Footy thoughts

I love Barça, but the club is far from perfect.

I do love FC Barcelona. I have done for years. Since when current manager Luis Enrique was playing and captaining the squad. But there’s a few things at Barça that have been disappointing me as the years go on.

Back when I first started supporting Barcelona, it was a pre-Messi and even pre-Ronaldinho time, and the club had no sponsor on the shirt. That’s long gone. Barça actually started wearing the UNICEF logo on their jersey in 2006, in a deal which they actually paid the organisation money to do so. That was until Qatar Airways came in with €25 million per season and the only Catalans that rejoiced were in the board room at Camp Nou.

Speaking of the Camp Nou, it’s constantly rated as one of the stadium that one must visit before they die. And I agree. But it has never, ever lived up to the hype for me. I’ve seen El Clásico, Champions League games, and all kinds of strong and not-so-strong opposition take to the field and the atmosphere is pretty dead. There’s always empty seats, and the tickets are enormously overpriced.

mosaic_camp_nou

For example, the cheapest seat in the grandstand of the Camp Nou for Barça’s encounter against Sevilla this coming Sunday will set you back €121. That’s fairly ridiculous. But there are always tourists ready to spend. In fact, the club receive around 10,000 tourists to each match.

I once paid €20 to see Barça play Inter Milan there. How much would that ticket be worth now?

Més que un club is Barça’s famous motto, which translates to more than a club. But it should read more than a corporation. The club sold it’s soul long ago, even if things on the pitch are beautiful to watch.

 

 

Footballers' mad moments, Mavericks

The Messi/Suarez penalty wasn’t disrespectful…it was entertaining and fun.

You’ve probably heard that Leo Messi and Luis Suarez successfully performed something of an audacious penalty in Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Celta Vigo at the weekend.

If not, welcome back to planet Earth, and here it is:

What amazed me – and others – is how many people considered the penalty to be disrespectful to the opposition. This is 100% not a view that I share.

Barcelona were 3-1 up at the time of the penalty. It was audacious, yes. But it was glorious, entertaining and fun. Isn’t that what the beautiful game is supposed to be?

When a player nutmegs another player, that can be very humiliating for the opposing player. Yet nobody considers that to be disrespectful. But why this?

Eamon Dunphy had a strong opinion about it. “I thought it lacked class,” the 70-year-old said on 2FM. “You have to respect your opponents and you have to respect the history of the game. None of the great players of the past would have ever dreamt of doing anything like that.”

Of course, Eamon must have forgotten the great Johann Cruyff who scored an identical penalty with a little help from Jepser Olsen while playing for Ajax in December 1982. He also said in the same interview that Messi “was way out of order, he should apologise and if he doesn’t, he loses a little in my eyes.”

Eamon isn’t alone. People went bezerk on Twitter. Yet, I fail to see how it is disrespecting the opponents. I thought it was entertaining, cheeky, and most importantly, fun – much like a nutmeg. Besides, isn’t the object of the game is to score as many goals as possible in order to win?

But I haven’t heard a strong argument as to how it is disrespectful. What did you think?

 

Let Rob know your thoughts via Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts, Issues in the game

Liverpool owners listen to protesting fans…and back down

When Liverpool supporters left Anfield last weekend in protest to the new ticket pricing scheme, which would have seen the most expensive tickets cost a whopping £77 (just under €100), the club’s owners FSG clearly took note.

Principal Owner John W Henry, Chairman Tom Werner and President Mike Gordon said that they were “particularly troubled by the perception that we don’t care about our supporters, that we are greedy, and that we are attempting to extract personal profits at the club’s expense,” in a statement on Liverpool’s website on Wednesday evening. “Quite the opposite is true.”

The initial plan for a £77 matchday ticket in the redeveloped main stand and season tickets of £1,029 have been scrapped. They will now remain at £59 and £869 respectively.

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It’s a very decent move from FSG. They could have ignored the planned walkout, which was organised by the supporters groups Spion Kop 1906 and Spirit of Shankly, and simply kept the ticket prices high. They know they can get buyers for the €77 tickets, as Liverpool are one of the most supported teams on the planet, which fans jetting in to Merseyside from all over the globe most weekends.

From experience, the FAI have been criticized for many things, but ticket pricing has, since the Aviva stadium era began, always been one of them. In fact, a seat in premium level for the forthcoming friendly against Switzerland will set you back €120. That’s roughly the same price for a decent seat in the grandstand of the Camp Nou for most La Liga and Champions League games – though often go much higher than that. Hence why that stadium is rarely sold out and lacks atmosphere compared to say the Allianz Arena or La Bombonera – Barcelona’s prices are realistically for tourists.

But FSG have backed down in pricing the local fans out. And, I for one, am deeply impressed with how they handled the issue.

liverpool

“We believe we have demonstrated a willingness to listen carefully, reconsider our position, and act decisively,” FSG’s statement read. “The unique and sacred relationship between Liverpool Football Club and its supporters has always been foremost in our minds.”

Football, at the highest level anyway, is nothing without it’s fans. It’s refreshing to see a club’s owners recognize that.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Superstars

Guardiola will strengthen City’s bid for that elusive Champions League title

We now know that Pep Guardiola will be joining Manchester City from July 1st on a three year contract. The Catalan is, by far, the most in-demand manager in world football. It’s his third club, following an enormously successful stint at his beloved Barcelona, and an impressive three years at Bayern Munich.

Typically, as you can imagine, Pep doesn’t choose clubs that are struggling for cash. Clubs that already have a plethora of talent at the manager’s disposal. But he took over at Barcelona (having managed the reserve side for one season), at a time when they hadn’t won anything for two years. And with an ageing team where egos were a problem. On the pitch, it didn’t get off to a good start as they lost at Numancia on the opening day of the season and then drew to Racing Santander at the Camp Nou. Pep turned it around and over the next few seasons created arguably the finest club side in the sport’s history.

After four deeply impressive seasons, he stepped down. The pressures of managing had taken it’s toll both physically and emotionally. He spent a year on a break, uprooting his family to live in New York. Then three years ago, he announced that he would be taking over Bayern Munich.

pepguardiola

Guardiola’s agent, Josep Maria Orobitg, had said “Bayern weren’t the team which offered the most money”. Yet Bayern were the team he chose. A major team that promotes from within, yet challenges for the best players and, ultimately, the biggest trophies. It was so familiar to him. Plus the club’s initals were FCB. Not that that makes any difference, but it’s a minor coincidence in the many parallels between the clubs.

He took over from the great Jupp Heynckes who, in his final season, won the German league and cup double as well as the Champions League. The only way for Pep was down. In his first season at the club, Guardiola won the Bundesliga, the German Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. He never won the Champions League with Bayern, but he played a unique and exceptional brand of football week-in, week-out.

His move to England isn’t that surprising. He has long been linked with the Premier League, going back to his Barcelona days. It’s long been said that Pep was Roman Abramovich’s first choice as Chelsea.

If José Mourinho takes over at United and with Pep at City, the Manchester derby will echo the psychological warfare that existed between the two managers since their Real Madrid and Barcelona tenures respectively. It’s a derby that could potentially rival El Clásico in terms of TV numbers. But with Pep at City, the club are going to become a superclub, and their bid for that elusive Champions League trophy will become stronger.

Things are about to get even more interesting.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Why are so many players flocking to China?

When on Wednesday that it was announced that midfielder Ramires had completed his move from Chelsea to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning, six years after the 28-year-old joined the Blues from Benfica, many Chelsea fans were disappointed to see the Brazilian leave Stamford Bridge. Others, and neutrals like myself, wondered the obvious “why is he going to China?”

China, with all due respect, isn’t a major footballing nation. Yet players and managers are flocking there.

Robinho, the one time darling of Brazilian football (a title once held by Pelé, now held by Neymar), plies his trade for Guangzhou Evergrande, who are based in Tianhe District, Guangzhou. His team mates include former Spurs star Paulinho and former West Ham playmaker Alessandro Diamanti. The latter they can afford to put out on loan to Atalanta. Oh, and the manager is the hugely decorated and widely respected Luiz Felipe Scolari.

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Plenty more talent in the league too, and they are not exactly players at the very end of their careers. For example former Bayer Leverkusen star Renato Agusto is with Beijing Guoan. Asamoah Gyan is with Shanghai SIPG. Demba Ba is playing for Shanghai Shenua, as is former Inter Milan star Fredy Guarin. Former Boca Juniors striker Emmanuel Gigliotti is with Chingqing Lifan. Roma recently sold Gervinho to Hebei China Fortune. The list goes on.

Serious money is swapping hands in exchange for the players, who themselves will be paid enormous wages. Many top players are willing to leave some of the most prestigious leagues in the world to join a fairly anonymous league in a country with an enormously different culture base, lured by the insane money on offer to them.

Where does this money come from, you ask? Most of the top clubs who employ the big names are owned by multi-billion dollar Chinese corporations. You probably could have guessed that, right?

While I applaud any effort to make less prestigious leagues grow, I can’t but help feeling like it’s a massive gamble really. Only a week ago, it was reported that a Chinese club offered to make Fernando Torres the highest paid player on the planet (despite the fact he hasn’t been the same player in years most would argue). He’s still with Atléti as we speak. And according to reports new Chelsea signing Alexandre Pato turned down enormous amounts of cash to join a team in China’s second tier. Remember when Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba went to China in 2012, but made a huge u-turn at the first opportunity?

Will many of these players manage to see out even the first year of their contract? Only time will tell. But, as time goes on, more and more players are flocking to China. Keep an eye on things there – it could get interesting.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Real and Atlético Madrid hit with transfer bans from FIFA

FIFA have today handed down bans to both Real Madrid and city rivals Atlético Madrid, preventing them from signing new players in the 2016 summer and 2017 January transfer windows. Along with fines (Atléti will have to pay €822,000 while Real will cough up €328,000), the two clubs from the Spanish capital  have been banned for “breaches relating to the international transfer and registration of players under the age of 18”.

realatletico

This will be a massive blow to both clubs, but especially to Zinedine Zidane’s Real. Los Blancos were looking to bring both Man United’s David de Gea and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard to the Bernebéu. Real president Florentino Perez was, according to reports in Spain, willing to make Neymar the new Luis Figo, by luring him from rivals Barcelona. Any signing is now on ice for a while. Good job Zizou knows Real’s youth team players well I guess.

Atléti will also feel the effects. Star striker Antoine Griezmann has been linked with football’s elite with a rumoured price tag of around €50 million. But Diego Simeone won’t be keen to let the French star go without being able to bring in a suitable replacement.

Not that both clubs don’t have a plethora of talent at their disposal, they really do, but it will be interesting to see how they will cope.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Mavericks, Superstars

How will Zidane fare managing a troubled Real Madrid?

Politics, as you know, plays as much a part in Spanish football as the football itself. Especially with “the big two” – Real Madrid and Barcelona. The former have won only two La Liga titles in the past twelve years. What exactly is the problem with Real Madrid? They have a plethora of talent, more money than most clubs, and a colossal fan base.

Well, first things first, Real Madrid’s decline over the past decade or so is down to Barcelona’s prominence as a power house in both Spanish and European football. From the Ronaldinho era to the current Messi era, the Catalans have been extraordinary. But there’s other factors to consider as well.

One of the things to take on board is that since Florentino Peréz took over as club president in 2000, Real Madrid have been run more like a business and not a football club. He has even used the phrase “the Real Madrid brand” publicly on more than a few occasions.

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In recent weeks, Peréz has been insisting that Rafa Benitez was the answer to the club’s on-field problems. He still sacked him, despite being second in La Liga.

Over the past 25 years, Madrid have gone through 27 manager – Barcelona just 14.

The great Zinedine Zidane takes over at the Bernabeu. The former French international was a joy to watch. One of the very best playmakers to ever play the game. With regards to his personality, he always came across as shy – sometimes even cold. Yet he had plenty of hot headed moments on the pitch and was sent off a few times for both club and country.

zizou

Zizou was previously in charge of the club’s reserve side, Real Madrid Castilla, who play in Spain’s third tier. He left them sitting in second place in the league after cutting his teeth for a year and a half, to now join the big boys in La Liga.

But that’s another problem with the big boys in Real Madrid. Some of the biggest names come with some embarrassingly big egos. Only this week, I heard one journalist say live on air that club officials asked him not to write about Gareth Bale’s club record fee because – and get this – Cristiano Ronaldo won’t like it. That’s the tip of the iceberg of the kind of egos Zidane will be dealing with.

He’ll be used to it. Himself once a Galactico, having played alongside other major names such as Ronaldo (the Brazilian one), Raul, Beckham, Casillas and Roberto Carlos to name but a few.

But how will he manage it now that he’s the boss?

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Happy christmas one and all.

The blog would like to wish you a very happy Christmas today. And thank you for continuing to read this section of hotpress.com for the last five-and-a-bit years.

Also happy birthday today to the utter legend that is Chris Kamara.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Ones to watch, Superstars

Four players to watch out for in 2016.

It’s been a remarkable twelve months in football. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo battling it out for the the prestige of the being the best footballer on the planet. Again. Neymar and Luis Suarez reaching stellar heights. Robert Lewandowski has become arguably the world’s greatest no.9 striker with team mate Thomas Müller going from strength to strength as one of the most in-form and in-demand players around.

The next twelve months will witness some players emerging onto big stages. Keep an eye out for these names over the coming year.

Jonathan Calleri (Boca Juniors)

One of the hottest prospects in Argentina, the 22-year-old has been wowing crowds at La Bombonera over the past year. A remarkable touch, the gifted striker is currently being eyed up by Inter Milan according to reports. I’m not surprised, given that he casually scores goals like this

 

Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon)

Lacazette is one of the most sought-after strikers in Ligue 1. The 24-year-old enjoyed 27 goals in 33 games for Lyon last season. He made his name as a brilliant striker in 2015. He could make his name as a world class striker in 2016

 

Koke (Atlético Madrid)

A brilliant footballing brain, Koke was picked up by Atléti at the age of eight. A spectacular passer of the ball, the Spaniard is constantly creating without dropping commitment. Still just 23-years-old, the best is yet to come.

 

Mauro Icardi (Inter Milan)

Known in many Italian and Argentine tabloids for his affair with Maxi Lopez’s wife, the 22-year-old is an incredible talent. Now making more headlines in the sports pages than the tabloids, Icardi is Serie A’s youngest capocannoniere since Paolo Rossi in 1978.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

RIP Jimmy Hill. A man who gave more to football than you probably think.

Football mourns the loss of Jimmy Hill, who died on Saturday at the age of 87. Most will remember him as the host of BBC’s Match of the Day, long before fellow striker Gary Lineker took over the reigns. Aside from his 276 appearances for Fulham, and his managerial stint with Coventry City (in which he won the old second and third divisions), Hill’s name will go down in football history in more ways than you think.

Jimmy Hill was solely responsible for scrapping the then players wage cap in 1961 to allow his team-mate Johnny Haynes to become the country’s first £100-a-week player which, as the years went on, effectively changed the game to what it is today.

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Not only a manager, Hill went on to become director and chairman at Coventry, where he was also credited with coining the nickname Sky Blues after changing the team’s colours. He also wrote the club’s new song and even introduced the first modern matchday programme.

There is a famous story of Hill emerging from the crowd at Highbury in September 1972 to work as a linesman when the official became injured. An announcement was made in the stadium that the game between Arsenal and Liverpool could not continue unless a qualified referee could be found to help out. At the game as a spectator, Hill was also a qualified referee. And there he was with the linesman’s flag for Arsenal v Liverpool. Would that happen today?

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RIP Jimmy Hill.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

What next for Jose Mourinho?

The Special One, as you know, got sacked by Chelsea today. It was coming. The Blues’ results have been laughably poor for such a world-class squad and the club now hover just above the relegation zone. The problems were many.

But what next for Mourinho?

mourinho

The Portuguese coach has made no secret of his desire to manage another English club should he be forced to leave Chelsea before his contract was up. Given Man United’s recent performances, and fans’ calling for Louis van Gaal’s dismissal, perhaps the 52-year-old could be on his way to Old Trafford?

Interestingly former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderón sent a tweet suggesting that Mourinho could be on his way for a second spell at the Spanish giants.

And with reports that Pep Guardiola is set to announce his exit from Bayern Munich at the end of the current season (to possibly join Chelsea or Man City), perhaps the Bundesliga could finally get a taste of the Special One.

It’s also worth pointing out that Laurent Blanc is in the final year of his contract with mega-rich Paris St Germain.

One thing is for sure, Jose Mourinho will have plenty of options.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Superstars, Transfers

Five top players who are free agents right now

The January transfer window is almost upon us and no doubt some big money moves will take place. But, as of this very moment right now, here are five top players that are free agents and can be acquired for absolutely nothing.

Kevin-Prince Boateng
The Ghanaian international was wearing the famous number 10 shirt for none other than AC Milan just two years ago. He left the Italian giants for a return to the country of his birth, when he joined Schalke. His behaviour off the pitch, however, outweighed his performances on it, and the club had his contracted terminated last week. Still a cracking player and only 28 years of age.

Ronaldinho
Is there anything about this guy that hasn’t been written before? Long past his heyday, the Brazilian magician is still box office for football fans and pundits worldwide. Recently playing for Fluminese, the 35-year-old has been a free agent since the end of September. A player of this calibre doesn’t deserve to finish such a remarkable career by being forgotten about. I hope he finds a club soon for one last encore.

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

Leandro Damião
Praised just a couple of years ago by the media in Brazil as part of the new generation alongside names such as Neymar and Alexandre Pato, the Brazilian became unattached just days ago. The striker was once decribed as “tall, strong, a very good goalscorer, a threat in the air and skilful with both feet” by none other than Brazilian legend Ronaldo. Only just 26, he will surely be snapped up quickly.

Urby Emanuelson
A product of Ajax’s sublime youth system, the Dutchman has played right at the top. With both his national team (he made his debut against Ireland at Lansdowne Road in 2006), and clubs (he’s turned out for the likes of Ajax, AC Milan and Roma), the winger always seemed to put in some good performances. Now, at 29, he’s currently without a club having last played for Atalanta.

Emmanuel Adebayor
The tall Togolese striker was never far from controversy, but boasts an incredible footballing CV with clubs such as Real Madrid, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham under his belt. Still just 31, Adebayor has the ability to be a constant threat in the opposition’s box. He always did. The striker’s name was always linked with some huge footballing nations, so I’d be surprised if he was finished just yet.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Republic of Ireland

The Netherlands added to Ireland’s pre-Euro 2016 schedule

The Boys in Green have three home friendlies pencilled in before taking off to France for Euro 2016.

Martin O’Neill’s men will face Switzerland on Friday 25th March before taking on Slovakia the following Tuesday. And today the FAI confirmed that the Netherlands will be the opponents for our friendly at the Aviva on Sunday May 22nd.

Robin van Persie & co won’t be joining us in next summer’s competition – the first time the country hasn’t feature in the finals since 1984. Though they boast some serious talent such as Arjen Robben, Daley Blind, Wesley Sneijder and rising star Davy Klaasen.

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And, in case you haven’t heard, Ireland’s fixtures for Euro 2016 are:

  • Monday 13 June, 18.00 (Paris): Republic of Ireland v Sweden 
  • Saturday 18 June, 15.00 (Bordeaux): Belgium v Republic of Ireland 
  • Wednesday 22 June, 21.00 (Lille): Italy v Republic of Ireland 

Exciting/nervous times ahead.

 

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Entertainment & media

A quick word about football with…Richie Egan

The blog recently caught up with Richie Egan, leader of Dublin’s own Jape. We had a quick chat about his fondness for Liverpool and how Marouane Fellaini reminds him of Peter Crouch with an afro hairstyle.

Hi Richie. Crumlin’s other famous son, Philip Lynott was a staunch Man United fan. Which club did you support as a kid if any and why?

When I was younger I supported Liverpool. I didn’t really pay attention to football after I got into music but recently I got back into it thanks to my friend Niall from the Redneck Manifesto who is a Liverpool fan too. I suppose I still am really.

Have you ever caught a match while touring?

No, but I saw a match in Stockholm. Djurgården were playing. It was fun to watch a match in Sweden, they have these weird cheerleaders that sing to the crowd.

Amazing. What’s your earliest memory of football?

The goal against England in Euro ’88. I remember it was a sunny day and me and my Dad literally running around the house in Crumlin shouting our heads off.

Which players do you admire, and which do you dislike?

I like Bastian Schweinsteiger a lot. Arjen Robben I used to dislike, but I like him a lot now. Philippe Coutinho. I always liked Danny Wellbeck too. I don’t really hate any players but I do find Fellani quite a funny character, like Peter Crouch with a ‘fro.

Finally, and most grave of all enquiries. A Jape album to reach number one, or Ireland to win the Euros next summer?

Oh, I would defintely sacrifice that non existent number one spot in service to our country and the hi jinks what might happen on the Walkinstown roundabout if we won.

 

Jape play Vicar Street this Saturday. Tickets available here.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Republic of Ireland

What exactly went wrong when Steve Finnan went to Espanyol?

For any player looking to expand their horizons and play in an unfamiliar league, success is ultimately the goal. No matter who it is or where you come from. Irish players have done this and some have been successful. Some less so. Unfortunately for Steve Finnan, he falls in the latter category. Injuries and plain bad luck made the Champions League winner´s tenure at RCD Espanyol somewhat underwhelming.

Espanyol are a Barcelona-based club originally from the middle-class neighborhood of Sarrià. Their former stadium, the EstadioSarrià was used as one of Spain´s World Cup venues in 1982 hosting players like Diego Maradona, Zico, Marco Tardelli, Socrates and Dino Zoff.

The stadium was sold and demolished in 1997 and the club were forced to take up home in the purpose-built Olympic Stadium at the scenic Montjuic hill. The stadium had seen the world´s greatest athletes compete in the 1992 Olympic Games. On transfer deadline day in 2008, Liverpool defender Steve Finnan would now call it his home.

Finnan arrived in Barcelona with an impressive C.V. He has been a Champions League winner just a few seasons before in what some describe as one of the greatest Champions League finals – a game in which he started in. Along with his 150 appearances for Liverpool, Finnan has also played for Birmingham City, Notts County and Fulham. Falling out of favour with then manager Rafa Benitez, Finnan´s exit from Anfield seemed likely.

It was then, on September 1st 2008, that Espanyol signed Limerick-born defender on a two year deal for an undisclosed fee. Not that Finnan wanted to leave Liverpool. “It was totally out of the blue,” Finnan told the press at the time. “It’s exciting to be going to a great club in Spain but I didn’t want to leave”.

Sensing there would be limited opportunities at Anfield, he added “But it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get a game by staying so I didn’t really have much choice”. From the lower leagues of England to European glory with Liverpool, Steve Finnan´s next adventure was La Liga.

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Of course, Spain is not an easy league to succeed in. Finnan was going to the same league where legendary players from England´s top flight such as Mark Hughes and Michael Owen had both previously failed. Having arrived with muscular problems, he didn´t make his debut immediately. But on on 20th of September 2008, Steve Finnan made his debut for Espanyol against Getafe at the Olympic Stadium coming on as a substitute for striker Raúl Tamudo with eleven minutes to go. The game finished 1-1.

Four days later, Espanyol were due to travel to southern Spain to take on Sevilla at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuan stadium. With French-born defender Gregory Beranger forced to withdraw from the squad due to injury, Finnan was now in the starting eleven. Espanyol´s coach Bartolome Marquez admitted before the match that it would be far from an easy debut for Finnan, saying: ‘It will be a baptism of fire because he will play on one of the flanks and that’s where Sevilla have some very good players’.

Finnan knew he´d be up against the class of Jesus Navas and Luis Fabiano. This was his opportunity to shine for his new club. Show them all what he is made of. The game kicked off at 8pm before a near-full house. With an unbelievable and cruel twist of fate, injury struck Finnan down after just 33 minutes. He was tragically forced to be taken off while JaviChica, a young Catalan right-back took his place for the remainder of the game. Espanyol ultimately the game lost the game 2-0.

Finnan´s injury was a slight tear in his left thigh muscle. It was a big setback for the defender. He would certainly miss out on the opportunity to play against local rivals FC Barcelona in the Olympic Stadium the following week. Barça fans see the game against Real Madrid (commonly known in Spain as “el clásico”) as the biggest fixture in their calendar. Espanyol fans look no further than the “Derbi Barceloní” – Espanyol v Barcelona. Finnan would have been made aware of the huge importance of the game for the club ´Blanc i Blau´ faithful.

But aswell as that, Espanyol was looking for experience in their right-back position on a more long-term basis. Sergio Sanchez was challenging Finnan for the position and in 2008, Sanchez was severely lacking the experience and confidence he posseses now. In the end, it turned out to be mid-November before Finnan could play for Espanyol again.

Espanyol coach Bartolome Marquez selected Finnan in the starting eleven for Espanyol´s home game against Numancia. Finnan took up his usual right-back role with Gregory Beranger on the opposite flank. The game started poorly for Finnan. After just 14 minutes, his side went a goal down. Espanyolequalised after 35 minutes. Numancia took the lead and Espanyolequalised yet again in second half.

Then, after 72 minutes Espanyol were awarded a penalty. 3-2. Just eighteen minutes to hold on before Finnan would get his first ever win in Spain. With six minutes to go, Numanciaequalised. Then very cruelly, in the 93rd minute Carlos Bellvís left footed shot captured Numancia´s winner. The game finished 3-4 and the 18,000 Espanyol fans were left deflated. As was Espanyol´s Irishman in the number 15 jersey.

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The Republic of Ireland had featured in a friendly the following Wednesday against Poland. The boys in green lost 2-3 at Croke Park. The result ended Giovanni Trapattoni´s six game unbeaten run. Finnan didn´t get a call-up. On Sunday 23rd November, Espanyol travelled to the port city of Santander to face local club Racing de Santander at El Sardinero. Finnan was selected once again in the starting line-up in his usual right-back position.

It wasn´t a good evening.Espanyol were beaten 3-0 in a fairly one-sided affair – the same result Santander inflicted on the ´Blanc i Blau´ the previous season at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. Little did he know at the time but this, only his forth appearance, was to be Steve Finnan´s last game for Espanyol. A training ground injury would see Finnan watch his team from the sidelines for the remainder of the year.

By the time the next transfer window arrived, Finnan has looked for a way out of Spain. Injuries and bad luck grew his frustrations. It emerged in January 2009, Hull City were keen on the Irish defender. The press at that time had been speculating that Hull´s then-manager Phil Brown was interested in offering Espanyol £1 million and a deal that would see Finnan play in a more familiar league. He had yet to win a match in an Espanyol jersey.

There was also a rumour that Tottenham wanted his services in a loan-deal, but it wouldn´t have been a wise move considering the talent Spurs had that season in defence. Then the reports came that Finnan failed a medical at Hull. Finnan remained silent and told journalists “What do you want me to tell you? I can say nothing publicly. You would have to ask Hull. You ask them. In reality it was not strange; it was not strange for me”. The deal fell through and Finnan would have to remain in Catalonia.

Espanyol has a new coach in José Manuel Esnal, the much travelled Basque better known as Mané. Himself and sporting director Paco Herrera (who was previously Liverpool´s assistant manager under Rafael Benitez) insisted that Finnan was a valuable member of the squad. Further injuries caused Finnan to watch the club´s remaining fixtures from the sidelines. After 38 games and just 12 wins, Espanyol finished in 10th position – exactly in mid-table. Finnan featured in four games and didn´t win one. On Monday 29th July 2009, Espanyol released a statement that they had mutually terminated Finnan´s contract due to “consecutive injuries that have not allowed him to fight for a place in the line-up”. Two days later, he returned to England and signed for Portsmouth, where the Irish defender saw out his career. His time at Espanyol could only be best described as luckless

Espanyol have since moved to a brand new €60 million stadium in Cornellá, just outside Barcelona city. However, just beside the club´s former ground, the Olympic Stadium, there lies a small park with a sign on the fence reading in Spanish “No ball games”. Thanks to sheer bad luck, Steve Finnan barely had the chance.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)