Articles and features by Irish sportswriter Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh

FAI want Ireland to qualify for 2 major tournaments every decade.

JOHN Delaney has warned Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane that Ireland fans won’t be satisfied with making up the numbers in international football.

The FAI Chief Executive says the country must qualify for at least one major tournament before 2022 – and he wants to see the team in at least two tournaments per decade from now on.
Giovanni Trapattoni ended a ten-year wait for qualification when he led Ireland to Euro 2012, after both Steve Staunton and Brian Kerr failed to build on Mick McCarthy’s success at leading Ireland to World Cup 2002.

Jack Charlton created, and then spoiled, a nation of football fanatics when he brought Ireland to three major tournaments in six years (Euro ‘88, World Cup ‘90, World Cup ‘94), and Delaney wants to see a return to those glory days under the new duo that have revitalised a passionate support base.

With 24 countries set to play in the newly enlarged European Championships, qualification is easier than ever before, and the FAI insist they’re determined to make the most of it.

“We certainly hope the days of waiting 10 years between qualifications is gone. I hope we get to France in two year’s time; that’s the aim,” said Delaney, speaking at the announcement of a €2.7m grant from the Irish Sports Council to boost the FAI’s grassroots plans.

“All the appointments we’ve made; Giovanni Trapattoni, Marco Tardelli, Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane…that’s not been to make up the numbers, that’s to qualify.

“We’re not in it not to qualify.
“The increased number of 24 teams for the Euros gives us a better chance.

“In this particular case we’ve a difficult group, we know that, but the aim for the players, Association and management is to qualify.

“The World Cup is more difficult, there’s only 13 spots, but we have to make it that every time we get into a European group, we aim to qualify.

“Should we look for a minimum of two qualifications a decade? I think we have to.”

The FAI are preparing a bid to be one of the hosts for the multi-nation 2020 European Championships, and will be delivering their bid to UEFA by Saturday’s deadline.

Hosting games doesn’t come with an automatic promise the country’s team will play in the tournament, but the recently announced ‘Nations League’ does offer a new route into the Finals, with four countries qualifying through the new competition.

This new concept sees Europe’s footballing nations split into leagues according to their rankings, and will involve home and away clashes that aim to put an end to ‘meaningless’ friendlies.

Winners of each division enter a playoff to qualify for the major tournament, meaning Ireland have yet another way of making it to the big time.

“When the public come here they’ll know they’re games of importance – important to the players, the management, the Association, the so-called meaningless friendlies tag is extinct after this,” Delaney claimed.

“If we win our group you get promoted, if you win your group and you don’t qualify through the traditional route, then it’s a secondary way of doing it.

“I’m delighted about the Nations League, at the moment we’ll be in a Division tTwo, and if we won that, we’d be promoted to Division One.

“The games will be competitive, and there may well be prize money.

“We also have UEFA centralised TV rights done to 2018, but this now guarantees that there’s another centralised TV deal up to 2022.

“We’d expect an increase in it, but that has to be negotiated over this year, but it gives us great financial certainty again to 2022.”

The end to ‘meaningless friendlies’ and divisional structures based on rankings may also bring an end to money spinners and glamour clashes like the visit of Brazil or Argentina, and next year’s game with England.

But there are talks for these games to still take place, according to Delaney.

“The first thing is this – the bigger nations were playing against each other anyway, the Germanys and Italys and Frances and Englands were playing anyhow, in the main,” he claimed.

“There’s talks of other games on the fringes, I don’t think Argentina or Brazil have been approached yet, but there’s talk of using the friendly dates if you weren’t in playoffs for those type of contests.”

THEATRE OF NIGHTMARES SHOCKED ME - O’SHEA.

JOHN O’Shea knew Old Trafford would be a different place once Alex Ferguson left – but he NEVER imagined it would become the Theatre of Nightmares.

And the ex-Red claims the players in the Manchester United dressing room must be going crazy trying to figure out what’s going wrong just months after lifting the title.

O’Shea spent 12 seasons at United, winning five Premier League medals, and never once saw the club hit double figures in league defeats in a season.

But they’ve already lost 10 times this season under David Moyes, set several unwanted records and will miss out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 19 years.

And they’re almost 30 points off bitter rivals Liverpool.

From the less than comfortable position of Sunderland’s relegation battle, O’Shea has watched on in shock, and hopes his former team mates can turn things around.

“I thought they’d struggle a bit with the manager leaving but no-one could have foreseen them struggling so much,” he said.

“Look at Liverpool, they’ve turned seventh place into a chance of winning the League and the position United are in now is seventh place.

“It’s an incredible turnaround and something I’m sure United are worried about; they have to be.

“At the time I was at the club, every time we lost a game it was a crisis. And that was just one game.

“Multiply a few games and it’s a hell of an effect that is has around the place.”

O’Shea shared a dressing room with many of the faces still turning out for United, and the Irishman admits there will be lots of soul searching going on inside Old Trafford to make sense of life after Fergie.

“They’ve had the one voice for so long and next thing that’s changed and I can imagine subconsciously they’re doing the same – they’re training the same, they’re preparing the same.

“So they’ll ask ‘why isn’t it happening’? Why are they not getting the same results?” he asked.

“You can imagine they’re racking their brains because the majority of the squad won the league.”

O’Shea argues injuries to Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney affected the teams’ results at key moments, but adds that they’ve lost the battling qualities they once had to overcome such obstacles.

“I don’t think they’ve been helped by the injuries to Rooney and Van Persie at the time. It was a crucial period,” he claims.

“If you took Suarez and Sturridge out of Liverpool, or Aguero and Dzeko out of Man City, that type of firepower out of a team, it’s tough.

“OK, maybe through the years they’ve been able to cope with it whether it be sneaking 1-0 wins in injury time or whatever the case may be, they’ve found it more difficult to do that this season. “Those 1-0 wins that they were sneaking are becoming 1-0 defeats. That’s where everything seemed to be going against them. The players will be hurting.

“You know the type of players they are, where they’ve been challenging all along. It’s going to be a big test for everyone to overcome it.”

Summer will be the defining period for the club and manager, as far as O’Shea is concerned, when all eyes will turn to the club’s hierarchy.

Will they avoid the current trend for quickfire managerial switches or will they show the same patience Ferguson was offered?

“I’m sure the club will take their time, whatever decision they’re going to make,” O’Shea said.

“I think they’re going to give him the time. But, as many have said, why are Manchester United going to be different to the rest of the teams?

“That’s obviously the question being bandied about so much but I think they’ve proved in the past that they have been different and they got their reward for it.

“But they are the questions that are going to have to be faced in the summer I presume – are they going to back their manager? Are they going to go for the new players they are obviously going to need with certain players leaving and different things? It’s going to be interesting.”

SUNDERLAND’s captain insists he will go down with the ship IF it sinks.

John O’Shea was reluctant to think of life outside the Premier League, but the Black Cats skipper admitted he would help them fight their way back into the top flight if they were relegated.

The Waterford man’s contract expires at the end of next season, and he admits he has no get-out clause in the case of relegation.

“I’d be more than happy to do everything I can to get Sunderland back up, if that was the case, but we’re not thinking like that,” said O’Shea, in Dublin to launch McDonald’s/FAI Future Football Programme.

“We’re confident we can stay in the league and it wouldn’t be an issue either way.

“Look it’s something we don’t want to contemplate, but it’s possibly eight games away now.

“That’s something we have to realise very quickly if we want to stay in the Premier League.

“There’ll be a relegation clause in terms of wages, but that’s part and parcel of the game, and there were no problems when I was signing for Sunderland, I wasn’t thinking about those things, you’re thinking of battling for top half of the table, not relegation.”

O’Shea was top of the pile in 2011, when he was a Premier League champion with Manchester United, but he has had to adjust his expectations every season since.

The Black Cats face a huge task to escape a tight relegation battle this season, but the 32-year-old admits his former club could help his cause.

“Is there more belief playing United now? Definitely…definitely,” he admitted.

“Purely because of the hype around the place and the pressure that’s on the manager there, the players there, you could definitely sense it.

“United will wanting to be finishing the season as strong as possible but they’re not going to be challenging for the top four unless there’s a very strange run of results.

“It will be a chance to go there and it’s been proven now they’re home record has been nowhere near good as previous seasons.

“Their away record is up at the top. It shows they have struggled at home. We have to use that to our advantage.”

Elliott Boyd (Campbell College)

Peter Claffey (Garbally College)

Will Connors (Clongowes Wood College)

Charlie Cregan (St Michael’s College)

Max Deegan (St Michael’s College)

David Duggan (St Michael’s College)

Tim Foley (Cistercian College Roscrea)

Matthew Gilsenan (St Michael’s College)

Johnny Guy (St Andrews College)

Greg Jones (St Andrews College)

Hugo Kean (Blackrock College)

Conor Kenny (Garbally College)

Paul Kiernan (Presentation Brothers Cork)

Jordan Larmour (St Andrews College)

Conor McIlmurray (Campbell College)

Alan McMahon (Rockwell College)

John Molony (Clongowes Wood College)

Colm Mulcahy (Clongowes Wood College)

Calvin Nash (Crescent College Comprehensive)

Sean O’Connor (Rockwell College)

Conan O’Donnell (Summerhill College)

Oisin O’Meara (St Michaels College)

Rowan Osborne (Clongowes Wood College)

Andrew Porter (St Andrews College)

Jack Power (Blackrock College)

James Ryan (St Michael’s College)

Jacob Stockdale (Wallace High School)

GARETH Bale must aim to replace Mesut Ozil, not Ronaldo, if he’s to become a Real Madrid hero.

That’s the verdict of ex-Wales and Man United star Clayton Blackmore, who says his compatriot was lucky Ronaldo stayed at the Bernabeu when they splashed £85m on Bale last summer.

Bale is targeting a La Liga title in his first season in Spain, and heads into today’s clash with Barcelona in top form knowing victory could all but end Messi and co.’s hopes in the title race.

Spanish media have nicknamed Bale ‘Bullet of El Clasico’, but Blackmore insists he’s fortunate to have the Portuguese legend on his side.

“I think he’s lucky Ronaldo stayed at the club, he’d have had a lot to live up to if he wasn’t, and he won’t score as many goals as Ronaldo – he’ll never do that,” he claimed.

“But he makes goals, and it will be interesting to compare his stats with Ozil last year – he set up a lot, and scored a few too… that’s who he should be aiming for because he was twice the price of Ozil too.”

Bale has scored 10 La Liga goals this year already – Ozil grabbed 13 in his last two seasons in Spain, while the Welshman has created 11 league assists, compared to the German’s 30 in two seasons.

The ex-Spurs star has grown as the season progressed, but Blackmore says the hard work will begin next season.

“I was not really expecting him to move to Madrid,” he said, “he had a great season last year for Spurs, everything he touched turned to gold, but they didn’t win anything.

“He had one very good season basically, it would be more interesting to see how he would have done in England this year – because teams know all about him now.

“There’s no answer to Messi or Ronaldo, but it’s going to be interesting now to see how they react to Gareth next season in Spain.”

SHANE Long insists he won’t celebrate against West Brom if he scores in today’s crunch clash at the KC Stadium.

The Hull City striker has revealed his disappointment at being forced out of the Hawthorns, but admits that he still hopes his former club manage to pull away from the relegation zone as soon as possible.

“Will I celebrate if I score? Definitely not, West Brom was good to me,” he said.

“They gave me that platform to prove myself in the Premiership. The fans sang my name week-in, week-out and it would be an injustice by me to them if I was to celebrate against them.

“I’ll do my best for Hull and if I score I’ll be delighted but I wouldn’t rub it in their faces.

“I hope they don’t go down because it’s a good club down there, with great fans,” he added.

“I know the players really well and they’re all good lads. I wouldn’t like to see them get relegated. The sooner they can pick up a win and get that under their belt the better for them.”

Long left West Brom for Hull in an €8m switch in January, after Steve Bruce resurrected a move that he tried to complete last summer only for ex-Baggies boss Steve Clarke to pull the plug at the 11th hour.

The Ireland hitman was angered when the move fell through last August, but had mixed feelings when the switch came off in January.

“It was tough not knowing what was going to happen, because I was out of contract at the end of the season if they didn’t take the option [to extend it],” he said.

“That sort of thing unsettles a player and you start worrying about things other than football then. That shouldn’t be the case.

“Hull have given me a three-and-a-half year deal, told me I’m going to play and taken all of that away and let me concentrate on the football. So it’s enjoyable.

“I thought I’d done well for West Brom but I suppose not getting rewarded with a contract at the start of the season and being offered to Hull and that deal falling through was hard.

“I tried to put it to the back of my mind and I felt like I did. I gave it my all on the pitch.

“The fans were really good to me as well and the lads there are brilliant lads but when January came I kind of had the feeling they were going to want to do business from the fact they didn’t offer a contract.

“It was hard to try to put that to the back of my mind but I tried my best to do that.”

Long was sold even though the club faced uncertainty over the availability of striker Nicolas Anelka, who was since suspended and sacked by the club and banned by the FA for five games after his controversial ‘quenelle’ gesture in December.

It’s a decision that baffled Long, who remains the club’s second top scorer in Premier League, but he insists he’s happy with his lot at Hull, where he has the full confidence of boss Bruce.

“Maybe it was a surprise they sold me in that circumstance,” he said, “I suppose the interest was in me and they wanted to balance the books.

“It was a good offer they got for a player who had a year left on his contract. I suppose it was a good deal for them. Was I disappointed to leave? Yeah because I got on well with the lads but I’m lucky that a club like Hull wanted me and that I’ve fitted in there fairly smoothly.

“I think it’s a lot more easygoing than West Brom. I wasn’t really happy at West Brom looking back on things. This is a fresh start for me, playing football again week-in, week-out. It has revitalised me and I’m enjoying football again.”

Robbie Fowler says Steven Gerrard deserves to become a Premier League champion.

The ex-Reds hitman, who scored 183 goals in 369 games but never finished higher than second in the league, says the club is on the right path to becoming champions – and desperately hopes it happens before Gerrard retires.

The Reds midfielder, who will be 34 in May, has finished in the runners-up spot twice and third three times since making his debut in the 1999/00 season.

“Steven deserves it, he has been such a good player,” said Fowler.

“I think back to anytime Liverpool have been in a final or a big game, he has been magnificent.

“He stands up to be counted. I would love it if he won a title before he finishes his career. No one deserves it more.

“I am good friends with him. When he came into the side, I did look after him and I think Steven appreciated that.

“I am not taking any credit for the man and the player he is but I did help him along the way. You look at the young players in the Liverpool team now and they will learn so much from Steven, the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch, his attitude, his professionalism. It is all top notch.

“If anyone deserves to win the Premier League, it’s him.”

Gerrard was a raw teenager when Fowler was the leading light at Anfield, but the former no.9 nicknamed ‘God’ by the Reds faithful, saw a steely determination in the midfielder from the very start.

“Any player who has played at a high level will tell you that seven times out of ten, you know which players will make it – you know by the way they train, the way they conduct themselves, the way they crash into tackles. Steven was like that,” he said.

“One of the big players when Steven was breaking through was Paul Ince, who was a great player throughout his career, and he was training with Steven Gerrard and Steven kicked lumps out of him in training which shows you how he was always confident, always wanted to be the very best and he has gone out and done that.”

Robbie Fowler interview from before today’s game:

ROBBIE Fowler says victory over Manchester United today would send a signal to English football that Liverpool are ready to be champions again.

The trophy has not been at Anfield since 1990, but they currently sit second, seven points behind leaders Chelsea, with two games in hand and ten games to go.

Fowler admits there won’t be players shouting about it in Liverpool – but he’s seen enough from Brendan Rodgers’ leadership to claim it’s only ‘a matter of time’ before the Irishman brings the Premier League title to Liverpool.

Man United are first up, and Rodgers’ takes his charges to their stumbling rivals looking to complete a league double over the Red Devils, and record their first win at Old Trafford since 2009.

“I don’t think anyone in Liverpool will say ‘yes, we can do it’, but if you look at their form and how they’re playing, they’ve every reason to say they could win it, and potentially they could win it,” said Fowler.

“Chelsea and City are up there obviously, Chelsea are seven points clear, City have games in hand, so it will be tough.

“But they can do it. They’ve got that belief there.

“You only need look at Stevie Gerrard’s winner against Fulham and the way he reacted – he’s normally subdued in how he celebrates, but that told you a lot.

“The players believe.

“This United game – I think if they get a good result there, a lot more people will be talking about how Liverpool can challenge for the league.

“A win on Sunday would send out signals all over the country.

“I firmly believe under Brendan Rodgers Liverpool are moving in the right way and it is only a matter of time before they win the league. I like what I am seeing under him.

“He’s just an excellent manager, he has a bit of everything. He can change formation, tactics, and his man management skills – he’s got everything in abundance. He’s not scared to make decisions, look at the Luis Suarez situation.

“People were saying, when he first came, he is not experienced enough to be a Liverpool manager, he is very young, but the way he has dealt with everything has been fantastic.”

Rodgers is enjoying the praise of his peers and the club’s fans this season, but it’s a different story in Manchester where David Moyes has struggled to fill Alex Ferguson’s not inconsiderable shoes.

The Red Devils are 11 points behind Liverpool and look unlikely to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 1995.

United fans may fear a prolonged period out of the spotlight, but Fowler claims Old Trafford chiefs won’t allow what happened to Liverpool to happen to them.

“To be honest no, I don’t see that,” he argued. “And I am not being horrible to Liverpool. I just don’t think the owners of United will allow the club get into that position.

“This summer, I think United will spend a fortune and try and get to a level that the club, and the fans, have become accustomed to.

“United have had a difficult season but we forget this is the same team – with Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini added to it - that walked away with the Premier League title last year.”

BRIAN O’Driscoll broke records in green – but Mike Ross says he would have been right at home in Black.

The Ireland centre played his last international game last night, and retires with a record 141 Test appearances, a tally only likely to be broken by New Zealand’s flanker Richie McCaw – currently on 130..

But while his record may be broken, his legacy won’t be, and Ross believes the Leinster star would have been a superstar capable of playing in ANY team.

“Could he have played for the All Blacks? I think he’d have been first choice pick for any team in the world,” Ross claimed.

“You can imagine himself and Ma’a Nonu running riot, or himself and Sonny Bill Williams…

“It wouldn’t be too much fun for other teams, that’s for sure.

“I’ve played with Drico now for the last 4-5 years, and it always gives a team a boost to know he’s in there, because he’s rock solid in defence, and you know he’ll pull a rabbit out of the hat in attack. “Like that pass he gave to Rob Kearney last weekend, he had no right to get that out the back door but he did.

“The fact he’s been doing that at the top level for 15 years is incredible, I can hardly think of anyone else who’s reached that level of performance consistently.”

Ross admits whoever attempts to fill O’Driscoll’s boots will have an unenviable task, but wants the iconic shirt to inspire – rather than intimidate any potential successor.

“It’ll be a tough gig, whoever is wearing the 13 shirt will be compared to Drico, and that’s a tough act to follow,” Ross conceded.

“You’ll have lads bringing different strengths, there’s Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Olding, Brendan Macken, Luke Fitzgerald, they could all be good candidates.”

“If it was American football, they could retire the shirt, because there’s thousands of different jersey numbers, but while that would avoid the pressure of the number, at the same time you’re always aware you’re just renting the jersey, you have it for a period of time, then someone else gets to wear it.

“It should be an honour just wearing your country’s jersey in the first place, never mind the number.”

O’Driscoll retires as one of the most decorated Irish players of all time – and while Ross says he’ll have regrets; they may be too few to mention.

“I’d imagine he’d have regrets,” said Ross, “the Lions series in 2005, where it was over before it began, missing out on a couple of Grand Slams or championships, the last Lions test when he wasn’t on the pitch after they clinched it…so he’d have a couple but at the same time, he has three Heineken Cup medals, league titles, four Lions series’ under his belt, a Grand Slam, some triple crowns… he hasn’t done too badly for himself all things considering.”

FENLON: Leigh Griffiths can be a Hooper-star for Celtic, in SPL and Europe.

LEIGH Griffiths is the man to fill Gary Hooper’s boots at Celtic – no ifs or Butts.

That’s the verdict of former Hibernian boss Pat Fenlon, who was in charge of the new Hoops striker during his goal laden 2012/13 season when he scored 28 goals in 42 games for the Easter Road side.

Celtic fans have given a mixed welcome to the 23-year-old signed from League One Wolves on the final day of the January transfer window, with much of the debate surrounding the striker’s colourful off-field reputation.

But Fenlon, who laughed off claims that he was headbutted by the player during a training ground row, says Hoops fans need only recall their underwhelming reaction to the signing of Hooper, who would score 82 goals in 138 appearances.

“He is a special talent, he as all the ability in the world,” said Fenlon.

“I’ve never worked with anyone as good as him in what he does. He has a frightening finishing ability.

“He scores all different types of goals, he’s not an out and out box striker, he’s good with both feet and strong in the air, and surprisingly strong, physically. He also has some pace to go with it.

“There was a mixed reaction to Gary Hooper signing from Scunthorpe, with fans asking ‘who are we signing from there?’ but look at his record.

“Trust me, once the fans see him in action, they’ll be delighted.”

Fenlon believes Griffiths showed his best form in Scotland because he was closer to family and friends, and believes playing for a massive club like Celtic will help him reach his potential both on home soil – and abroad.

“I think he’s grown up a bit in the last while, but he’s obviously at his happiest when he’s near home,” he said.

“That seems to suit him, somewhere with people around him to look after him, and he’ll get that at Celtic too, they’re a big club with plenty of support to get the best out of players.

“He’s at a club that can improve him and I see no reason he can’t play regularly and then do what Hooper did in Europe.

“It’s more difficult obviously against better defenders at that level, but you don’t lose that knack to score. You might have to work harder, and the pressure will be greater, but I think he will cope with that, he’s cocky in a good way and he believes in his own ability.

“That’s a big help, because while some might fear a move to Celtic, he’ll embrace it.”

Griffiths’ natural ability is beyond doubt, but what’s less obvious, Fenlon says, is the attitude and desire he has to become an even better player.

“He’s always the one people ask me about, and it’s funny because people read this or that about him, but they don’t know he has a fantastic attitude to training,” he said.

“He may have to stay on top of other stuff, but he really wants to improve and get better.

“He’s still fairly young and people forget that. While he was fantastic for Hibs, he was still quite raw with some parts of his game to develop – but he’s very willing to work.

“Over the year I had him, he improved his link play and general awareness and he’s a good package now.

“He’s got a great opportunity now, and he has to work hard for it, but he’s good enough to play every week.”