Appreciate Robbie Keane while you can, you’ll miss him when he’s gone

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Following Padraig Harrington’s recent, surprising, win at the Honda Classic, the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show on Today FM asked their listeners to pick ‘Ireland’s greatest sportsperson‘.

Debates of this nature don’t tend to achieve a whole lot, and comparing different sports isn’t an exact science, but they still provide an insight into the tastes and interests of Irish sports fans. The listening public settled on jockey A.P. McCoy in first place, ahead of Brian O’Driscoll, Harrington, Katie Taylor and former cyclist Sean Kelly.

The absence of any footballer was noticeable, if not unexpected. Though the perception of the Republic of Ireland team has improved since Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane replaced Giovanni Trapattoni, the side are currently in a dogfight to qualify for Euro 2016 and the ‘Ole Ole’ brigade have seemingly moved on since the harsh realities of international football became apparent.

If one footballer was to make a list like the one on Ian Dempsey’s show, most would most likely opt for either Roy Keane or Paul McGrath. Any mention of Robbie Keane would probably be met with raised eyebrows and a series of ‘boyhood clubs’ jokes. Our site conducted a Sports Personality of the 2014 poll and Katie Taylor won, with 32.8% of the 2,665 votes, while Keane received five.

That’s five votes, not five per cent. The Ireland captain finished second last, with 0.19 per cent of votes.

Puyol and Robbie Keane 16/6/2002 DIGITALIt’d be wrong to single out some of twenty-nine others who finished ahead of Keane, but it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest most Irish sports fans would fail to recognise a few of them if they walked by them in the street.

In 2014, Keane won MLS, was named the league’s best player and scored the winning goal in the cup final, while also scoring goals for Ireland. A failure to recognise the player’s achievements conveys a greater malaise about Ireland’s record goalscorer, and perhaps public perception of football in general.

However, without seeking to enter a ‘my sport is better than yours’ trivial debate (can’t we all just get along?), the failure to contextualise and appreciate Robbie Keane’s commitment to the Irish national team, his ability and achievements is dumbfounding.

And it won’t be long before he’s a former Irish international.

Robbie Keane of  Ireland celebratesSince making his international debut in March 1998, Keane has scored 65 goals in 138 internationals and is currently the twelfth highest goalscorer in the history of international football. The only Europeans to have scored more are Miroslav Klose, Gerd Muller, Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis.

Klose and Muller are World Cup winners, while the latter two played for one of the greatest sides ever, the Hungary team of the early 1950s. Puskás even played for Spain for a while.

Keane never had the luxury of switching to another international side, or team mates of that quality to set him up, yet he’s consistently scored goals across three decades of international football. Four months before his 35th birthday, Keane remains Ireland’s best chance to score a goal, yet he’s become something of a punch-line, for many, about ‘boyhood clubs’.

In addition to not adequately recognising the Dubliner’s achievements, it could be argued there’s never been a proper appreciation of just how good a footballer Keane was, and still remains.

Keane’s not a natural athlete, hence the trademark rolly-tumble goal celebration, but what he’s always possessed is great finishing ability, intelligence and wonderful movement. Keane’s 65 international goals are testament to his quality as a player, not some by-product of always starting for Ireland and beefing up his tally against cannon fodder. The striker has scored almost every key international Irish goal for over a decade.

From the last-minute World Cup goals against Spain and Germany to goals away to the Netherlands, France, and Italy, it’d be unfair to ever label him a flat-track bully. Anyway, if it was that easy to even score against the perceived minnows, the team wouldn’t still be reliant on Keane to score goals, and he wouldn’t be the top goalscorer to come from these islands.

Robbie Keane of the Republic of Ireland scores a dramatic penalty kickKeane’s movement alone deserves considerable merit, an aspect of his game his former manager Gordon Strachan was particularly impressed by. ‘Where did you learn your movement from?’ the then Coventry boss asked Keane, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’.

‘I dunno’ Keane replied. ‘I didn’t learn it off anyone, it must have been something that just came to me. It wasn’t like somebody came and grabbed me and said, “Do this, do that,” you know. In training you learn little things, different movements, like coming to get the ball and spinning off… It was just something I must have just had as a kid’.

Keane’s a street footballer, honing his skills playing football growing up on a housing estate Tallaght, where space is a valuable commodity.

The striker would’ve been pitted against bigger, stronger opponents, but football’s beauty lies that skill and spatial awareness make such physical qualities redundant. If we could somehow attach Shane Long’s legs to Keane’s brain, the Irish team post-Keane wouldn’t seem so bleak.

Wigan Athletic v Tottenham HotspurKeane’s best spell in club football was alongside Dimitar Berbatov, an equally cerebal player. The two struck up a wonderful partnership at Tottenham Hotspur, before departing for Liverpool and Manchester United respectively in 2008.

Keane’s record in the Premier League also deserves recognition and contextualising. The Dubliner scored 126 goals in the English top flight, the twelfth highest amount and ahead of players such as Didier Drogba, Nicholas Anelka and his soon to be LA Galaxy team-mate Steven Gerrard.

If an Irish player joining the Premier League now was to make 126 appearances in the English top flight, never mind scoring 126 goals, it would be seen as a considerable achievement.

Even Keane’s record in MLS seems strangely overlooked back home. Observers of the major European leagues may consider it a footballing backwater, but players with greater talent and significantly higher profiles, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, haven’t performed as well as ‘the unidentified fan’ in MLS.

Keane certainly hasn’t treated his time in LA as a semi-retirement gig.

460397826If one still doesn’t adequately appreciate Keane’s talent, or his considerable international achievements, then his commitment to the Irish team deserves merit.

In an era when the young Irish player of the year may end up playing for another country, and players seemingly treat international breaks as a nuisance, Keane consistently shows up when it’d be easier to stay at home, 5,000 miles away.

This isn’t an argument claiming Robbie Keane is Ireland’s greatest ever footballer or sports person, but more an examination of why he’s excluded from such debates, which lack obvious context.

Katie Taylor is the best in the world at what she does, it would be pure ignorance to dispute that and completely wrong. The Irish rugby team proved last weekend they are the best team in Europe and contenders for the World Cup, while Gaelic footballers and hurlers deserve considerable credit and admiration for their levels of dedication.

However, professional football is in a different stratosphere, in terms of competitiveness, to women’s amateur boxing, rugby and Gaelic games. 209 nations play international football, that’s more footballing nations than actual officially recognised countries, and, of those, 54 play in Europe, the most competitive and wealthiest football continent.

For Ireland to even be competitive is achievement, given that we are country with fewer playing resources and less developed infrastructure than a lot of those we come up against.

This isn’t an attempt to belittle other sports, but just a reminder to those who use Irish success in other sports as a tool to belittle the Irish team. Something that will likely happen if Ireland lose to Poland on Sunday, a week after the Irish Rugby team won the Six Nations.

Republic of Ireland v Gibraltar - EURO 2016 QualifierNo-one will ever better Robbie Keane’s goalscoring or appearance record for Ireland. As it becomes harder and harder for Irish players to break into teams across the water, it’s difficult to imagine anyone scoring more Premier League goals, let alone have a career spanning three decades.

And as football continues to be homogenised, we’re unlikely to see another street footballer like Keane again. Such players are becoming extinct, as academy clones continue to be mass produced.

Keane isn’t as polished as Brian O’Driscoll, as interesting as Roy Keane or as flawed as Paul McGrath. He’s just a footballer from Tallaght who’s had a brilliant career, and deserves suitable recognition. He should not be a punchline about having numerous boyhood clubs or for failing to be recognised by someone writing a picture caption in Los Angeles.

We’ll miss him when he’s gone, and, if Ireland don’t record a positive result against Poland on Sunday, that might not be too far away.

Eric Cantona and the most important kick in Manchester United’s history

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If you were to ask Manchester United fans what was the most important kick in the club’s history, most would give the same answer.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s injury time toe-poke against Bayern Munich in 1999. The striker’s touch won the club their first European Cup in 31 years, in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable.

However, Solskjaer’s finish never happens if Teddy Sheringham doesn’t turn in Ryan Giggs scuffed right foot shot minutes earlier. United would have already been eliminated if it weren’t for Roy Keane’s goal against Juventus. The Treble could have been shot down in flames if Patrick Vieira’s misplaced pass, in the FA Cup semi-final replay, lands anywhere other than the feet of Giggs.

The winger would not have went on his famous mazy run if Peter Schmeichel fails to save Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute penalty. One of the most successful seasons in football history hinged on numerous moments, so much so it’s difficult to pinpoint the most pivotal.

What’s in no doubt though is none of it would have been possible without Eric Cantona.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 26/5/1999

The Frenchman had retired two years previously, but was Manchester United’s most important player during the 1990s. The key that unlocked defences and titles, Cantona was the final piece in Alex Ferguson’s first great team and the catalyst for the all-conquering team of ’99.

When he signed from Leeds United in 1992, Ferguson said Cantona was: ‘the perfect player, in the perfect club, at the perfect moment’. However, their utopia was almost destroyed on this night 20 years ago, a night that, in many ways, would be the making of the club’s future successes.

To fully understand the context of the evening, one needs to get a sense of the type of team United were. The reigning Premiership and FA Cup holders were aggressive, arrogant and, at times, nasty.

United were not only capable of matching their opponents physically, they relished the prospect. The only comparable team is perhaps Don Revie’s Leeds team of John Giles, Billy Bremner and Norman ‘Bite yer legs’ Hunter. United were also the best football team in the country, albeit, in January ’95, one in patchy form.

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While this doesn’t explain Cantona’s Kung-Fu kick on Matthew Simmons, the 20-year-old who rushed 11 rows to the front of the stand to abuse the Frenchman, it does go some way to explaining how Cantona ended up leaping into the stands.

On January 25th 1995, Crystal Palace hosted United at Selhurst Park. A tight, tetchy first-half had seen strugglers Palace frustrate and contain United.

Defender Richard Shaw had spent the entire first-half kicking Cantona, much to the annoyance of the Frenchman and his manager, whose protests were ignored by referee Alan Wilkie. Three minutes into the second-half Cantona snapped, petulantly kicking his opponent and received a red card, his second of the season and fifth since arriving in England.

‘There’s the morning headline,’ Jon Champion said as Cantona turned down his collar and began walking towards the dressing room, past his impassive manager and alongside the baying crowd. The commentator had no idea what was about to happen would fuel months of morning headlines.

When the camera returned to Cantona, he frees himself from Norman Davies, the United kitman, hurdles the advertising hoarding, connects with a kick to Simmons’ chest, stumbles and throws two punches before both men are restrained. It was all over in seconds, but the story was just beginning.

By the time Cantona played again, on September 30th, he’d received and successfully appealed against a prison sentence. He’d fled and handed in a transfer request, lost the captaincy of the French national team, as United surrendered the league title to Blackburn Rovers and the FA Cup to Everton. All the while media hysteria took hold. Cantona’s act of hooliganism, against a hooligan, gave some license to turn him into an embodiment of all the game’s ills.

PALACE V MAN U

1995 was a bad time for English football. Less than a month after Cantona’s kick, England supporters rioted at Lansdowne Road. George Graham was sacked as Arsenal manager after it was discovered he’d accepted illegal payments in transfer deals. Yet, according to FA Chairman Graham Kelly, Cantona’s incident was ‘a stain on our game’.

Cantona’s act was a moment of madness, but some of the recrimination was drenched in xenophobia.

In 2015, foreign players dominate the English top-flight. Twenty years ago, a skilful, foreign player was a rare, and widely distrusted, novelty. English football was gradually emerging from the exile of the late ’80s, Sky Sports’ money was only beginning its osmosis and the game still creeping towards the product it would become.

There had never been a player like Cantona in England. A troubled reputation preceded him upon arrival on English shores. He’d spoke out against the corruption of Marseilles owner Bernard Tapie, thrown his jersey at his coach, a ball at a referee and called his former national team boss ‘a bag of shit’.

ERIC CANTONA MAN UTD

He was also a marvellous footballer, one of the most gifted of his generation and the key variable in the destination of each English league title during his time in the country.

Built like a heavyweight boxer, with the grace and balance of ballerina, Cantona’s spatial awareness, technique and power made him a formidable prospect. The nomadic striker found a home at Manchester United, a manager who would indulge his individuality and offer the perfect stage to fully express his considerable talent.

With his collar up, back straight and chest out, Cantona would stride onto the Old Trafford pitch. He was the player United fans had waited two decades for, the one to restore the club to the summit of English football, after 20 years of mediocrity, and the one they still sing about two decades later.

Cantona was voted PFA Player of the Year in 1994, so appreciation of his talent extended beyond Old Trafford. But, when things went wrong, as they did so dramatically 20 years ago today, a wider underlying distrust returned to the surface. The echo of ‘I told you so’ was deafening.

Pundits and commentators were largely in agreement; there could be no place for Cantona in English football. Mark Lawrenson, writing in the Irish Times, said ‘French arrogance’ was to blame for Cantona’s disposition. Former United player Bill Foulkes said: ‘Eric is French, they are different to us and he reacts differently’.

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Cantona’s house was besieged by photographers as some media outlets commissioned psychologists to help shine a light on his seemingly troubled mind. One newspaper sent reporters to Marseilles, in an attempt to unearth details from his childhood to help explain his actions. A television crew even followed him and his family on holiday.

All the while commercial interests were exploited. Sky Sports subscriptions increased in the immediate aftermath, helped by The Sun’s coverage of the event, with Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper devoting 12 pages to the incident the following day. Meanwhile Nike planned Cantona’s return, content that their product was on the front page of every newspaper.

United, trying to preempt the Football Association, banned Cantona for the remainder of the season and fined him two weeks wages. However, the FA then extended the ban by a further six months to the last day of September. The longest suspension imposed by the FA since two players were banned for life in the 1960s for match-fixing.

Cantona also received a two-week prison sentence, before successfully appealing and carrying out the required community service. By the time of his famous ‘Seagulls’ press conference in March ’95, public opinion was beginning to turn.

Eric Cantona Manchester United 1994

In addition to the wit of the Frenchman, details about Simmons and his actions emerged. The 20 year-old sold his story to The Sun and claimed he’d confronted Cantona to say: ‘That’s an early bath for you Mr Cantona’.

Witnesses said it was more likely: ‘Fuck off back to France, you French bastard’.

Simmons lost his job, some friends and family disowned him and he couldn’t even go into a pub without being provoked. In 2007, he said he’d been ‘a bit of a cretin’ in his younger years.

United had planned to ease Cantona’s exile with a series of practice matches. However, when the FA got word of it they reminded the club that their striker was banned from all footballing activity. Cantona was furious, leaving England for France and submitting a transfer request.

Inter Milan had long wanted to sign the Frenchman, were prepared to meet United’s valuation of £5 million and could increase Cantona’s wages fivefold.

Italy was still the apex of world football at the time. Cantona had the chance to escape the British press, start over again in a new country and such a move would have been in keeping with his nomadic career path. Yet, he stayed, saying: ‘morally, it would be impossible for me to leave after what the people there have done for me’.

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Ferguson’s initial reaction to the kung fu kick was he would have to sell Cantona. However, he almost instantly changed his mind, offering support and protection to his talisman. In his first autobiography, Roy Keane said: ‘I don’t think any other football man would have demonstrated the skill, resolve and strength that Alex Ferguson did managing the Cantona affair’. Cantona would stay and United fully reaped the benefits.

The Frenchman was incredible the following season as United overturned Newcastle’s 12-point lead and won the double. ‘There was a sense of a man inhabited by a kind of ferocious but controlled anger,’ the journalist Philippe Auclair said about Cantona’s performance. ‘A zealot bent on redressing an injustice and imposing a greater truth. Nothing would stand in his way’.

In the title run-in the score tended to be 1-0 to United, with Cantona getting the goal. The Frenchman’s redemption was complete with the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award, and the winning goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup final. The rebirth of English football and the appeal of Premier League was built on such dramatic storylines.

Eric Cantona holds aloft the trophy 11/5/1996

Within a year he was gone and United were left without their talisman, however the influence of Cantona, and the legacy he helped create, carried the team through to their greatest triumph.

It’s purely hypothetical, but if Cantona doesn’t vault the advertising hoarding at Selhurst Park, such glory may not have happened.

Cantona’s actions marked the end of Ferguson’s first great team as United finished the season empty-handed, hastening the renewal of the team and the emergence of the young players, who would form the nucleus of the Treble winning side.

A petulance had crept into Cantona’s game in the months leading up to his explosion at Selhurst Park. When he returned he was a more controlled, measured and focused presence. The striker’s influence on the ‘class of ’92’ was massive. At a time when going the pub after training was still a common practice for English teams, Cantona stayed behind and trained with Beckham, Giggs and Paul Scholes.

Cantona broke the mould and was the key factor in the destination of each league title during his time in England. By the time United had a worthy foe capable of challenging their domestic dominance, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, he’d helped establish a title-winning pedigree.

During his time United developed the winning aura that would carry the club through until end of Alex Ferguson’s tenure, a winning habit, that fuelled the club in their Treble season.

If Cantona doesn’t hurdle the advertising hoardings, and then return to guide the side to two more league titles, it’s difficult to imagine United’s future dominance taking the same form.

Ireland end of year review: O’Neill and Keane need to step up or 2015 will be damp squib

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It always seems to be the way, but Irish football has more questions than answers as the year comes to an end

No, the ever dwindling number of Irish players at the game’s elite level is not main one –  that problem is present at the end of every calendar year.

As 2014 draws to a close, there are more immediate issues to address, and they centre on the stewardship of the national team.

Martin O’Neill, the decorated manager, and Roy Keane, the most high-profile assistant manager in the history of football, face a crucial year. If 2015 in any way mirrors this year, then the national team could be steering into the abyss.

The focus on numerous off-field events dwarfed the attention afforded to Ireland’s performances this year.

O’Neill and Keane were dubbed a ‘dream team’ when appointed in October 2013. In terms of profile and column inches, the two men have lived up to their billing. Yet has the Irish team really progressed from the final days of Giovanni Trapattoni? It’s still relatively early days but missing out on Euro 2016 is now a real possibility.

Keane is such a controversial and compelling figure there will be possibly never be a time when interest in his life wanes. It certainly hasn’t been boring, but so far there are few hard facts that suggest the assistant manager’s coaching input outweighs the attention his presence generates.

The players and O’Neill say Keane is a positive presence on the training ground and he very well may be.

Yet during his time as a television analyst, the Cork man rarely seemed concerned with the tactical aspects of the game and, when manager of Sunderland and Ipswich, he frequently delegated coaching duties to his staff.

Keane undoubtedly possesses vast football experience and knowledge, but it was never apparent that he was destined to be a coach. There has been talk amongst fans, and media outlets, that Keane is perhaps more suited to international management, citing his potential ability to inspire and extract performances due to his direct nature and charismatic presence.

However, even at the Irish team’s lowest point no one could ever validly claim they lacked motivation. The players need coaches to frame and harness their enthusiasm, to wed it with a cohesive tactical plan, designed to make the side greater than the sum of their parts. It remains to be seen if Keane can contribute to this. There was little sign of such during his time as assistant coach at Aston Villa.

Roy Keane is spoken to by an official 14/11/2014

What is in no doubt whatsoever though is Keane’s position as a lightning rod for attention. O’Neill, while at times appears tetchy at being constantly asked about his deputy, evidently feels it is worth the cost, possibly because it has distracted from some of the side’s failings.

The manager would no doubt immediately dispute this. Fans would have just cause to cite Ireland’s result against Germany – the most an Irish fan has had to celebrate in years – as evidence for O’Neill’s positive influence on the side.

However, Ireland’s performance in the Scotland loss points to a number of pressing concerns. The team is essentially in a mini-group with Poland and Scotland. Without being overly presumptuous, the mighty German machine will spark into life next year and bulldoze their way to Euro 2016.

Every team will defeat Gibraltar, and, barring an upset, Georgia. This leaves three teams fighting for two spots, one of which being a play-off place. Currently Ireland are trailing and appear the weakest.

Before October’s tie against Ireland, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan said he and his counterpart were ‘old-fashioned‘. Ireland’s tactics during the game seemed archaic. O’Neill opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with Shane Long and Jonathan Walters up front, dropping main goal threat Robbie Keane to the bench, and leaving Ireland’s midfield outnumbered.

Charlie Mulgrew was made to look like some highland Xavi as Ireland struggled to pick up the roaming Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney.

Granted the Irish team were weakened by the absence of their first-choice central midfield pairing, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, but all the more reason to start a third player in the position. It had seemed the only reason to play such a formation was to accommodate Robbie Keane, yet the game was the first time in 13 years he had failed to start a qualifier when he was available.

Ireland’s tactical frustrations were further compounded by the stunting of Seamus Coleman’s attacking outlet and, at the times, the team were reminiscent of the worst elements of the Trapattoni years.

Hitting long-balls, yet not backing them up with pressure from midfield, cautious and overworked, Ireland fatally switched off as Scotland scored a well-executed goal. There is an argument to be made such a moment is a reflection of the work carried out by the respective management teams. If so, Ireland’s came up short.

Anyone who has followed O’Neill’s career will be familiar with his exuberant touchline antics and ability to raise the performances of his sides.

He was touted as one the game’s brightest managers and had fantastic success with Celtic and Leicester City.

After returning to England his time with Aston Villa ended acrimoniously, before his career seemed to bottom out at Sunderland. The Germany result pointed to a potential managerial renaissance for O’Neill, but the Scotland game further emphasised the evidence present before he took the Ireland job. It seems as though the modern game has surpassed him.

Martin OÕNeill reacts in the closing stages 14/11/2014

A sea change occurred in football in 2008. Spain’s team of small, technically gifted players blazed a trail through the European Championship.

For years midfield had been deemed the land of the giants, physicality ruled as Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Roy Keane became the benchmark for the position.

Being a good footballer alone was not sufficient; players had to be lung-busting athletes. Spain broke the mould. When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona swept all before them in 2009, winning a historic treble of titles, it was confirmed; a new phase in football had begun.

Managers and teams were forced to adapt or perish as the dominance of both sides continued over the next five years. The current world champions are a hybrid of the two styles, combining German physicality with Spanish technique.

From Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to Liverpool, Southampton and Everton in the Premier League, to the national teams of Chile, Italy and Japan, the influence of Barcelona and Spain remains omnipresent throughout world football.

Teams can be viewed as either being influenced by this change, or a reaction against it and most managers operating at the elite level, including international football, have adapted. Even if it is at a most basic level of not allowing the team’s central midfield to be outnumbered in favour of a more physical presence up front.

However, judging by his final days with Sunderland, and Ireland’s display against Scotland, O’Neill seems rooted to the past. He still seemingly favours the traditional ‘British’ style of 4-4-2, laced with physicality and effort and designed to hit a big-man up top early. O’Neill was, after all, Emile Heskey’s manager for over six years of his career.

He approached the Scotland tie as though it was a traditional ‘British’ derby game and was tactically outwitted by Strachan. One could argue Ireland do not possess the players to play any other way. But they would probably say the same about Scotland. In a game of apparent equals, the Irish team were made to look distinctly the lesser of the two.

2015 will be the most pivotal year for the Irish national team in recent memory. There are crucial qualifiers against Poland and Scotland, as well as Germany and a high-profile friendly with England. The prize at stake is qualification for Euro 2016, which has been expanded to 24 teams, almost half of the teams in Europe.

If Ireland fail to qualify, it will surely be the lowest ebb of the Irish team. Even Keane’s presence will not be able to deflect from that.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

‘Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?’ and more examples of great sportswriting:

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My article on the decline of elite Irish footballers was named the 32th best piece of sportswriting of 2014.

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The 10 Most Memorable Football Moments of 2014

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What a year it’s been for football.

2014 saw the best World Cup in recent memory, one the most exciting Premier League title races ever and the most unlikely Ireland result in the most dramatic of circumstances. This year had so many unforgettable football moments, here’s our 10 most memorable.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

10. Luis Suárez’s second goal against England

Uruguay v England: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The then Liverpool forward underwent knee surgery on May 21st, was expected to be out of action for six weeks but returned on June 19th to effectively knock England out of the World Cup. As the game was entering its final minutes, Luis Suárez was hobbling around the pitch, no-where near full fitness, but instinctively reacted to a misplaced Steven Gerrard header, went through on goal and smashed the ball home.

A fantastic World Cup moment, full of narrative and drama, the camera panned from the ecstasy of Suarez and the Uruguayans to the despair of Gerrard and England. A man who’d been in a wheelchair weeks before crushes a nation’s hopes.

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9. Eamon Dunphy curses live on air during the World Cup. Eamon Dunphy 17/5/2012RTE have just come back on air before the game between Brazil and Mexico in the World Cup. ‘The pitch was a fucking bog’, Eamon Dunphy doesn’t seem to realise it though. ‘You can see the level of expectancy,’ Bill O’Herlihy notes to the panel. ‘When Neymar was shaping up to take that penalty’ Dunphy continues, ‘I thought he was fucking… dreading it’.  The host takes a sharp intake of breath as Dunphy curses and it becomes apparent, the pundit has dropped a series of F-bombs on live television. Even by his own Olympic-like dedication and mastery of saying controversial things, this was a special moment.

‘We’re on air?!’ , O’Herlihy asks.‘Oh we’re not, are we?!’ Dunphy says, squirming in his seat and momentarily raising his hand to cover his mouth. Bill awkwardly laughs it off and when the programme returns from a break Dunphy says sorry for his slip. But, like a schoolboy apologising for misbehaving, Dunphy has a twinkle in his eye and you know he’s not really sorry. Never change Eamon.

8. James Rodriguez goal against Uruguay Colombia v Uruguay: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilJames Rodriguez was already the best performer at the World Cup before the last-16 tie with Uruguay. The Colombian had scored two and and assisted two in the group stages, but this goal raised his profile to superstar level. Rodriguez drifted into a pocket of space between Uruguay’s defence and midfield, took a quick glance towards goal before cushioning a pass with his chest and, in one motion, turned and volleyed a peach of a shot in off the underside of the bar. Rodriguez nonchalantly saunters off and signs for Real Madrid for €80 million a few weeks later. A star is born.

7.Sergio Ramos last minute Champions League final goal against Atletico Madrid Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final La Décima, the title Real Madrid, a club that has everything, craves more than anything is about to be lost to their city rivals. Atletico Madrid, the plucky underdogs, upstarts who were not expected to get anywhere near this stage, are seconds from completing the most improbable of league and Champions League doubles. Real need a hero.  https://vine.co/v/MdjJlggWwVw/embed/postcard

Sergio Ramos, like some Iberian Chuck Norris, arrives to save the day. Out jumping everyone, the defender powers home an equaliser and sparks manic celebrations for Real.

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6. David Moyes gets sacked by Manchester United

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A highly regarded manager becomes a laughing stock as years of hard work is forgotten in months, a dream job becomes a nightmare and one man gets the blame for turning the Premier League champions into also-rans. ‘The Chosen One’ became ‘The Wrong One’. Poor David Moyes.

There were so many moments of Moyes in 2014, with each passing week Manchester United appeared to sink deeper into mediocrity as the ghost of Alex Ferguson watched on from the stands and their manager seemingly aged years in the process. When the inevitable happened, and news broke that United would part company with the Glaswegian on April 21st, Moyes was no more sacked than put out of his misery. Although handled pretty poorly by the club – journalists had told him of his sacking before the club did – releasing Moyes was the humane thing to do.

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5. Luis Suárez bites Giorgio Chiellini Italy v Uruguay: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil When a person does something for the third time, you’d imagine it wouldn’t be all that memorable. However, when that someone is Luis Suárez, the action is him biting an opponent on the pitch and the stage is a crucial World Cup game with millions watching, it becomes unforgettable. Suárez almost broke the internet. Reactions went from shock, to laughter, to indignation, and back again. The maddest of Suárez’s many mad moments, and one unlikely to be forgotten soon.

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4. Steven Gerrard slips

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As cruel for Liverpool fans as it was funny for Manchester United fans as it was unforgettable for football fans. Steven Gerrard slipping in the decisive game on their unlikely title push was the Premier League’s most memorable moment of 2014. Just two weeks previously, Anfield was rocking as Liverpool beat eventual champions Manchester City 3-2 on the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. A tearful, exhausted Gerrard addressed his team on the Anfield pitch, and told them ‘this does not slip’.

In the next game at the ground, he slipped. The dream of Liverpool being crowned champions for the first time in 24 years was gone. Gerrard, the one-club man, the team’s hero over 15 years and symbol of the club became the victim of the most cruelest of ironies.

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3. John O’Shea’s last minute equaliser against Germany

John O'Shea celebrates scoring 14/10/2014

Ireland are trailing to the world champions, there are seconds remaining on the clock and it looks like they’ll be returning home with nothing. Up steps John O’Shea, wearing the captain’s armband, on his 100th cap to guide home a deft finish. Incredible stuff. Ireland nick a point from the mighty Germany and fans of the Irish team have something to sit alongside the great moments of the past.

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What made the goal all the sweeter and more memorable is the lack of such in a moment in recent Irish football history. Not since Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Italy in 2009 had there being such a moment of pure, explosive joy for followers of the national team. The crushing disappointment of Euro 2012 carried on into a equally depressing qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, when Ireland were hammered 6-1 by Germany. If we were compiling a list of most memorable Irish football moments, there’s no doubt John O’Shea’s last minute goal against the world champions would be in first spot.

2.Van Persie’s goal against Spain

Spain v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Robin van Persie’s goal was breathtaking, a truly unique piece of skill rarely seen before or unlikely to be repeated. Daley Blind’s diagonal ball was precise and perfectly weighted, but Van Persie’s movement and speed of thought was stunning. When watching the replay it’s almost as though you can see the cogs in his head working.

The Dutch striker arrived onto the ball just inside Spain’s penalty area, having run off their flat defence, and seems to instantly measure the distance between the goal and Iker Casillas. He then leaps at the ball, almost performing a corkscrew motion to send it over the stranded goalkeeper.

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The goal itself is unforgettable, but, when considering the wider significance of the moment, it becomes even more memorable. Van Persie’s header was the exact moment the aura of the World and European Champions, the most dominant international side in football history, was shattered. Until that point Spain were leading 1-0 and were cruising and the Netherlands had barely a kick in the game. The Manchester United striker’s goal burst Spain’s bubble.

An incredible act of skill, athleticism, speed of thought and execution, a goal that will be replayed for years to come. It’d make you wonder how the hell van Persie, after scoring such an amazing goal, then lacked the co-ordination to properly high five Louis van Gaal.

1.   Germany destroy Brazil

Brazil v Germany: Semi Final - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Football’s JFK moment. A seismic event that saw a simultaneous dropping of jaws across the globe. This game was the most tweeted about sport event of 2014, but transcended football or sport, it was as though we were watching a nation disintegrate in front of our eyes. Germany were as relentless as Brazil were hideously awful.

The hosts had bulldozed their way through the tournament, playing awful football and almost kicked their opponents Colombia more than the ball in the Quarter-Finals. When Thomas Muller opened the scoring you could see Brazil deflate, like a bully who’d been hit back for the first time, their perceived confidence had been shown to be bluster. David Luiz went rouge as the team crumbled and no-one could believe what they were watching.

Not only the most memorable football moment of 2014, Germany’s demolition of Brazil is the most memorable football moment of the 21st century and, it could be argued, potentially the most memorable football moment ever. Brazil’s collapse will never be forgotten.

REALITY BITES FOR LIVERPOOL AFTER SPRINGTIME IN DREAMLAND BUT WHAT AWAITS IN 2015?

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Make Us Dream, They Dared to Dream, We Go Again and Poetry In Motion, these are all titles of some of the books you can buy this Christmas and they all tell the same story.

A plucky underdog rises from relative obscurity, dispatches all before them before a fatal slip brings them crashing back to earth. The books are about Liverpool’s season 2013-14 season, each a celebration of the club almost winning the league.

It would be interesting to see what authors would title books based solely on Liverpool’s 2014. This year the club went from 11 victories in a row to winning one in eight, from the explosive genius of Luis Suárez to the frustration and mediocrity of Mario Balotelli. The cusp of the league title in May to crashing out of the Champions League and struggling in the Premier League as the year closes. Brendan Rodgers going from winning manager of the year to admitting he may be the first top-flight boss to get sacked this season.

No football club has had as polarising a year as Liverpool.

The club entered 2014 on the back of consecutive losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, but sat in fourth spot and on course to meet their primary aim of Champions League qualification. However, following the stunning 5-1 victory over Arsenal at the beginning of February, Liverpool set off on an incredible run of form, an emotional rollercoaster that reached its crescendo against Manchester City in April.

On the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool won 3-2 to go five points clear of Chelsea in second place, and seven clear of City, although both had games in hand.

Yet with the sight of the Kop in full voice as a tearful, exhausted Steven Gerrard passionately addressed his team, and with just four games remaining, it seemed destined for Liverpool to win their first league crown in 24 years. But then the most unlikely title victory in Premier League history was dashed as cruel fate intervened. Jose Mourinho, Tony Pulis and the most unfortunate of slips from Gerrard tore up the romantic script.

‘What leaps off the page,’ BBC journalist Ben Smith said of Make Us Dream, ‘is the feeling of reclamation, the feeling of a city and a football club finding harmony’. However, seven months after daring to dream, the club and its fans have awoken to a uncertain and frustrating reality.

Last season’s harmony is long gone, departing, ironically, with Suárez, the most inharmonious of figures. Like Alex Ferguson it appears, through genius and ruthless determination, one man was capable of lifting an entire team to another level. If Suárez was Liverpool’s equivalent of Ferguson, then the club signed a team of David Moyes’ in the summer.

That ‘feeling of reclamation’ that grew in the final months of last season now seems like a cruel tease for fans. Liverpool’s shot at the title seemed to be the beginning of a return to the glory years. The team represented the club the fans believe Liverpool were and should still be. A club that wins titles and plays attractive attacking football, led by a talismanic genius and an articulate, innovative manager. However, as the year ends, nothing has been reclaimed.

Liverpool v Everton - Premier League

Luis Suárez carrying Liverpool on his back.

Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season, the manager dismissed suggestions the side would struggle without their departed talisman. Rodgers has been right to champion the team’s qualities, and his ambitions have been somewhat thwarted by the long-term injury to striker Daniel Sturridge. However, there is no escaping the questions surrounding Rodgers’ management of the side. Just as the first half of 2014 seemed to convey Rodgers coaching ability, eye for a player and tactical acumen, this season has suggested the opposite.

Liverpool’s defence was weak last season and the manager has seemingly done little to fix the problems. At almost every defensive set-piece Martin Skrtel grabs his opponent’s jersey instead of attacking the ball, the defender is like a drowning man, frantically attempting to pull himself to safety. His erstwhile partner, £20 million summer signing Dejan Lovren, has struggled to the point where veteran Kolo Toure looks a more calming influence. Liverpool’s defence has underperformed and looks completely devoid of confidence, but there is little sign they are working from a cohesive plan.

Despite the much-maligned ‘transfer committee’ Liverpool employ, Rodgers is ultimately responsible for the team’s performances. He apparently has the power of veto over any signing and is meant to be one of the game’s brightest coaches. Circumstances, such as injuries, a busted flush of a goalkeeper and the decline of Gerrard, have gone against the manager. But such events can be the making of a coach, the ability to adjust in situations of ill-fortune.

He has shown signs of adapting in the past, but it is as though there have been three versions of Rodgers at Liverpool. Year One was filled with buzzwords of footballing philosophy, ‘death by football’. Year Two the team was more reactive, playing their best football when breaking fast up the pitch. For the majority of this season, though, it has been hard to recognise any plan.

Just as the fans seem to suffering for their exuberance over last season’s false dawn, Rodgers is paying for some of his comments over the last year. Saying it is ‘easy’ to organise a defence, following Liverpool’s loss to Chelsea in April, reflects poorly on him when one watches Liverpool hopelessly attempt to defend. Deriding Tottenham Hotspur last season for not challenging for the league after spending £100million on new players may now bring a wry smile to some faces, but for Liverpool fans it must sting.

Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season at to Southampton, the manager said: ‘People in football say that it might have been our best chance to win the league, but this year might be our best chance. We will have more belief. We will be stronger this season’. Needless to say, the team have not been stronger in any way. 2014 offered a glimpse at the club Liverpool want to be, but also an image of what the club will be in the immediate future, and it is troubling.

Jose Mourinho brought Liverpool back down to earth.

Jose Mourinho brought Liverpool back down to earth.

For all of Rodgers’ mishaps, Liverpool’s poor performances and the departure of Suárez, the club have been in this situation before. When tasked with building on success, they have taken one step forward, only to then take two steps backwards. Liverpool finished second in 2001-02 season, ahead of Manchester United for the first time in the Premier League era, having won a cup treble the previous year. That summer El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou arrived and subsequently flopped, becoming by-words for poor transfer dealings. The club exited the Champions League early and finished fifth in the league. Within two years manager Gerrard Houllier had departed and Liverpool were back at square one.

Seven years later, Rafa Benitez’s side also finished second and went into the transfer market in a position of strength. Midfield dynamo Xabi Alonso left for Real Madrid, but the club signed Alberto Aquilani to replace the Spaniard and had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at the peak of their abilities. Liverpool began the 2009-10 season as favourites for the title. The summer signings made no impact as the team finished seventh and crashed out the Champions League in the group stage.

However, the immediate problems facing Liverpool go deeper than Rodgers. In an era of petro-dollar fuelled football clubs, and the new Galactico transfer policy of commercial juggernauts Manchester United, a club like Liverpool simply cannot afford to make mistakes in the transfer market. A club that has just spent over £100 million in the transfer market should not currently look like they need to spend another £100 million.

Just as Liverpool were stronger in the second half of last season, Rodgers will be hoping for a similar upturn in 2015. However, qualifying for the Champions League, the objective at the start of the season, seems unlikely, putting Rodgers at risk of the same fate as predecessors Houllier and Benitez.

In modern football, titles are won by commercial leviathans or clubs pumped with petro-dollars. Competing with this giants is hard enough without Liverpool’s many mishaps.

If Liverpool dared to dream in the first half of 2014, and the final six months has been a rude awakening, 2015 could represent a frustrating reality.

O’NEILL AND STRACHAN: TWO CAREERS RUNNING ALONG THE SAME TRACK

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THEY WILL BE IN OPPOSING DUG-OUTS TONIGHT AT CELTIC PARK BUT THERE ARE EXTRAORDINARY PARALLELS BETWEEN THE IRISH AND SCOTTISH MANAGERS

Originally published on SportsJOE.ie

It’s March 2013 and Martin O’Neill’s distinguished managerial career has bottomed out. Sunderland, the club he supported as a boy, has fallen to 17th in the Premier League, with seven games to play, and decide to sack the Derry native. O’Neill’s 25 years in the dugout had been built on possessing supreme man-management skills, a keen eye for a player and an ability to infuse his teams with his own restless energy. Once dubbed the ‘Duracell Bunny’, due to animated touchline actions, O’Neill, in his final months at Sunderland, appeared flat.

Rewind a few years earlier, to October 2010, and the current Scotland manager is in a near identical situation. Gordon Strachan has resigned from his post as Middlesbrough manager after less than a year in the role with the club 20th in the Championship. When the Scot took charge ‘Boro were fourth, three points off the top. He leaves them in their lowest league position in over 20 years. Strachan was so embarrassed by his performance he tore up his contract, refusing compensation.

England’s North-East had become a graveyard for two successful managerial careers. The promise both men had shown at Celtic, particularly O’Neill,  looked set to be unfulfilled as the modern game seemingly surpassed them. O’Neill and Strachan were banished to the purgatory of football punditry. However, tonight’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier between Scotland and Ireland, and return to the white hot atmosphere of Celtic Park, is perhaps the ultimate departure from sharing a TV studio with Adrian Chiles.

Both men return to the scene of some of their greatest feats in management having bounced back from failure in their last club position. Strachan and O’Neill have revived their careers in international management, and in the process presided over a mini-revival of the Scottish and Irish national teams. However, in such a tight group, one man’s career renaissance is likely to come at the other’s expense.

The slump and subsequent upturn of Strachan’s managerial career is mirrored by O’Neill’s resurgence. The Scotland manager was speaking about his counterpart last week, saying: ‘Martin is a happy eccentric and I enjoy his company’. Strachan also conceded they share similar outlook on football. ‘We use our eyes, rather than stats. Are we fatigued or not fatigued? We’re old-fashioned but there’s nothing wrong with that. Sir Alex Ferguson did the same things and it didn’t do him any harm. I’m not saying we are up there with him, I’m just saying being old-fashioned has served us OK’.

Being ‘old-fashioned’ is just one of the similarities between the men. From managing Celtic to playing at World Cups, winning European titles as players with provincial clubs to working with Roy Keane, Strachan and O’Neill have treaded similar footballing paths along the road to tonight’s game. The two men also played under two of football’s greatest managers and most influential characters, Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson. O’Neill spent 10 years at Nottingham Forest, six of those under the guidance of Clough, winning a league title and two European Cups. While Strachan also played for Ferguson for six years at Aberdeen, part of the side which broke up the Old Firm duopoly and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Real Madrid in 1983.

Martin O'Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final

Martin O’Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final.

O’Neill and Strachan also had, at times, strained relationships with their autocratic managers. O’Neill has spoken about how Clough would never praise his performances and the two men differed over what the Derry native’s best position was. O’Neill saw himself as a central midfielder, while Clough used him primarily on the right wing. Duncan Hamilton, author of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, a memoir of Clough’s time at Forest, wrote: ‘Cloughie could never get the better of Martin O’Neill. When he was in the mood, Martin was as articulate as the great Irish novelist, James Joyce. That had Cloughie totally bamboozled.’

Strachan had a similarly complicated relationship with Ferguson, albeit their differences were more personal. The former Manchester United manager said in his 1999 autobiography that he ‘decided this man could not be trusted an inch’. Their troubled relationship continued when Ferguson followed his former player south. According to Strachan, his manager ‘took up from where he had left off with me at Aberdeen, I remember telling him, “Listen, you spoke to me like that nine years ago. It might have worked well then but it is not going to work now”. But the screaming and shouting did not cease, it just got worse and more personal’.

While Strachan played until he was 40, O’Neill was forced to retire from a knee injury in 1985, aged 32. The Derry native moved into management and, due to his work with Leicester City between 1995 and 2000, earned a reputation as one of the game’s most promising managers. O’Neill got Leicester promoted to the Premier League, won two League Cups, and established the club as an ever present in the top flight during his tenure. O’Neill then took charge of a beleaguered Celtic, who had finished 21 points off Rangers the season before his arrival.

However, he soon re-energised the club, winning his first Old Firm derby 6-2 and completing a domestic treble in his first season. Celtic would win three league titles, three Scottish Cups and a Scottish League Cup. The club also reached the 2003 Uefa Cup final, where they suffered a heart-breaking defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. When O’Neill stepped away from his position in 2005 he was the most successful, and perhaps most loved, Celtic manager since Jock Stein.

Strachan succeeded O’Neill at Celtic in 2005. While not as successful as O’Neill in English club management, the Scot had experienced relative success with Southampton. In his three years with the club, Strachan secured their Premier League survival and guided them to the 2003 FA Cup final, before resigning in 2004. Strachan was never as popular as his predecessor at Celtic Park, but was arguably as successful, as Celtic won three league titles, two Scottish League Cups and a Scottish Cup. Strachan also achieved a feat his much vaunted predecessor could not when leading Celtic to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

When both men returned to English club management they found the game had changed. O’Neill took charge of Aston Villa in 2006 and was optimistic he could revive the club’s fortunes. ‘I am well aware of the history of this football club’, he said. ‘Trying to restore it to its days of former glory seems a long way away – but why not try? It is nearly 25 years since they won the European Cup but that is the dream’. However O’Neill found there was a glass ceiling for Premier League clubs outside the Champions League.

Roy Keane's unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan

Roy Keane’s unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan.

Villa invested heavily but failed to better three successive sixth-place finishes. O’Neill resigned the day before the opening of the 2010-11 season, in dispute with Randy Lerner, the Villa owner, over allocation of transfer funds. Despite the club entering a downward spiral since O’Neill’s departure, Villa fans were left with a bitter taste towards the Derry native. O’Neill had spent over £120 million in his four years in charge, signing players on big wages, but was unable to crack the Premier League’s top four.

Strachan would also find club management difficult upon returning south. Despite an overhaul of the club’s squad, the Scot presided over Middlesbrough’s slide down the Championship table before resigning. Strachan was out of work for two years before taking the Scotland job. While O’Neill, after being replaced at Sunderland by managerial ‘charlatan’ Paolo Di Canio, was linked with Premier League strugglers Crystal Palace during his time out of the game. Long gone were the days when he was being interviewed for the England job or touted as next Manchester United manager.

The move into international management has revitalised both men’s careers. Both Strachan and O’Neill took charge of sides at their lowest point, two squads bereft of confidence following the stagnant spells of Giovanni Trapattoni and Craig Levein.

Ireland were ranked 70th in the world, while Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup were long gone when Strachan took charge in January 2013. Both sides go into tonight’s game on an upward trajectory following recent performances and fancy their respective chances of securing at least a place-off place.

However, qualification for one of Ireland or Scotland is likely to be secured at the other’s expense, meaning the career renaissance of both men could culminate this evening back at Celtic Park.

Strachan and O’Neill have taken similar paths to tonight’s game, but only one may have a happy return to Paradise.

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