Gavan Reilly

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Archive for the ‘Sport’ Category

Swapping one Ronaldo for two Setantas

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Well, at least nobody could say it wasn’t coming. Six years after Rodney Marsh first appeared on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday corring, “Blimey, how good is this kid gonna be?”, and a seeming eternity (probably) since a spaghetti-haired teenage Portuguese first mentioned that he’d love to play for the Spanish legends, Fiorentino Pérez decided that he’d like to leave his club teetering on the edge of bankruptcy – again – by first skimming a stone across the world transfer record, and then dunking a boulder deep into it. In one week he has spent €162m – or £138m, if you like; the same price as all 42 members of the Newcastle United squad, plus their 53,000-seater stadium, and still leaving enough change to buy Luis Figo in his pompous heyday – and turned the already bonkers world of football financing into an even more tumultous tornado.

It’s not difficult to see that Ronaldo is a footballer of exceptional quality and certainly worth an awful lot of money. 91 goals in the last three seasons, helping Manchester United to a Premiership title in each of the three, and a Champions’ League sandwiched in the middle, are an obvious sign of impact. The fact that the man’s name alone can send adolescent women into fits of involuntary screaming and sell suitcases of cherry red jerseys worldwide is another. The Guardian‘s daily satirical newsletter, The Fiver, referring to Him only with a capitalised pronoun, and similarly naming his new team-to-be as Them, is a third. Certainly he’ll be missed; United, in a matter seemingly overlooked by many, will now find themselves with a major goalscoring vacuum. Ronaldo gone, Tevez surely leaving… it leaves a terrific burden on Dimitar Berbatov (14 goals last season) and Wayne Rooney (20), particularly when the latter has been converted into an unusual attacking midfielder/winger hybrid and forsaken his goalscoring prowess as a result.

But is he worth €94m? In a footballing sense, maybe. He’s a terrific player and will undoubtedly be the star in an underperforming team. Commercially, though, is he really going to be so lucrative? A Nike player now smack in the middle of an Adidas team? An import into a team who’ve already agreed their shirt sponsorship and can’t charge more for all the posters CR94 might now appear on? A team with their TV rights already agreed for years to come? Will he be worth more to Madrid than a Nike-wearing team in Manchester who have squeezed every Champions’ League goal, every shirt sponsorship deal (one can’t help thinking Aon Corp got a raw deal now that there’s no more Ronaldo shirt sales or PR stuff to piggyback onto) out of him, especially when they’ve made a £67m appreciation profit on him too? That’s doubtful. Ronaldo will sell shirts, there’s no doubt about that – but now that the club is back in half a billion worth of debt, one can only guess at how fragile the foundations to Real Madrid’s financial house-of-cards truly are.

And while Perez throws £138m at his team’s underperformance and assumes the talent will solve the problem – these players, after all, are to be managed by the man who nearly got Tottenham Hotspur relegated this season – Newcastle United trundle on, rudderless and ownerless, and – seemingly – with a collective worth roughly equal to 1.25 Cristiano Ronaldoes. One has to feel sorry for Mike Ashley, the local billionaire supporter who had seen the team drift two and fro under total mismanagement, and taking the lessons of Sky One’s Dream Team far too close to heart in assuming a fan could ably run a challenging Premiership team. That’s not to belittle Ashley’s moneymaking ability – you don’t make your way from nil to £700m without financial ubercompetence – but clearly Ashley had gotten so excited about the notion of buying the team, he’d forgotten how Phil Wallis’s tenure as owner of Harchester United had ended: with Wallis impossibly happy at having given the club away in a lottery to the owner of a lucky season ticket.

While Ashley is deserving of some sympathy, the club itself certainly isn’t. A season in which no less than three messiah managers failed to save the club from terminal decline, and a franchise where a litany of failed Chief Executives and Directors of Football have put their own failed personal stamp on the team, which has constantly slipped in every way since it scraped failure from the jaws of Champions League qualification in 2003. A shambolic corporate management system, consistently backed up by shambolic football management system, and topped off by shambolic footballers. Putting your Champions League fate in the hands of everyon’s favourite centre-back, Titus Bramble? Really? The fall from grace will do Newcastle good; a total overhaul and the abolition of the corrupt culture that left such bureaucracy into simple matters like team selection will do the team the world of good. Frankly, the club’s morale could use the inevitable boost that cantering to Championship victory ought to bring.

And amidst all this, Sky Sports’ endless overvaluation of the English footballing life claims another scalp. If Setanta Sports survives, it’ll be in a much tamer incarnation than it currently exists, with its distinctive bumblebee branding sitting on fewer screens, fewer advertising hoardings, and (hopefully) fewer painful stings with referee’s shirts and net sacks full of rugby balls during every ad break. What sort of world do we live in, where one international TV franchise can only command £20m for a 51% stake, and a mightly, albeit sleeping, football club is only worth £100m, yet a petulant Portuguese wunderkind is an £80m prospect, with another £8m in wages – netto – each year? Ronaldo plus Setanta ought to equal Newcastle United, but the ratio of the Setanta/Ronaldo breakdown needs total redress. One might look on with a wry smile in a few years’ time when Real Madrid enter administration and see a compulsory relegation to the Segunda División, while Newcastle United return energised from a stint in the lower leagues to show themselves just what they can do. Fiorentino Pérez might feel like he has to answer to the supporting body who elected him, but it’s surely more responsible to get the club on better footing than to run it into the ground altogether.

Not, of course, that any of the above will stop us all scrambling for tickets to the Tallaght Stadium in the second week of July, to see Him make his debut for Them against Shamrock Rovers. A salient and timely reminder, perhaps when we need it most, that He is just one man, among many, many others.

Written by Gav

June 13th, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Leinster’s Epic Day and United’s Epic Season

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leinsterThis week it seemed impossible to escape discussion of ten-year struggles for recognition, an odyssey to overcome non-believers doubting claims of ones substance or genuine contention. Fitting then, that in the week that Ireland finally woke up and acknowledged the pure horror that our children experienced at the hands of the Irish Catholic Church, that Leinster also finally threw off the shackles of being Europe’s Nearly Men and making that final plucky ascent to the top of the pile in continental club rugby.

What a moment, with nothing more needing to be said from a lowly Meathman. The only thing missing, really, was Ryle Nugent, the epitome of south Dublin rugby fanaticism, sent inexplicably to sound out the quality of a third-string Irish team taking on a fifteen of Canadian minnows at a college ground in Vancouver. Myles Harrison and Stuart Barnes are a nice combination but it’s not like having Nugent and Ward totally losing the plot the second Gordon D’Arcy steals an inch.

What’s notable about Leinster’s victory, however, is not that Leinster beat Munster (or anybody else) along the way, but the sheer grit and tenacity to keep things rolling throughout a gruellingly long season. Studying for my finals a few weeks ago I came across one particular nugget regarding management, a universal truth undeniable, unbendable and unavoidable. No matter what avenue of life one competes in, success depends on a strategy characterised by four specific qualities – goals that are consistent, simple and long-term; an objective appraisal of resources; an intimate understanding of the competitive environment; and each of these three being backed up by effective implementation.

Leinster, this year, have finally gotten it together – the simple wonder is that it didn’t happen any earlier. Since Michael Cheika took over at the Leinster helm in the summer of 2005, it’s been a slow but definite rise to the top. Realistically, having earned that most prized display of respect, a standing ovation from the home Toulouse fans after Leinster scored four tries beating them 41-35 in their 2006 quarter-final, one can blame the Leinster branch of the IRFU for not doing a better job of ensuring crowd equality on that infamous day in April 2006 when Munster simply tore Leinster to shreds. The shock of that day set them back years; the trauma alone took three years to overcome.

But back to the point – or, rather, the four main points.

Goals that are simple, consistent and long-term: well, that part’s easy. Having successfully annexed the Magners League on an ongoing basis, there were no worlds left to conquer, but one. And given the length and constant international interruptions of a rugby season, winning the Heineken Cup was a fairly simple target to set.

Objective appraisal of resources: Every dog on the street knows Leinster’s backline has been its foundation since the emergence of the Golden Generation of O’Driscoll, Horgan and D’Arcy. Where Leinster consistently failed was the pack – and the signing of Rocky Elsom, bolstering the new maturity of Bernard Jackman and the experience of returned captain Leo Cullen, was inspired. Elsom was an extraordinarily easy choice for Player of the Season, testament to the role the Wallaby behemoth has played.

Elsewhere, Leinster’s victory has been based on a true acknowledgement of the squad’s shortcomings. Dividing resources between the Magners League and Heineken Cup – alongside Ireland’s constant international struggle for Six Nations success – as they’ve done in previous years has been a destiny of disappointment. This year, Cheika made the call. Ireland were going to be big challengers with Declan Kidney at the helm, and that would destroy any momentum for February and March. The Magners League itself would mean surplus tricky away fixtures in Cardiff and Limerick, never mind nerve-wracking Heineken Cup trips to the Stoop, the Rec, Murrayfield or Twickenham. With the demands of inevitable international success, something would have to give, and the choice to sacrifice the Magners League – the attitude that of course it’s great to win, but losing to the Ospreys isn’t the end of the world – has been the key.

Intimate understanding of the competitive environment: Well, that’s a given these days. Everyone knew the Munster match would be more about emotion than performance. Everyone knew the Harlequins quarter-final would be about grinding out a result, throwing every spare body on a line in order to avoid the critical breach. Everyone knew that the final would need all-round concentration – Leicester’s fifteen-minute superiority around half-time was testament to it. But knowing what’s needed has been the bigger issue for Leinster in previous years, and figuring it out and learning how to win has been the new bit.

Effective implementation: Therein lies the crux. That’s the bit that a coach can only teach so much, and it’s arguable that Michael Cheika doesn’t know how to get the whole thing together. But were Leinster really ever going to win without the Irish national team making the breakthrough first? Success filters down. Once Brian O’Driscoll had been taught how to win on a national level, he was going to bring that down. Leinster’s victory is a planetary alignment, the gravitational slingshot they needed to just break through.

The same formulae can be applied elsewhere. Kilkenny make it their lives’ mission simply never to lose a hurling match. Tipperary or Cork might have to start their seasons muddled about whether they want to win the Munster Championship or the All-Ireland or both, and fall between two stools. Being in an easy provence makes Kilkenny’s job easier: set a target (there’s only one to set anyway) and just get on with it. Acknowledge the potential weaknesses, address them, and play to the team’s strengths. Know the rules and bend them where you can. Play the game and ignore the players.

Which brings me to the second half of the post: why Manchester United are going to win on Wednesday and why Liverpool can’t win the Premiership. The simple act of defining a season’s goal is where Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool keep falling down. Ask a cross-section of Liverpool fans at the start of a year what they’d like to win, given a choice between the Premiership and the Champions League, and they’ll universally answer with the former. Ask the management, and they’re not so sure. End the drought and be Champions of England again, or take the theoretically higher-ranking prize of being Champions of all of Europe? Decisions, decisions.

Liverpool, anyone can tell you, don’t have the universal strength to challenge on both fronts: this is why they often come close to the double, sometimes winning one trophy, but never both. Over-reliance on Torres and Gerrard, and stuttering when they’ve been absent, is symptomatic. It’s often noted that Liverpool’s home form against the likes of Stoke and Hull is what cost them the league: such form is representative of the lack of strength in depth needed to properly rotate and ensure constant progress on all fronts. Liverpool’s problem is the one Leinster have finally mastered: sacrificing the lesser for the greater gain.

Chelsea, in fairness to Liverpool, have a similar problem – they’re just lucky that Frank Lampard never gets injured. Liverpool, therefore, need to pick their target and stick to it. Putting together a squad that can challenge on multiple fronts is something that can’t be done over one summer; that’s the reason why Alex Ferguson habitually buys half a dozen anonymous youngsters every summer. So until Liverpool can reach that level, they need to spread themselves thicker and let go of some things. Liverpool have hit their best league form since they went out of Europe. Hardly a co-incidence.

United, though, have the knack at this stage. This season they’ve shown a true evolution; becoming wiser to the fact that a squad challenging for five trophies across the world cannot afford to win every game scoring four of five goals each time. One-nil victories every week do the job; United haven’t hit a scoring gear this year but that’s fine once you get the victories. Somehow, after 65 games and seven competitions, United have come to the pinnacle of the season with a first-choice eleven totally unscathed and in good form, ready for the prize – backed up by a squad strong even to the point where the fourth-choice XI can defeat a Hull side needing a victory to stay in the Premiership.

And that is why United will win on Wednesday – Barcelona are defensively leaky, particularly for set pieces, and are competitive only by creating a lethal triumvarite of Henry, Messi and Etoo. Take out any of those three – and Henry is looking shaky, especially with Iniesta not in full fitness to fill in for him – and the team quickly becomes toothless. United, strong, refreshed and happy, have little to worry about.

GAA Congress #2

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A pre-Congress phoot shoot this morning; in publicity for Lá na gClub, any delegates with a county jersey were asked to get a photo together this morning. I have some photos but am not likely to get them up before Ray McManus from Sportsfile. I did, however, get a TwitPic that the family will probably treasure for a while. 🙂

Before the discussion on the Experimental Playing Rules that have been trialled in the pre-season tournaments and National Leagues over the winter, there’s the not inconsiderable routine of getting through discussions and proposals presented by a Rules Taskforce who are tasked with the revision and modernisation of the GAA’s fundamental rules.

Rule 21 – the fabled rule that once banned members of the Ulster policing forces from membership – has just been deleted in its entirety; its contents have been somewhat replicated in other rules introduced and so it is no more. Interesting to think that once upon a time that rule caused such incredible consternation at a Congress that Seán McCague’s Presidency will forever be remembered for the amendment of the fabled Rule.

Elsewhere, Congress has formally agreed to launch a system of electronic membership, probably the biggest non-Governmental registration ever to take place in Ireland, with the GAA’s 800,000-odd membership now being electronically catalogued. Analagous to this, the final date for payment of membership fees has been brought forward from August 1st annually to March 31st. As a by-product, members joining a new club after March 31st won’t be allowed to run for a committee position until the following year.

Ned Quinn, Secretary in Kilkenny, wasn’t best pleased. He and the Úachtarán have a brief squabble about whether this is a healthy thing or not. “In fairness, Ned,” says the Úachtarán, “People will always have their fees paid early anyway.”

“No offence, Úachtarán,” comes the reply, “but people pay before August because they need to if they want their All-Ireland tickets.”

Congress bursts into a jovial spontaneous applause. Amid all the theoretical talk of rules and taskforces and directions and strategic analyses, there’s still a sense of real humour. Bravo.

Written by Gav

April 18th, 2009 at 9:51 am

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GAA Congress #1

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So here I am, brushing the cobwebs off the blog, from Cork where I’m at the GAA’s Annual Congress in Cork. I should state from the start that I’m not a delegate here; I’m an executive tagger-onner – Ciara’s dad is finishing up as President after three years at the helm, and we’re here supporting him as it all finishes up. It’s been quite the three years but that’s for another blog.

A few first impressions:

While it’s not like an Árd Fheis where you’re smothered from the outset with flyers asking you to vote, this is as close as the GAA gets to a trade show. Thus, everyone from O’Neills and Azzurri to Sportsfile and Baker IT is downstairs shifting wares; even artificial turf installers and floodlight suppliers are here, hoping that passing delegates might be from clubs interested in having work one.

While it’s not typically perceived as so, it’s a real mixture of young and old here – not that the stereotypical delegate would be defied by the existence of a “Ladies’ Tour” for the wives of delegates to mosey around Cork on the Saturday while the Congress itself continues apace in Rochestown, near Douglas. There are some very young – I literally mean teenage – delegates around, assumably people who proposed motions from clubs who have gotten motions onto the Clár. It’s good to see.

The design of the GAA’s standard wares has become very slick and professional. Congress two years ago in Kilkenny – and, from what I’ve seen, everything up to that – was a raggletaggle design mixed bag; Kilkenny’s was the predictable amber-and-black combo everywhere possible. Since the GAA rebranded, simultaneously with Congress at Sligo last year, it’s been a much more unified and dignified affair; this year the booklets of working group and committee reports, and the Congress Clár itself, are works of staggering professionalism with some truly incredible photography included therein.

This evening, as is customary, Congress dealt with financial matters and the Ard-Stiurthoir’s report. Financial things, despite The Climate, look okay – the notable sums being that Championship gate receipts in 2008 were slightly down on an all-time peak of 2007, and the Foreign Games took in €15m. Now, admittedly, this money has been ringfenced for capital projects and isn’t being treated as the staple income, and without it the Association would still turn profit. Nonetheless, it’ll be quite a hole to plug given it will have been customary for quite a bit by the time it disappears in 2010’s accounts.

Paraic Duffy’s report was a thorough affair; the usual ream of well-thought-out suggestions that the Árd-Stiúrthóir’s report brings before they’re promptly forgotten, as fate has proven in the past. Fingers crossed for otherwise.

Tomorrow’s business kicks off at 10am with reports and motions from the Rules Taskforce, followed by debate on the experimental rules which provide the main talking point. The outgoing President’s address is scheduled for 12.30pm but is likely to have to be shifted in accordance with business; the official handover to Christy Cooney is set for 5pm but likewise may be subject to the whims of the floor.

With any luck I’ll be tweeting (using the tag #gaa2009) and blogging from the floor – there’s also live feeds on for those interested.

Until tomorrow…

Written by Gav

April 17th, 2009 at 10:30 pm


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In years to come we’ll remember today, Saturday March 21st 2009, as one of impossible glory, of one where fifteen Irish superhumans rose above the boundaries of mortal achievement and alluded invincibility to all around them.

Much as sport tends to glorify achievements with the beauty of hindsight, it would be criminal to forget just how dramatic Ireland’s game against Wales today was. Today Ireland came dangerously – gloriously – close to throwing it all away. You could have written it, but nobody would have believed you. As Wales crossed the halfway line on 79 minutes searching for a Triple Crown that would likely be forgotten in the relative annals of time, Tony Ward said it himself. “No penalties.” “No penalties”, Ryle Nugent concurred. Immediately Paddy Wallace enters the ruck from the side, referee Wayne Barnes raises his arm towards the Welsh end of the field and Stephen Jones points his finger towards the towering poles ahead of him.

It’s Jones, he can’t possibly miss. It’s 48 yards but he can make it; it’s Stephen Jones, after all.

It flies, it flies…

Ryle Nugent dares to contemplate it before any of the rest of us can. “The Irish team gather under the posts, in case it drops short…”

In case it drops short… oh, God, it can’t possibly drop short…

…can it?

“It hasn’t got the legs!”

RUGBY-NATIONS/And there it is, it drops short; Geordan Murphy gathers the ball and touches it down in the near corner. Suddenly the referee’s whistle blows long and shrill and the tears are flowing long before you can catch your breath or remember that there’s a life outside of the television screen in front of you, or outside of that oval ball a few hundred miles away.

The world comes swirling back to life; your lungs get a moment to themselves and existence wakes from its blissful coma. The recession seems a misty memory – who needs money when you have days like today?

Your phone beeps. It’s a text from your mother: “Wow”. The mood is judged perfectly: punctuation is a superfluous detail in the bigger picture of glory. What to reply? “Amazing”. It does nothing to illustrate just how you really feel but you have nothing else to say. It simply is; it is, and after 61 years of waiting, it’s the is – the simple fact that it’s happened! It’s really happened! – that makes it so much more special.

In the native language of these warriors’ land they say ‘is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras‘. If ever proof were needed that hunger is the best sauce, today must surely suffice. 61 years of pain and anguish, of near misses and total collapses, all melting away as a single kick lands two yards short of where it needs to be.

Sport is most certainly a watertight argument for fate: how different would Ireland’s national mood be today, how differently would the career of Brian O’Driscoll – so often so close but yet impossibly far from success – be thought of in years to come, how forever altered would be the fortunes of Irish rugby be, had Stephen Jones’ kick hit his toe that millimetre higher? Multiply this chance by even individual instance in the match that could have gone either way: every kick from touch from the boot of O’Gara; every lineout stolen by the monsterous hands of O’Connell. And who knows what rewards may be reaped from such unparalleled glory, especially when Ireland is so currently lacking in inspiration?

I’ve never bought into the notion of Irish rugby’s “golden generation”. While indeed the current crop were the first for two decades who came along at the same time (what would Simon Geoghegan give to have been born fifteen years later, and be part of the 2009 team instead of the perpetual solo tryscorer on a losing Irish team mid-1990’s?), the Golden Generation had already done more for Irish rugby than any before them. In the era before entertainment saturation a victorious Irish team had difficulty inspiring young men and women to take up the sport, yet at the turn of the millennium, the fact that Brian O’Driscoll was simultaneously good-looking and world-beating inspired just that. The David Humpreys, Shane Horgans and Girvan Dempseys of this world may not have a Grand Slam 2009 to their names, but they’ll have made it cool to pick up a rugby ball again, without fear of dismissive sneering from those clad in their Umbro FAI shirts.

Alas, such debates are for another time. For tonight, we have our glory, and however long we may have it to bask in, what’s rare is surely wonderful.

In years to come we’ll remember today, Saturday March 21st 2009, as one of impossible glory, of one where fifteen Irish superhumans rose above the boundaries of mortal achievement and alluded invincibility to all around them. Just let’s not forget how close we came to having none of it, and ensure that it makes the fragility of victory so much sweeter.

Horan, Flannery, Hayes; O’Callaghan, O’Connell; Ferris, Heaslip, Wallace; O’Leary, O’Gara; Fitzgerald, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Bowe; Kearney. Best, Stringer, Leamy and Wallace. Kidney. Twenty names that came so close to losing it all, but held their nerve and seized that day.

Finally, finally!, Éireann go bráth.

Written by Gav

March 21st, 2009 at 10:17 pm