Eamonn Sweeney: A glimpse at another world
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The sound of the Champions League anthem playing as the teams took the field at The Showgrounds on Wednesday evening brought it home.
By the time the competition reaches its climax at the final on May 24 next in the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, both Sligo Rovers and Molde FK will be long gone. But the fans of both teams will have the considerable consolation of being part of the tapestry of the greatest club competition in any sport.
The final goal of this year's competition will be scored by a millionaire and will make headlines all over the world. The first goal, on the other hand, was scored in front of 2,600 fans in the first qualifying round for Armenian champions Shirak against San Marino kingpins Tre Penne by Ismael Beko Fofana, a 23-year-old striker from the Ivory Coast already on his fifth club. The cheers which greeted Fofana's goal in Shirak's Gyumri City Stadium won't have been as loud as the ones which greet the final contribution from someone like Messi, Ronaldo or Robben but they're animated by the same emotions. The numbers are different, the game is still the same.
And that's why I was so moved by seeing my club take their place on the Champions League stage. We may inhabit very different worlds but this year ourselves, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United will have belonged to the same footballing universe.
The world of a League of Ireland club isn't just vastly different from that of the continental giants, it's also considerably removed from that of last week's opponents. Molde FK might not be a household name but last season in the Champions League they were only beaten 2-1 over two legs by the Basel team which went on to defeat Spurs in the Europa League quarter-finals. In the group stages of the Europa League, they beat Stuttgart home and away.
The week before they came to The Showgrounds, Molde paid out £1.5m to sign a midfielder from Manchester United and bought back a player who they'd sold for €4m to Southampton a few months previously. Their squad contained nine full internationals, eight from Norway and Nigeria, countries ranked higher by FIFA than the Republic of Ireland and the other, centre-back Joona Toivio, who played for Finland when they drew 1-1 away to Spain in a World Cup qualifier in March.
Sligo Rovers, in other words, were facing a club who exist on an entirely different plane. They do so largely because of local billionaire Kjell Inge Rokke who has put €50m into Molde FK. Rovers, on the other hand, have just announced a €50,000 yield from the club's annual fundraising draw. A decent total in League of Ireland terms but the financial disparity shows just how difficult it is for a club like Rovers or Derry City or Drogheda United to compete at this level. In professional sport, you get what you pay for.
And what the likes of Molde and the teams who've visited The Showgrounds before them, Spartak Trnava, Vorskla Poltava, FC Bruges, all the way back to Red Star Belgrade in the '70s, get is football of both a higher standard and a different type than the League of Ireland fan is used to. Everyone is that couple of yards quicker than you expect, the tackles are that bit stronger, the striking of the ball that bit crisper.
Adding to the novelty of the experience is the fact that you're seeing football on the European rather than the British and Irish model. So basic ball control is better, players try to play through the middle at high speed and there's a more subtle quality of thought at play. No one ever just slings in a cross, the ball gets cut into the box at angles you're not accustomed to seeing. It's a vision of football from an entirely different tradition. You see it at international level in the Aviva of course but in the tight confines of a League of Ireland ground, the difference is that bit more striking.
Molde FK are not a first-rank European team but their players are guys who didn't quite make it at Deportivo La Coruna, Udinese and Manchester United while ours fell short at Millwall, Grimsby Town and Mansfield Town. It's obvious from early on, as it always it is in these games, that if the League of Ireland team lose concentration they'll get a doing. Bobble the ball off your foot and it'll be taken away from you, give away possession at one end and the opposition will create a chance at the other.
Yet our teams, considering the differences in technique, generally keep their end up. Derry did when losing 4-2 in Turkey to a Trabzonspor side which two years ago beat Inter Milan away from home and lost just one game out of six in the group stages of the Champions League to miss the knockout stages by a point. And Sligo did against Molde. A couple of players even seemed to relish the different challenge furnished by European opposition.
Lee Lynch, for example, a pint-sized 21-year-old midfielder laid off by West Brom a couple of years back, torments the Molde defence throughout. He yields nothing to the Norwegians in terms of technique, passes the ball quickly and intelligently, finds space down the right and looks every inch a player with the ability to follow Seamus Coleman across channel. Midfield general Joseph Ndo, 37 now, puts in a trojan hour-and-a-half as does centre-back Gavin Peers who must deal with the type of player who never turns up in the League of Ireland, striker Daniel Chima Chukwu.
He is a 22-year-old Nigerian, lightning quick, physically strong and unafraid to use that strength, with superb control and balance. Steaua Bucharest are on his trail at the moment and chances are he'll play for bigger clubs than them. When he explodes into action, home spectator anxiety is mixed with aesthetic appreciation.
Two minutes before the break, Rovers centre-back Evan McMillan slices a clearance and Chima Chukwu gets on the ball. He works himself into just enough space on the left edge of the box to curl an unstoppable shot into the far corner. It is a goal from another footballing world.
In the second half Rovers put Molde under a great deal of pressure thanks to Lynch, Ndo and sub Kieran Djilali who, in addition to the skill which got him into the first team at Crystal Palace as a teenager, has the kind of pace which makes the visitors worry. But there is no finisher in the Chima Chukwu mould to turn that pressure into an equaliser against a rearguard marshalled by £4m man Forren and experienced international Toivio.
Rovers lose little caste in their 1-0 defeat. They were simply up against a better team on better wages from a better league. Ndo is still a great League of Ireland player but as a younger man he played
top-flight football on the continent. The Molde team contains players in Chima Chukwu and midfielder Emanuel Ekpo who have all of Ndo's technique and are more than a decade younger than him.
Chances are that in the second leg Rovers and Derry will fall short against Molde and Trabzonspor. The brutal truth is that League of Ireland teams need the luck of the draw to advance in European competition. The gulf in resources is almost always too great to bridge. Yet that doesn't make the European experience unsatisfying. It is a glimpse at another world, one which the dreamers among us believe the League might someday inhabit. But the bottom line is that what the League of Ireland needs to improve is not structural reform or better facilities for supporters but money and lots of it.
Still who knows? Sometimes miracles can happen. Molde are managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who spent the first four years of his career with Clausenengen in the Norwegian Second and Third Divisions. Five years after leaving Clausenengen, he was scoring the winning goal for Manchester United against Bayern Munich in the final of the very competition Molde and Rovers played in on Wednesday night.
After the final whistle went in the Showgrounds the little man walked across the pitch and joined his players in saluting the travelling Molde support. Someone helped a kid get over the fence and on to the pitch where he asked Solskjaer to sign his jersey. Solskjaer did so and then called over one of his players, handed him the kid's phone and had him take a picture of the Molde manager and the Sligo fan together.
It was a wonderful moment. And what it said was that, in the words of The Beatles, 'I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.'
The road from the Nou Camp to The Showgrounds might be a long one but it's part of the same journey.
Decades of toil gain final salute
A few weeks back I went to a terrific traditional music concert in Galway. The performers were largely the English-born children of Irish musicians who had emigrated in the 1940s and '50s and in some cases those musicians themselves.
I was struck by the excellence of the performances, from the likes of John Carty, Peter Carberry, the McCarthy sisters and Verena Commins, by the effort the émigrés had made to keep the music alive and by how generally ignored the experience of the Irish in Britain is. We fall over ourselves to pay homage to Irish-America, the glamour of JFK having something to do with that, but those who emigrated next door remain comparatively unappreciated.
So it goes with the GAA too. We seem to be forever hearing about GAA competitions in some Middle Eastern slave state or Mitteleuropean tax haven but the achievement of the British Council of the GAA in keeping hurling and football going in not just London but Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland goes largely unremarked. Yet it is an extraordinary achievement, not least because in the cities of England and Scotland it's almost impossible to replicate the parochial ties and traditions which are the GAA's main strength at home. The GAA in Britain is always playing against the wind.
That's why today will see one of the great Connacht finals. Not from a competitive view because it's probable that Mayo will beat London out the gap and that the game will be over as a contest before half-time. But because you can hardly think of a more fitting tribute to the generations of exiles who've kept the GAA alive in London than the presence of their county football team in a provincial final. Unless it was the presence of the county hurling team in this year's All-Ireland senior championship which they qualified for by winning last year's Christy Ring Cup.
The GAA in Britain also seems to be going from strength to strength at grassroots level. Last year they held their first All-Britain underage competition and from July 26-28 they'll be running the second one for under eights up to minor level, having snagged O'Neills and ESB as sponsors.
Speaking from personal experience, as a young Irishman in London I was greatly cheered by some fine days out in Ruislip. Yet I can only imagine what today's game can mean to the GAA people across the Irish Sea. I hope the GAA here appreciates the work that's being done in Britain given that their refusal to allow the team which faces Mayo today to play any warm-up games before the Connacht championship suggested they might not always have the best interests of London at heart.
Yet here they are in Castlebar today. And hopefully when the honours are handed out at the end of the season, people might keep in mind the very special achievement of London manager Paul Coggins. When he took over, London hadn't won a Connacht championship game in over 30 years. Now they've won two which makes them, whatever happens today, deserving finalists. They're right up there with Dublin and Limerick hurlers as one of the teams of the summer.
The crack will be good in Castlebar when London come to town.
Athletics losing in race against drugs
If athletics wants to see its future, it just needs to look at the Tour de France. Here we have Chris Froome giving a performance which in previous decades would have seen him hailed as an all-time great. And all most people want to talk about is whether he's on drugs or not.
There's not a smidgin of proof that he is, but given the way many people of good faith were conned for years by Lance Armstrong, it's not surprising there's a general reluctance to immediately hail Froome as the harbinger of a glorious new era of drug-free cycling.
Athletics looks to be in a similarly unhappy state after the positive tests for Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay which follows that of Veronica Campbell-Brown. These three athletes have 26 Olympic and World Championship medals between them, while Powell and Gay are previous holders of the world 100m record. Gay holds the fastest 100m time this year with Powell two places behind him.
Those positive tests for the stimulant oxilofrene, in the case of Powell, and Gay, and for a banned diuretic in the case of Campbell-Brown, will further tarnish next month's World Championships in Moscow. Though maybe Russia is the most fitting venue for the championships given that there are currently 44 athletes from that country serving drug bans. And with evidence suggesting an organised doping programme among Turkey's elite runners, athletics suddenly looks as rotten as it's ever been.
How clean would a race including not just Gay and Powell but twice-banned drug cheat Justin Gatlin have been? After their tests Gatlin said that he "didn't have any worries about the credibility of the sport."
Which is big of him considering that were he to win the 100m next month, which is possible if Usain Bolt has an off-day, the aforementioned credibility would be in the dustbin altogether.
With another previously banned cheat LaShawn Merritt favourite to win the 400m in Moscow, that podium could have more old druggies on it than than the main stage at Glastonbury.