Footy thoughts, Superstars

Pedro heads to London for first-team glory under The Special One

“If Pedro was Brazilian,” Pep Guardiola once famously said, “he’d be called Pedrinho and we wouldn’t have enough money to afford him.”

Luckily for Guardiola’s one-time arch enemy José Mourinho, he is called Pedro and Chelsea can more than afford the €30 million fee for the multi-trophy winning forward. Life on the bench at Camp Nou for the boy from the Canary Islands has finally taken it’s toll.

When Guardiola was promoted to the Barcelona first team manager having won with promotion with the club’s B team in 2008, he brought two players with him immediately: Sergio Busquets and Pedro. The former is still there, controlling the Catalans’ midfield as Xavi’s natural heir. The latter, who despite winning football’s biggest trophies such as the World Cup, Champions League, La Liga, UEFA Super Cup to name but a few all before his 23rd birthday, left the club who once called him “irreplaceable” this week.

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It’s an interesting time in Barcelona. The club, despite winning a league, cup and Champions League treble last season, are a far cry from the sheer powerhouse of their tiki-taka heyday under Guardiola. Just this week, they were defeated by Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup following a 0-4 defeat in the first leg.

I was trying to think when Barcelona last conceded four goals – unthinkable a few mere season prior. Then I remembered it was the previous Tuesday during the UEFA Super Cup final against Sevilla. The winner of the 5-4 tie in Tbilisi? Pedro, of course.

While Pedro played a big part in Barcelona’s recent seasons, he started many games on the bench. The signings of Neymar and Luis Suarez who, along with Leo Messi, provided Pedro with stiff competition. The forward has admitted before that it was difficult to get minutes on the pitch and that he would simply keep going. And he did, outlasting names such as Ibrahimovic, Bojan, Sanchez and David Villa.

But cameo appearances wasn’t always for Pedro. He once said that if it was to continue, that he would “analyse the situation and look for the best solution”. The solution: England. The club: Man United Chelsea.

Having pulled out of joining Louis van Gaal’s men, Pedro joined his compatriots Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and César Azpilicueta and made London his new home instead of Manchester. A wise decision, and an interesting one. Pedro’s ability to adapt from an out-and-out striker to a winger will be vital to Mourinho. But Pedro won’t accept starting on the bench. Again.

Chelsea have got themselves a squad full of some serious talent. But Mourinho really has a game-changer on his hands. All he has to do is manage him like his nemesis, Pep Guardiola, once did.

Footy thoughts

2015/16 shirts: the good, the bad & the very strange

As many seasons are about to begin or have already just begun, we are at the time of year again when we take a look at the clobber that football has to offer it’s players and fans. How about these:

Man City (home)

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Their home kit is a smart piece of design from Nike. A fit worthy of champions. But will they be champions once more?

Chelsea (away)

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Chelsea’s away shirt is not bad, and reminiscent of Bayern’s away kit from last season with the red trim. Decent.

Bayern Munich (home)

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The Bavarians have ditched the Barcelona-like blue & red stripes and gone with an all-red affair. Not bad, but not their best.

Wolfsburg (away)

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A headache-inducing away kit from Wolfsburg. Not for me at all.

Barcelona (home)

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More sponsors on the shirt and the change of vertical to horizontal stripes has split opinion in Catalonia, but the club are sadly marketing to kids around the globe. I prefer the traditional type shirts from Barcelona.

Rayo Vallecano (away)

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Yes. That is a rainbow.

Real Madrid (away)

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This isn’t a t-shirt for the gym. It’s a jersey.

Juventus (away)

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Pink is an enormously popular colour in Italy, so this is actually quite clever. Smart design, too. It does remind me of ice cream though.

AC Milan (home)

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Classic Rossoneri. But personally I miss the old badge as opposed to this shield-like crest.

FC Porto (away)

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Good grief.

…and the award for craziest design is:
CD Guijuelo 

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This kit is inspired by ham. Somebody thought that this would be an awesome idea…and I agree! (though I’d never wear it in public personally)

…but the cleverest shirt goes to:
AS Roma (away)

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It’s a bit difficult to make out in these photos, but if you look closely then you will see that there’s a map of the city of Rome in the design of the shirt. Now that is excellent.

What else did I miss?

Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Entertainment & media

Join the official Hot Press fantasy football league

It’s that time of the year again when everyone is getting their fantasy football team in order and we are no different.

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Those of you who entered last year (and there was a lot!), all you have to do is renew your team and you’ll automatically entered into the league.

For those who weren’t in the competition last year, but want to join us then here is what you must do:

  1. Go here to the official website of the Barclays Premier League.
  2. Register with the site (it takes around a minute).
  3. Pick your players and once satisfied with your selection click on ‘confirm team’.
  4. Go to ‘join leagues’. We’re in a private league, so enter the code 1386906-326979 when prompted.
  5. Let battle commence once more.

You may know exactly who you are going to select, but for those on the fence about their selection, here are a few of my tips:

Rickie Lambert is a good goal scorer, but last season he barely got a look in at Liverpool. It’s unlikely that this will be the case at West Brom. I reckon he’ll be a regular starter for Tony Pulis. At £6 million, he’d be superb for one of your three strikers, allowing you spend the extra cash elsewhere.

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While not usually a big goal-scorer, Memphis Depay enjoyed his best ratio last season for PSV with 28 goals in 40 games in all competitions. Now at Manchester United, not only is he confident in finding the goal, but his incredible pace and touch will see him get a lot more assists for the likes of Wayne Rooney. A great addition for £8.5 million.

But it’s best I don’t give too many tips away. I am, after all, in the league too.

Good luck.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Mavericks

What next for Mario Balotelli?

There’s a great moment in the 2012 interview between Noel Gallagher and Mario Balotelli when the Italian international promises the former Oasis guitarist his infamous “Why Always Me?” t-shirt. The looks on Gallagher Snr’s face is that of a genuine fan – something we don’t see that often – such is the aura of Balotelli’s genius. He was a much-loved maverick striker with lethal ability and his antics off-the-pitch were just as legendary.

Fast-forward three years and the striker’s days of being the superstar footballer that was a manager’s dream (or nightmare depending on the day in particular). 

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When Balotelli burst onto the scene as an Inter Milan player, he made plenty of manager’s – and indeed fans – take notice. Here was a player with an incredible and unique talent and personality to boot. It was the former that earned him the respect, and the latter that often tested the patience of managers such as José Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Cesare Prandelli.

When Brendan Rodgers signed the Italian a year ago, he said it was a “calculated risk”. An interesting term when you think about it, but it turns out that Balotelli hasn’t delivered for the Reds. In fact, he hasn’t been the Mario Balotelli that intrigued managers and wowed fans (and vice-versa) in years previous.

Balotelli turns 25 within a fortnight and, not long ago, it was predicted that he should be hitting his peak years around now and playing for one of football’s elite clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Instead, Liverpool have been purchasing attacking players means that the Italian finds himself down the pecking order at both club and, due to poor form, country.

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A move out of Anfield is the logical solution and reports of clubs such as Sampdoria and Bologna are prepared to take the 24-year-old back to Serie A, where he first burst onto the scene at the age of 17.

Perhaps it would be best for Mario to go back there. The two clubs widely reported to be keen on him would be good for him – Sampdoria, who finished last year in 7th place would obviously see Balotelli as the obvious replacement for the outgoing Stefano Okaka – and newly-promoted Bologna, who would benefit hugely from a player of Balotelli’s talent, personality and experience.

But Brendan Rodgers has said that the Italian’s future is entirely up to himself. “He is working hard to get fit and we will see when the season begins,” the Liverpool boss said. Indeed, time will tell. But it would be great to see the Mario Balotelli of old back in the back (and almost unavoidably front) pages.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Internationals, Republic of Ireland

Ireland avoid big names as World Cup qualifying group revealed

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It could have been a lot worse. While Ireland avoided some of the big guns such as Spain, Germany or Italy, Group D for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers sees Wales, Austria, Serbia, Moldova and Georgia join the Boys In Green.

The qualifying groups in full:

Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg

Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra

Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, NORTHERN IRELAND, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino

Group D: WALES, Austria, Serbia, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND, Moldova, Georgia

Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan

Group F: ENGLAND, Slovakia, SCOTLAND, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta

Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Liechtenstein

Group H: Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus

Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland.

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Some interesting fixtures there with England and Scotland drawn in the same group. That won’t be a dull fixture, that’s for sure. Netherlands and France will be a huge battle and of course Spain against Italy is another massive fixture.

For the Republic of Ireland, however, we avoided some huge footballing nations there. That’s not to belittle just exactly the damage any of our opponents can inflict. There’s no real easy games there.

It’s hard to tell just exactly what kind of a squad we’ll have going into the campaign, but time will tell. Martin O’Neill, assuming he will still be in the hotseat then, will be delighted how the group turned out no doubt.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Where are they now?

Whatever happened to Freddy Adu?

Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ronaldo, Raul and Maldini are all major names in world football who were widely regarded as immensely talented by pundits, fans, and fellow professionals while still in their teens.  By the time they were all 26, they were well into the peaks of their powers, accumulating an enormous amount of team and personal awards and trophies.

When Freddy Adu was a teenager, he was courted by some of the biggest names in the game such as Manchester United and Celtic. Now 26, the American’s early promise was never fulfilled, and instead of seeing his name up with Rooney and Ronaldo, the forward has returned to play in the NASL, following obscurity with unsuccessful stints in places such as Turkey, Brazil, Serbia, and most recently Finland.

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One reason for Adu’s return to his native shores and play with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL is to team up with his former mentor Thomas Rongen. “He was almost like Ronaldinho,” the Dutch tactician remembers. “He always had a smile on his face”. But Ronden admits that he is “flabbergasted” that Adu never made it to the very top, blaming his career path which ultimately made the former United States international something of a journeyman.

When Adu left the MLS for Europe, it was Portugese giants Benfica that landed his signature. But his tenure in Lisbon was short-lived and loan spells with Monaco, Belenenses, Aris and Çaykur Rizespor followed. Then, in 2011, Adu moved back stateside, joining the Philadelphia Union.

Benfica's Adu celebrates his goal against Maritimo during their Portuguese Premier League match at Luz satdium in Lisbon October 28, 2007. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro (PORTUGAL)

Two years later, Adu went to Brazilian side Bahia (in a deal which saw former Manchester United player Kleberson go in the opposite direction), but his time in South America was short lived and he was released in November 2013.

The first six months of the following year were something of a black period for Adu, when he began series of trials with the likes of Blackpool, Dutch side AZ Alkmaar and Norwegian club Stabæk. But it was Serbian side Jagodina who signed Adu on a six month contract which, ultimately, wasn’t renewed and last March Finnish side KuPS became the American’s new home. Briefly.

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Despite signing a one-year contract, the contract was terminated last week leaving Adu without a club. The wilderness years going around Europe haven’t been kind to the 26 year old former prodigy who should easily be at the peak of his powers.

After a decade apart, he and Thomas Rogden will be reunited once more as Adu will make Florida his new home and the Tampa Bay Rowdies his 13th professional club. “I think I can resurrect his career, and I mean that sincerely,” Rogden explains. “Freddy knows that too.”

With each move in Freddy Adu’s career there is always talk of him reigniting his career following such amazing early promise. Perhaps this time, lucky number thirteen, with his former mentor can be just that.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Transfers

Sterling signs for City, but it won’t be the transfer of the summer

Raheem Sterling has completed his somewhat inevitable transfer from Liverpool to Manchester City today for a fee of £49 million. Many, myself included, believe it’s an incredible amount to pay for the 20-year-old.

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He has an incredible talent, and buckets of potential. But I have always found him to be somewhat inconsistent and, from where I sitting, he seems to have a lousy attitude. And the money City have spent on the England international brings back memories of Andy Carroll – a hot prospect that ultimately failed after huge money was spent.

It’s a big money signing but by no means the best signing of the transfer window so far. Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s move from Bayern Munich to Manchester United is one that utterly blew my mind.

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Basti is an incredible player. A World Cup winner, he’s been with Munich since 1998 and quickly became a fan favourite after breaking through to their senior squad in 2002. He’s been a prominent and influential player in the Bavarian side for 17 years. Louis van Gaal has acquired a midfielder who is as intelligent as Xavi, as influential as Steven Gerrard and as powerful as Paul Scholes.

Another huge signing that has occurred in the already manic transfer window is the criminally under-rated Arda Turan, who joined Barcelona from Atlético Madrid.

The Turk has, in the past, been linked with various Premier League clubs, but few of the English papers give the former Galatasaray captain the credit he deserves. His touch and his control are sheer world-class and his vision for the predominantly right-sided midfielder was hugely influential in Atléti’s success in recent years.

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Atlético’s loss is Barcelona’s gain, but Turan won’t be able to compete for the Catalans until January of next year after Barça’s transfer ban has been lifted. But I would give up six months of my career to play at Camp Nou alongside Leo Messi, too.

Finally, Iker Casillas‘ move from Real Madrid to FC Porto is obviously a major coup for the Portugese side. Let’s be honest, it is their biggest signing since a then-relatively unknown José Mourinho became manager in 2002. But the move is not without it’s criticism on Real Madrid’s part.

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The club have been accused by many of showing a lack of respect to the World Cup winning goalkeeper. Aside from unfollowing Casillas on Twitter minutes after the move to Porto was complete, Real Madrid were heavily criticised for forcing the player out according to the Spaniard’s family – an accusation Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who is currently unpopular among section of the Madrid faithful, has denied.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts, Mavericks

An uncertain future ahead for one-time maestro Yoann Gourcuff

When Olympique Lyonnais acquired Yoann Gourcuff in August 2010 from Bordeaux for a fee of €22 million, the young playmaker became the highest paid player in France. Since then it is believed that Lyon have spent around €60 million on Gourcuff in transfer fees, wages and various other add-ons and in return received 90 Ligue 1 appearances (out of a possible 187) with 14 goals and 17 assists.

The Frenchman will celebrate his 29th birthday tomorrow and should be at the peak of his powers but instead will be blowing out twenty-nine candles with the knowledge that he is without a club and the future is looking somewhat bleak.

Gourcuff was at one stage hailed by both the media and fans as the successor to the great Zinedine Zidane. But, in the end, it was his unreliability that hindered his name.

“He was not intelligent in the manner of managing himself,” said AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini recalling the French international’s short tenure playing with the Rossoneri. “When he played here (Milan), he did not want to make himself available to the group. He did not start to study Italian immediately.”

After a short, unsuccessful stint with Milan, Gourcuff was shipped off to Bordeaux he played a prominent role in the club’s 2008/09 league and cup double. He had the skills and the power and none were more memorable than his goal against PSG in January 2009.

Fast forward past the big-money deal with Lyon, Gourcuff soon became so unreliable that he even lost the support of his team-mates due to his constant reluctance to play when not at 100%. Stories of him sprained his ankle whilst walking his dog as well as many other injuries (such as bizarrely team-mate Alexandre Lacazette’s high-fiving hand) as well as lacklustre performances ultimately ended with the talented player’s contract not being renewed.

Even Lyon captain Maxime Gonalons said that Gourcuff “could and should have brought much more” to the Ligue 1 side.

Now on the eve of his 29th birthday, it’s unclear who will be willing to snap up the signature of the one-time hottest prospect in France, the one-time successor of Zidane, the player who David Ginola once described as the best of his generation.

But it’s up to Yoann Gourcuff himself to decide how he wishes to spend his final number of years as a player, because everybody else tried – and failed – to get that full potential out of him. In there somewhere lies genius, but he doesn’t want to come out to play.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Superstars

The great Ronaldinho joins the free agents list

Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, better known to me and you as Ronaldinho, has been a huge name in world football for almost all of his career. The Balon d’Or and twice FIFA World Player Of The Year winner has just this week terminated his contract with Mexican side Querétaro. Now 35-years-old, the Brazilian is a free agent.

Of course Ronaldinho’s best years have been long behind him. In fact, many would argue that after his disappointment at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, he never was quite the same player again. But between 2003 and 2006, his theatrical style of exciting football, his mind-boggling goals, his tricks and skills and that famous smile made the Brazilian a household name and a true great.

Barcelona's Ronaldinho celebrates goal against Sevilla during Spanish first division match in Barcelona

When he left Barcelona in 2008 for AC Milan, he was still capable of turning on the magic. And indeed his spells with Flamengo, Atlético Mineiro and Querétaro witnessed some of the old Ronaldinho. But nothing like his Barcelona heyday.

That said, now that he is a free agent, his presence alone would affect any team. Let’s be honest, if you are a football fan, you’d love to see him in the league that the team you support plays in. He may be well past his peak, but he’s still Ronaldinho.

A move back to Europe is unlikely but not impossible. Back to his native Brazil would be Ronaldinho’s preferred destination, but the lure of the MLS can never be ruled out.

Another player who is currently a free agent is Antonio Cassano. The fiery Italian striker left Parma, following their recent fall from grace on and off the pitch. The 32-year-old played a big part in Italy’s Euro 2012 campaign and also featured during last summer’s World Cup campaign.

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Apart from a short, unsuccessful stint at Real Madrid, Cassano has played his entire career in Serie A and there wouldn’t be a shortage of clubs from his native country willing to avail of his services. It would be interesting to see him ply his trade in a league outside of Italy.

Another similar Italian striker who is currently a free agent is Giampaolo Pazzini. The 30-year-old has played his entire career in Serie A (and like Cassano, Pazzini has turned out for both Milanese clubs). He’s not a 20-goal-per-season type of striker, but he is lethal in the box and an unselfish team player (unlike another Italian we know).

Glen Johnson played a big part in the Liverpool teams between 2009 and 2015 at right-back. The 30-year-old finds himself, at the moment, a free-agent. The England international is said to prefer a move back to his native London, but a club like Premier League new boys Bournemouth should really consider getting a player like Johnson for his ability and, very importantly, his experience.

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Another player in the Premier League that is a free agent is midfielder Abou Diaby. The former Arsenal man is still only 29. Despite being somewhat injury-prone, he possesses an incredible first touch and has sublime close control. A club might consider it a gamble if thinking about signing up Diaby, but I believe that given his age and his skill, it is a gamble worth taking. The Frenchman can do a job and personally I’d like to see him silence his critics in the Premier League.

 

Follow on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footy thoughts, Republic of Ireland

Was John Delaney right for taking FIFA’s blood money? Yes and no!

I was in the Stade de France on 18th November 2009. My own experience is that I didn’t immediately realise that Thierry Henry had handled the ball which directly led to William Gallas’ goal that prevented Ireland from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

It wasn’t until I had reached a pub in central Paris that I realised what had happened. Yes, I was gutted. Yes, it was blatant cheating. But my opinion is that far more embarrassing cheating occurs daily in grounds around the globe. Feigning injuries, diving, simulation, whatever you want to call it. That’s a bigger crime than what then-Barcelona forward Thierry Henry committed that night in Paris.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Many argue that diving is part of the game these days. Is it? I personally detest it.

We were never going to get a replay. I don’t know why so many thought we were. It normally takes an extraordinary set of circumstances for FIFA to give the go ahead to replay a match – especially a match of this importance. A handball wasn’t going to do it.

They didn’t replay the match between England and Argentina in the 1986 World Cup following Maradona’s blatant hand of god goal, did they?

So when John Delaney revealed that FIFA paid the FAI €5 million to prevent any legal action following the infamous play-off match in Paris, was it a wise decision to accept it?

Well, yes and no. I mean, let’s be honest, obviously I would loved a replay, but that was never, ever going to happen. So for him to take that money, it would have sat better with many fans if the money was put into the the domestic league.

The league of Ireland has been struggling financially – I do mean utterly struggling – for way too long now. Teams can barely pay the players’ wages. Grounds are falling apart. Clubs have volunteers to keep their heads above water and many benefits such as concerts and raffles take place regularly to generate some kind of revenue.

Do you know how much difference that €5 million would have made to Ireland’s top tier of football?

But of course, John Delaney doesn’t work like that. He does, after all, refer to the league as, and I quote, a “difficult child”. In fact it’s worth mentioning that the FAI chief earns more than the Spanish and Italian chiefs combined. €250,000 more annually. Think about that for a second.

While Delaney does have his pros, they are vastly drowned out by his cons, especially in recent years. Surely there is somebody who can do a better job than he is doing? Somebody who will act for Irish football’s best interests – both international football and league of Ireland.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Republic of Ireland

The unsung hero of Ireland v England

When the Republic of Ireland face England, it’s a always a very tasty fixture and some memorable ones stand out. When Ireland defeated England 0-2 in 1949 at Goodison Park, they became the first team to defeat the Three Lions on their own soil.

Ray Houghton’s goal in 1988 in Stuttgart has spurred a thousands stories and a Christy Moore song. Two years later, Ireland played their first ever game in the World Cup finals. The opponent? England, of course. Who can forget Kevin Sheedy?

The events during the unfriendly friendly in 1995 are well documented, but it’s worth pointing out that Ireland were leading 1-0 before riots ended the fixture. In fact, England haven’t beaten the Boys In Green in a few decades now.

But one such fixture, on 24th May 1964, is not so well-known. Yet it has a fascinating little story.

There were 45,000 people inside Dalymount Park on that Sunday afternoon as Ireland faced Alf Ramsey’s England. The game itself finished 1-3 to the English with goals from George Eastham, Johnny Byrne and Jimmy Greaves. But on the scoresheet for Ireland was Shelbourne defender Freddie Strahan.

Strahan is still to this day the only League of Ireland player to score for the Republic of Ireland against England during their 14 meetings since 1946.

But even more interesting is the fact that the Dubliner, who worked as a fireman, played in the fixture after coming off a long shift, working from from 6pm the night before until 10am on the day of the game.

In fact, when attending a chimney fire in the city, a homeowner said to Strahan “Are you not supposed to be playing England tomorrow?”

His goal is one of the less-known goals for the boys in green, but it’s worth bringing up. Especially when you realize that this was the England side that won the World Cup two years later. A fireman who played in the League of Ireland, works a long shift, togs out for Ireland and scores. Against England.

Firefighter and goalscorer against England – now there is an unsung hero if ever there was one.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

We’ll leave it there so: RIP Bill

This afternoon, the blog was very saddened to learn of the passing of former RTE broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy, who died peacefully at home aged 76. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

There are countless memories of the Corkman, who covered no less than ten World Cups, including his final one at last summer’s tournament in Brazil, as well as ten Olympic Games.

For his presentation of the 1990 World Cup he won a Jacob’s award. He also won the Irish Sports Journalist of the Year 2003, and in 2007 he was named the Television Personality of the Year at the IFTAs.

But perhaps it was his presentation style that made the nation warm to him. He didn’t mind letting the studio panel get into a bit of a row. In fact, he probably led them up that path knowing it would make excellent TV. It always did.

O’Herlihy only retired from broadcasting after last summer’s World Cup, and it is with regret that he never got to enjoy his retirement more. After all, he brought years – decades even – of joy to many of us on our TV screens.

RIP Bill. We’ll leave it there so.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Football's greatest moments, Footy thoughts

The best XI of 2014/15 (excluding Messi & Ronaldo)

Ok, before we begin, Messi and Ronaldo are absurdly good and miles ahead of anyone. I don’t even think this is my opinion anymore. It’s fact now, right?

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Anyway here is my best XI of the season.

GK: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
The best goalkeeper in the world. By far. Simple as that.

DF: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
A solid no-nonsense defender. Has been immense to watch for Madrid.

DF: Gerard Pique (FC Barcelona)
Puyol’s heir to the throne has enjoyed a superb season. And he’s not shy of scoring, too.

DF: Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
One of the best defenders in Europe, Chiellini helped Juve to another Scudetto. His presence is huge.

MF: Paul Pogba (Juventus)
Often cited as one of the most promising players in world football, the Frenchman was huge in Juve’s massive season.

MF: Andrés Iniesta (FC Barcelona)
One of the best in the world. So much skill. Not his best season, but still better than most others.

RM: Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich)
One of the most consistent players in the game. Played a massive part in Bayern’s Bundesliga title.

LM: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
The best player in the Premier League last season by a country mile. The reason Chelsea were so powerful in their title victory.

CAM: Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich)
Bayern have been ruthless this season, and Muller, as one of the most versatile players in European football, played an enormous part in that.

FW: Luis Suarez (FC Barcelona)
Put it this way, his form was so good, he forced Luis Enrique to make Messi to play out wide while he was centre forward. A genius.

FW: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
A goal machine. Precise, ruthless and a born winner. He is, after all, the son-in-law of one Diego Maradona.

Honourable mentions:

David de Gea, Branislav Ivanovic, Jerome Boateng, David Alaba, Ivan Rakitic, Cesc Fabregas, Carlos Tevez, Neymar, Robert Lewandowski, Jackson Martinez.

 

What’s your opinion? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Familiar surroundings & an unfamiliar dressing room for Guardiola

The Camp Nou in the Les Corts district of Barcelona is incredibly familiar surroundings for one Josep “Pep” Guardiola. It is, after all, where the Catalan spent almost his entire youth playing career – from club member to ballboy to youth team prodigy to first teamer to club captain and finally manager.

Before 2008 he was remembered by almost all of the Camp Nou faithful as “a good Barça man”. When he became manager of Barcelona following a single season coaching the reserve side, nobody predicted the impact the former-player would have.

He wasn’t even the board’s first choice but the rest, as the cliché often goes but in this case very true, is history.

PepGuardiola

Tonight the 44-year-old returns to the historic stadium as an opponent for the first time in his life as manager of Bayern Munich. The fixture is the semi-final of the Champions League and, naturally enough, Guardiola’s return is grabbing all the headlines.

Reminiscing aside, the ever-professional Pep Guardiola knows the difficult task ahead. He knows Bayern need to score tonight. Because if they don’t, the coach reckons it will be near impossible. The main reason? Lionel Messi – a player who Guardiola helped become from world-class to world’s best to best ever. “There is no defensive system that can stop him,” admitted the Catalan boss when asked how he was going to approach the Argentine genius’ game. “And no coach either”.

It’s not really Pep Guardiola’s style of football, but will he be forced to park the bus against a Barcelona side whose trio of attackers, Messi, Suarez and Neymar are in red-hot form? Or will the Bayern boss have a tactical plan up his sleeve to put the Catalan giants under pressure at home?

FC Barcelona v FC Bayern Munich kicks off at 7.45pm tonight.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Transfers

Transfer rumours: let the games begin!

Ah, it’s that time of year again. With the season drawing to a close, as always, many clubs will be keen to re-evaluate their squad personnel.

There’s no major international summer tournament in sight, so players will be heavily judged on their club form. Some players are surely catching the eyes of the managers in England’s top tier. Let’s look at some.

Last year, 24-year-old Antoine Griezmann was bought by Atlético Madrid from Real Sociedad for €30 million to effectively replace Diego Costa who left for Chelsea. Well, if the rumours are true, they could be team-mates as José Mourinho is eyeing up a bid for the French international, whose buy out clause is reported to be around the €55 million mark.

griezmann

There’s strong rumours doing the rounds that Liverpool’s Rickie Lambert could also be on his way to Chelsea as a replacement for Didier Drogba. It’s news that shocks many – probably even Rickie himself – but seemingly if José doesn’t get Liverpool’s number 9, then he will go for none other than Emmanuel Adebayor. But, we will wait and see.

Mephis Depay enjoyed a wonderful World Cup with the Netherlands last summer and a superb season with PSV, where he won the Dutch title a couple of weeks back. Last month PSV director Marcel Brands confirmed that Manchester United enquired about the availability of the Dutch winger. But of course there’s also the rumours that LvG is keen on Madrid’s Gareth Bale. I know which one is the cheaper option.

memphis

Liverpool are also said to be keen on Depay, but their main priority is to get an accomplished striker. With Sturridge’s injury struggles and Balotelli’s performance woes, next season Brendan Rodgers’ Steven Gerrard-less Liverpool will need lots of goals. Alexandre Lacazette could be just the man. The Lyon striker has enjoyed his best season in Ligue 1, scoring 27 goals this season in 31 games.

Another Ligue 1 striker that has been linked with a move to England is Marseille’s André Pierre Gignac, who at one point caught the attention of both Rodgers and Arsene Wenger. But the Arsenal boss is reportedly plotting a bid to bring Yohan Cabaye back to England from PSG. But Wenger is hopeful of landing the signature of World Cup winner and Barcelona star Pedro for just €25 million. The Spaniard has fallen down the pecking order behind Neymar, Suarez and, obviously, Messi.

pedro

But the season hasn’t finished yet. There’s plenty of time until the transfer window chaos to begins.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)