defeat. The message was, ‘it’s one defeat in eight against the top team, you’ve done magnificent until now let’s make sure we bounce back’. Next up was Morecambe away.

We travelled to Morecambe on the Friday, training at Blackburn prior to the game. For the past few weeks, the astro turf we were training on had taken its toll on my lower back and the long journey to Morecambe didn’t help so despite giving myself every opportunity to play, I simply couldn’t turn without holding my breath so unfortunately I had to miss out. Sitting in the stand, not being able to play a part is a hard experience especially with the importance of the games growing week after week but after they hit the post early in the first half, we went one nil up through an own goal, but sat back for the rest of the game allowing them to gain a foothold and they eventually equalised with probably their best move of the game. Another point gained that we could so easily have lost, especially as we almost gifted them a goal in injury time as a mix up between our retreating defender and goalie saw their player nick in and lob the ball goalward but it thankfully fell just wide of the post. With the events of the past games, luck and fate would suggest that they were on our side, other teams were scoring our goals, players were being sent off and penalties awarded. Things were now looking very positive.

The arrival of AFC Wimbledon on the Tuesday night gave us our first chance to move out of the bottom two, I had recovered from my stiff back and went straight back into the starting eleven. Like so many other times, we conceded early and gave ourselves a mountain to climb. Like most football matches, but more significantly lower league football, the team that scores first usually wins the game so we were doing ourselves no favours. Sometimes I thought it would be better if the manager told us we were one down before we went out as we only ever seemed to settle after we conceded or scored early but all jokes aside this was a game where we needed something. After a scramble in the box from a corner, Midson blocked a goal bound effort on the line with his hand and was sent for a bath. I was happy to see him go because he caught me flush in the chest with a sneaky elbow that felt like I’d been hit by a truck and affected my breathing. It was such a blow, I’m still feeling it now. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t logged the incident and had him earmarked for retribution, totally fair, within the laws of the game retribution I hasten to add. So him going off gave me one less thing to worry about. Up stepped cool as you like Carts from the spot and the score was one one with over an hour for us to play against ten men. The second half was a tense game of cat and mouse. They sat deep with two banks of four and said come break us down and we struggled to create anything of note. With the game entering the latter stages, Carts let fly from twenty five yards which took a wicked deflection causing the ball to loop viciously, beating the keeper at his near post. At that point, we were out of the drop zone and against ten men with little over ten minutes to go. They threw everything at us but we were well in control, but Northampton being Northampton there was always going to be a twist. In the ninety ninth minute no less, they lumped a hopeful ball into the box, it broke to their player six yards out and the equaliser was theirs. Barely time for the restart. Back to the dressing room, dejected and feeling like a loss.

A heated exchange between me and Hacks followed from the pitch into the dressing room, with him ultimately blaming me for their equaliser saying I shouldn’t have been bombing forward into their box in the ninetieth minute. I understood where he was coming from to a point but my argument was, if the ball I played across the six yard box wasn’t on a plate for our striker to make it 3-1 or if we were the team with the ten men then I’d have accepted his viewpoint. I thought it was a harsh criticism but arguments like that, within reason, are a good thing in a dressing room as it shows it matters to the players. Sometimes, the easiest thing in the world is to say nothing and let it slide but we were all hurting and a good rant off is sometimes the best tonic. Needless to say we kissed and made up on the following Thursday training session and were fully focused for Bury on the Saturday.

The Bury game was Rochdale all over again, nobody could have quite seen this result. We went one down early down, then one became two after a looped effort deceived our keeper and two became three after a poor back pass led to their third. The less said about that game the better. We let ourselves and the fans down and it was a massive set back. The loss to Rochdale and the last minute capitulation against Wimbledon which felt like a loss was now compounded by a damning defeat to a fellow relegation threatened side. I think the phrase “lower than a snakes belly” sums up how we felt. Again, the gaffer didn’t lambast us which he would have been well within his rights to do but instead stated the importance of bouncing back like we had done before. Despite the g-up, that was the first time I felt we could go down. Thankfully that thought only lasted all night Saturday and Sunday, and after looking how other results went for us, checking our own fixtures, I was mister positivity again as Monday training arrived. Without question, football is, indeed, a mindfuck, but the focus was now shifted to Accrington away.

We arrived at Accrington knowing it was basically a case of shit or bust and thankfully we got off to a flying start with Hacks converting a chance from the tightest of angles after four minutes. We were by far the dominant team and created several further chances first half to increase our lead but again failed to make life easy for ourselves. Despite coming under pressure in the last ten minutes with Accrington opting to go very direct, we dealt with everything they could muster and our goal was never really threatened. The final whistle went and we left the pitch with a well deserved one nil win and clean sheet in the bag. Now to see how the other teams got on, surely we were level on points with the teams above us? As you’ve guessed, both Wycombe and Portsmouth won, and Bristol Rovers drew keeping us three points adrift and with our goal difference being so poor in comparison with our relegation rivals, our jubilation soon turned to disbelief as news filtered through of these results. Was there any danger of results going our way? If the great escape was to be achieved, it was definitely going to have to be done the hard way, but our fate was in our own hands and I liked them odds.

The following weekend saw us pitted against Burton Albion who still had one eye on automatic promotion and were sitting comfortably in the play off places. The game was all the more special for me as my parents made the trip over from Ireland so I was desperate for them to see a good performance and a nice three points. We shuffled formation due to injuries and I was asked to play as one of three centre halves in a 3-5-2 formation. For me, playing different positions isn’t much of a problem but centre half, albeit in a back three, was a new one for me. It was a lovely day at Sixfields that Saturday. The sun was beaming and the crowd turned up in numbers to help us to victory. The club introduced ‘clappers’ on each seat to increase the noise level and the support we received that day was simply fantastic. Lady Luck again came to our aid as the Burton keeper threw in a John Marquis drive which 99 times out of 100 he’d usually save but we weren’t complaining in the slightest. It was a much deserved one nil win and a performance which belied our position. We now had back to back wins at a crucial point of the season. I had a win in front of my folks which was very pleasing and I ticked off another position played, which now left the position of goalkeeper as the only position I’ve not played in in league football, and let’s hope it stays that way.

With that win, we were now level on points with Wycombe, confidence was sky high and they were up next on the schedule away at Adams Park. That game was to be a tense affair, we stuck with the 3-5-2 formation but I moved from centre half to a more recognisable right wing back role. Coming out at the start of the game and being greeted by over two thousand of our own supporters was a special feeling and a phenomenal effort by all involved. We started brightly and a hopeful punt into the box by Ricky Ravenhill was caught and spilled into the Wycombe net by the home goalkeeper. It seemed as though we didn’t even have to score our own goals anymore as the opposition were doing it for us. Upon scoring, we endured a crazy fifteen minutes where we seemed desperate to press the self destruct button and it was no surprise we conceded the equaliser in this period, a bullet header from a set piece. We thankfully regrouped, and there was no further chances of note for either side until the last minute of injury time. A Wycombe free kick at the edge of our box was brilliantly saved by Dukey in net only for the ball to be tapped home. It seemed Wycombe had stolen it and with that our football league status but up went the linesman’s flag. Never have I been as relieved as I was at that moment. The game ended not long after and tv replays showed that that last gasp Wycombe goal should have stood but as I’ve said before, Lady Luck appeared to be a Cobbler.

With Friday over, we needed every minute of the weekend to recover and focus on the Easter Monday clash with Portsmouth at home. That Wycombe game was draining for all involved, and at right wing back I felt I had run a marathon. In a nutshell, I was spent both physically and mentally and quite a few of us were in the same boat but Monday was closing fast. No time to dwell on tiredness. The scene was perfectly set for us to break out of the relegation zone, could we now take our chance?

With Portsmouth selling out their away allocation, Sixfields was bouncing. The ‘clappers’ were out in force again and the atmosphere was why you play football. We set out again in a 3-5-2 that had worked so well for us in past matches, but we just couldn’t get going or get up the pitch. We conceded early again from a set piece knock down and despite matching them up in a 4-4-2, with me moving to right midfield, we simply couldn’t find an equaliser. I’m not making excuses for the loss, but perhaps Portsmouth securing survival on the previous Friday which allowed them to implement five or six changes for our game, gave them a slight edge in regards to freshness and energy but once again our opportunity to escape the dreaded drop zone had eluded us. The only silver lining was that results went in our favour, and it was now a four horse race to avoid that last relegation place between ourselves, Wycombe, Exeter and Bristol Rovers. Our fate was in still in our own hands.

Dagenham away was the place where our destiny would be decided. With Wycombe playing Bristol, and Exeter at home to table toppers Scunthorpe, we knew a win would put one Northampton foot in League 2 for the 2014-2015 season. I found out I was dropped for the Dagenham game on the Friday with not a word mentioned, which is always a shit sandwich, but more than that, I knew then, that that would be it for me in regards to an extended deal. We still had a huge job to complete and regardless of contract scenarios, we were all in it together and too much sweat had been spilt since January to let it slip away now. Dagenham had nothing to play for as they were safe in mid table and started the game in flip flops trying to pass the ball around like Liverpool. Who were they trying to kid? We pressed them high up the park and won the ball time and time again in their defensive third allowing us to gain real momentum. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and young striker Ivan Toney scored inside five minutes after a pinpoint cross from Ian Morris. One was to become two after twelve minutes as Dagenham half cleared a corner to the edge of the box and Ian Morris spectacularly volleyed home from twenty yards. Dagenham, at this point, were already in the queue for Sugar Hut and that man Toney bicycle kicked home an effort on forty minutes to seal the match. It truly was a fantastic performance from a young guy who saw no match action since I arrived in January, and it was an ingenious gamble by the manager to put his faith in someone so young and raw, but for him to explode onto the scene in such a fashion was truly fairytale stuff, you couldn’t make it up. Spare a thought also for Morro, he probably won’t score a better or more important goal in all his career and as everyone swooned over Ivan’s performance, Morro’s goal got lost in the furore. He mentioned it enough times on the journey back so I’m pretty sure it did really happen, what a strike though. That win proved monumental as, with Exeter somehow managing to beat Scunny and secure their own safety, a draw or defeat for us would have put our destiny in the hands of others. After nineteen games, it appeared we timed our escape to perfection and we were now out of the relegation zone at long last, needing just a point from our last game to ensure football league status.

And so, to the last game of the season against the gaffer’s old club Oxford who he left to take over at Sixfields back in January. It was always going to come down to this game wasn’t it? The question was, would there be a sting in the tail or would he get a sweet victory over the club that failed to back him? The sun was shining, Sixfields was packed with squeaky bums everywhere and we upheld our tradition of giving away a soft early goal from a set piece. You could cut the tension with a knife as that Oxford goal went in and with early news filtering through that Wycombe were beating Torquay and Bristol drawing, we were on our way out of the league. We looked nervous, and the longer the game remained one nil who knows what might have happened, but I’ve mentioned Lady Luck a few times in this blog and on that final Saturday she showed up in full Northampton kit, scarf and underwear. In the space of fifteen minutes, they had a man sent off for an off the ball incident, we equalised, and then went ahead. There was no stopping us now from achieving our great escape. Doumbs headed home early in the second half to make it a comfortable afternoon for us and the party had well and truly started.

The final whistle went and the inevitable pitch invasion of relieved spectators flowed onto the Sixfield’s grass. It truly was a very satisfying feeling having achieved the objective set forth in January. After twenty games of incessant pressure, we had achieved the seemingly impossible and along the way averaged over one and a half points per game, which was promotion chasing form. The job was finally done. I am very proud to have played a significant part in the club’s survival and be part of a very together, determined and banterful dressing room, but at the same time hurt and disappointed that, after all that commitment and effort, I won’t have the opportunity to carry on the progression of the football club but hey ho, that’s football. My mind, from January, was completely consumed by the relegation battle and the added stress of not knowing my footballing future. Now, that it’s finally done and the great escape has been accomplished, I can switch off and relax until my next port of call where it all starts again, and you know what, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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Homosexuality in football, will it ever ‘come out’?

So the controversial topic of homosexuality in football has hit the headlines again with the announcement from the now retired Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay, but in this day and age should the topic even be deemed controversial.

A person’s race, creed or in this case sexuality bears no relevance in a person’s ability to perform their job and therefore should be deemed an insignificant factor. Hitzlsperger’s fifty two caps for Germany would seem to validate this. However, the problems which sensationalise the issue of homosexuality in football, centres not on a players’s ability to perform his job but rather how they will be perceived amongst their peers, superiors and spectators in an industry renowned for its masculine/macho stereotype. How sad it is, with us now entering 2014, that the football industry is still entwined in such an unwavering, homophobic stereotype.

A fear undoubtedly exists regarding what effect a homosexual footballer might have in the dressing room, on the club, on the terraces and on the industry as a whole. In my opinion, it’s nothing more than a fear of the unknown that stops clubs and the football industry in general from fully embracing difference and further aiding and accommodating the hardships faced by gay footballers ‘coming out’ within the game.

It’s not the first time, and probably won’t be the last time, football has faced questions of prejudice and inequality. Comparisons of such fear of difference can surely be made with the plight black players faced in the English game through the decades of the 60’s through to the 80’s. At the time, clubs and players up and down the country had the same prejudiced views and fears on the effect the introduction of a black player might have in a predominantly “white industry” both in the dressing room and on the terraces, but over time these barriers were broken down and equality is prevailing. Yes, there were and unfortunately still are dark times of outrageous racist demonstrations on the terraces but for equality to prevail, it took and continues to take brave men to shoulder the vitriol in order to smooth the path for future generations. With this in mind, I’m sure, over time, the attitude towards homosexuality in football would go the same way as that of racism in football, but it firstly needs someone brave enough, perhaps the footballing equivalent of rugby’s Gareth Thomas, to unfortunately shoulder the outcry and repercussions in order to show other ‘closet homosexual footballers’ that being gay in the world of sport isn’t a reason to live a career, and more importantly a life, shrouded in fear.

Homosexuality within the masculine nature of football is such a taboo subject, a subject that threatens alpha male security and raises so many potential concerns such as the idea of team mates showering together, potential team mate relationships and rooming on away trips which are some of the most common points that crop up when we talk about it in dressing rooms. Although, if team mates were in a relationship that would surely solve the rooming problem, no? However, I’d like to think the vast majority of the footballing fraternity would accept and cope with the situation, using a form of banter like my last sentence which is the usual dressing room way of dealing with difficult subjects, and simply evolve with the sport.

As for the fans reaction, well that’s a completely different story, a naive view would suggest that a players own fans wouldn’t care less once the player performs in the shirt he wears, but in times of difficulty on the pitch would a player’s sexuality be used as an excuse and a reason to vent? Similarly, would he be an easy target of abuse for opposition fans and players? Would a gay player find moving club a futile effort? Would his selection in a team be jeopardised because of his sexuality, or by the same token would a manager be reluctant to omit a gay player for fear of being labelled a bigot? So many questions, but I guess only time will tell. If history has taught us anything, it’s that barriers are there to be broken down and it’s only a matter of time before we do see an actively playing, openly gay footballer. I honestly believe if a gay player has the support and respect of his club, and team mates more importantly, then the bile which would inevitably come from the terraces would eventually subside but we need everyone, in every aspect of football to unite in their view on equality and ensure that equality, above all else, prevails.

Whilst the announcement by Hitzlsperger has been viewed from all quarters as “a brave decision”, I can’t help but feel that the braver decision would have been to ‘come out’ whilst still playing, even if only for the last few months of his career to test the water if you will, and set a precedent that we could only advance from. However, it’s easy for someone like me to write such a point as I’ll never understand the difficulties that are faced by someone dealing with such a career and life changing decision. It would undoubtedly have had a defining effect on the subject of homosexuality in football and certainly would have proved if the football industry has evolved enough to deal with such a revelation, but alas, it wasn’t to be and who can blame Hitzlsperger for wanting a quiet end to a fantastic career in a rewarding but often brutal and draconian industry.

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Festive Football or Time for a break??

So the hectic Christmas fixture schedule is coming to an end and although it’s been a blessing to spend a special time of year with family and friends in my hometown of Cork, something which I’ve not experienced in over 5years, it was difficult to experience not being involved in the craziness of English football’s most iconic time of year. Four games, which can either consolidate or derail a season, in under two weeks made all the more frantic as they are sandwiched either side of a Christmas and a New Year.

Without a shadow of a doubt there is something very romantic about this time of year that puts the rest of the footballing calendar in the shade and the abolition of which should be a complete and utter non starter. Preparing and training for games, doing the Christmas shopping, preparing for the visits of friends and family, arranging accommodation, getting tickets and travel sorted for games, getting the right present for the missus which can be a more daunting challenge than the actual games themselves and can potentially lead to a bigger cold shoulder than any manager can give you and am I forgetting anything….oh right, the small matter of performing consistently in four games in twelve days.

It makes me exhausted just writing about it but would I change the festive madness in favour of a christmas break…absolutely not…and I can now see, having both been involved and not been involved in festive football, the validity in the debate about having a two week break after the New Years fixtures, if for nothing else just to recharge and take stock.

It’s a time of year for a footballer, moreso than any other, where football completely consumes your life and energy, factor into this the previously mentioned Christmas checklist and it makes perfect sense to have a footballing equivalent of parents leaving their young kids with the in-laws and having a weekend away to themselves in order to reconnect and recharge.

Christmas is a time of year renowned for festive cheer and goodwill, but as we all know being fans, it’s hard to enjoy the festivities and be fully buoyant when your team is struggling for results. Now multiply that feeling, square it and add a few numbers and you might still be short of what it feels like to be a player or manager involved in a team that’s struggling with the hurdle that is the Christmas fixture list. In such a congested fixture timetable, it’s a fact for footballers that you see your colleagues more than you do your own loved ones. If the fixtures are unkind and you’re unfortunate to play away on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day then you usually spend Christmas night, New Year’s Eve or sometimes both in the not so romantic ideal of rooming with a farting team mate at a team hotel instead of sharing it at home with those you love. Being part of a successful side undoubtedly helps with this, however being part of a side with a great camaraderie and character is the force that drives a successful team, not only over Christmas but usually over the season as a whole. Being without results and without togetherness can breed contempt and resentment in a team and the Christmas/New Year schedule does it’s very best to challenge all quarters.

With small squad sizes now being more commonplace throughout the lower leagues especially, a two week January hiatus makes perfect sense in allowing players the opportunity to not only recuperate from physical injury but also the mental fatigue that is so often overlooked. The benefits, in my opinion, far outweigh the negatives and perhaps would reduce the dominance of club budgets in determining promotion/relegation outcome and provide the smaller clubs with a recovery platform to further compete and sustain a promotion challenge or relegation escape without threatening the financial structure of their club.

If the importance of time away or down time, call it what you will, is recommended to parents, both young and old in times of stress, in order to regain perspective, appreciate and recharge thus supposedly help them cope better with the trials and tribulations of the most stressful job that is parenthood, then surely, by the same token, a two week breathing space in January, allowing footballers and managers alike time away to re-energise, reflect and plan for the challenges that lay ahead can only be a positive addition and further add to the romance of the game. Let’s have more Yeovil Town fairytale stories and why not give a helping hand to the clubs that are punching above their weight.

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O’Neill and Keane, Heaven or Hell??

So the seemingly dream team partnership of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have been called upon and entrusted to usher in a new era of Irish football, but every Irish man and Irish dog, let alone the rest of the footballing world will be wondering if it will all end in tears or lead to a much needed revival in international fortunes for a country that expects so much?

Whilst the appointment of both raises a lot of scepticism as well as excitement, speaking as a player, a fan and more importantly an Irishman, I can’t see anything but exciting times ahead for the boys in green. In the hotseat, we have Martin O’Neill. A passionate Irishman, a man methodical to detail, a man with a wealth of experience both as a player and as a manager and is revered throughout British football as motivator extraordinaire. Supporting him you have, Roy Keane. Again a passionate Irishman, fiery in demeanour, demanding the highest of standards, highly decorated as a player together with success as manager of Sunderland and globally regarded as one of the best midfielders of his generation. How can we fail to be anything but excited by what could turn out to be John Delaney’s finest moment as FAI chief?

Whilst critics seem to unanimously approve the appointment of O’Neill, they offer a more cautious opinion on the inclusion of Keane to the management team. They see him as an intimidating figure, a viewpoint which is unquestionably backed up by former team mates and managers, a borderline bully if stories of players that previously worked under him are to be believed and a man with such a temperamental character that it could potentially derail any future progress. But, alas, that is the beauty of partnerships, and that’s where O’Neill comes in. The yin to Keane’s yang. A manager that possesses all the traits that will finely counterbalance the sometimes devilish attributes of his assistant. As O’Neill himself stated on appointment, it’s less a case of good cop, bad cop but more a case of bad cop, bad bad cop. Undoubtedly a tongue in cheek remark yet shows a cunning intelligence and understanding of what’s perceived by the public and shows also a quiet confidence in the approach he will utilise in order to reinvigorate Irish football.

We now have a duo in charge with qualities which, when married together, are a potential recipe for unrivalled success. O’Neill is obviously a man’s man, a player’s manager. You only have to read the autobiographies of his former players to prove his influence and likeability. The overriding message coming from his former players is that they wanted to play for him and would run through walls for him. What more can you ask of a manager? Ok, I suppose style of play, organisation and tactical awareness are high on the list of requirements but as far as I’m concerned, O’Neill is going into the job with a blank canvass therefore, unlike the last regime, has ample opportunity to utilise the best players available, in a formation that suits the best players and not the average ones. Keane will be there to ensure standards are high both on the training ground, and in all areas of match preparation. Let’s be honest, if Keane walked away from a World Cup Finals because of shoddy standards then you know the players, under his stewardship, will want for nothing when on international duty. Players will therefore want to come and play for them which is obviously essential for international success, O’Neill for his managerial and motivational abilities and Keane for his aura and legend.

Under the last regime, it appeared harder to get dropped out of a squad then it was to get called into one. Thankfully those days are seemingly behind us, players will once again be chosen on merit. No more language barriers and a manager watching DVDs in Italy instead of relevant live games. No more self imposed player exiles, no more favouritism. Instead, we should be very proud to have appointed an Irish manager who gets the very best out of his players, just ask Robbie Savage and Stan Collymore, and in Keane, we have an Irish footballing legend who, unlike Trapattoni, knows his way around the League of Ireland and knows how it can be improved and utilised, but perhaps more importantly, we have a man who is desperate to change Irish mindset and make the fans as well as the players realise that celebration goes hand in hand with success and anything else offers very little solace. Come on you Boys in Green!!

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Citizenship and the case of Adnan Janusaj

International football is widely regarded as being the pinnacle of a footballer’s career and international success is a direct reflection on the competency of a nation’s footballing association and structure, but is the necessity for success now so great that it is leading these ‘powers of football’ to abuse the ‘grandparent rule’ and lead to a dangerous flirtation with the idea of citizenship which is not only diminishing, but could altogether destroy the honour and principles of national representation?

Let’s look at the case of Irish football and I’m sure the same arguments will resonate with that of England and the increasing debate surrounding Manchester United’s new wonder kid Adnan Janusaj and his potential eligibility to represent England. Irish football in the late 80’s and early 90’s was at it’s peak with an international line-up predominately made up of players with a direct link, either through birth or parenthood, to the nation of Ireland. Obviously there were exceptions to this such as the Houghtons and Aldridges of this world but at that time it was welcomed with open arms as the players recruited with so called ‘suspect Irish roots’, like those mentioned above, were plying their trade at the top level of English football and without question enhanced the team and resulted in resurrecting the Republic’s stature from also-rans to serious contenders. Unfortunately, this manufactured success resulted in very little foresight. There was no lasting legacy, no national youth restructuring and as time progressed and the pressure to continue the success of the Charlton era increased, we found ourselves, as a national team, recruiting players whose only link to Ireland was that they probably at some stage in their adult life drank a pint of Guinness or flew on Aer Lingus. Being a player and a fan, this procedure in national selection is undoubtedly wrong and in my opinion detracts from the dream of representing one’s country, creates resentment and simply highlights the shortcomings, even laziness, of a nation and national association to produce and develop it’s very own talent.

Is it right that we now operate in a system where we have players representing a country throughout the various age groups even up until under 21 level and then switching allegiances to another country where they have a more realistic chance of performing? Is it fair on the genuine Irish players that have their dream of playing for their country snatched away by, what I would describe a “chancer” or in extreme terminology a fraud? The English FA would do well to take note. Likewise, is it acceptable that a player can choose from his own place of birth, his parents nationality, his grandparents nationality and now a seemingly free choice of acquired citizenship to suit his place in the pecking order of any one of several national structures?

The answer in my opinion is a resounding no. International choice should be solely dependent on a player’s country of birth and stretch no further than that of the birth places of either parent. The sad fact is we now have player’s scrolling through family trees in a desperate attempt to associate themselves with a country which offers them the best chance of international selection therefore rubbishing the old footballing chestnut of “it’s always been my dream to play for my country”. International football obviously brings with it lucrative rewards, and the desperation to aspire to this level of football, where one can pit one’s wits against the best players the world has to offer, will always lead players, managers and now seemingly national associations to abuse the system and achieve this regardless of personal pride and principle.

Spectators and sports writers surrounding the English national team are quick to criticise their side’s performance but one thing that they cannot criticise, and to my knowledge never have, is the true nationality of all it’s players. Before the meteoric rise of Joe Hart, the outcry that abounded when Manuel Almunia considered declaring for England was met with a chorus of disapproval from all quarters of English football. There was an overwhelming stance that if England as a nation could not produce a top class keeper then they would pick the best on offer as oppose to recruit a foreigner who merely acquired citizenship. Once again, England are faced with a similar situation involving Adnan Janusaj and it’s not just a media driven pipe dream that has raised debate but in fact, the FA themselves have contacted Manchester United and the player himself in enquiry as to his standpoint. A scenario where the FA have felt it necessary to try and tie down a promising foreign youngster who has shown no previous desire whatsoever to represent England throughout all other age groups is worrying to say the least. Is the English left flank problem so great that it needs solving by a foreigner?

A worrying situation indeed, and what message will this send out to the aspiring ‘genuinely’ English youth of English football–that being the best player in your position in your country is no longer good enough?? Let’s not forget, this is international football, a player shouldn’t be able to just transfer nationality in a similar way to a club player transferring between clubs, and likewise, a national association shouldn’t be able to act like club chairmen and effectively sign players to represent their national team albeit on a five year citizenship waiting list.

People always point to the example of Ryan Giggs and say he was wrong to choose Wales over England for the sake of career fulfilment, but it was a choice that never existed. Ryan Giggs is and always has been a Welshman, and a proud one at that. I’m sure all his caps and everytime he belted out the Welsh national anthem mean more to him now than any success a fraudulent career with England might have brought. I’m not going to criticise any player for taking the opportunity to play international football but in my eyes nationality is dependent on where you’re born and where your parents hail from alone, it should not and cannot be allowed to be manufactured and for me, the buck stops with the selection system.

In Ireland’s case, we have had the likes of Tony Cascarino who prospered during Jack Charlton’s reign only to make a mockery of his Irish heritage in his autobiography, coincidentally and cowardly after he retired. Similarly, Matt Holland, who represented Ireland on numerous occasions and even scored in a World Cup, was seen belting out the English national anthem at a play off game whilst representing Ipswich. This, in a nutshell, highlights my argument. I’m not for one minute calling into question Matt Holland’s performances for Ireland as he was a top player but should he really have been wearing an Irish shirt or was it merely a good second choice, a runner’s-up prize if you will.

Irish football both nationally and internationally has plateaued at best since the world cup in 2002. We, as a nation, now seem to be papering over the cracks in a desperate attempt to claw back past glories. In contrast with England, there appears to be little if any legacy in place, no Irish equivalent of St. Georges Park and no national academy to harness and hold onto and develop our talented youth. The Irish national leagues, rarely, if at all benefit from international success and until the structure is improved and modified from grassroots right through to professional level in the country then it will always be a national academy feeding English clubs when the real beneficiaries should be domestic based.

On the same note, the fact that English football is so infrastructurally advanced makes the FA’s fascination with Adnan Janusaj all the more alarming and unpatriotic. As Jack Wilshere quite rightly stated, “the only people who should play for England are English people….if you live in England for five years, it doesn’t make you English, you should not play”. In an industry plagued by disloyalty, let’s now preserve the prestige of international football and tighten the belt on the requirements necessary for national representation. In the case of Adnan Janusaj, let’s hope, for the future of international football that common sense and patriotism prevail, for in countries,like England, where domestic leagues are well represented by foreign imports who knows where it could lead.

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An Eye-Opening Summer

What a summer! I’ve experienced every emotion from the ecstasy of getting married to the harsh reality of uprooting and starting married life unemployed and in the footballing ‘ratrace’ of finding a new club. It’s certainly not the way I would have planned it but that feeling of elation on saturday, that feeling of being part of a team, giving everything for the cause and picking up three points has made my summer of upheaval seemingly all worthwhile, and now I just want it to continue.

If you told me upon my release from Leyton Orient that I’d have to wait until the end of the summer transfer window to sort out my footballing future then I’d probably have replied “no chance” (even though part of me always considers the worst case scenario). In defence of this mindset, I felt I had just played a significant part (38 Appearances) in what was a successful season, helping Leyton Orient finish 7th in League 1 and missing out on a Wembley appearance by the cruelest of margins in the JPT. In my armoury I have over 200 appearances in League 1 over the past 5 seasons. Factor into this that I’ve won promotion from League 2 and have a major Irish domestic trophy behind me and perhaps you can understand the confidence in my belief that I’d be a decent acquisition for many a club. However, for large parts of the close season, and up to the start of september, it’s been nothing short of a stressful grind.

I departed for honeymoon in June, already in talks with one club, which in all intents and purposes was pretty much a done deal, but if football has taught me anything it’s that until the ink is dry on the contract, nothing is a done deal. They say a day in football is a long time so two weeks might as well be an eternity. I returned from honeymoon after two weeks and the whole picture changed. I found myself dropped like a hot snot by my agent of four years because he left for pastures new as a football league chief executive (cheers for that) and despite the manager of the said club still insisting on “wanting me on board” upon my return, he went and signed someone else in my position the very next day and to top it off, he didn’t even have the common courtesy to call and explain the situation. So, in a nutshell, I found myself clubless and agentless which in the football close season is not a great combo. Unlike other jobs, obtaining a footballing contract isn’t done by simply sending off a CV to prospective employers. The truth is, it’s almost all done through agents who are responsible for touting around the availability of their clients to football managers, and the harsh reality, whether you like them or loathe them, is that a player’s club-move can be largely dependant on an agents relationship with any given manager or club. From this, you can see for yourself that having a well connected agent is a vital ally for a player in order to unearth all potential suitors and therefore obtain the best deal. On the contrary, you can also see how not having one can be a worrying scenario for a player.

As the days ticked into July and then August, the reality of the situation facing me became a daunting one. Being at home, training alone and waiting for the phone to ring is a very lonely and demoralising existence. You dwell on your decisions to turn down offers from lower division sides with the confidence and hope of securing a deal to play at the highest possible level, and you constantly wonder whether you have you made the right choice. As the days tick by, you find yourself wrestling with your mind and your decision to hold out and keep the faith in your belief that the right offer will present itself. It’s a relentless mental torture. You listen to your mates in football talk about starting back for their pre-season and their ensuing season’s at their own clubs with all the usual training ground banter and it really hits you hard. You find yourself limiting contact with those mates as their banter and joviality and questions of concern only add to your anxiety and desperation to find a club which in turn leads to a reclusive way of thinking and an almost self imposed isolation. You click on Sky Sports News almost routinely to check if clubs are signing players and if they’re not, then it fills you with a strange but reassuring hope that the market is slow, however, when you do see the signings being made then your chest can tighten with anxiety as you ponder your next career move. As the days of solitary training progress, your mind becomes overrun with thoughts pondering the eternal question “what shall I do without football?”. I found the stress of the situation well managed by training hard which I found was the only time I was free from thought and where I could sweat my troubles away. I followed a strict training programme to keep myself sane, for want of a better word, and ready for action when the call came if at all. However, the problem with this is you can only train for so long, it’s the time when your alone in situ with your thoughts which are the hardest and weekends particularly, usually on Saturdays at 3pm.

With the new financial restrictions in place resulting in slashed budgets and squad sizes, out of contract players must now compete not only with other unattached players but also the reserve and youth of elite Premier League clubs being offered to lower league clubs whose wages are paid in full by their parent club. From the recipient clubs point of view this arrangement is fantastic with little or no repercussions. They acquire a player, although usually untested in competitive football, for free with no adverse effect on their budget. However, the implications of this on out of contract players like myself is frightening as how are we now supposed to compete with this offer of free labour and still earn a living in an already over competitive market? Unquestionably, it is an unerring situation to find yourself in but just goes to reinforce the present austerity of the footballing industry and the difficulties faced, as well as the sacrifices that must be made, by players all across the country to maintain and sustain a career. The advantageous days of the Bosman ruling are long gone and with the current economic climate, it would appear that football clubs now hold most of the key negotiating trump cards.

With the amount of players now out of work, clubs can be as as ruthless and stingey as they feel fit to a point. If a club wants you on trial first and you fancy signing there, then you better believe it’s a trial your gonna have to do regardless of reputation and experience. In this scenario, which I have unfortunately experienced, a player runs the risk of simply being used by a potential employer as ‘just another training/game body’ so opportunity selection would appear to be a key determinant in either gaining a contract or being mugged off. Unfortunately for out of contract pros in this desperate climate, this is a common tactic used by clubs, and a player looking to acquire a contract is faced with this double edged sword scenario and can only truly realise the outcome by seeing out the trial period or twigging early on in the trial that he’s being used and is wasting his time. All this uncertainty, of course, could be avoided with an honest and sincere conversation between player and manager but unfortunately honesty and sincerity are hard traits to come by in an industry where it’s all too easy to ‘use and abuse’. With this in mind, I’d like to reserve special mention for Greg Abbott’s refreshing honesty in getting me up to Carlisle. No bullshit, no fake promises and no hidden agendas. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to work with him longer as he appears to be one of the good guys in what, at times, can be a cynical industry.

For those fans who still believe that a career in football is an easy existence, they firstly need to realise that there’s more to becoming, and being a footballer than ninety minutes on a saturday. In fact, in an industry where honesty and sincerity are in short supply, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the ninety minutes on a saturday which is the easy part, but also the part that makes putting up with all the shit within football completely worthwhile.To have and sustain a career in football is, without doubt a privilege but, in the lower leagues especially, it’s anything but easy!!

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