Opinion

Monday 17 December 2018

Preston's Irish contingent battling for play-off place as Championship reaches thrilling climax

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Sean Maguire. Photo: PA
Sean Maguire. Photo: PA
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The final day of The Championship is one of the great treats of the football season. A mad scramble ensues from the moment the games kick off together at 12.30 as promotion spots, play-off places and relegations are decided. The potential fates of teams change throughout the afternoon and the tension is palpable as sometimes the entire meaning of a season lasting 69 hours, plus about six of injury-time, changes in the last five or ten minutes.

In the thick of it today will be a team who've attracted a lot of Irish attention over the past couple of years.

Preston North End loomed large on our football radar after they first signed Dundalk European heroes Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle and then swooped for Cork City's goalscoring sensation Seán Maguire.

Maguire has enjoyed a decent season with Preston where he's top scorer with ten league goals but Horgan, who's struggled to make the team all season, and Boyle, who's been loaned to Doncaster Rovers, won't figure in today's home match against Burton Albion. However, key roles will be played by a pair of under-rated Irishmen who've been at the heart of an unlikely promotion push by a team largely overlooked in the pre-season previews.

Alan Browne's departure from Cork City received nothing like the same attention that greeted Maguire's, yet he has been quietly building a reputation for himself. Still just 23, the midfielder has already amassed over 150 appearances in League One and the Championship and it was his winner last week at Sheffield United that kept Preston's promotion hopes alive. Two weeks previously, he'd hit a crucial winner against QPR.

When Manchester City's Greg Cunningham won three caps at the age of 19 under Giovanni Trapattoni, a long international career seemed in store for the Galwayman. It hasn't turned out that way for Cunningham; there's been one cap since, in 2013, and a couple of cruel injuries at crucial times. Yet he's still just 27 and has had a good season in a Preston side which also includes winger Callum Robinson, who last month declared for Ireland on the strength of his Monaghan-born grandmother after a long underage international career with England.

To make the play-offs, Preston need to beat Burton and they also need Derby County to lose their home match against Barnsley, who are locked in a relegation battle with Burton, Bolton Wanderers, Birmingham City and Reading.

Should Derby prevail the nationally minded among us can take consolation from the fact that among their number is that most genuine of warriors, Richard Keogh, as well as Alex Pearce, who's scored a couple of goals for us against eternal friendly opponents Oman.

Meanwhile, Cyrus Christie will be hoping to help the Fulham team he joined in February from Middlesbrough gain automatic promotion to the Premier League. Fulham, who visit Birmingham, are a point behind Cardiff who host Reading, home of the nationality fluid Liam Kelly. Unlike Maguire, Browne and Cunningham, Christie will hope he doesn't end up in the play-offs where Aston Villa, thanks in part to an outstanding season from Bandon's Conor Hourihane, will probably meet Middlesbrough, who'll have Darren Randolph between the sticks.

The Championship is usually viewed as a means to the end of reaching the Premier League where riches lie in store. Yet it is an impressive competition in its own right with only two leagues in Europe, the Premier and the Bundesliga, attracting a higher spectator total last season. The average home gate of 20,119 compares favourably with the 22,164 of Serie A.

The failure of Horgan, one of the most gifted individuals to have emerged from the League of Ireland in decades, to thrive shows that making it in the second flight of English football still remains a considerable achievement. He may take encouragement from the season enjoyed by Richie Towell who, loaned by Brighton to Rotherham United, has contributed to that club's run to the League One play-offs. An appearance in a Wembley play-off final would answer at least some of the 'whatever happened to him' talk which has dogged the Dubliner since his move from Dundalk.

Today though it's all about The Championship.

It's very tribal and unsophisticated of me but this afternoon my fingers will be crossed for Preston, their Kilkennyman, their Corkman and their Galwayman.

The Last Word: Kiprop positive test a major blow for Kenya

The emergence of the Kenyans to dominate world distance running is one of the great romantic stories of athletics. Ever since Amos Biwott, Kip Keino and Naftali Temu made the breakthrough with a gold, silver and bronze at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, the East African country has produced some of the sport's greats.

What made the achievements of Rudisha and Ngugi, of Kemboi and Cheruiyot all the more appealing was the back story. In a world where the media image of Africa is of a dystopia bedevilled by disease, poverty and war, the Kenyan athletes showed another face of the continent.

Yet in recent years it's been impossible to ignore the cloud overhanging Kenyan athletics. There have been several high-profile doping offences which suggested Kenya is one of the sport's worst offenders. But the news Asbel Kiprop has tested positive for EPO may deal the final blow to our illusions about Kenyan running.

Kiprop was one of their very greatest, a three-time World and once Olympic champion over 1,500m. His positive test is as shocking in terms of Kenyan athletics as Ben Johnson's was to the world of sprinting. It's a sad time for one of the world's great sporting traditions.

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There is just one book which I have reread constantly over the years. It's been a good friend to me and I'm on my third battered copy. The book is called Running Is Easy and it was written by Bruce Tulloh who was a cult figure back in the 1960s when he won the European 5,000m title in his bare feet.

Running Is Easy was the book that set me jogging after the birth of my first daughter 16 years ago. His style was friendly, sensible and inspirational in an understated English manner. My commitment has waxed and waned and the weight has fluctuated but I always find my way back and when I do I know that if I follow Bruce's 'First Steps' advice I'll soon be back in the groove.

I often intended to write to Bruce and thank him for the help. Or, to be more accurate, I had a fantasy that some day we might bump into each other and I'd thank him in person. That won't happen now because he died last week at the age of 82 of cancer. Which goes to show you should thank people when you have the chance. Anyway, thanks Bruce. You made my life a lot better.

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In the rush to deride Real Madrid's home performance against Bayern Munich, their achievement in qualifying for a third Champions League final in a row has been overlooked. It's 42 years since Bayern Munich became just the third team in European Cup, as it was then, history to complete a hat-trick.

They were outplayed in the 1976 final by St Etienne but won 1-0. The previous year Leeds dominated possession, were denied a stonewall penalty and had a goal disallowed before Bayern struck late to win 2-0. And the year before that it took a goal in injury-time of extra-time to give Bayern a final draw against Atletico Madrid before they won the replay.

The truly great teams always seem to ride their luck.

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