Saturday 20 January 2018

Europa final gives us chance to impress

IT may not quite be the pairing hoped for in these parts -- Porto and Braga -- but the fact remains that there is a major European final in Dublin this week. It's a big night for the FAI, a chance to put their best foot forward on a big stage, and maybe even a dress rehearsal for more big European nights to come.

It's a big night too for TV3, the host broadcaster, a chance for it to show what it can do. "It's an important milestone for TV3 alright," says Niall Cogley, who is the Event Director for the station.

The logistics of the operation are huge. TV3 will use 40 cameras on the night; 33 match cameras to provide live footage of the game across Europe, plus a further seven for its own use. There are in the region of 60 visiting broadcasters, plus a host more taking the feed but not attending. The audience will be in the tens of millions. Last year, more people watched the Europa League final than the Champions League final.

The absence of a Premier League team in the final is not dampening expectations. "We got into it with our eyes wide open," says Cogley. "It's a knock-out competition so we weren't putting the house on Liverpool or the likes getting to the final."

Wednesday in Dublin will be a unique day, with the Queen of England in town and upwards on 20,000 visiting fans for the match.

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If Leinster win next Saturday's Heineken Cup final against Northampton, one welcome by-product will be the elevation of Connacht to the premier club competition next season. This has brought about a flurry of speculation about where the Cinderella province might play the ensuing glamour fixtures.

Pearse Stadium seemed to be ruled out last week with Galway County Board chairman Gerry Larkin saying he'd love to help and everything but there's nothing the board can do because they could only be given permission to open the gates for rugby by Congress and there won't be another Congress before the Heineken Cup begins.

Last week we also heard that Dublin footballers are preparing for the championship by training at London Irish rugby club. The juxtaposition of these two bits of news would have seemed heavy-handed if used as a plot device in a work of fiction but it dramatically underscored the difference between the GAA's attitude to sporting ecumenism and that of most other sporting bodies.

Larkin sounded sincere when he said that he had no problem with rugby being played in Pearse Stadium. But right now the GAA's attitude makes it look mean and small. It's not, but the sooner these vestiges of the Ban are cleared away the better.

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In March 1989, George Bush Senior was President of the USA, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of England, and there were still countries called East Germany, Yugoslavia and the USSR. And 18-year-old Noel Bailie was making his Linfield debut, in a game away to Ballymena United.

Two weeks ago, defender Bailie (40) played his final league game as Linfield defeated Portadown 1-0. Linfield's victory in this year's Irish League brings Bailie's haul of domestic honours to 10 league titles and seven cups. The Portadown match was his 1,013th for the club which probably makes him the greatest one-club man in world soccer. Last year German magazine Sports Bild described him as "the world's most loyal footballer". Bailie's achievement is all the more remarkable considering that he held down a full-time job throughout his career. Fair play.

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We've had our fair share of bizarre refereeing decisions here, but few can compete with a recent incident in a soccer match in New Zealand.

With full-time approaching, Waihopai led Queens Park 1-0 when referee Phil Bulling awarded a penalty to the latter. After protests from the Waihopai players, he changed his mind and blew the final whistle. The Waihopai team left the field only for Bulling to change his mind again and allow Queens Park to take the penalty. With no Waihopai players on the pitch, striker Jonny Cox slotted into the empty net for a 1-1 draw.

The incident brought to mind the 1987 NFL quarter-final when Dublin and Cork finished level. Cork refused to play extra-time and when they had left the field, the referee threw in the ball and a fine Dublin move ended with Barney Rock scoring the winning goal into an empty net.

John Greene and Eamonn Sweeney

Sunday Indo Sport

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