Wednesday 18 October 2017

Flair worth coming out for

St Patrick's Athletic manager Liam Buckley
St Patrick's Athletic manager Liam Buckley

Eamonn Sweeney

I'm not ashamed of what I am. I was born this way and if other people can't accept it that's their problem. That's not to say it's always easy when people who don't know anything about the lifestyle pass judgement on what you do, suggest it's somehow unnatural or pass derisory remarks about this sporting love that dare not speak its name. At times like that you do feel like saying, "I wish I knew how to quit you, League of Ireland".

But then there are the times when it all comes good and I realise why I made this choice and why the League Of Ireland Phobes are wrong. Like on Saturday night of last week when I watched Sligo Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic play out a profoundly exhilarating 2-2 draw in The Showgrounds. There had hardly been time to catch a breath as the game flowed and momentum switched back and forth. I'd gone as far as Charlestown on the way home before I realised I'd just seen one of the finest League of Ireland matches in decades.

Perhaps the main reason for this was that St Pat's had come to Sligo with entirely attacking intentions. And this was good news because St Pat's 2014 are the most entertaining side I've seen in 40 years watching the league, even more so than Damien Richardson's swashbuckling Shelbourne side of the mid-1990s, the side of Tony Sheridan, Stephen Geoghegan, John O'Rourke, Gary Howlett, Greg Costello and Mark Rutherford.

There has been, by League of Ireland standards, quite a buzz of interest about two players in particular on the Pat's team. Keith Fahey's return from England was an intriguing prospect for many people, while Chris Forrester's extraordinary goal against Drogheda United a few weeks ago has, via the internet, catapulted him into the consciousness of many sports fans who wouldn't be able to find Richmond Park on a map of Inchicore.

In Sligo, Fahey was superb. He sat extremely deep in midfield, barely in front of his own back four, and used the time and space gained from this positioning to give an extraordinary exhibition of passing. Almost everything Pat's did flowed from Fahey as he knocked the ball around with the casual mastery of a father placing passes for his children to chase along the beach. Striking the ball first-time, directing sumptuous crossfield passes one minute and angling beautiful deliveries over the Sligo full-backs the next, the former Birmingham City man set the entire tempo of the game.

It wasn't a perfect performance; from time to time he got a bit too ambitious and he didn't exactly seem keen to put in tackles, but it was as aesthetically pleasing a performance as I've seen in the League. Lucky Pat's fans to be watching this every week.

Forrester is always a pleasure to watch too and, though no one will ever mistake him for Charles Atlas, he has somewhat lost the waif-like appearance which made you wonder if he'll cope physically with English football when his chance inevitably comes. He drifted round in that weightless way of his, ceaselessly creative, ever inventive, his first touch a thing of beauty.

Yet it says a lot about where Pat's are at the moment that Fahey and Forrester probably weren't even their most dangerous players on the night. That honour fell to Conan Byrne, who is a more direct and pacey winger than Forrester on the other side and has an eye for goal and an ability to cross the ball on the run which often makes him more effective, and to Lee Lynch returning to The Showgrounds where he'd played for the previous two seasons.

I wrote last year that Lynch was the most likely Rovers player to follow in the footsteps of Seamus Coleman. I stand by that, though it appears now that he will depart from Dublin rather than Sligo.

Criminally underused by Rovers, his ability to find space, the intelligence which enables him to use that space to maximum effect and the close control which allows him to work 'give and goes' deep in opposition territory make him another potent weapon in the Inchicore armoury.

Pat's also possess two athletic full-backs in Ger O'Brien and Ian Bermingham, who need no excuse to hurtle into attack, last year's Player of the Year Killian Brennan, who was on the bench on Saturday after returning from suspension, and the previous year's POTY Mark Quigley, out injured at the moment. Brennan and Quigley at their best are up there with both Fahey and Forrester for flair. Add in the fact that boss Liam Buckley has an almost religious devotion to open attacking football and you can see that there's an attacking Perfect Storm taking place in Dublin 8.

But here's the rub. Pat's complex and dazzling football is currently attracting a paltry average of around 1,500 fans a week. In reality, they should be seen by everyone. If they're playing in your town, go and bring the kids. This team really is something to see. And if your town is Dublin, make the trip to the banks of the Camac. In years to come people will talk about the days when Forrester and Fahey pulled the strings for Pat's. Don't end up being like one of those people who lie about seeing U2 in the Dandelion Market, don't depend on YouTube and rumours, see the real thing as it happens. You owe it to yourself.

I'm not biased. My Sligo Rovers background means I'm hardly a partisan fan of Dublin-based League of Ireland clubs. But fair is fair and St Pat's often seem undervalued to me. What glamour and hoo-ha there is in the League of Ireland usually attaches itself to Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne or Bohemians when those teams are going well. Yet since 1990 Pat's have won five league titles, to the three won by the Hoops and the four won by Bohs. Shels have half a dozen but they find themselves down in Division One right now. There can only be one destination for the neutral in Dublin at this moment.

The eagle-eyed reader may have noticed that for all their fireworks Pat's didn't actually win in The Showgrounds. One reason is that Buckley deployed a hugely adventurous formation; of Pat's five midfielders, not one could really be described as a ball-winner or even defensively minded. So they give the opposition a chance. And the other reason is that Sligo Rovers rose to the challenge and gave one of their most thrilling performances under Ian Baraclough.

John Russell, who played for Pat's when they won the league last year, battled for midfield supremacy with Fahey, snapping at the Irish international's heels so that Fahey became visibly exasperated, as though on the verge of exclaiming that he hadn't come home to be hounded by some curly-headed lad from Moycullen.

Russell also contributed a great deal creatively, arriving in the box to volley the opening the goal of the game after a flowing move which began with the best full-back in the country, Alan Keane, robbing Forrester and charging upfield before picking out centre-forward Aaron Greene who switched play with a sweeping ball to the left wing where Danny Ledwith chipped a perfect cross into Russell's path. Any team would have been proud of a goal like that.

In Russell, the indefatigable Keane, the athletic Greene, who has been an outstanding defender, midfielder and striker for Rovers, and the sublimely gifted Ross Gaynor, who could do for the Bit O'Red what Fahey has done for Pat's if he wasn't perpetually and bizarrely marooned at left-back, my home team also have players worth going to see every week.

It's actually a kind of golden age of flair in the league. Dundalk have Richie Towell and Daryl Horgan, last year's internet goal sensation, Shamrock Rovers have Ronan Finn and Gary McCabe, Drogheda United have Gavin Brennan, Cork City have Billy Dennehy, all of them ball-players with the ability to do the unexpected and provide a memory for the ages. I've heard the 2-2 draw at Oriel Park between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers described in the same kind of terms I've used to describe the Sligo-Pat's game. There is a lot of great stuff to come this year.

Watch if you get a chance. Not because it's local or because it's 'real football' or because you're morally obliged to, but because right now it's good and it's exciting and it's enjoyable. And if you don't, well it's none of my business what you do in the privacy of your own stadium. People should be entitled to love what they want.

It's just that for me, every week is League of Ireland Pride Week.

 

Baltacha counted her days the right way

If you look at the stats, it wasn't a special career. She made the world's top 50, consistently qualified for Grand Slam events, reached the third round of the Australian Open and Wimbledon, won over $1 million in career earnings, won 11 International Tennis Federation tournaments and four years ago beat current world number two Li Na and then reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.

It was a good professional career, she was better at tennis than most of us will be at anything in our lives, but it wasn't out of the ordinary. Not till you consider the fact that at the age of 19, the year after she'd reached the semi-finals of Junior Wimbledon and just as she was beginning her professional career, Elena Baltacha was diagnosed with a disease known as Primary Sclerosing Chlorangitis.

PSC is a disease of the bile duct. A serious one which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer, sufferers live an average of 25 more years after they're diagnosed. On average, they either die or receive a liver transplant within ten years. It was some burden to place on a teenage girl. For the rest of her life, Elena Baltacha would have to take eight tablets twice a day to keep the condition under control. At the time a doctor told her that she had worse scarring on her liver than George Best did.

Yet it did not stop her pursing her tennis dreams. She was known on the circuit for her cheerful demeanour and positive outlook in the face of her debilitating disease. Just three years ago, she told an interviewer, "Thanks to medicine, a disease that would have killed me is manageable. That's pretty amazing . . . I don't ask for any special consideration. I'm proof that you can overcame a serious condition and live a normal life. I'm not cured but I'm not going to let it stand in my way."

In the end, it got her. In January, just a month after Elena's marriage to her coach, Nino Severino, she was diagnosed with liver cancer. And this day last week this brave and brilliant woman died at her home in Ipswich at the age of 30, surrounded by her friends and family.

It would break your heart to think about it. Elena Baltacha, who worked hard all her life and never complained in public about the bum hand she'd been dealt and tried to always look on the bright side, was as undeserving of her fate as anyone could be. She had achieved a great deal in her life yet there was not the same massive outpouring of public sentiment which attended the death of Peaches Geldof or various recent public declarations of depression and gambling addiction by sportsmen.

You could say that this is because that pool of sentiment is an extremely shallow one. It measures tragedy by the celebrity of the victim. It is selective in its sympathy, the journalists and keyboard warriors who stuck the boot into young Pádraig Gaffney last week would have forgiven far worse sins had he been famous. And it is inordinately fond of depression, or at least the milder forms which can be cured by a few visits to a counsellor. The chronic long-term mental illness or the junkie goofing off on the Luas maybe not so much.

Cancer resists sentiment. Terminal cancer simply proves that life is unfair. You can't claim an identification with those who die young from cancer. You can't, for obvious reasons, go online and say that you died from cancer and found it an ultimately enriching experience which made you stronger. There is no tidy little homily or self-glorifying message the social media narcissist can extract from a fate like Elena Baltacha's.

And that's why her death got a fraction of the coverage afforded to that of Peaches Geldof who had choices Elena Baltacha never had after she turned 19, Elena, who also had an unsettled childhood, moving to Ipswich from Kiev with her footballer father Sergei, moving soon afterwards to Perth and Paisley as he pursued the peripatetic life of an ageing pro. She overcame that but she could not overcome cancer.

Her life was an example. Her death is a tragedy. A meaningless tragedy. In the words of the American poet James Schuyler, "A few days are all we have. So count them as they pass. They pass too quickly out of breath: don't dwell on the grave which yawns for one and all."

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