Thirty Years A G(Ray)ing!

12 Jun

 

Stuttgart 30 pic

For Alan Keane, Rodney Bishop, Fergus Bishop, Seán O’Gorman, Colin Corcoran and Dennis Kavanagh.

So thirty years have now passed since Ray Houghton gave Ireland its finest and most memorable day in its football history when his goal after six minutes of Ireland’s first ever match in a major finals, was enough to beat the old enemy England on 12th June 1988 in The Neckar Stadium in Stuttgart at the European Football Championships in Germany.  

I was there.

Nothing Ireland has done since or will probably do in the future, bar winning a European Championship or World Cup, will beat that day for me in terms of excitement, drama, emotion, pride and eventual utter ecstasy as a football supporter.  I was also in Giants Stadium six years later when Ireland beat Italy in a World Cup match (with amazingly Houghton again scoring the only early goal) and while that result was probably better, Stuttgart beats it in terms of satisfaction and significance.

Satisfaction was certainly to the fore given the ill-luck, poor teams, poor organisation and other incidents that befell Irish teams in the past.  Think (since I’ve been watching circa 1973) John Giles scoring a perfectly legitimate goal in Sofia in a World Cup Qualifier in 1977 only for it to be disallowed mysteriously (we lost 1-2 and had two men sent off); think Frank Stapleton in that same qualifying campaign against France in Paris (what the fuck is it with getting robbed in Paris?) and a similarly mysteriously disallowed goal; think Paris yet again in the very next World Cup campaign for Spain 82 as Michael Robinson had yet another goal disallowed at a crucial stage in the game for a phantom handball by Kevin Moran; think Brussels in that same campaign, another goal disallowed for nothing (Stapleton this time, converting a Brady cross from a free kick) by disgraced Portuguese ref Nazare who then bought an Eric Gerets dive late in the match from which Belgium scored the only goal after the resultant free kick.  Miguel Delaney’s brilliant book “Stuttgart to Saipan” describes that Brussels game in startlingly blood-boiling detail.

We were cursed it seemed. We were certainly cheated.  

Further back than those robberies, think England’s John Atyeo in 1957 whose late equaliser at a stunned and silent Dalymount Park denied us a place at the Swedish World Cup in 1958.  In short, we’d been sick of being so close and being cheated and being patted on the head and told to know our place as gallant yet heroic victims.  

Thankfully Bulgaria received its bout of karma in 1987 when Scotland’s Gary Mackay scored late on in the last European qualifying group match in Sofia  in a game Bulgaria only had to draw to get to Euro 88 and thus Ireland finally made it to the top table of international football (Euro 88 had only eight nations competing).

Excited as we were (there’d be seven of us travelling as a group) about going to our first Finals, the emotion was multiplied when it emerged our first game would be against Bobby Robson’s England.  The Soviet Union and Holland would complete the group fixtures, but with England first up, this was some game to look forward to as we paid our deposits to Stephen’s Green Travel and counted the days to Euro 88.

The dynamic of the travelling Irish fans thirty years ago was noticeably different to what has been seen in recent years such as Poland 2012 and France 2016.  Yes we definitely liked to drink, that is something that hasn’t changed.  The Dubliner Bar in Cologne (where we were based for the week, Ireland played Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday at the tournament) ran out of gargle one of the nights to such an extent that people were asking for the bottles of spirits inside decorative shelves and locked  cabinets to keep the singsong going.

Without question however, the behaviour and mood among Irish fans was similarly humorous, impeccable in terms of respect and behaviour but without the cringey “look how amazing we are charming the Bejaysus out of the locals” stuff we’ve seen on social media clips in France or without the utter carnage of drunken bodies of Poland, many of whom wouldn’t have known Robbie Keane from Robbie Henshaw.  In short, there was no bandwagon element to the travelling support that invaded Germany in 1988 and it was this first batch of the Green Army that blazed a trail at its first finals and captured the German hearts for that week thirty years ago.

These were the veteran fans, real football fans who supported Ireland when we were truly shite in the 60s, to those who kept going when John Giles gave us hope with newly found discipline and structure, to those who cursed and swore at corrupt officials in places such as Brussels, Paris and Sofia and lit up Rotterdam and Copenhagen under the dreadfully unfortunate Eoin Hand, while finally trusting and backing Jack Charlton in a turning point off-season three team tournament triumph in Iceland in 1986 and finally getting some payback in the qualifying campaign with a thrilling 2-2 draw in Brussels, the memorable and pivotal 1-0 win at Hampden Park and a laboured but nonetheless crucial 2-0 win away in Luxembourg.  We again lost in Sofia (2-1, another dodgy penalty decision to the home team undid us) but what I especially remember about the qualifying campaign is the return leg against Bulgaria in Lansdowne Road and who was attending matches thirty years ago.

We were still in with a chance to qualify for our first ever finals, an outside one, but a chance nonetheless, yet only 26,000 fans thought enough of our team and our chances to watch this game.  Lansdowne’s capacity was 49,000 (or thereabouts) back then so a half full/half empty stadium saw the team beat Bulgaria 2-0 and keep our slim hopes alive with McGrath and Moran getting the goals.  For Heaven’s sake 26,000 fans!   Our team lined up as follows:   Bonner, Lawrenson, McCarthy, Moran, Whelan; Houghton, McGrath, Brady, Galvin; Stapleton and Aldridge.   Arguably our strongest ever XI.  We would lose Lawrenson and Brady for Germany to injury and suspension/injury respectively but the other nine would start in Stuttgart with late arrival Chris Morris and Chris Hughton manning the full back spots on that fateful day.

So I would reckon that at least half of that 26,000 in Lansdowne that day made sure they were on the planes, trains, automobiles, boats, buses, camper vans and whatever other mode of transport that could be availed of in 1988 to see their beloved Boys in Green finally hear Amhrán na bhFiann at a football tournament.  This tournament was for that hard-core and long-suffering Irish football fan and it was great they had finally been rewarded after all the hard luck stories up to then.

The day itself remains very vivid in my mind despite the predictably massive hangover as we set up camp in Cologne the day before.   An early morning coach would take us from there to Stuttgart for the 3.30pm German time kick off.  Some of our group of seven were left without the inclusive match tickets that morning and didn’t even get to board an overbooked  coach as the Stephen’s Green rep said a few novenas and kept the baying and understandably distraught fans at bay with promises that they would be sorted in terms of transport and tickets.   The rep did come through before he was dissected and tortured and all seven of us eventually met up behind the goal that held the vast majority of the Irish fans.

It was a warm and sunny day in Stuttgart and England were undoubtedly favourites to win the game on the day and they lined up as follows:  Peter Shilton; Gary Stevens, Mark Wright, Tony Adams, Kenny Sansom; Chris Waddle, Bryan Robson, Neil Webb, John Barnes;  Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker.  Formidable yes, talented unquestionably (though mercifully Glenn Hoddle was on the bench but he would have a big say in the game), but beatable?  Absolutely.  We weren’t here to make up the numbers and one look at our own XI should’ve sent out a warning to the predictably arrogant and over-confident English media that we could get a draw or whisper it, a famous win.  Irish physio Mick Byrne certainly sounded a confident and defiant call as he entered the stadium promising to the early fans outside the stadium that “WE’LL DO THEM FOR YIZ TODAY!!” in that unmistakeably raw and raucous Dublin accent of his.   There was no harm in dreaming we could.

mick_byrne

What we didn’t expect however is that we’d be ahead after six minutes.  Gary Lineker fouled Chris Hughton on the Irish left inside our half and Kevin Moran punted the free kick down the inside left channel.  Carnage ensued among all four English defenders.  Stevens and Wright collided as they challenged Stapleton for the initial high ball and when Galvin hooked the ensuing dropping ball across the box, Kenny Sansom’s attempted clearance went straight up in the air instead of down the pitch.  England’s last remaining active defender Tony Adams was beaten to the dropping ball by Aldridge who headed to his right where Ray Houghton was lurking unmarked about 10 yards from goal.

I can still see Houghton’s mop of hair shaking as he arched his back to put force into the header towards and over Shilton’s right shoulder.  I remember following the ball agonisingly and when the net bulged a collective Irish following gasped momentarily.  We’d been here before, massive goals seemingly scored only for a linesman’s flag to be raised for no reason whatsoever or a referee to spot an invisible or made up offence.  On this occasion, neither the East German referee Siegfried Kirschen nor his linesman spotted anything other than a fair goal.

The Irish fans erupted into a frenzy of disbelief, ecstasy, delight and defiance as six minutes into our first game in a major finals, against England, we’d only gone and fucking scored.  Mayhem, delighted, sweaty, booze-smelling, all-embracing Irish mayhem.  1-0.  One fucking nil to Ireland.   The stuff of dreams.  We celebrated for several minutes and then realised we’d still over 80 minutes to navigate.

The goal rattled Robson’s team.  Houghton was revelling in the game after his first international goal, he was everywhere with his darting runs and intelligent link up.  McGrath and Whelan were comfortably shackling the dangerous Bryan Robson and McCarthy and Moran were more than able for Beardsley and Lineker and we got to half time full value for our 1-0 lead and we finally were able to take some stock and get a breather after our dream start and all the energy we burned when Houghton scored.

The second half however was long, tense, dramatic and frightening.  Whatever Bobby Robson and/or Don Howe said to the English players, they came out with a far different attitude.  Suddenly Beardsley and Lineker were exposing McCarthy’s lack of pace and when an early Robson through ball sent Lineker away only for Bonner to save and Beardsley to blast the rebound over the bar, the omens were, well, ominous.

Wave after wave of England attacks followed, Bonner made a brilliant double save from a Robson shot to then pounce on the rebound bravely as Beardsley lay in wait to score.  Lineker again was denied by Bonner’s knees at his near post and when Hoddle was sprung in place of the ineffective Webb, my worries descended into panic.

One of our group, Alan Keane, possibly one of the most pessimistic men I know, then announced “they’ll never score” after an hour’s play.  We all heard him, we didn’t wanna hear him and probably wanted to thump him but we hoped he’d be right but reckoned he’d be wrong.

Hoddle’s volleyed pass found Lineker and while he finally beat Bonner’s dive, the ball trickled past the far post for another close call.  Even closer was to come in an incident that remains as seared onto my memory as Houghton’s goal.   Beardsley took a corner on our right and lofted the ball to the unmarked Hoddle outside the box.  Hoddle caught the ball perfectly on the volley and again from my vantage point, I was right in line with the ball’s trajectory.  Bonner was brilliant that day but he didn’t smell the shot but dived nevertheless in hope rather than expectation as Hoddle’s shot seemed destined for the top corner as I put my hands up to my head.  Mercifully and miraculously, the ball curled away in the last few metres and left scorch marks on the post as it hissed wide of the Irish goal.  “SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT” I groaned in relief and prayed I hadn’t soiled myself with my own after that escape.

Ireland battled and harried and dug in heroically as every single player put in a defensive shift and Sheedy and Quinn replaced the spent Galvin and Stapleton.  Our attacks were now sporadic as an Aldridge header flew just over and a Whelan volley similarly cleared the bar by inches.

It was all England however and as time ticked towards the 90th minute, Barnes was fouled by Irish tiredness rather than malice as he skipped down the left flank.  Hoddle strutted over and swung in the free with pace and venom into a perfect scoring area.  Lineker met the free kick with a glancing header, but Bonner somehow adjusted his position backwards to claw the ball away from the goal and the correct side of the post.  A miraculous save from the man from The Rosses as Lineker bent over, hands on knees in disbelief, frustration and dejection.    Alan’s “they’ll never score” began to look accurate.

The tension was by now unbearable, our nerves were gone, our fingers chewed to stumps with the fingernails well digested by the hour mark.  We still had the corner to face following Bonner’s save as we whistled and hollered and swore at Mr Kirschen to blow it up.  Hoddle took the corner and in his one and only blemish on his substitute appearance, overhit the corner beyond Bonner’s far post and out for a goal kick.  We cheered in relief and exhaustion and as Bonner laboured to take the kick out, Mr Kirschen signalled the end to his torture and we again grabbed everyone within grabbing distance to celebrate a win in our first ever match in a major tournament and it just had to be over England.  Oh what joy, happiness, beauty, emotion and relief the sound of that whistle released in us on that Stuttgart terrace at that moment.

Irish players sunk to their knees in celebration and exhaustion, Mick Byrne’s forecast that “we’ll do them for yiz today” had proved accurate and we all turned to the massive colourful scoreboard behind us to take the iconic photograph that read  “England 0, Irland 1.  We had all died and gone to Heaven

England fans trudged out quietly (they would save their bottle-filled ambush on us and other nations’ fans in Cologne for the following night) and Holland and the Soviets would repeat the dose on the pitch in their other remaining games as England went home with three defeats in shame and hundreds of thousands welcomed the Irish team home in Dublin City centre after Holland had flukily deprived us of a semi-final spot.

Never mind, the win over England more than compensated for whatever might befall us in the other two group games.  We had our Euro final on 12th June 1988 and we’d won it.  It couldn’t and hasn’t got any better than that as an Irish football fan.

I don’t believe it ever will.

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End of Road to Russia. Road to Nowhere for O’Neill?

15 Nov

monSo, a long World Cup qualifying campaign has ended and for the fourth successive World Cup, Ireland won’t be attending the greatest football show on earth. From my memories of supporting Ireland, we failed to qualify for the World Cup in my first four qualifying campaigns from 1974 to 1986 inclusive, before Jack Charlton finally led us to that promised land and the greatest month long party Ireland has ever seen and will ever see.

Like the lads now at an age I was in 1986, four successive failures seems like a lifetime at this stage. So many away trips, so much money invested, so much beer put away, family sacrifices, domestic rows with football widows (and some widowers), lost passports, sleeping in kips, not sleeping at all but we already look forward to having another go for a not overly anticipated tournament in Qatar in 2022 and the fans will keep faith and fly the flag brilliantly as always.

So where to now for Martin O’Neill and his backroom team? As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Martin O’Neill. He led Celtic to some memorable seasons, brought the team to a UEFA Cup Final in 2003 where 80,000 Celtic fans invaded Seville for an amazing if heartbreaking few days. O’Neill is a proven successful manager (he did have plenty of money to spend however at Celtic), ex-players speak lovingly of his man-management prowess, how he gets in their head and increases their height to ten feet by a quiet word here, a sarcastic word there, a clever intervention elsewhere. O’Neill is hugely proud and honoured to have led Ireland for four years. There have been some great one off occasions, beating Italy in Lille, Wales in Cardiff, Austria in Vienna.

For those memorable one nil wins (why are most/all of our memorable wins 1-0? Stuttgart, Giants Stadium, Hamdpen Park (en route to Euro 88), Germany and Shane Long etc), there is Georgia away this campaign, Serbia at home (beaten 1-0), Scotland away, Bordeaux at Euro 2016 and a Belgian rout and more recently the two play-off games with Denmark. In short and in my opinion, this era has seen a team with no real identity or shape apart from the glaringly obvious and increasingly tiresome attributes of heart, guts, passion and bravery. I say tiresome because I’m sick reading about it and hearing it from every angle, be it O’Neill himself, opposing managers and pundits.

Those attributes should be your starting point and they can and will get you places, as in the wins in Lille and Cardiff showed. Those attributes however seem to be have become our only ones with wit, imagination, passing and movement now reduced to something every other country tries to attain. O’Neill and Trapattoni have reduced Ireland to an eyesore in terms of watching them play. I’m the first to admit and have said publicly that’s it’s a results game and I also stated I didn’t care if we beat Denmark by playing terrible football. Well we played terrible football and we never looked like getting the better of Denmark even after a dream early goal from Duffy in Dublin last night.

Leaving aside the car crash era under the hapless Staunton, Brian Kerr’s philosophy was at least easier on the eye and we saw some reasonably decent football even though his only full campaign (for WC2006) ended disappointingly with Switzerland and France getting draws and wins respectively at Lansdowne Road. Kerr paid the price for 5 draws in 10 games (and only 1 defeat to France at home) and he could consider himself a bit unfortunate not to have had a second full go at qualification but he clearly wasn’t rated by John Delaney who didn’t renew his contract.

It was however under Mick McCarthy that we saw some of the most attractive football from an Irish team and while his qualification record was one success (WC2002) and two heartbreaking failures (WC98 and Euro 2000), McCarthy had to build from scratch after Charlton’s team finally attained pensionable age and he was forced to blood and trust in youth. McCarthy’s young pups played with freedom, daring and added the aforementioned fighting Irish virtues and it worked. Yes he had players such as Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and a certain Roy Keane at his majestic peak, but he also had less gifted players such as Kilbane, Kinsella, Cunningham and Harte, but McCarthy encouraged these kids to play, they responded and they were attractive to watch and results were excellent.

I think it is a completely lazy argument to say we don’t have the players to play passing football. Every kid grows up passing a ball, every kid is coached and encouraged at a young age to pass the ball and move when it’s passed. Our under age international teams are playing progressively and results are improving. Why is it then that in the Trapattoni and O’Neill eras, our players have been forced to revert to cautious, long hopeful ball stuff in the hope of nicking a goal at a set piece or breakaway and clinging on for dear life defensively? I think the clue is in their respective ages.

Football has moved on from the methods of Trapattoni and O’Neill. I have great respect for their achievements and roll of honour. I don’t doubt for a second their commitment to the Irish cause and their love of Ireland. They’ve never embraced however the notion that we actually have players who can and do play football on the floor. They do it at their clubs, we’ve seen it. They’ve also relied too much on more “senior” players in my opinion to the detriment of younger players, Callum O’Dowda apart who’s only recently emerged into the senior team.

I’ve been a fan of McGeady down the years. His appearance as half time sub last night however was baffling and he did nothing of merit in his 45 minutes. I love Wes Hoolahan but he wasn’t going to be able to single-handedly overturn a Danish lead with who else we had on the pitch. Hendrick was anonymous and has been in an Irish shirt since Euro 2016, likewise Robbie Brady. There was nobody snapping at these players’ heels since France because O’Neill just seemed to be like Trapattoni in relying on his old favourites.

Now we have a chance for change in my opinion. Change in managership (O’Neill hasn’t as far as I’m aware signed his contract), change in our reliance on players who patently aren’t performing up to standard (McClean and Duffy apart and Coleman up until his dreadful leg break), change in the playing philosophy of our senior international team.

I’ll defend the players and Manager as best I can against the big event/bandwagon fans who slate players at Lansdowne Road when they make one mistake and snort cocaine in Copenhagen and fall asleep at away games while annoying hosts with in your face “aren’t we great?” videos. I am however increasingly tired of Irish teams only being encouraged to play one way, cautiously with the emphasis on guts, heart and discipline. We have players who can and want to pass the ball. Robbie Keane is gone, but even Robbie would struggle to score goals nowadays the way we’re set up.

Look at what Michael O’Neill has achieved with Northern Ireland. They topped their Euro 2016 qualifying group, were knocked out by an own goal to Wales in the last 16 in France and in their recent play off matches with Switzerland were eliminated by a horrendous penalty decision in the first leg. Yes they played poorly at home, but more than made up for it in Basel with a performance that had those Irish traits of heart and desire and guts, but hey presto, some passing and progressive football. What age is Michael O’Neill again? Didn’t he achieve European progress with Shamrock Rovers in 2011? Did he do those things relying only on commitment and passion? No he did not.

Last night’s hammering to Denmark has been coming in my opinion. The chickens came home to roost big time despite Duffy’s early goal. We were in trouble at half time and by the hour mark we were a shambles.

Some of the players deserved better than that. Our proper, vocal and knowledgeable fans certainly deserved better. We can and should do better. Is it too much to ask?

Bradley’s Babes bearing their Teeth

14 Jul

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Twelve short months ago, Shamrock Rovers Europa League 1st leg match with Finnish team RoPS finished in a limp, depressing and abysmal 0-2 defeat for Rovers at home. If the Finnish team was half decent we could’ve stomached it, but that wasn’t the case. RoPS were poor, Rovers were wretched. Killian Brennan told fibs on Social Media that his family was abused at the game. Brennan didn’t try a leg that night, he never tried a leg in his two horrendous spells at the club. The team was dead, the season was already going down the pan, fans were staying away and the Board acted. Fenlon paid for it with his job.
I wrote a blog after Fenlon left – https://irelandfaneuro2012.wordpress.com/2016/07/ and I pleaded that the next Manager would at least give us an attacking ethos back. That he would bring in players who wanted to be at the club and bomb out Billy Big Bollockses like the Brennans and the likes of Quigley and Zayed who were toxic in a team and alienated the fans with their nonsense.
The Board appointed Stephen Bradley as Caretaker boss. His first game was the 2nd leg v RoPS and a creditable 1-1 away draw was gained, even though Europe was over.
His second game was the 3-1 battering of Bohs where Bradley gave young Aaron Dobbs a start and saw young lads Dean Clarke, Shaw and a wonder goal from teenager Sean Boyd on the scoresheet. Bradser was laying down an early marker. He was giving youth a chance.
It was by no means plain sailing for Rovers for the rest of the 2016 season. Good performances were also sobered up by some hammerings as Bradley struggled to build solidity into a good forward thinking team. Cork scored 5 in Tallaght and it could’ve been more. The FAI Cup evaded us again as again Cork swatted this honest but brittle team aside. The other loo la Gavin Brennan took to Twitter to goad Bradley about his playing of these promising teenagers and thankfully Bradley sent him up the M1 to join the other muppet.
So despite a mixture of results as Caretaker boss, I was heartened by a promising group of hungry young lads and a return to some progressive football, or at worst an attempt at it given the mind-numbing shite under Fenlon and Croly and the sheer panic and bedlam of the Kenny era.
It wasn’t a huge shock when Bradley was offered the gig full time for this season. Some decent signings came in (Meenan, Lopes, McAllister, Connolly, Burke and most of all Finn), the club was progressing well with Roadstone and while Dundalk and Cork were still a good bit ahead, we hoped we’d hit the ground running.

As we know, the opening third of the season proved to be really frustrating and difficult for Rovers and the pressure was already building on Stephen Bradley. Self-destruct buttons were being pressed too often (Burke scoring in Dundalk, then getting sent off for kicking out, Webster’s silly challenge for a Cork penalty in Tallaght, another stupid red against St Pats from Seán Heaney) and then an abject performance at United Park in a 1-2 defeat with another goal conceded from a set piece. Fans were panicky and restless, Bradser was definitely under some pressure, but to be fair to the board, they were neither panicky nor restless. They gave Bradley the job because they believed in him; they believed in his “give youth a chance” philosophy and also his philosophy on the game that is the complete opposite of the functional, “science of soccer” nonsensical philosophy of Fenlon and Croly; they believed the off the field work and building a grass roots foundation was the way forward.
It remains to be seen if this is all coming to ultimately successful fruition but the signs have been really good in the second third of the season as Bradley’s XI has settled into a recognizable formation. There have been some wonderful team goals, the set piece concessions have reduced noticeably and the fans are really with this team. Despite a poor result against a dreadful St Pats (1-1 with Burke again losing his head stupidly) and the concession of a late equalizer against Limerick, the team have pushed on really well and at the time of writing, still remain in Europe having accounted for Stjarnan 1-0 home and away which was a very decent 180 minutes.
Last night’s Europa game against Mlada Bolesav , although having lost 3-2 at home, showed us again the progress Bradley’s young team is making. Bolesav were a massive step up from Stjarnan and certainly streets ahead of RoPS twelve months ago, but Rovers stood up and were counted, created chances and Burke has by now more than repaid his debt to everybody with two goals, his first has to be up there with one of the greatest goals seen at Tallaght Stadium, it was simply sensational. This performance, despite a home defeat, was worlds away from the rubbish of twelve months ago against RoPS.
There can be no doubt the fans are identifying with this team. A 4-1 defeat to champions-elect Cork City saw no boos, but a rousing and proud send off at the end from the travelling Hoops. A sizeable support travelled to Iceland and emptied their pockets to enjoy a 1-0 win. An even more sizeable support travels to Prague next week for the second leg with Mlada Bolesav with a glimmer of hope that this young team can somehow achieve a minor miracle and advance further in the Europa League. They certainly won’t lack for effort. Effort is your starting point and Bradley has identified and signed players who’ll give you just that every week. The Big Time Charlies are thankfully a thing of the past. Hunger matched with skill is a potent force, youth will make mistakes and they do and will make mistakes, but they’re learning.
Bradley is growing into the job also with impressive and steady progress. Last season’s defence was a real Achilles heel and though the heel is still a bit creaky, the snapping of last season and the early blunders this season haven’t featured as much.
Coming forward, we are really easy on the eye. Shaw is a selfless, deceptively quick, skillful and excellent striker who won practically every long ball (not that we rely on this) last night against Bolesav. Although Trevor Clarke was tightly marshalled against Bolesav, his displays and goals have thrilled us all. Miele has been a tad inconsistent, but with Bohs up in two weeks, we know he loves a goal against that lot and he created Burke’s winner against Stjarnan. Speaking of Burke, since his stupid second red card, he has been on fire, this lad is special, a natural and has a lovely awareness of space, a silky touch and is scoring goals regularly. We should enjoy him while we can, same with Clarke.
In midfield, Finn has been tremendous after a shaky opening half dozen games as captain, he’s leading by example. Connolly has done well after early season injury and McAllister is a reliable and tough foil for Finn when we need to dig in. Defensively, Pico Lopes has brought out a real improvement in Webster in my opinion and Luke Byrne has been solid (although vulnerable to pace) since his return from his awful injury. Madden remains superbly consistent and Chencinksi seems to be keeping the rushes of blood inside his head for the moment and made two superb saves against Stjarnan.
We must also pay tribute to the medical and strength and conditioning staff at Rovers, the team has pretty much picked itself the last couple of months as nobody has been picking up injuries and that’s not a co-incidence in my opinion, let’s hope I don’t put the mockers on that now.
I got carried away after the Limerick game with where this team was going. I don’t think I was the only one. A timely and deserved rebuke from a Board member over a comment I made on Facebook has proved well founded as Bradley’s era makes palpable progress this season after that ropey start.
Third spot will be real battle this season with Derry coming into form and Bray finding some money for the rest of the season after winning in the nearby slots, so we’ll have to play really well to get third. I am optimistic we will however if we can keep injury free and suspension free. The FAI Cup has yet to begin but I won’t go there with that.
This has been the most enjoyable season watching Rovers since our last successful year in 2011 in my opinion. Holding onto players is so difficult nowadays in League of Ireland football, but there’s no reason that from the bottom team age-wise to the seniors, a footballing ethos can be grown that makes losing players a bit easier to bear with everyone knowing their job and what’s expected of them as Rovers players.
The days of mercenaries and washed up contract chasers are gone. The future of Rovers looks bright, hopefully successful but definitely entertaining. That’ll do me for the time being until we can properly compete with Cork and Dundalk.
Safe trip to everyone going to Prague and other surrounding areas next week.
KOH!

Celtic was my First love and It will be my Last

25 May

My title is a paraphrase of a 70s John Miles song called simply “Music”, a cracking and memorable tune. I would share John’s adoration of music, I doubt he’d share my adoration of Celtic. But then again, many don’t and that’s ok, we all fall for our own clubs for whatever reason.

What I want to try and relay to these folk who for some reason despise Celtic, despite the admirable and crucial reason Brother Walfrid set up the club, which was to attempt to feed, clothe and help the poor and destitute folk of Glasgow  ( many Irish and of Irish descent), this ideal that continues 129 years on, it is primarily for me the deeds of the Lisbon Lions 50 years ago today that started my love affair with Celtic Football Club.

I was eight months old when Billy McNeill held the Big Cup aloft, alone among chaotic scenes in Lisbon’s Stadium of Light. It would be for my fourth birthday or slightly before when Celtic came into my life. My mother’s sister was living in the UK having married a Dundee United fan. Ma came home from her visit to my auntie with three football shirts for three sons (my sister was about 18 months glint away though in dad’s brown eye).  Arsenal, Celtic and curiously, Stoke were the shirts.  As the baby of the three, the green and white hooped one was mine, immediately.

Having taken possession of this random top, my Dad, a fine full back, comfortable with either foot and who played for Ireland Schoolboys in 1950 against Johnny Haynes, started to tell me about Celtic. He spoke of the great Jock Stein, of the sparkling football he read about (televised football, indeed televisions at all, were a rarity) and he explained to me that Celtic had been the first British team to lift the coveted European Cup. He told me of this wee wing wizard named Jimmy Johnstone, aka Jinky. Dad told me he was small, brave, strong, but utterly mesmerising. My Dad didn’t follow any team, but he loved good football and skilful footballers. Jinky fitted the bill for Dad, that did for me.

I immersed myself in Shoot Magazine, pasting up any Shoot pic I could get on my wall. I never missed a Football Focus or an On the Ball in case some highlights of a Celtic game were shown. European nights on BBC’s Sportsnight sometimes showed a few minutes of Celtic. I can still see Atletico Madrid kicking the shit out of Jinky in 1974 (I think was the year) and having three sent off in a 0-0 draw. Maybe this was the catalyst for my insane passion during games as Atletico’s barbarism enraged me. Celtic lost the second leg.

I can see another Sportsnight clip as the late and tragic Johnny Doyle rose like a salmon to head Celtic 2-0 in front over Real Madrid. Celtic lost 0-3 in Madrid. These clips and the scarcity of televised action added to the mystic passion I had for Celtic.

Then in 1981, my birthday present as a 15 year old was a trip to Paradise to see Celtic take on Trapattoni’s Juventus in the European Cup. It was then that I got the tradition, fervour and pride of Celtic on  European night. I was transfixed. Juve possessed Zoff, Cabrini, Scirea, Tardelli and Bettega. Nine months later, most of that team would win the 1982 World Cup. Juve also had Liam Brady. The reception he got at Celtic Park will stay with me forever. Celtic won 1-0. Of course they did. This was a European night in Celtic Park, this is what happened. Murdo McLeod scored late on. I didn’t need the Aer Lingus flight home as I floated back with the memory of a Tommy Burns midfield masterclass.

This 1981 team and every team since is inspired and maybe intimated by the Lisbon Lions. It took to about 15 years ago to finally see the 1967 final from start to finish. I was gobsmacked with what I saw. 2-1 was a ridiculous score. Celtic absolutely annihilated a massively successful Inter team. It was wave after wave of Celtic attacks and goal chances that poured in on Inter’s goal. Keeper Sarti threatened to break our hearts but the relentless skill, passing, confidence and guts of Stein’s team overhauled a half time deficit to utterly murder the defensive Catenaccio game so loved by Helenio Herrera’s Inter. Jinky was my hero, but while he was excellent in that final, as all eleven were, the performances of Bertie Auld and Bobby Murdoch really caught my attention. Auld was silky, elegant, lovely touches and balance, while Murdoch was simply a Rolls Royce and Mercedes combined. What a performance he gave. I’ve watched this game back dozens of times. It us truly brilliant and is surely the greatest performance in a European Cup Final. Watch it and come back to me before rightly mentioning Barcelona in 2011 and the Milan team of Gullit, VanBasten, Rijkaard and Baresi.

So as the 50th anniversary today of Lisbon comes to a close, I make no apology for all my tweets and Facebook posts. This will never happen again, where 11 young men from a thirty mile radius of each other will conquer Europe. So thanks Ronny, Jim, Caesar, Clarky, Big Tam, Jinky, Willie, Bobby Murdoch,Bertie, Stevie and Bobby Lennox and Big Jock. .  Thanks man and dad for the shirt and education.

But Thank You Celtic.

30 Years since Milltown’s last Hurrah: My Greatest Memories.

12 Apr

“Well Holy God” as Miley from Glenroe would’ve said when that RTE rural soap opera was being beamed into Irish homes on a Sunday night thirty years ago.  Rovers fans would probably still have been in Hoops Club bar in Milltown or the nearby Dropping Well or other adjacent pubs after a Sunday afternoon watching our beloved Shamrock Rovers.  Back in 1987, Sunday afternoon was matchday, there was no live League of Ireland action on television other than the FAI Cup Final and barely ever highlights packages.  So Sunday consisted of Mass and Milltown (and Miley if you were into Glenroe).

Holy God, I just can’t believe it’s thirty years since that Irish Press story broke in April 1987 that the Kilcoynes –  then owners of Rovers – were moving the Four-in-a-Row League champions to a “Stadium of the Future” in Tolka Park and selling off our Glenmalure Park for development.

The circumstances that enabled the Kilcoynes to acquire ownership of Milltown from the Jesuits soon emerged as the Jesuits were led to believe it was the Kilcoynes’ plan to develop Milltown into a more modern stadium.  The Kilcoynes planned to develop it alright, for housing.

At a Shamrock Rovers Supporters club meeting in May 1987, Louis Kilcoyne stood in front of us all and stated the reason the club was moving to Tolka Park was for “football reasons” and not to bail out the ailing Kilcoyne business Healy Homes.  He expected us to buy this rubbish, we didn’t of course buy any of it.  It wouldn’t be the last thing we wouldn’t buy off the Kilcoynes as the implications of the move began to hit home to us all.

I’d been going to Milltown regularly as a fan since 1979 when I initially tagged along with my late brother Myles who’d been going when John Giles returned to become Player-Manager in 1977.  My Dad had brought me a few times when I was younger, but in 1979, this impressionable 12 year old soon became hooked on the magical Green and White hoops, the smell of Bovril and booze in the shed, the merciless sarcasm towards our own players if they dared not give 100% and the colourful language to referees such as John Carpenter, Eamonn Farrell, Michael Caulfield and Aidan Gallagher when  they made a poor decision (and by God they made many).    I loved the immaculate carpet of the renowned Milltown pitch and was there when the Shamrock Rovers Development Committee finally helped cobble together the money to have floodlights installed at the old ground in 1982.

The Giles era promised much but delivered little (a sole FAI Cup win in 1978), but from becoming entrenched as a Hoop in 1979, I loved the likes of a young Robbie Gaffney, the teak tough Noel Synnott, the cat-like Alan O’Neill in goal and knew a  young  Jim Beglin (who recently blocked me on Twitter!)  would be lost to the First Division in England (Liverpool came in for him).  I resigned myself that the deadly duo of Campbell and Buckley would eventually be broken up (not before they finally delivered us a title in 1984), but for all my idols in those title-less years, there was always a Tommy Gaynor, a Denis Clarke, a Gerry McGowan or a Ronnie Murphy to have us tearing our hair out in frustration and exasperation.

The arrival of Derryman Jim McLaughlin changed everything in 1983.  Giles had left and his replacement  Noel Campbell, had also failed to bring the title back to Milltown.  McLaughlin however was a proven winner with a superbly talented and physically strong Dundalk team. They had given a decent Celtic team the fright of their lives in a European Cup clash in 1979 (3-2 defeat at Celtic Park and a 0-0 draw in Oriel Park, when the European Cup was knockout only) and McLaughlin didn’t take any nonsense from his players,  he was a proven winner indeed.  McLaughlin referred to Rovers as a “sleeping giant” when he was appointed.  The giant was roused from his slumber and ready to wreak havoc once McLaughlin got to work.

The title was clinched at the end of McLaughlin’s first season at Milltown in 1984 against Shelbourne and so began a glorious four year era at Milltown, three of them under McLaughlin (who found the lure of his hometown club Derry City too good to resist as they were admitted to the League of Ireland) with the final four-in-a-row title won under  Dermot Keely (player/manager).

There were some memorable players in that Milltown era, the predatory instincts of Campbell and Buckley (both were transferred to Belgian and Spanish football after winning the 1984 title) to be replaced by an equally deadly duo in Mick Byrne and Noel Larkin.  Jody Byrne in goal, after a disastrous debut became a reliable and consistent keeper, the telepathy of Kevin Brady and John Coady down the left led to many a goal, the experience and drive of Noel King, the explosive shooting and ball carrying of Liam O’Brien, the exciting wing play of Neville Steedman, the class in defence of Jacko McDonagh (who left for French football after that first title), the versatility and eventual centre-half polish of Mick Neville and led by example from the inspirational, tough, skilful and brilliant leader Pat Byrne.  What a combination of manager and captain in Jim McLaughlin and Pat Byrne, four leagues in a row and three League and Cup doubles from 1985 to 1987.

The European games in Milltown were also great memories.  From a bitter, nasty, spiteful atmosphere against Linfield (Rovers went out on away goals in a 1-1 draw after a scoreless one in Belfast) in 1984, to an heroic 1985 European Cup effort at home to a brilliant Honved team (a 3-1 defeat, but a brilliant performance) and then the memorable but rueful 1-0 defeat to Celtic in 1986 (a late Murdo McLeod goal sank us in game Rovers dominated for long spells), the 1987 European game against Omonia Nicosia at “the stadium of the future”  I’ll come to later.

There were also big scalps in friendly matches at Milltown when the weather in Britain forced the likes of Man United and Arsenal to seek games here.  Both returned to the UK beaten by this vibrant Rovers team, Noel Larkin heading the winner against Arsenal with Larkin again scoring in a 2-1 win over United, Mick Byrne bagging a spectacular winner.  Great nights, great games, great memories.

More personal memories that stand out from my days at Milltown are former Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley selling “Soccer Reporter” at the Milltown Road end of the ground after we had played football together at Newbrook Celtic in Ballyboden that morning; Liam O’Brien’s spectacular volley from 35 yards against Bohs in a 3-0 win; Pat Byrne’s late winner also against Bohs as we came back from 1-2 down to win 3-2; fans arriving on a bitterly cold and snowy morning to help clear snow off the pitch and ensuring a match went ahead at Milltown; several Rovers players playing for an Irish Olympic qualifying team and more than acquitting themselves in a thrilling game against  Hungary (I remember the late Barry Kehoe of Dundalk starring in that game, Ireland lost 2-1); Michael O’Connor standing huddled beside a floodlight pylon with his sleeves tucked into his hands as he was so cold; Kitty Mellon and Cindy; the temporary stands for that Celtic game in 1986 that would’ve miserably failed Health and Safety regulations nowadays; so many memories, so many great players (Rovers and opposition), so many great fans, so many golden times.  We’d won Four in a Row and three successive doubles, Rovers were ruling the roost.  Then it all ended in a heartbeat….

The disastrous move to Tolka almost signalled the end of the club.  It certainly tore the heart out of it.  Many fans never returned to support Rovers after Milltown.  The supporters club led a picket outside Tolka Park in the 1987-88 season.  A beatable Omonia Nicosia were Rovers’ opponents in the European Cup that season.  A sparse crowd and an atmosphere of doom saw the Four in a Row team lose 0-1 as we stood outside angry, depressed, disillusioned but determined to return Rovers to Milltown.  A four man team, Gerry Mackey, Brian Murphy (father of RTE Sport’s Con Murphy), Jimmy Keane and Ed Kenny formed the Keep Rovers at Milltown group (KRAM).  Friends and colleagues were encouraged to donate, TDs were lobbied, some of them helped us, some didn’t.  We tried, God knows we tried to save Milltown but sadly it was not to be.  The Kilcoynes acquired their planning permission for houses, An Bord Pleanála threw out any appeals.  We’d lost.  We tried but we lost.  The Kilcoynes were driven out of the club as the fans’ boycott deprived them of any semblance of gate receipt money and various new owners came and went in that dreadful era post-Milltown.   The Four in a Row team fell apart and three key players, Doolin, Brady and Neville rejoined McLaughlin at Derry City as Jim continued his Midas-like touch by bringing silverware to Derry.  Rovers languished and went from ground-sharing to renting the RDS.  A surprise 1994 title under the late Ray Treacy at the RDS brought about a false dawn as key players Alan Byrne and Stephen Geoghegan jumped ship that Summer to Shelbourne.

What followed in those post-Milltown years was 22 nomadic and  -1994 apart – miserable years.  Tallaght Stadium stalled so many times.  Rovers were relegated under Roddy Collins in 2005, on the park the misery was now complete.  The creditors were closing in and the noose was tightening around the club’s neck.  Pat Scully had replaced Collins and Rovers were back in the Premier League at the first attempt in 2006.  The fans ensured that noose was removed and finally, on 13th March 2009, the ghost of Milltown was finally set free as we played our first proper competitive home league game away from Milltown as Tallaght Stadium finally opened its turnstiles.  Fittingly, the last competitive match in Milltown was against Sligo Rovers in an FAI Cup semi-final and Sligo provided the opposition in Tallaght.  On an emotional night, Gary Twigg had to be the man to get the first goal in Tallaght as Rovers won 2-1 (Dessie Baker also scoring).  Amazingly as the week of the 30th anniversary arrives, Sligo provide the opposition this Good Friday in Tallaght.

Who knows where this club would’ve gone had Milltown not been sold?  It’s reasonably safe to say we’d have made it five in a row.  It wasn’t to be however.  While Tallaght has seen us with a fine, modern, convenient and comfortable stadium with superb facilities, it still doesn’t have the emotion or history Glenmalure Park had and Milltown for me will always be in my heart as the spiritual and family home of Rovers.

Tallaght has given us  Gary Twigg.   Despite all the great players I saw at Milltown, Twigg is my favourite Hoop of all time that I was privileged to see up close.  From his first goal in the first game in Tallaght, he set the new stadium alight and did it for four glorious goalscoring years with 88 goals in 160 appearances.  Tallaght gave us two successive titles and Europa League football.  Tallaght has made a real and tangible impact on the huge catchment area of Tallaght and nearby suburbs and is increasingly entrenched in the Community which promises to bring us talented players and more importantly, new generations of Rovers fans.

I last stood in Milltown on St Patrick’s Day in 1988 with my other brother Kevin, we got in to take photos (photos I gave to the Rovers Heritage Trust).  The crush barriers were already bent into the terracing concrete, the lush carpet of green grass was knee high, weeds and tufts of grass littered the terracing and the old rickety stand rang out with ghostly sounds of agony, ecstasy and fans no longer here to witness the demise of this great old ground.  I took my photos and got out of there after one last look, sad, angry and rueful.  What a waste, what a poxy waste.

So many great Rovers fans saw their beloved team for the last time on 12th April 1987 in Milltown.  So many Rovers fans remained after Milltown but sadly didn’t survive to see us playing in Tallaght.  Glenmalure Park will always be the spiritual home of this great club.  Every time I drive by that monument in front of those bloody houses on the Milltown Road I fill up with nostalgia, shaking my head in anger and my fist in defiance.  “Going down the Milltown Road, to see McLaughlin’s aces”.

Thirty years ago, Rovers almost died.  Slowly but surely throughout the following years, the Rovers supporters eventually won the day and took control of the club. For that we are forever in their debt.   Thankfully we didn’t die.  We’ll never die.

Phelim Warren
12th April 2017.

Happy Birthday Dad, with usual greetings from Naka!

21 Nov
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Naka and his magical left leg

I wrote this three years ago to mark my father’s 80th birthday and it was posted on the sadly departed celticjournal.org.  As it’s ten years since my father and I went to Celtic Park to see Celtic beat United 1-0 thanks to that magical free kick from Shunsuke Nakamura, I hope those of you who didn’t read this before enjoy my memory of that special night in Paradise on 21st November 2006.  Ten years eh……..where did they go to at all?

 

Happy 80th Dad, with greetings from Naka!

 

My Dad is 80 today (21st November) and given his age,  he’s doing pretty well apart from the unavoidable aches, pains and plethora of tablets he endures on a daily basis.  He loves his football.  He played for Ireland schoolboys in 1950 against the legendary Johnny Haynes (England won 2-1 in Dublin).  He passed on his love for football (and music for that matter) to my two brothers, sister and myself, but I believe it’s on me that it had the most impression.  It was my Dad who, when my mother came home with three random football shirts from the UK and I chose this striking green and white hooped shirt, explained to me how Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967 (I wasn’t even a year old when the Lisbon Lions triumphed).   It was my Dad who showed me Jinky tormenting full backs on those precious black and white snippets of television action before live football consumed (and possibly ruined) us all.   So while my Ma thankfully let me have the Celtic shirt, it was my Dad who told me about Celtic, its Irish connection, its great players and brand of football and the rest is the most wonderful, turbulent and magical history following the Bhoys.

 

I turned 40 in September 2006 and was given a generous injection of cash to mark it. I spotted an ad for one day trips to Celtic’s three Champions League Group games that season, which would be against Copenhagen, Benfica and Manchester United.  It was a no-brainer where to spend my birthday cash and I asked my Dad did he fancy joining me, only half expecting he’d bite.  “When are we going?” he snapped enthusiastically.

 

As we will recall, Gordon Strachan’s 2006 vintage maintained Celtic’s wonderful home record in Europe. A Kenny Miller penalty accounted for plucky and defensive Copenhagen which was followed by a thumping, deafening 3-0 victory over Benfica, with Miller scoring twice and Stephen Pearson adding the third late on.  The final home game however would be against Sir Alex’s Man United.   The climax to the group was approaching and Celtic needed a win to finally make the Champions League knockout phase, a phase that remained out of reach during the wonderful Martin O’Neill era.  It was 21st November 2006, my Dad’s 73rd birthday and what a birthday it turned out to be.

 

The tension was palpable and United had a sizeable travelling support as their heroes warmed up in front of us, seated a few rows from the front of the Lisbon Lions Stand. We could almost shake hands with the United players, but I was never going to do that given what was at stake.

 

The starting XIs were as follows: Celtic:  Boruc; Telfer, Balde, McManus, Naylor; Sno, Lennon, Gravesen, Nakamura; Zurawski, Venegoor of Hesselink.

 

United: Van Der Saar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze;  Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs,; Rooney, Saha.

 

Celtic, filled with experience and physicality and the 12th man crowd, United with seasoned internationals and arguably two of the best players in the world in Ronaldo and Rooney.  The stage was set for a battle royal and that is what we witnessed.

 

The first half was a fairly cagey affair, United had the greater possession but Boruc was relatively untested and Balde was coping well with the threat of Saha, while Telfer and Naylor were disciplined in taking care of Ronaldo and Rooney (the latter was deployed on the left). Rooney had gone close with a snapshot and Balde’s underhit backpass looked to have let Ronaldo in, but Bobo recoved the ground with those famous giant strides and he did enough to put off Ronaldo whose shot lacked the power to beat The Holy Goalie.  Celtic’s solitary threat on the United goal was a Gravesen header that flashed across the goalmouth, there hadn’t been a lot in Celtic attacking-wise.

 

Strachan was clearly dismayed at Celtic’s lack of first half threat and made two half time substitutions.   Jiri Jarosik replaced Sno, while Shaun Maloney was introduced for an out of sorts Zurawski.   The changes made an impact and both would play a part in the two major incidents of the second half.

 

United continued to look more menacing despite Maloney’s ability to keep possession meaning Celtic looked better than in the first half. Ronaldo made some very dangerous runs which always had the Celtic faithful on edge and one such run and shot had Boruc scrambling across his goal but away wide it went.

 

Saha had a glorious chance to score when Rooney dinked a lovely ball over the back four. Saha was clear with only grass and Boruc ahead of him, but Saha thought he was offside and hesitated fatally which enabled Celtic’s defence to scramble the ball to safety.  In the 79th minute, I remember vividly what happened and will for the rest of my life.

 

Jarosik made a nuisance of himself 35 yards from goal and as he fought for possession with Vidic, the referee deemed Vidic had fouled Jarosik and awarded Celtic a fairly soft free kick.  After the approving cheer from the Celtic Park faithful, an expectant hush fell over the stadium as we knew who’d take the kick.  “Come on Naka”, I said as I clenched my fists and turned to my Dad, “a bit of magic son, you can do it!”.

 

Nakamura moved forward with utter concentration and conviction and caught the ball on the sweet spot. The ball cleared United’s wall and in that couple of seconds it took from the moment it left Naka’s left peg, the trajectory of the ball swerved and dipped incredibly.  Van Der Saar in goal saw it all the way and leapt spectacularly to his left but it was utterly futile.  The ball swerved ever away from the United keeper and only the net stopped it from continuing to bend towards the corner flag.   The ensuing collective roar when we saw Naka’s delivery hit the net was deafening and in unison.  Yeeeeeeeeeeeessssssssssssss!!!  Naka wheeled away to The Jungle side of the ground as team-mates enveloped the Japanese magician.  I hugged my Dad (being careful not to wrestle this 73 year old man to the floor), while he tried to film the fans and my ecstatic celebration (he captured it well, it’s a DVD I’ll cherish) with the other Celtic fans around me in the Lisbon Lions Stand.  What a goal, what a f*cking goal!!!  Celtic 1, United 0.

 

The next few minutes were a blur as we finally ran out of breath celebrating and prayed the next ten minutes would pass by without incident. Those prayers weren’t answered as God was probably still too busy celebrating or watching Naka’s goal over and over on replay.  With the clock inching towards the 90 minutes, Paul Scholes went down outside the box under a Lennon challenge.  It looked like a dive to me but the ref bought it and gave United the free.   Heart in mouth time.

 

Ronaldo took the free and Shaun Maloney rose in the wall and deflected the ball for a corner. We cheered with relief but then we swore in horror as we noticed the referee pointing to the penalty spot for a handball against Maloney.  Expletives filled the air at the injustice of it all, though TV pictures would show Shaun had raised his arm in the wall, it was a correct decision.  Penalty given.

 

Saha placed the ball on the spot, Big Boruc in front of him.   Was Saha’s earlier miss still on his mind?  Would Boruc look even bigger in the goal than he already is?  Would the Celtic fans’ barracking get into Saha’s head?  The answer to those three questions was soon answered.  Saha struck the kick without much conviction to Boruc’s right and The Holy Goalie moved the same side and saved the kick.  Another deafening roar acclaimed the save and the retreating defence cleared the rebound away before United’s players could pounce.  Boruc punched the air, Saha stood dejected 12 yards out, hands on his knees, his head gone.  The roof remained off Celtic Park for the remaining injury time minutes as Celtic players’ adrenalin and final defiance kicked in and the penalty save seemed to empty the last of what United had in the tank.   The final whistle blew, Celtic 1, United 0, what a victory.  Qualification for the knockout phase for the first time, what an achievement.  Nakamura’s goal, what a player.  Boruc’s save, what a keeper.  60,000 singing Celtic fans, what an experience!  My Dad kept filming following the final whistle, the fans kept singing, I’d died and gone to Heaven, this was magic, utterly magic.  I’ve witnessed Ray Houghton’s goal to beat England at Euro 88, his goal to beat Italy at USA 94, witnessing Naka’s sensational free-kick matched those experiences and the Celtic support pushed that experience into a different league altogether.  The fact that my Dad was with me and on his 73rd birthday only re-inforced that feeling.

 

So Happy 80th birthday Myles, that night in Celtic Park seven years ago we’ll cherish forever and Naka will always be to the front of my mind for Dad’s subsequent birthdays, of which I hope there will be many more yet.

 

Phelim Warren

@freewheeler12

Robbie Keane: An Irish Fan’s Appreciation.

26 Aug

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145 caps, 67 goals. Attention grabbing stats  for any player, but then Robbie Keane has been grabbing attention since he burst onto the scene as a professional footballer.  His debut as a precocious teenager for Wolverhampton Wanderers saw him score twice and immediately his name was out there as one to watch, not only as an Irish talent, but a worldwide talent.  It is however his Irish career that I will recall in this tribute.

 

Having identified this kid as one to watch, Sky’s coverage of Wolves’ games enabled me to take a closer look at this 17 year old from Fettercairn. The fact that he hailed from Fettercairn, in the heart of Tallaght and only a stone’s throw from where I was living at the time made sure I watched his progress.  And how Robbie Keane progressed.

 

He was one of a sadly dying breed, the street footballer. I grew up in the 70s and there would be street football matches everywhere back then, using jumpers or bags or whatever for goalposts and being unable to maintain continuity in these games as the roar of “CAR” sent us scattering to the pavements to avoid an irate motorist’s right of way.  Robbie Keane would’ve played hundreds of street matches, honing his tricks, deftness, quick feet and learning to look after himself against the bigger lads who also would’ve clogged their way around street games.  He was doubtless the finest street player  in his locality as he grew up and progressed to organised schoolboy football with Crumlin United.

 

Mick McCarthy was rebuilding an exciting young Irish team around the time Keane was breaking through at Wolves and having given young players their chance in the Irish team already, McCarthy had no reservation in handing Keane his Irish debut as a still 17 year old pup, a friendly away 2-1 defeat to Czech Republic in Olomuc in March 1998. It was however his home debut in April of that year at Lansdowne Road against World Cup hopefuls Argentina that gave the Irish public the chance to see what this kid could become in the future.  Although Argentina won 2-0, Keane delighted the Dublin crowd with his fearlessness, talent and natural ability as he upstaged the then world-class Argentinian star Ariel Ortega.  Robbie Keane was here and here to stay.

 

Keane’s first goals in his beloved Irish shirt were in a home Euro 2000 qualifier against Malta in his fifth cap. His first was a goalscorer’s instinct, turning and scoring in the six yard box following a Mark Kinsella corner.  His second however gave us a real flavour of this former street footballer.  He pickpocketed a Maltese defender 30 yards out, hurdled another defender’s despairing lunge and with the remaining defence panic-stricken, Keane curled a beauty with the minimum of fuss to bring the Lansdowne Road crowd to their feet.

 

He scored two more goals in that Euro 2000 campaign, in the return game with Malta and another absolute nugget in a 2-1 victory over a strong Yugoslavia in Dublin, running onto a Niall Quinn flick on to effortlessly and instinctively drill a low shot into the corner from the edge of the box. It wouldn’t be the last time Quinn would set up Keane for a crucial goal.  Keane also netted the opener in the qualification play-off with Turkey at home, but a 1-1 draw in Dublin and a scoreless draw in a bad-tempered game in Bursa saw McCarthy’s team miss out on Euro 2000.

 

The World Cup qualifying campaign for Japan and Korea in 2002 saw Keane open the scoring in Amsterdam with a wonderful headed goal (2-2 draw) but curiously this was the last goal Keane would score in that campaign until he again got the crucial opening goal in the 2-0 play-off victory against Iran in Dublin with another finish from a Quinn assist. Iran won the return leg 1-0 meaning Robbie Keane was bound for the World Cup.

 

That World Cup was of course memorable for the Saipan Affair, so there would be only one Keane appearing in the Irish team that year. Keane was most unfortunate not to score in the opener against Cameroon (1-1 draw) striking a post in a second half Ireland dominated, but it was the second game against Germany that led to one of those never to be forgotten moments in Irish football.  With the Germans a goal up from early on and time ticking towards the 90th minute, a diagonal from Steve Finnan was won in the air by Niall Quinn. His knockdown was right into Keane’s path and this now polished diamond from Fettercairn never broke stride as he controlled the ball, held off the German defender as he had held off those street cloggers  years before and as the commanding German keeper Oliver Kahn came out to foil Ireland one last time, Keane steered the ball past Kahn and the ball nestled in the net via the post.  The pub I watched the game in shook, glasses were knocked off tables as I embraced everyone around me and the island of Ireland almost visibly levitated at Keane’s wonderful, heroic rescue of a priceless World Cup point.

 

His momentum carried him into the last group game as he yet again (how many times did he do this?) scored the nerve-settling opening goal against Saudi Arabia in a 3-0 win and incurring the wrath of British hack Rod Liddle in the process for his cartwheel/crossbow celebration, which was a joy to behold, both the celebration and Liddle’s ridiculous fury. Still Keane raised  his profile in the knockout phase, showing ice in his veins to convert the penalty to make it 1-1 against Spain at the death of 90 minutes and although Ireland were knocked out on penalties, Keane scored his penalty in the shoot out.  He now had 37 caps, but for a still very young man of not yet 22 years of age, this kid had maturity, composure and balls to add to his God-given talent.

 

Unfortunately it would be ten years before Keane got to show off his talents on the international world stage again, as Ireland failed to qualify for Euro 2004 and 2008 and the World Cup of 2006, under the managerships of Brian Kerr (Keane’s under-age international coach) and the hapless Steve Staunton.  Keane however continued to rattle in the goals in those campaigns and in his 56th appearance for Ireland, he broke Niall Quinn’s goalscoring record by scoring both goals against Faroe Islands in a World Cup Qualifier in 2004, bringing his tally to 23.

 

Bizarrely enough, despite his attaining the new record, some sections of the Irish public were continually scathing and dismissive of Keane’s achievement and contribution to the teams that hadn’t qualified for three successive tournaments. I believe these were armchair and bandwagon “supporters” who latched onto the team post-2002.  Knowledgeable supporters knew the importance and value Keane continued to bring to the Irish team and Keane himself retained that unshakeable belief in his own ability and always turned up to play for his country.  International football remained a must in Keane’s career, yet some chose to berate him at every available opportunity.   A peculiarly Irish trait that both angered and bemused me…………

 

Nevertheless, he continued to take responsibility for taking and missing chances as Giovanni Trapattoni took the reins. It had to be Keane to score that (again!) opening goal on that fateful night in Paris in November 2009, finishing off a wonderfully built goal from the back to level the aggregate scores in the qualification play off second leg.   Henry’s infamous cheating deprived Keane of captaining his country in South Africa that following Summer.

 

Keane would retain the armband as Trapattoni steered the team to Euro 2012 with the skipper netting twice in Estonia in a 4-0 rout in the first leg to ensure the Irish would party like never before in Poland. Sadly the party was all that was remembered as Trapattoni’s team (and fans) endured a miserable three games, scoring one (St Ledger) and conceding nine.   Unlike his great mates Damien Duff and Richie Dunne however, Keane wasn’t ready to pack in his Irish career.

 

The Martin O’Neill era and Keane’s ageing legs saw him play a lesser part in getting the team to France for Euro 2016 and although he scored five goals in the qualifiers, they were against whipping boys Gibraltar home and away. His influence, selflessness and support for the team however was notable and well-publicised as he didn’t throw his toys out of the pram when others were in the first eleven.  While no longer guaranteed a starting place, he was always going to be on the plane on that never to be forgotten couple of weeks in France.

 

Another Robbie, Brady, took the plaudits in 2016 with his emotional winner against Italy in Lille and his opening penalty against France in Lyon (what is with lads called Robbie scoring opening goals?) and Robbie Keane made only two late substitute appearances in the opening two games against Sweden and Belgium. His support however for the bigger picture, the squad and his gratitude to the fans remained 100%.  While Seamus Coleman had inherited the armband, Keane was still the General.

 

So to the opening line again. 145 caps, 67 goals.  His goalscoring record will surely never be beaten by another Irishman.  The street footballer from Tallaght will make his international farewell at Lansdowne Road against Oman next Wednesday.  Nobody deserves to bow out in front of his home fans more than Keane.  We have been blessed with great players down the years, from Jackie Carey, Liam Whelan, John Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane and more.  We will never see a greater striker than Robbie Keane.  We will see him as a supporter.  We have been most fortunate to be around to see his goals, his passion, his honesty and that street footballing wit and intelligence (his off the ball running and positioning was totally under-rated).  He will deserve every plaudit next Wednesday and hopefully he will bow out with an addition to his 67 international goals.

 

That’d be nice.