Oh, What a Knight!

Not many held out hope for Aaron McNaughton reaching the status of international sports star. Least of all himself.

Raised just north of the border, where rugged South Armagh gives way to the fairer and flatter landscape of County Monaghan, like many other kids the length and breadth of this island, he devoted most of the free time he had to his local GAA club – the small, but proud, St. Mochua’s, Derrynoose. A dual club, more renowned locally for their craft with a sliotar rather than a size five, it was with ash in hand that Aaron first tasted sporting success.

“I played both Gaelic Football and Hurling for the club. I managed to make the Armagh Minor Hurling panel and that’s as good as it got for me,” explained the financial fraud expert, who now lives and works in Belfast. He was quick to elude to the fact he wasn’t blessed with the same prowess as his younger brother Colin, a former Armagh Minor Hurler of the Year. The club still awaits the return of the two lads to the blue jersey.

Oblivious at the time, it was a chance meeting in the Ulster University halls of residence at Jordanstown, just north of Belfast, that served as the catalyst for a major shift in direction.

Here, Aaron would run into Brian, an exchange student from the University of Vermont.

“Brian was an American guy over in Belfast for a year as part of his Conflict studies, and when we would come home after nights out, on went the T.V. and there’d be an NFL or a basketball game to watch,” recalls Aaron.

Those hazy nocturnal screenings, alongside a healthy rivalry that developed playing the PlayStation game Madden NFL saw the undergrad become increasingly enamoured with the sport.

“I enjoyed the scheming nature of it. How defensively a team would have to come up with plays to take down an offence, and how an offence would have to think outside the box to overcome a defence. I suppose it was the problem solving that appealed to me.”

All very impressive considering he was a half-cut nineteen year old learning the game from inside a poky, dorm cubicle.

There was no doubt about it, however. He’d been bitten.

“The following year, when I moved back into the city, I knew I had to find a team for myself.”

Chuckling, he adds, “I’m showing my age a bit here, but it was Bebo that was able to tell me that a team held practice on the green beside Queen’s PE Centre, which I happened to live just around the corner from. One evening, I walked over, hung about the perimeter while practice was going on, and eventually a coach came over to me and asked me was I interested in getting involved. And that was it. I was in.”

That team was, the soon-to-be defunct, Belfast Bulls.

“I guess it was just part and parcel of the way things were back then. Cash was tight, numbers were limited and at the end of my first season we ended up folding. I definitely wanted to continue playing, and a few of us on the team would have drank with a few of the Knights guys – and for better or worse, I’m still drinking with them today,” he smirks from behind his water bottle.

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The emergence of McNaughton as a leading light on the American Football scene in Ireland over the past ten years, parallels quite satisfyingly with the best times the IAFL has known.

Now boasting twenty teams across two divisions, each split into northern and southern conferences, American Football can be enjoyed deep in the southeast with the Wexford Eagles or as far as the Donegal Derry Vipers in the northwest.

“The sport has come a long way in what’s relatively a short space of time,” Aaron remarks. “Naturally, Sky Sports has helped that, with football being shown primetime on Sunday nights throughout the winter. But it would be remiss of any of us involved not to recognise the role that guys on the ground have played – a lot who laced up through those wilderness years.”

He’s not kidding. Take yourself of a Sunday to any of the venues hosting an IAFL match-up and you’ll see what he means. Sidelines littered with protective gear and tackle bags, professional emergency medical personnel on standby as decreed by the league, five neutral volunteers officiating at each game – Christ, the guardians of the game now issue fines for uniform infractions. All this, and available to the public free of charge.

“Sponsorship and goodwill have a lot to do with it,” admits Aaron, “and the league has no doubt benefitted greatly from benefactors over the last few seasons. But it still takes the clubs themselves to buy in, to prove they are financially viable for a season, to send their refs 50 or 60 miles away to officiate a game between two sides, to decide amongst themselves that, yes, we want to be competitive here. The whole thing has been pretty much like a fraternity.”

The question of competitiveness is still one that has truly yet to be answered by all it would seem. Since McNaughton’s own Knights last won the Shamrock Bowl in 2002, only three other sides have managed to have their name engraved on to the most coveted trophy in Irish American Football. It’s something that doesn’t cause the Armagh man too many sleepless nights.

“The quality of competition is definitely improving year on year. I think a few teams raised the bar and said, look, we don’t want to mess around with this anymore, namely the Dublin Rebels and our own rivals here in Belfast, the Trojans. Slowly but surely other teams up and down the country are catching up, making the changes that will bring them to the next level, ourselves included. It’s been real organic in its nature”

Although, he believes that an accelerant has been added to the fire of late.

“Recently, there has been a big drive to put in place a national side that can go and compete at European level. Club football is such a great outlet for many guys who pick it up because a lot are coming from a background where they haven’t had the skills or physique to excel in the traditional sports played at schools or in parishes. It’s great that they can have an opportunity to perform in front of friends and family, but pulling on that green jersey is something that I suppose everyone in this country dreams can happen one day – and that dream is certainly attainable with American Football.”

And, indeed, he is one of few men that can speak from experience – albeit things didn’t go quite the way he would have expected back in August 2016, when the inaugural outing for an Irish national side was cut short by an electrical storm in Waalwijk, Netherlands, at half-time.

Belfast Knights Huddle

A decade on from joining what was then the Carrickfergus Knights, Aaron was a major supporter of the sides decision to move back to Belfast – a process that has been helped in no small part by Cooke RFC and the use of their Shawsbridge Sports Complex in the affluent south of the city.

“The support of Cooke and Instonians has been invaluable. They’ve made us feel welcome from day one, and their facilities are great. We aren’t getting changed or running plays on a muddy council field anymore, and we have somewhere for our supporters to have a drink or take a walk around during a game,” he coos with visible pride.

After all he’s achieved in the game, at 31, McNaughton has begun to begrudgingly accept the veteran tag. Having taken on a defensive co-ordinator role with the Knights, is it a case of him preparing to hang up the cleats in the near future?

“I suppose it’s like any sport, younger guys come in and you quickly realise that they do things faster, stronger, better than you can. Most of the plays I’m coming up with now, I’m near forced to come up with them without myself in mind.”

The physical demands are one thing – but time too has become an issue. After marrying long term partner Lorraine in 2016, the couple are expecting their first child this September, something which holds a position of prominence in Aaron’s mind.

“I’ve broken bones, had dislocations and concussions. We have two practices a week with a game most Sundays – other evenings I’m in the gym after work, it’s not something that can go on forever,” he explains, a hint of pain in his voice.

That being said, and no different to any other sportsman approaching the end of his playing days, he’s keeping an open mind as far as when that day will be.

“Last year, Dublin Rebels pipped us in the Shamrock Bowl. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but the runner-up medal went into my bag and I genuinely haven’t seen it since. Winning a Shamrock Bowl would be the icing of the cake, and who knows? Maybe that would be a good time to walk away – whilst I still can! But for now, I still feel good and I’m still enjoying it.”

And why not? There is no doubt about it – Aaron McNaughton’s American Football journey has taken him a long way from that poky cubicle in Jordanstown.

Evidently, he has more miles to travel.

*Catch Aaron and his teammates this coming Saturday, as they make the short trip to Deramore Park, to take on the Trojans in the Battle of Belfast. Tailgate party begins at 1pm, featuring drinks promotions, free wings and pizza courtesy of Nando’s and Pizza Co respectively, as well as the hosts lighting up their own BBQ.     

With thanks to Ian Humes Photography and Belfast Knights for images used

Hillsborough: Contextualising the Safe Standing debate

What do you associate with Saturday afternoons?

For some it may be the mowing of the lawn or maybe touching up the paintwork of a porch or a garden fence. Others may use the weekend to hit the high street, the supermarkets, or to get on the road for a short getaway. There are those who will stir at noon, groggily recounting tales of the night before, happy not to have missed lunch.

For many, and most certainly for myself, Saturday afternoons will forever be synonymous with BBC One. As one o’clock struck, I’d already be primed. I’d have had fair warning – calling in from the garden every ten or fifteen minutes after lunch to ask Mum what time it was. Then the time came – that unmistakable drum beat, the carnival trumpeting – Grandstand had started.

Twenty nine years ago this weekend, Grandstand aired like it did every Saturday. I wasn’t watching. Well, not to my knowledge. Nine months old, I’d like to think if he was any sort of father, my Dad had me perched on knee waiting to herald Bob Wilson into the tiny living room of our split-level bungalow – but I can’t be sure.

It was one of the good ones. Day one of the World Snooker Championship from Sheffield. Live racing from Newbury. Christ, even the Formula 3 racing was being shown from Silverstone. And with BBC cameras at both Villa Park and Hillsborough to capture the action from the FA Cup semi-finals, it was set up to be a memorable edition.

Infamously, it certainly proved that.

And whilst over the subsequent twenty nine years, there has been many questions and answers, many lies and truths, much furious finger-pointing and uncountable tender embraces, the haunting images of a police strewn field, an empty Leppings Lane and rubbish blowing in the wind – pierced only by the choked up words of John Motson – has been enough to stun even the most hardened into complete silence. Whatever the circumstances, ninety six Liverpool fans were dead – and football was about to change forever.

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Tragedy. Catastrophe. Shame. Horror. The words are all there to describe how cataclysmic an event Hillsborough was. I think something I’ve struggled with, growing up as an avid football fan, is how something like that could ever have actually happened. Of course, myself and many fans like me, have grown up in the post-Hillsborough footballing age – the age of the Premier League, of jaw-dropping sporting arenas, of corporate hospitality. I wasn’t around for enough of the eighties to form my own opinion of it, or dare I say, be entitled to one now.

Like anything, Hillsborough happened in the context of it’s own time. Attending football matches in the seventies and the eighties was not an insouciant choice for one to make. The culture of hooliganism  was prevalent in the English game.

Yes, this is the point, where any one who has committed to writing a piece on Hillsborough inevitably tenses.

The results of the latest inquest are clear. Unequivocally, we all can and must believe that Hillsborough occurred not because of the mindless acts of hooligan football fans, but because of a nightmarish cacophony of ill equipped facilities and policing negligence. Of that, we can have no doubt. At the same time, one must not shy away from other truths. Almost four years previous to the events of April 15, 1989, Liverpool fans were involved in another harrowing footballing tragedy. Thirty-two Italian football fans were killed, along with four Belgians, two French and east Belfast man Patrick Radcliffe, when Liverpool fans breached a fence and stormed the opposing Juventus contingent at the 1985 European Cup Final in Heysel, Belgium. In the aftermath, fourteen of these “fans” were convicted of manslaughter and English teams were banned from European competition as a result, for a five year period – Liverpool Football Club, itself, banned for six years.

Simply a fact. It is impossible to not consider Heysel, when understanding the context of Hillsborough.

There have been those who have always managed to parallel the two given the Liverpool connection, and I’m not going to be drawn into the rhetoric that surrounds two regrettable sporting tragedies. Certainly not on this forum.

But whilst media, historically, have often focused on the sensationalised attribution of blame directed at football fans when these tragedies happen, the real context of stadium disasters such as Heysel and Hillsborough centers around the impropriety of not only the football stadia throughout the seventies and eighties in dealing with major sporting events, but also of the stewarding of such large scale occasions by authorities – both state and governing bodies.

Therein lay my confusion. How was Hillsborough allowed to take place, not just four years after Heysel, or indeed the awful stand fire at Valley Parade, Bradford which claimed fifty six lives, but a full eighteen years after sixty six Rangers fans were crushed to death on a stairwell at Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow? Perhaps most shockingly, how was it allowed to take place after the Spurs Wolves semi-final of 1981 at the same venue, where supporters of the London club spilled out onto the playing surface after crushing in the Leppings Lane end? Surely by 1989, those in charge of organising and policing football, had learned something in way of avoiding a repeat of such incidents?

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Hindsight tells us that it was Hillsborough that proved to be the milestone when it came to the discussion around the safety of patrons attending football matches in Britain. The Taylor Report, published in January 1990, into the causes, recommended that the age-old “two-thirds one-third” ratios in respect of seating to standing area in stadiums to be done away, with a focus on moving towards stadiums catering for seated only accommodation within a reasonable timescale. Standing at football was to become a thing of the past, and as English football stood on the precipice of a new dawn in the summer of 1992, two of the more iconic terraces in the game were torn down and replaced by folding seats. Old Trafford said ta rah to the Stretford End, whilst Highbury bade cheerio to the North Bank, in time for the kick-off of the Premier League era.

Twenty nine years on from Hillsborough and the standing debate has yet to go away. Undoubtedly, standing in a stadium makes for a more engaging experience, Not many people chant their favourite songs or tell the referee he’s a w****r from a sitting position. Followers of the blog will know I was at Celtic Park a couple of weeks ago for the visit of Ross County. In an otherwise, drab and processional affair, my experience was enhanced by getting access to the approved railed seating area at half time, where fans are given the option of taking a seat or standing at a rail, each with their own determined space. I bounced and sang and engaged the whole of that second half, and those forty five minutes proved to be the best moments of my day that didn’t involve alcohol in my right hand. The concept works really well, and neither I, nor any of the fans around me could complain in any shape or form about restricted viewing or movement. Thoroughly well stewarded and befitting of the footballing experience in 2018 – even if we did manage to sneak into the area without actually having a valid ticket to be there!

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Unfortunately, Westminster hasn’t yet seen fit to reintroduce safe standing areas in Premier League grounds. Indeed, only last week, West Brom had their proposal to convert approximately 3,600 seats in their Smethwick End to rail seating, similar to that of Celtic, rejected by the government, despite the success of the initiative at Celtic Park and at many other stadiums throughout top-flight European football.

Danger inside and around football stadiums has not been confined to the past totally, however. We only have to look at the examples from the London Stadium earlier this season with West Ham fans encroaching on to the field of play, or the fact that Liverpool, themselves, were slapped with a UEFA fine, poignantly in this of all weeks, for the despicable scenes outside Anfield before the recent Champions League quarter final clash with Man City.

Nevertheless, the footballing world has come so far in the past twenty nine years and, in turn, has been able to understand and process the lessons that Hillsborough taught us, in a way that those governing the game back in 1989, did not, in light of stadium disasters. Indeed, a major football stadium disaster has not taken place in Europe since 1992, when a temporary stand collapsed at Bastia’s Stade Furiani before the start of a Coupe de France match against Marseille, killing eighteen.

Alas, my questions seem to be changing. I’ve begun to accept what happened on this day twenty nine years ago in the context of it’s time, realising that the direction of most things in this world, unfortunately, change more often as the consequence of a single, often devastating, event, rather than anticipating the signs history gives us. My confusion now? Why Hillsborough still holds such a grip over what happens in Premier League football stadiums, after almost three decades, and innumerable safety, technological and societal advances. As television and corporate hospitality intrudes increasingly nonchalantly into the modern football involvement, it would be nice for the week-in, week-out fan to grab back that little piece of kingdom for themselves.

Safe Standing Now!

Dedicated to all those who have went to a game, and haven’t come home.

 

 

BOREXIT

After 20 years, is it time, FINALLY, for Hoops to say goodbye to tedious SPL?

Easter Weekend has passed and with it, a sporting feast. Many of you will have taken in the GAA finals in Croke Park, have forked out a few quid on the Joshua v Parker fight on Sky Box Office or be wallowing in a pool of beaten dockets and hungover self-pity after Fairyhouse yesterday. A world of opportunity, in a weekend that aroused many sporting socialites up and down the island.

On Saturday morning, at Belfast docks, ten or fifteen coaches lined up to board the seven – thirty crossing to Stranraer. There was a similar cargo on board at half four – all on a route of sporting pilgrimage to Glasgow. Bleary eyed and bottle of suds in hand, many make the weekly trip across the Irish Sea from these shores. And whilst the craic is great and the beer is sweet, one has to question the logic of anyone travelling to watch the dross that is the Scottish Premier League, at £100 a head.

A few facts.

Celtic hold the record in the UK for most consecutive competitive games without defeat. Their 69 game unbeaten run, came to an end the week before Christmas.

Dundee beat already crowned champions Celtic in the final game at Celtic Park in the 2000/01 season. Celtic were not beaten again at home until almost three years later when Aberdeen beat them in a mid-April league clash. Perfect symmetry in that Celtic were, again, already champions.

In 2017, Celtic clinched their sixth title in a row in record quick time, with eight games still to be played, doing so with the most points ever amassed in a Scottish top flight season.

From the turn of the millennium, Celtic have collected twenty six trophies from the fifty two domestic competitions they have entered. Half.

Out of the remaining twenty six available, Rangers can account for seventeen. Between them, that’s just shy of 83% of SPL, Scottish Cups and Scottish League Cups over the past 18 years. What’s more, by the end of this current season, Celtic will have won the league again – and there’s a highly likelihood another Scottish Cup will head to Glasgow too with the two meeting each other in the semi final on Sunday week.

Are you bored yet?

I certainly was on Saturday. For after the pints and the songs and the cards, came the realisation of having to watch an hour and a half of a mind-numbingly one-sided football match, on a drizzly afternoon in East Glasgow. Celtic ran out 3-0 winners against Ross County, who, to their credit, managed two efforts on goal during the game. There has been worse.

The Scottish papers make a song and dance over people who don’t know Scottish football slating the quality – and I’ll be the first to say I’m no expert when it comes to football north of Hadrian’s wall. But I know what £35 buys me at a game in Manchester, and I know what the people who walked into Celtic Park got for their £35 on Saturday.

If anything – it’s the real fans that are the losers.

Gone are the days of Souness, Gazza, Larsson and Sutton. Big names for big games. The greatest rivalry in football. Christ, dare I suggest, that the clampdown by authorities on the things that made Scottish football bearable to watch throughout much of the eighties and nineties has played a part too.

The fact of the matter is this, the most memorable and entertaining thing I’ve seen in Scottish Football this past while was Rod Stewart off his face making the Scottish Cup Draw last January. And entertaining it was.

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And to coin Sir Roderick, surely it’s time his dear old Celtic went “Sailing”.

The monotony of the will-they-won’t-they Premier League flirtation still lingers. But perhaps more realistic for Celtic and their fans, has been rekindled talk of an Atlantic Football League. In the past, Dutch giants Ajax and PSV have mooted such an alliance, along with big hitters in Scandinavia, Belgium, the Portuguese and the Greeks. Each time the suggestion has been mooted – UEFA are quick to mute it.

With teams from outside the big four European leagues only managing to win the Champions League on three occasions since it’s inception over a quarter of a century ago, surely it’s time for a new brand. Even the Europa League has become easy prey for Spanish, English, Italian and German teams, who fall short in capturing the big prize.

The question must be asked – how long will UEFA starve these clubs of the revenues, atmospheres and competitiveness that such a league would generate? Things do not look encouraging, going on previous.

One thing is certain, that whilst the boats will still leave Belfast on a Saturday morning, I for one will not be on them. I doth my hat to the hearty souls that will, and pray that one of these days you get a competition that you deserve. Maybe then, we can all have a glimpse again of Paradise.

 

World Cup Rank Bank – South Korea

The Son rises in the East

In what must be a welcomed distraction from the threat of a psychotic neighbour standing over the fence in his garden, letting off fireworks and mouthing “I’m going to end you” in the dead of night, 2018 looks like proving itself to be a real turning point in terms of South Korea’s recent history, with sporting conquest front and central.

Having staged a successful Winter Olympiad (where FIB favourite Elise Christie had lots of time to relax on the ice), the Korean’s sporting attention will now turn in a northwesterly direction, and this Summer’s finals in Russia. In what is their tenth overall appearance on the grand stage, and incredibly their ninth in a row, the past hosts will be hoping to bask in the glow of the Son.

 

Manager: Shin Tae-yong

Another manager less than a year in his role, Shin Tae-yong has been christened by some as the “Asian Mourinho”. He stepped up from his role managing the U-20 and U-23 sides back in June of last year, when South Korea’s usual canter to a World Cup Finals threatened to derail after three defeats from eight in the final qualification stage. Alas, Shin dragged them across the line – just!

The 48 year-old had a distinguished playing career, spending 22 years at Korean giants Seongnam before a brief spell in Australia. He returned to Seongnam as manager in 2009, and, in what has been his greatest achievement to date, delivered the AFC Champions League in 2010, before being persuaded into the international set up by the KFA in 2014.

 

Star Player: Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspurs)

Surely, the greatest Asian footballer to grace the Premier League, the Spurs attacker has been in tremendous form this season and is the undoubted superstar for his country. Technically superb, able to fashion chances from little and having a knack of being in the right place at the right time, Son has a ratio of roughly a goal in every three since his move from the Bundesliga, in 2015. His international stats are strikingly simp85971ilar having scored 20 goals for his country in 62 appearances. In a team lacking in many household names, Son and captain Ki Sung-yueng will bear much of the creative responsibility.

S-on a side note, he will also be making a return to my Fantasy League Team this weekend – I know there’s at least a few people out there that will interested in that tit-bit. You know who you are. I see ya…

 

Road to Russia

South Korea began their qualifying campaign way, way back in June 2015, with a 2-0 win against Myanmar in their opening game of the AFC’s second round of qualifying. They sailed the group, winning all eight matches and in particular putting lowly Laos to the sword both home and away.

The final stage of qualifying wasn’t just as straight forward for the Taeguk Warriors. Having made a solid start to the group, if a little open at the back, the Koreans began to stumble after three successive away defeats to main rivals Iran, more worryingly China and catastrophically, cut-adrift Qatar. Uli Stielike was fired and Shin handed the task of not chicken ballsing the whole thing up, with the Uzbeks and, almost fairy tale like, the Syrians closing in. On a whirlwind final day, South Korea had to avoid defeat in Uzbekistan and hope that Syria couldn’t pull off a surprise away win against an already-qualified Iran. A stalemate in Tashkent, and the heartbreak of a draw for Syria in Tehran, in a game that they had led, and the Koreans were home in a boat.

 

Record v Ireland: Won (0) Drawn (0) Lost (0)

Short and sweet – nothing to report here. The Koreans fell only last week to Michael O’Neill’s band of Northern brothers at Windsor Park. Not that we can claim it.

 

How will they go?

Despite having the mercurial Son at their disposal, the writing is really on the wall for the South Koreans going into the Finals. Things were bad enough for our Oriental friends drawing Germany in Group F, but for a team that has fallen to Russia, Morocco and a Northern Irish team with Trevor Carson in goal over the past few months, I don’t expect them to cause Sweden much bother. Mexico should be a tighter affair.

Prediction: 4th – Seoul-ong little ones. Until next time.

World Cup Rank Bank – Serbia

Eager to scratch the 2010 ić

Having scratched and snarled their way to automatic qualification, laughing off Ireland’s tilt in the process, the Serbs arrive in Russia ready to go to war again. And that’s just their fans.

There will be no room for niceties on-field either, pitched into what on paper is a tough group. Can an experienced Serbian side draw on the pain of their demoralising exit at the 2010 finals, and advance to the knockout stages this round?

 

Manager: Mladen Krstajić

The former defensive hard man and one quarter of the feted “Famous Four” backline that qualified for the 2006 finals undefeated, giving as much up at the rear as a constipated nun. Krstajić leads the latest Slav charges, having stepped into the fray at Christmas, after slap head Slavoljub Musin was ousted at the end of their successful qualifying campaign, for being too successful with older players. Go figure.

It’s safe to assume that Krstajić will rely heavily on robustness and physicality if the Eagles are to make headway in the competition, and let me tell you, he isn’t short of it. Plenty of robusty beauties at his disposal.

 

Star Player: Nemanja Matić (Manchester United)

Rangey, consistent and combative – so good Mourinho brought him back to Chelsea after they had relinquished him as a youngster – the midfielder has been2017-08-26T182610Z_1342841797_RC15D36132B0_RTRMADP_3_SOCCER-ENGLAND-MUN-LEI a major influence in his first season at Old Trafford.  Matić has the ability to dictate the game, and will be crucial, not only in out-muscling advancing opponents and breaking up play, but collecting the ball from the back four and launching attacks of his own. His presence will also allow some of Serbia’s more expressive options further forward the freedom to flaunt their wares.

 

 

Little Known Fact: I’m a Slav For You

Interestingly, FIFA recognises Serbia as the sole successor to the famous Yugoslavian sides of the past. And yes, the break up of the Republic back in 1992, has since spawned seven recognised national football teams, but Serbia can, with a fair degree of clout, claim to have quite a prestigious footballing heritage. And who’s going to argue with them?

Yugoslavia can boast two fourth place finishes at World Cups and a gold medal at the Summer Olympics held in Rome in 1960 amongst their accolades. But perhaps Yugoslavian, and indeed Serbian, football’s greatest moment came in the Stadio San Nicola, Bari on the 29th May 1991. Red Star Belgrade, with a sumptuous, youthful midfield quartet of Prosinečki, Jugović, Mihajlović and Savićević became Kings of Europe. The latter three became synonymous with viewers of Gazzetta Football Italia of a Saturday morning in the 90s, or at least when Gazza hadn’t been out on a Friday night.

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Record v Ireland: Won (2) Drawn (3) Lost (0)

Having played the Serbs on five occasions now, since they launched their solo career back in 2006, we have yet to topple them, and in truth we haven’t really come close. Andy Keogh scrambled a draw with a last-minute equaliser in Croke Park in 2008, and scrambling to stay on terms has been the name of the game ever since with this lot. Their dominating performance over us in September put pay to any real hope of automatic qualification, and cued Martin O’Neill’s exit from…oh no, wait…

 

How will they go?

Despite being the lowest ranked team in their group, Serbia certainly have the capability to spring a few surprises and should not be underestimated. Having beaten Germany in Port Elizabeth in their second group game in 2010, they went into the final round-robin game with Australia knowing that a draw would be suffice to see them through. They blew it. This Summer offers a chance of redemption for veterans of that day, the likes of Stojković in goal, and defensive stalwarts Kolarov and Ivanović, and whilst the Serbs have exciting talent in the likes of a rejuvenated Mitrović up front, the aforementioned Matić and new Spanish-born wonder kid Milinković-Savić, the aging legs could be exposed most acutely by the brilliant Brazilians. Expect tough, not-so-pretty encounters with the Swiss and the Costa Ricans.

Prediction: 3rd – just fancy the Swiss to pip them to qualification.

What next for Ulster duo?

Can Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson get their careers back on track, in wake of not guilty verdict?

In June 2016, not many people in Belfast had it as good as Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Highly successful, young, professional athletes, plying their trade in their home city, popular both on and off the rugby field.

Whilst everyone in the province and on the island will have their own opinion about what went on in that house in Oakleigh Park that night, the bottom line is…no winners were ever going to come from this. Like any trial, we can only hope that when all is said and done, the lay men and women sitting to one side in the court room get the thing right.

From a sporting context, the not guilty verdict throws up its own questions. Not just about the futures of both Jackson and Olding, but how the IRFU and Ulster Rugby will handle the fall out from this unprecedented case, as respective organisations.

Attention is drawn to the 25-year-old centre, who between injury and his implication in the events of what happened off the Ravenhill Road on that summer’s night, has played very little rugby in the last three and a half years. Whilst no doubt a player of high promise when making his international debut in 2013, and crossing the whitewash a year later for his first international try, the former BRA man sees himself back at square one career wise, and one wonders whether a move abroad to reinvent himself would prove the road best traveled.

Jackson on the other hand has a somewhat different set of circumstances to negotiate. A lynchpin of the Ulster side, and a seasoned international with Ireland by the time allegations came to light last Summer, Jackson must surely be itching to hit the play button, in time for next Autumn’s World Cup in Japan. Undoubtedly, a fit Jackson would have played a role in Ireland’s Six Nation Grand Slam success, in competition with Joey Carberry to play understudy to star man Jonny Sexton. The out-half must be praying that normal service resumes itself as quickly as possible.

Pertinent too, to mention the sporting backdrop that the legal proceeds played itself out in front of. Ulster have struggled terribly this season, and in the past few months have missed out on qualification for the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup and are in serious danger of not making the play-offs in the Pro14. Off the field, problems have been exacerbated with the resignation of director of rugby Les Kiss, head coach Jono Gibbes confirming he will follow suit at the end of the season, and with former stars Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace, amongst others, vocal in their calls for the province’s chief executive Shane Logan to stand down.

In a joint statement released after the verdict, the IRFU and Ulster Rugby confirmed they will hold their own review, with both players remaining suspended until the results of a specially appointed Review Committee have been found.

The only thing that is certain – both Jackson and Olding’s careers as professional sportspeople have been, and will continue to be, defined by what has happened, with many suggesting that the “not guilty” verdict will not be enough to save their careers on these shores.

A Cock and Balls

Sheepish Smudge Fronts Up After Camera-On’s Caught Playing with his Balls

In the throws of early teendom, I spent many a relaxing post-dinner Sunday, feet up, fire on, watching my Mum slave round the kitchen as I took in a United game on PremPlus. Invariably, this utopia was pierced by the high pitched shrieking of the under duress Motherbear, frustrated not only by the lack of aid she received in the wake of feeding a household of lazy, obnoxious and (at 3pm on a Sunday) gassy men, but by the frustration of never being able to know the comforting nirvana of cradling your own testicles.

“Would you ever stop tampering with your balls, you dirty bastard of a child?!?!”

I could tell you I grew out of it. But every male reader knows the real truth. Some men just never grow up…

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Had I been exposed to the sadness in Cameron Bancroft’s eyes at an early age, I don’t think I’d I’ve ever had the courage to put my hands south of my bellybutton.

It’s not been a good day for Australian Cricket to say the least. A bumbling Bancroft and, what you could only refer to as, “that arrogant arsehat” Steve Smith faced up to the media in Cape Town earlier in the most cringe saturated presser of this millennium.

During play earlier, as Australia struggled to contain an exuberant South African second innings, Bancroft was caught out (smoothly inserted pun) in a big way. Television footage, being beamed live around the world, as well as on the big screen inside the Newlands Stadium, clearly showed the Aussie batsman tampering with the ball in the outfield. Cue the boos in the crowd and the groans of “AWWW Mate..” from the Australian press box.

Ball tampering, for the unwashed, is a major no-no in the cricket world. On a moral par with playing a minor in an u-14 game and hoping no one will notice, ball tampering is when the bowling team illegally alters the condition of the ball in an attempt to garner more swing when it’s delivered. This is achieved by polishing one side of the ball, and trying to scuff the other side of it. So that goes some way to explaining all that mysterious crotch rubbing that goes on. A justifiable cloud of doubt still hangs over Shane Warne a.k.a. Top Shagger, for fans of my previous posts.

Joking aside, this is a huge embarrassment for Australia, a team who have in the past been very quick to point the finger of blame at rival teams – not least Australian coach Darren Lehmann, who only this week whinged about the abuse his players were getting from the home crowd, using words like “disgraceful”, “gone to far” and my personal favourite “they have got to be better than that”. Oh Darren, hindsight is a wonderful thing old boy.

The clamour has begun in earnest, calling for skipper Smith to step down, after he admitted that team leadership had concocted the plan to rough up the ball over the break in play for lunch. But, in true Smith style, he refuted the suggestion that he would resign as captain, remorsefully blurting out that he needed to “control of the ship”, whilst the rest of us in unison internally chanted the immortal lines – The Ship is a Tanker, Steven is a…Cheat!

Call me crazy, but I cannot see this ending well for Smith, so shortly after masterminding an Ashes drubbing of England in the Winter. Captain Smith, your plank awaits.