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Lise Hand: Slim victory for Micheal as party leaders get ball rolling

THERE may have been no blood on the floor, or no knock-out punch landed by either side, but it was Micheal's glove that was hoisted at the end of the first bout.

TV3 did their best to turn it into the Battle of Ballymount or the Ding-Dong of Dublin South-West, but really it was a bit like 'Sex and the City' without Charlotte, or Nirvana without Kurt Cobain.

For one of the amigos was missing, AWOL, refusing to get into the sand-pit (or bear-pit) and play with the other big boys -- and it was never going to be the same show without him.

And worse, the first bunfight of the election was up against a football match -- Ireland were playing Wales in the Aviva Stadium, with a 7.45pm kick-off.

Could TV3's match using a linear 1-1-1 formation draw in a crowd? Would there be own goals, dirty tackles, dives, appeals to the ref?

Would Vincent lose the head and show the red-card to either Micheal Martin or Eamon Gilmore? Could Enda Kenny be a surprise substitution?

But Enda the Unready was down in Leitrim, and so Micheal and Eamon had to take to the pitch on their own.

Before the two arrived at the studio in Dublin 24, the waiting posse of media were turfed out of the press room into the rainy car park for "security reasons", until the leaders arrived.

Eamon Gilmore was the first to arrive at 7.10pm, but it was almost 7.40pm before Micheal strolled up -- and the TV3 head honchos were beginning to look a bit nervous. "There might be two empty chairs in the studio; Eamon will be having a fireside chat to the camera," joked one cruel reporter.

As the debate began, it seemed the most nervous person in the studio was the moderator, Vincent Browne, who was unusually tentative.

And it took his guests a bit of time to get into their stride. Micheal, however, was the first to settle and was swiftly out of the blocks to harry the Labour leader and prevent him settling on the ball. Eamon was visibly nervous at the start.

The first sound out of his mouth was a heavy sigh. "Ireland is a good country, but the system is broken," he said in sepulchral tones.

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In contrast, Micheal was much more relaxed on the ball, and soon began to niggle at Eamon, putting him off his stride as he discussed Labour's plans for the economy. "The problem is Eamon, that you keep chopping and changing," he interrupted. "You're going to tax too much and borrow more," he sniped in a soundbite which he had probably prepared earlier. "You're going to increase taxes, higher than any party except Sinn Fein," he added, managing to link Labour with their Nemesis of the Left. "You're playing the popular line and courting popularity," he added.

Eamon didn't seem quite sure how to deal with these flying tackles. His nervousness was evident as he referred to his rival as 'Minister', at least seven times, although Micheal had handed back his Foreign Affairs shirt last month.

Eamon swiftly reminded him that he had been a minister "for 4,995 days".

The Labour leader forgot one important point when he was planning his strategy; he thought cherubic-faced Micheal would stick to the rules. But the Soldiers of Destiny use every weapon at their disposal.

Eamon seemed to gain a bit more bravado as the subject moved onto the IMF bailout. "The leader of an Irish government should be standing up for Ireland," he began.

But Micheal was ready with a flying boot. "I don't need lectures from you about standing up for one's country," he riposted. "It's not about banging tables and a bit of bravado."

And Eamon missed an open goal when it came to the touchy subject of the blanket guarantee of the banks.

"As Professor Honohan would've said the banks would've closed within days; the modern payment system would've collapsed; workers would not have got their wages; there would've been chaos on the streets," said Micheal dramatically.

The second half was flatter, although Eamon got a couple of decent tackles in towards the end, pointing out that Micheal commissioned 140 different reports as Health Minister, and then delivered a good shot. "You're approaching this election on the basis of hard neck; you're trying to pretend that Fianna Fail wasn't in government at all for the last 14 years."

Eamon was perfectly correct of course. But Micheal's neck is harder than he thought.

The result? Micheal 1, though he was getting a bit too cocky near the final whistle, Eamon 0 for being too passive and allowing the ball to be taken.

Afterwards, both men were in agreement about one thing. They challenged Enda the Unready to one-on-one debates.

But the biggest surprise of the night was the ref, Vincent Browne. He was the model of restraint; there wasn't a peep out of him.