Tag Archives: football


In the year of my ninth birthday I became interested in English football, acquired an album and began to fill it with photos of First Division footballers that were sold with chewing gum, and swapped by boys; we didn’t get to see the matches or goals in our single-channel television world, but that didn’t seem to matter. The season was 1969–70, and 45 years later I can still name all 22 clubs in alphabetical order: Arsenal, Burnley, Chelsea, Coventry City, Crystal Palace, Derby County, Everton, Ipswich Town, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur, West Bromwich Albion, West Ham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers.

I chose to follow Arsenal; they finished just 12th that season but would win the League + Cup double next time out.

Surprisingly little has changed in terms of the top-division clubs in 45 years. Fifteen of the 22 listed above are now in the 20-club Premier League. Of the seven that aren’t, six – Derby, Ipswich, Wolves, Forest, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday – are, as I write, in the top half of what is effectively the second division. Only Coventry are outside the top two divisions: in fact they are in danger of slipping further.

So, as far as English football goes, it’s pretty much a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.



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World Cup: Why do certain countries dominate?

So, no more World Cup for four years. I thought this was a good one overall, although the goals mostly dried up and caution took over from the quarter-finals onwards (with the obvious exception of Germany–Brazil). The Netherlands couldn’t manage a single goal in four hours of trying against Costa Rica and Argentina. But at least the final was a good game.

In the end it came down to some of the old reliables, after Colombia, Belgium and Costa Rica had looked like they might shake things up. The upshot is that Europe now leads South America 11–9, and Brazil, Italy and Germany between them have won 13 of the 20 World Cups. Why have three countries been so dominant? Continue reading

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Soccer-playing days (and nights)

I first started to follow soccer (called by that name in Ireland to distinguish it from (Gaelic) football) around the time Chelsea played Leeds in the 1970 FA Cup Final. I also started to play it, informally, having acquired my first pair of football boots.

The field behind my house on St Conlan’s Road in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, which has long since been covered in houses, was owned by an elderly farmer named Sonny Hogan. There were no markings, and jumpers served as goalposts in the time-honoured manner. Two arbitrary captains picked teams from whoever showed up – local kids named Toohey, Fahy, O’Regan, Whelan, Hogan, Bergin, Kennedy. There was never a referee.

Sonny used to chase us. Luckily he wasn’t very mobile, but sometimes he would get quite close before being noticed. Someone would shout ‘Sonny!’ and we would pick up the jumpers and the ball and scatter in all directions. Once he left a note on a cigarette packet that said ‘Keep of the grass’, which was ignored.

We played there an awful lot – sometimes morning, noon and night – and must have retarded the growth of a good-sized rectangle of grass, although the field was mown every summer and haystacks appeared (which lent themselves to other games). I often heard the corncrake’s rasp there, but never saw one. Continue reading

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Sean took this photo a few years ago.

He would have been very interested in the Champions League QFs, and would have enjoyed Real’s demolition of Spurs last night. He would have been flabbergasted at the fact of Inter conceding five goals to Schalke at home … he’d have shaken his head in a ‘what’s the world coming to?’ sort of way and said that it could never have happened in Mourinho’s time.

He would have been looking forward to the Heineken and Amlin Cup QFs at the weekend. I would probably have picked him up in Virginia tomorrow and said to him, ‘The Leinster team’s been announced’; he would have said ‘Go on …’; I would have told him and we’d have discussed it on the way home. Very often there was some aspect of a team selection with which Sean and I disagreed strongly … Simon Easterby picked regularly ahead of Alan Quinlan for Ireland a few years ago, for example …

And so it would have gone on. We miss you, Sean. We love you.


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Sean and soccer 2

The photo shows Sean’s school soccer squad, 2007/2008 season. Sean is second from the right, front row. The boy immediately to his right (with the football in front of him) is Christopher Sheils, who was born on the same day as Sean and died, in a road accident, a year and a week before him.

RIP Christopher and Sean. Always remembered.

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Sean and soccer

[In Ireland we tend to use the term ‘soccer’ to distinguish that sport from Gaelic football.]

We used to kick a ball around with Sean from the time he could walk. When he was about six we took him to a local club in Dublin (Leicester Celtic, where Damien Duff started) to play in a seven-a-side league on all-weather pitches. I remember that Sean played for a team called Albion.

At the time of the 1998 World Cup Sean was approaching his seventh birthday, and we were in the process of moving from Dublin to Cavan. Sean became infatuated with Brazil (encouraged by me), and sobbed bitterly for the last 20 minutes of the final as it became clear that they would lose to France.

He took an interest in the English club scene and, not surprisingly, began to follow Man Utd. He was thrilled with their late come-back against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, and ran around our rented house whooping with joy (which I didn’t share). Later he switched to supporting Arsenal (like me) simply because they played such attractive football. His footballing heroes were people like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos. Continue reading


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England’s dreaming (again)

I wrote this piece ten years ago, before the Euro 2000 football tournament.

In 1970, when I was nine years old and living in a small town in Ireland, I started to fill an album with football cards featuring players in that year’s World Cup. Pictured on the cover was the smiling Bobby Moore of 1966, being chaired by his team-mates and holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. The England players wore jerseys of a glorious cherry red that reminded me of the taste of some rich cordial, with the ‘three lions’ crest that the FA shares, for some reason, with the O’Briens.

The small trophy had an understated beauty, and the players had a sort of grandeur: I was disappointed to find that they usually wore white. But when England played Brazil and West Germany that summer, somehow I already knew instinctively who to cheer for. And when I watch England’s matches in Euro 2000, nothing much will have changed. I’ve often felt somewhat furtive and guilty about hoping that England will lose, especially since I’ve known many very fine English people. But it’s not to do with them: it’s to do with St George and the dragon. I’ll now try to explain why I always cheer for the dragon. Continue reading


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