Cheltenham Racing Eamonn Sweeney: ‘We’re on football’s highway to hell’

Cheltenham Racing Eamonn Sweeney: ‘We’re on football’s highway to hell’

Cheltenham Racing

Which was worse? Ireland’s snoozefest against Gibraltar or Dublin’s half-pace massacre of Kildare? Impossible to decide. It’s like asking someone to pick their unfavourite child. This is a case of rotten apples and rotten oranges. Both matches were equally appalling in their own special way.

You could argue that the soccer match was slightly better as Ireland’s incompetence introduced an element of suspense until Robbie Brady’s injury-time goal finally killed off Gibraltar’s lingering hopes. But you could also say it was worse because the optimists among us expected better. These expectations had been fanned by the pretense that the reign of Mick McCarthy represents a huge leap forward from the benighted days of Martin O’Neill. This assertion is transparently at odds with the evidence.

The draw with Denmark was a useful result, but it was our fourth draw against the same opposition over the past 18 months. Three of those took place in Denmark so Ireland were hardly breaking new territory last Friday night.

Suggestions that McCarthy has instituted a bold new attacking policy ignore the fact that in four games Ireland have scored five goals, two from set-pieces, one an own goal and one in injury-time. This is despite two of those games being against Gibraltar, whose recent results include a 6-2 loss to Armenia and a 4-0 defeat by North Macedonia.

In the last European Championships qualifying campaign, Gibraltar set a new record by conceding 56 goals in 10 games. They’re one of the worst teams in European history and five years ago O’Neill’s team were able to put seven goals past them at the Aviva.

The bizarre levels of praise Ireland received for beating Georgia 1-0 at home was put into perspective by the 5-1 victory Denmark scored against the same opponent on Monday. The Danes showed what a good team should do against that kind of opposition.

Under McCarthy Ireland still rely on obduracy at one end and set-pieces at the other. Claims they are a different team these days rely on faith rather than reason. Welcome to The Cult Of Mick.

Mick McCarthy, like Other Voices, Wellness, Twitter and all stand-up comedy apart from Richard Pryor, is something I just don’t get. But some guys really love him.

Among them are lads fond of attacking their fellow hacks for being ‘fans with typewriters’ or ‘cheerleaders’. When it comes to McCarthy all the hard-nosed stuff goes out the window to be replaced by, ‘Mick is just so lovely. He was so nice to me when I met him,’ a Boyzone groupie level of analysis these paragons wouldn’t forgive in an Irish pundit writing about rugby or an Englishman writing about anything.

The insistence that McCarthy is a scream at press conferences reminds me of those political journos who used to guffaw about Seamus Brennan’s “senior hurling” comment to the Greens, call Jim McDaid ‘The Minister For Fun’ and insist that PJ Mara ‘adds greatly to the gaiety of the nation.” It’s people with no sense of humour’s idea of humour. They’re more to be scorned than pitied.

After putting up for so long with O’Neill and Keane’s impersonation of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, dealing with McCarthy must be a nice change. But why bother with all that ‘he’s put a smile back on the face of Irish football’ stuff?

That’s the language of PR rather than sport and there’s little sign that the general public agree with it. Ireland may sit top of the group but the vagaries of the draw can produce some odd positions. Northern Ireland top a group which includes Germany and Holland while Luxembourg are ahead of Portugal. That’ll hardly last.

Ireland have four tough matches left and may not win any of them. But even one victory will set the Mickolytes pushing for an extension to his spell as manager. Sure wouldn’t Stephen Kenny be even better prepared after two more years of underling experience?

In reality McCarthy is not just John Delaney’s last appointment but a zombie relic of the Delaney era. The longer he stays at the helm the further Ireland will journey into the kingdom of pointlessness. What he’ll put on the face of Irish football is the cynical grin which accompanies the knowledge that nothing has really changed at all.

Meanwhile, in the words of one pundit, “Leinster is a dead duck. You couldn’t hold it against those supporters who stayed away from Croke Park on Sunday. You wouldn’t go to the cinema if you knew beforehand not only how the film would end, but more or less how the plot lines would unspool. There’s a weariness about these games now that I can’t remember feeling before.”

Who is this embittered culchie with his sour grapes attempt to belittle Dublin’s achievement and take away from the drive for five? We see you, as gobshites like to say on social media. We see you (drum roll) Alan Brogan. Oh.

The jig really is up. The average attendance in the Leinster Championship this year is 7,945. That’s a drop of 73 per cent since 2008. Back then a semi-final between Dublin and Westmeath drew 67,075. Last Sunday a semi-final double bill including Dublin, Meath and Kildare, Leinster’s three most populous counties, drew 36,126.

The precipitous decline has come about because of Dublin’s complete dominance in Leinster. They’re going for a ninth title in a row, a 14th in 15 years, and the competitive element has entirely disappeared from their games. In the last six years, no-one has come closer to them than nine points. Last year their average winning margin was 20, this year so far it’s 21.

Who’d want to watch a competition like that? It’s actually a tribute to the sporting character of the Dublin fans that they’re staying away these days. Celtic’s fans never tire of watching their team bully outgunned opposition. But quite a few Dublin supporters seem unable to stomach any more of it.

The rest of the championship may go the way of Leinster. Dublin are seeking a five in a row and last year went through the whole campaign without a serious challenge. Of their putative rivals, Tyrone, Mayo and Monaghan have already lost a game in the championship while Kerry and Galway have been unimpressive. No-one believes these teams can dethrone the Dubs.

Another couple of All-Irelands for Dublin will kill the championship stone dead. Why pretend otherwise? The GAA’s decision to institute a two-tier championship is, like the creation of the Super 8, just displacement activity. Kildare would be a tier one team but don’t belong on the same field as Dublin.

The big problem is not the non-existent gap between Cork and Longford, it’s the actual gap between Dublin and almost everyone else. The comment by GAA president John Horan last week that, “Leinster will come back in time to be competitive,” is appalling not only because it’s cynical bullshit but because it suggests that the Association is intensely relaxed about the current situation and will allow it to continue. Horan’s insistence that Dublin’s success is not due to money is kind of beside the point. Whatever the reason, Dublin have become too big and too powerful for the football championship.

That superiority has been copper fastened by recent changes. Dublin, the one team which doesn’t need extra help, gets one more home game in the Super 8 than everyone else. The possibility of Jim Gavin’s team being caught on the hop after a stroll through Leinster has been reduced by the new format. Were Dublin to lose a Super 8 game this year and then beat their conquerors in the All-Ireland final, that would probably put the tin hat on things..

In the end, Dublin will have to be split up. It is more a province than a county after all, with a bigger population than Munster and two and a half times that of Connacht. I reckon Croke Park might act after ten in a row. That’ll be a nice milestone.

The GAA and the FAI cod themselves that they’re doing OK because they don’t perceive much of a public outcry. That’s actually because so many people are past caring. Their number will only increase.

But it would be dangerous to underestimate either the national team or the football championship just yet. Give them a chance. They can get a lot worse.

We’re on the highway to hell.

The last word: Blues finally break their Stanley Cup duck

Even by the egalitarian standards of US Sport, the St Louis Blues’ victory in the Stanley Cup finals is the underdog story to beat them all. On January 3 the Blues were ranked 31st of the National Hockey League’s 31 teams, but on Wednesday night a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins in the deciding game of a seven-match series saw them become champions for the first time in their 52-year history.

The Blues had been one of American sport’s great underachievers. No franchise in history had gone so long without a Stanley Cup victory. Their misery seemed about to end on Sunday night when they led the series 3-2 and had the chance to clinch things in front of their home crowd. Instead they lost 6-1 which made their victory in game seven all the more remarkable.

Winner of the finals MVP award was Ryan O’Reilly, a 28-year-old Canadian with Irish roots. O’Reilly is the son of two social workers and grew up with a total of 49 foster brothers and sisters, which he believes contributed to his success. “We’d have four on four hockey games at home every night,” he recalled a few years back, “I was lucky to have other kids to play with like that because it really did make me a better player.”

* * * * *

The pageantry and glamour of Royal Ascot shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is the best flat racing festival of the year in terms of quality. It’s a kind of Cheltenham and the best of the eight Group One races may be Thursday’s Ascot Gold Cup.

That pits Stradivarius, who won the race last year and added the Goodwood and Yorkshire Cups, against Cross Counter whose last two runs saw wins in the world’s most famous stayers’ race, the Melbourne Cup, and the immensely lucrative Dubai Gold Cup.

At the other end of the scale, Tuesday’s five furlong King’s Stand Stakes sees a renewal of rivalries between Battaash, on his day the most electrifying sprinter of the past decade, and Blue Point who beat him in this race last year. Wednesday’s Prince of Wales Stakes clash between Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Sea of Class and Aidan O’Brien’s Breeders Cup Turf runner-up Magical should also be a dinger. Now where did I put that top hat?

* * * * *

Call it the GAA delusion. Gaelic football’s most fervent partisans like to claim their game is full of guys who could have made it big in soccer if they’d been bothered. Which probably explains the more excitable predictions about Jim McGuinness’s managerial future in the garrison game.

In reality McGuinness’s lack of soccer experience was always going to make life tough for him and he’s been sacked after just six months as boss of the Charlotte Independence in US soccer’s second flight. The Independence won just one game out of 14 in that time.

McGuinness’ next move will be interesting. Wouldn’t you love to see what he could do with one of football’s giant underachievers? Kildare, Cork or Derry might benefit from giving him a shout.

Sunday Indo Sport

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