Sunday 17 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Don't miss Maguire in action and the chance to say you saw him before he was famous

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Sean Maguire. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean Maguire. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

When I saw him playing in the League of Ireland. Man, the pleasure I get out of saying that about an international player, about Coleman or McClean or Hoolahan or further back Roy Keane or Paul McGrath or Ronnie Whelan. It's like being one of those dudes who saw U2 in the Dandelion Market or one of the lads who once gave JP McManus an apocryphal tip when he was on his uppers.

Forgive me for wallowing in the sheer hedonistic joy of it. Following the League of Ireland can sometimes be a tough and thankless task so I think its fans are entitled to make the most out of any advantages which accrue.

Anyway, when I saw Sean Maguire, the next big star in Irish football, playing for Sligo Rovers in The Showgrounds three years ago he was terrible. Cat altogether, to use a technical term popular in my native North West. In fact I don't think I'd ever seen a young striker have such a terrible time. The ball hopped off him, he scuffed his shots, he couldn't buy a goal, idiots laid into him on social media.

Maguire struggled so badly that when I happened to meet someone who'd seen him play in Waterford I asked him if the player could really be as bad as he looked. "I can't work out what's happening in Sligo," replied your man, "Because he was electric in Waterford, just brilliant. He was as good as I've ever seen."

That made sense. Maguire was actually on loan to Sligo from West Ham United who'd signed him on the strength of those thrilling performances in Waterford. But it never came good for him in Sligo and he departed with one goal from 18 games. He went to Accrington Stanley on loan and did a bit better but when West Ham let him go only League of Ireland clubs were interested. He had a stint at Dundalk and that didn't work out either.

Now the one thing I will say about Maguire's time at Sligo was that he seemed very brave, both physically and mentally. Form had deserted him but he kept working, kept making the runs, kept getting into the right positions and taking on the shots when the opportunity presented itself. Paradoxically this probably made things worse for him in the short run. No-one, except perhaps an out-of-form goalie, is as exposed as an out-of-form striker. And if, like young Maguire, he refuses to hide, he leaves himself wide open to criticism. But that refusal to hide showed the character which eventually carried the kid from Castlecomer through.

Fifteen months ago John Caulfield signed Maguire for Cork City. Things clicked. He scored on his debut, he scored twice on his home debut, he scored three goals in Europe and terrified some very good defenders, he ended the season as league top scorer and hit the winner in the FAI Cup final.

This season Maguire looks even better. He's hit seven goals in his first six league games as Cork have compiled a 100 per cent record and finally look equipped to wrest the title from Dundalk. I spoke to a guy, a GAA man, who's recently seen his first ever soccer matches thanks to his kids. They love it at Turners Cross. Your man is wondering where League of Ireland has been all his life. Above all he raves about Sean Maguire. "You'd have to see him. The speed and the control and the skill. He's like something you'd see over in England."

He is. And over in England is where you will be seeing him before too long. I also suspect he'll follow another former Cork star Daryl Horgan into the Irish team. At which stage it will all look to have been pre ordained for this gifted youngster. Yet though he's still just 22 Sean Maguire has already had to endure a long spell where he must have wondered if he was ever going to get the chance to make it. That he's had the character to come through that harrowing spell is in a way the most impressive thing about him.

For the moment he's doing his thing in the League of Ireland. He is just brilliant, an absolute wonder to witness in full flight. So catch him at your nearest ground when you get the chance and in a couple of years you can be the one saying 'When I saw him in the League of Ireland.'

I'm telling you, it feels really, really good.

The Last Word: Casual punters set for racing's big occasion

The Grand National has a special magic. Cheltenham may be the greatest national hunt festival but there is a sizable proportion of the public for whom Saturday's big event at Aintree is THE race, the only one they watch and sometimes even bet on.

Betting on the National is unlikely to give the casual punter a taste for gambling. The last five winners have gone on off at odds of 25/1 or greater and only one outright favourite has won since 2000.

So while Definitly Red, Vieux Lion Rouge and One For Arthur head the betting, this year's renewal looks as open as ever. Mouse Morris ended a nine-year wait for an Irish winner last year when Rule The World triumphed and his 2015 Irish Grand National winner, Thunder and Roses, looks generously enough priced at 20/1. Recent Foxhunters Chase runner-up Wonderful Charm and Gordon Elliott's Roi Des Francs are other interesting outsiders. But it's the National. You know yourself.

* * * * *

Colin Kaepernick began a new wave of protest by African-American sportsmen when he refused to stand for the US National Anthem last year. But right now it seems like any protests the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback plans on making next season will take place away from the football field as he finds himself without a team.

Kaepernick didn't set the world alight in last year's NFL and he's not the player he was when steering the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl where they lost narrowly to the Baltimore Ravens. But he was on an awful team, the 49ers were 2-14 for the season, placing them 31st out of the 32 league sides. Rating 17th of the league's quarterbacks was a pretty honourable effort from the big man.

There seems to be a reluctance among teams to sign Kaepernick. Why? Childish orange asshole Donald Trump has no doubt that his criticisms of Kaepernick has a lot to do with it. At a rally last week Trump smirkingly quoted newspaper reports to that effect, no doubt oblivious to the fact that this constitutes a much worse indictment of American sport than anything Kaepernick could come up with.

* * * * *

The IRFU's refusal to extend Donnacha Ryan's Irish contract is a slap in the face to a great servant of Irish rugby. After being drafted into a misfiring and listless Irish pack in the Six Nations, Ryan produced a series of outstanding performances. It beggars belief that he is now effectively being declared surplus to requirements.

Ryan may be 33 but he is only four days older than Jamie Heaslip, the extension of whose contract to 2019 was greeted with great fanfare by both the IRFU and media alike. The decision will cost Munster the Tipperary man's services as the lack of a central contract leaves him no choice but to join Racing 92.

It isn't just Ryan who's been slapped in the face, Munster have been too.

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