Tuesday 17 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'We're behind Liechtenstein, Albania, North Macedonia and Moldova. League of Ireland clubs are Eurotrash'


'Even allowing for fluctuations of form and differences in tactics, the difference between Pat Hoban (above) home and Hoban abroad is telling'. Photo: Eoin Noonan
'Even allowing for fluctuations of form and differences in tactics, the difference between Pat Hoban (above) home and Hoban abroad is telling'. Photo: Eoin Noonan
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Highway Patrolman may be Bruce Springsteen's most moving song. It's the story of the title character Joe Roberts, and his tearaway brother Frankie. Joe loves his brother and makes excuses for him but deep down he knows, "Frankie ain't no good."

The League of Ireland is my Frankie. When I write about it I know what Joe means when he says, "when it's your brother sometimes you look the other way." I agree with him that when "a man turns his back on his family he ain't no friend of mine."

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All the same, I know this League I've loved for so long is horribly flawed at a fundamental level. To be blunt about it, it just ain't no good. Why kid ourselves?

Dundalk's defeat by Slovan Bratislava on Tuesday night showed what a parlous state domestic football is in at present. Dundalk are overwhelmingly dominant in the League of Ireland. They appear to be heading for a fifth title in six seasons and their financial resources and strength in depth outstrip those of their rivals by a huge margin.

Slovan were hardly the most fearsome of opponents. The Slovakian champions were knocked out of this year's Champions League by Sutjeska Niksic of Montenegro, who last week exited the Europa League after losing both legs of their tie against Linfield. It's five seasons since they reached the competition group stages and even then they lost all six games there. They only held a 1-0 lead after the first leg.

Yet this distinctly average outfit from Europe's 31st-ranked league travelled to Tallaght and beat Dundalk 3-1. All four Irish teams have been knocked out of the Europa League before the play-off round. Luxembourg, Armenia, Northern Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Kazahkstan will all have representatives at that stage, but we won't.

When Dundalk lost their Champions League second qualifying round tie 4-1 on aggregate to Qarabag there was some talking up of that opposition's strength. But the Azerbajian champs were knocked out in the next round of the competition by APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus. Cork City were knocked out by Progres Niederkorn from Luxembourg while St Pat's also lost first time out to Swedish side Norkopping.

Shamrock Rovers were the League's best performers by some distance, but nonetheless went out in Europa League qualifying round two against Apollon Limassol of Cyprus. It has been a poor European campaign for Irish clubs. A League currently ranked 37th out of 55 in Europe looks likely to slip even further at the conclusion of this season.

This is nothing new. Last season only six leagues performed worse in European competition than the League of Ireland. We're only as high as we are overall because the multi-season nature of the rankings means they still reflect Dundalk's magnificent, and wholly untypical, Europa League run in the 2016-'17 season.

There has been some wildly optimistic talk about next season's new format second division Europa League giving League of Ireland clubs a chance to make eye-catching runs. But only the 15 leading leagues will be in the top flight. There will be many stronger leagues than ours represented in the new competition.

Fantasies about overcoming the Danish, Swiss, Serbian and Swedish leagues seem ill-founded when at the moment our league lags behind those of Liechtenstein, Albania, North Macedonia and Moldova. League of Ireland clubs are Eurotrash.

That doesn't mean people shouldn't support the competition. There is still decent entertainment to be found there. But it does mean that people like myself who constantly exhort you to sample the local fare should show a little humility. A glimpse at foreign stands during the annual League of Ireland odysseys reveals that few leagues at our level pack in the crowds.

It's time to stop making exaggerated claims for the League of Ireland. Every Ireland manager is told he must show his face at domestic fixtures and keep an eye on the players there with a view to elevating them to the senior squad.

Jack Byrne, easily the best player in the League, is in the initial Irish squad for the forthcoming game against Switzerland but will have to play at a higher level before he can seriously be considered for competitive action.

There are persistent complaints that X or Y home-based player deserves an international call-up. That's just nonsense. Results like Tuesday's show that League of Ireland football doesn't merit consideration by an international manager. Remember the huge fuss when Graham Burke of Shamrock Rovers got a cap last year against the USA and scored a goal? Two weeks later he signed for Preston amid much ballyhoo.

Now after a spell on loan to Gillingham and three goals in 27 games Burke has been loaned back to Shams. His current struggles show how League of Ireland form can be absurdly overestimated and why calls for international recognition should be put on hold until we see how players do abroad.

So, even more strikingly, does the story of Pat Hoban. Last season the Dundalk striker hit 29 goals in the League of Ireland, the highest total in 43 years. In 2014 he'd been top scorer with 20 goals and this season he again leads the way.

But after Hoban left Dundalk in 2014 to join Oxford United he played 65 games in League Two and 12 in the National League and scored a total of seven goals. Even allowing for fluctuations of form and differences in tactics, the difference between Hoban home and Hoban abroad is telling.

The English system seems a pretty good one for judging the merit of Irish players. We live next door to one of the world's great leagues. Making a career in any of its four divisions is, given the competition, a fine and sometimes under-rated achievement.

The League of Ireland is full of players who've either never got the call to go cross-channel or who couldn't make it over there. Few players with a guaranteed gig in League Two would throw it over to join a club here, other then for personal reasons. The average annual wage in League Two is £40,000 which is considerably higher than that in the League of Ireland where most clubs don't pay their players during the three-month close season.

There was huge indignation four years ago when Roddy Collins claimed that then Luton Town manager John Still had described that year's FAI Cup final as being below League Two standard. Cue offence and listing of home based players who would apparently have no problem shining in the Championship.

The truth is that League of Ireland players with the ability to make it in the Championship would be in the Championship. What would keep them here? You get what you pay for and the lack of money means the League of Ireland will only ever be a consolation prize for an ambitious player.

It did produce Seamus Coleman and James McClean but it's 10 years since the former left Sligo and eight since the latter departed Derry. Of the most touted prospects in recent years, Richie Towell is with Salford City in League Two, Daryl Horgan with Hibernian in the Scottish Premier Division and Sean Maguire with Preston in the Championship.

These are all respectable enough outcomes but all three stood out a mile when they were at home. None have become first-choice internationals. Of the 14 players who played for Ireland against Denmark in the European Championship qualifiers, only three had played in the League of Ireland. Its role as a nursery is overstated.

I can see why someone like Brian Kerr supports calls for an All-Ireland League. But the proposal seems poorly thought out to me. I don't see how joining with an equally ailing league across the border will make any real difference. I'm always suspicious of any business proposal which 'has to be done right now or we'll miss our chance.' And I don't believe in the notion that doing something is always better than doing nothing.

But Kerr, and others like him, are acting out of exasperation. The years go by and nothing changes for the League of Ireland. It's crippled by a lack of money because rich Irishmen would prefer to invest in cross-channel teams than those at home.

Who can blame them? England is where the prestige is and always will be. It would be an enormous achievement and require massive work over many years for the League of Ireland to rise 20 places in the UEFA rankings. But even then we'd only be where the Swiss League is now. Would the hordes really desert Manchester United and Liverpool to follow a Dublin version of Young Boys Berne or a Basel based in Cork?

It may well be that there's no solution to the problems of the League of Ireland because it's simply suffering the inevitable fate of a small league next door to the world's wealthiest one.

James Joyce wrote that Irish art was "the cracked looking glass of a servant." That would make a pretty good symbol for the League of Ireland. But the crack is nearly gone out of it at this stage.

Cork illuminated by greatness as legends who thrived against all odds leave fans in raptures

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Shane Healy was aiming to break the world over 50s 3000m record in Cork. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

I saw greatness at the Cork City Sports. Luvo Manyonga is the world long jump champion but he's a lot more besides. His comeback from a crystal meth habit which could have killed him is one of the great sporting rags to riches stories of our time.Yet it was hard to square the tales of addiction and poverty with the supremely relaxed young man who enraptured the crowd at the CIT Track on Wednesday night. The 28-year-old South African didn't just live up to his billing by producing a world class performance, he also put on one hell of a show.

Facing the crowd and getting them to clap in time with him, Manyonga suddenly stopped and bellowed, "come on" like a cross between a rock star greeting a new city and a Pentecostal preacher exhorting his flock towards new heights.

Happy with the increase in noise, he smiled and started to sprint towards the pit. As he took off, the impression was of a spring being uncoiled, his huge and elegant power in flight bringing to mind stories of how he used to entertain kids in his township by jumping over cars.

The crowd in the stadium stood up to experience the moment at its full velocity - 8.16m, a new stadium record. Four jumps later he brought it up to 8.20m, not just a meeting record but the longest jump ever seen in Ireland. It looked effortless.

Job done, Manyonga saw a kid coming towards him looking for an autograph. He gave him the autograph, took off the vest he'd used in the competition and handed that to him too. When a woman approached him for a selfie he took extreme care to make sure the optimum angle was achieved. All the autograph and selfie hunters were treated with the same consideration.

The look of sheer delight on their faces was mirrored on everyone else's. There is a beautiful grace about Manyonga which gives you the sense of being in the presence of something special. We loved him for the dangers he had passed. As my athletics-mad daughter said to me, "We have someone new to follow at the World Championships."

There is something legendary about the story of Luvo Manyonga. So too with the story of Shane Healy. He was the plucky youngster brought up in an orphanage, who left school at 13, slept rough in Europe and the USA, took up running at the age of 22 and six years later made the 1500m semi-finals at the 1996 Olympics.

Now he's back. In June he broke the world over 50s mile record and in Cork he was going for the 3000m mark. In a top-class senior international race, the 51-year-old was at the tail of the field but few in the crowd paid attention to what was happening at the front. All eyes were on the guy at the back and no runner got a louder cheer than Healy did as he neared the end of each lap.

Most people probably didn't even know his story. What they were reacting to was the sight of someone unmistakably putting every fibre of his being into trying to break new ground. At half-way the record seemed to be within his grasp and we imagined what it would be like to witness it.

But with two laps left it was clear it had slipped away. The applause only grew. Now it felt like we were helping him home. He was 11 seconds off the record at the end but 8.49.71 at the age of 51 is quite something. As he passed in front of the stands and saluted the crowd I knew this would not be the last we would see of Shane Healy and world records.

So we went out into the Cork night, warmed by the thought that a meeting which has never been short of great moments had produced two of its very best. A 28-year-old South African and a 51-year-old Irishman, both of whom knew what it's like to not just compete but live against the odds, had touched our lives with magic.

On the way home Van Morrison sang, "Didn't I come to bring you a sense of a wonder in the flame." It never sounded more right.

The Last Word

Twelve months ago the sight of New Zealand misfiring in the Rugby Championship might have been viewed as a huge boost to Ireland’s hopes of World Cup victory. Weren’t we the All Blacks’ biggest rivals?

Now the fact of South Africa winning the Championship for the first time since 2009 seems far more significant for Joe Schmidt’s team. When Ireland were seeded to meet them in the quarter-finals the Springboks were in rag order. An all-time record 57-0 defeat by the All Blacks in September 2017 was followed by a 38-3 loss to Ireland two months later.

Yet the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as head coach the following February has changed everything. The former Munster coach has masterminded not just the Championship victory but a first win over the All Blacks in New Zealand since 2009 and a Test series triumph against England.

Only three of the team which started against New Zealand in 2017 began the 46-13 win over Argentina last weekend which secured South Africa the title. Among the players Erasmus has capped for the first time are the impressive quartet of flanker Kwagga Smith, centre Lukhanyo Am and wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi. Watch them go in Japan.

* * * * *

For a sport with such a presence in the nation’s schools, basketball struggles to garner headlines. But a remarkable group of young women are doing their best to change that. Two years ago they took a silver medal in Division B of the European under 18 Championships and became the first Irish team ever to secure promotion to the top flight.

Last Sunday they achieved a similar feat when winning a nail-biting bronze medal and promotion play-off 60-57 against Great Britain in Pristina. Star of the show was captain Claire Melia who was named on the team of the tournament, as she was back in 2017 .

Making her achievement even more impressive this time around is the fact that the Monasterevin native spent last year out of action with a ruptured cruciate ligament. Kiltimagh’s Dayna Finn is also one to look out for, the Mayo senior footballer top-scored with 20 points in the upset win over Croatia which brought Ireland into the semis.

* * * * *

One of the most irritating features of Cork football’s recent slump has been the insistence of outsiders that ‘they only care about hurling down there’. That would come as a surprise to the many parts of the Rebel County where football is number one and where evidence of a revival comes as a huge relief.

The magnificent under 20 All-Ireland final victory over Dublin was followed last weekend by a terrific All-Ireland minor semi-final win over Mayo.

Full-forward Conor Corbett from Clyda Rovers, who hit 2-3 from play, is an exceptional talent, as is centre half-forward Patrick Campbell, the latest to come off the conveyor belt at Nemo Rangers. Telling the Nemo faithful that Cork city is purely hurling territory might elicit an interesting response.

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