Articles and features by Irish sportswriter Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh


“MAYBE Robert DeNiro looks like me”.

You can say a lot of things about Gibraltar coach Allen Bula, but not that he lacks confidence.

Following a friendly game last summer, a journalist who was interviewing the 49-year-old for the first time, gently asked if he was ever compared to the iconic American actor.

“Oh, I get that a lot,” Bula replied, before turning the comparison on its head.

Following Gibraltar’s 7-0 hammering to Poland, you might expect his confidence had taken a knock, but with the spirit of Jake LaMotta coursing through his veins, he’s back on his feet and swinging hard, ahead of Saturday’s game in Dublin.

Not only is he ready to stand toe to toe with Martin O’Neill, he’s also predicting a shot at the playoffs.

“Many managers just work on the strengths and weakness of opponent players, but I also like to work on the same for the opponent managers,” he explained.

“My idea is to make them make the mistakes that will then feed into their team.

“We know that the Germans are the favourites in the group, but after them, every other team is going to start nicking points off one another.

“If we can get a good run in the first half of the qualifiers, I genuinely think we can make it to the play-offs.”

O’Neill could ask for Bula to be given a standing count once he hears those comments, particularly in light of last month’s pummeling by Poland, led by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski who scored four.

The British Overseas Territory’s first ever competitive game – played in Portugal’s Estadio Do Algarve, failed to quieten critics who have questioned whether Gibraltar deserved their place in UEFA.

Despite boasting the seventh-oldest FA in the world, Gibraltar were only admitted to UEFA last year, and with a pool of 150 players in a population of approximately 30,000 (think of Bray), they’re unlikely to ever trouble the natural order of the continental game.

But Bula, credited with discovering Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic while coaching in Slovakia, insists he saw enough in the 7-0 defeat to Poland to remain optimistic ahead of his trip to Dublin.

“There are going to be changes and our game plan has to change, because I have reflected on Poland and seen where we went wrong, where I made mistakes, and I aim to correct them,” he said. “We need to work hard, and play like the first 45 mins we gave against Poland, and give it for 90 minutes against Ireland.

“In the first half we held them well, then after we conceded a goal in the second half our heads went down and we thought ‘this is Poland, we’re going to get slapped by them’.

“At this level, against that opposition, you can’t lose concentration for a minute.

“They can score 3-4 goals in 5-10 minutes, so we have to be careful with that. We have to maintain our shape and fitness.”

Fitness is expected to be one of O’Neill’s trump cards, with the majority of Bula’s squad comprised of amateur players who have had to be excused from work to play in Aviva Stadium next weekend.

Gibraltar League side the ‘Lincoln Red Imps’ are the main contributor to the squad, and despite Bula’s fighting talk, his country’s first ever qualification campaign is likely to be an exercise in making points, rather than winning them.

“My aim was to prepare Gibraltar for UEFA before we were admitted, rather than go in and then start to prepare,” he explained of his role, that began in 2010 when he was named head of development.

“I knew that many smaller nations had made the mistake of preparing once in UEFA, and had paid the price for a few years.

“One of my conditions was that the players and technical team started to work like professionals on and off the pitch, and that we played at least ten matches per year against professional sides.

“One of my biggest tasks was to show the world that, even prior to entry into UEFA, we had the requisite quality to play at the highest level in Europe.

“My country is a football-loving nation, and that obviously helps a lot in growth. Football is in our blood from birth and we showed against Poland we can give anyone a chance, now we need to do it for 90 minutes.”

LUKE BYRNE: Time For My Cup Jinx To End.

LUKE BYRNE is hoping his Cup jinx doesn’t wreck Shamrock Rovers’ dream of a 25th FAI Cup.

The 21-year-old full back wasn’t even born when Rovers won their record 24th trophy in 1987, but is well aware of the long wait to lift the Blue Riband silverware.

The Hoops face Derry City in today’s semi-final at Tallaght Stadium, but Byrne has few good Cup memories to draw on ahead of the big clash.

“I wish I did have some good experiences!” he smiled.

“The EA Cup Final a few weeks ago was my first decent Cup run in senior football, but before that I only won a Cup when I was playing under-7s and I’ve lost seven since then.

“I was at St Kevin’s and Home Farm and I lost five DDSL Cup Finals, an All-Ireland Final and then the EA Cup Final [to Dundalk].

“Don’t call me a jinx!

“I was the nearly man of schoolboy football. But not anymore hopefully.”

Byrne’s bad luck at schoolboy level even extended into league action where he was part of a St Kevin’s Boys team that went unbeaten for two seasons, but still failed to lift the title.

Then a striker, the Dubliner has moved back to midfield and now defence, and hopes to mark the end of his first full season at Rovers with a trophy.

“It would be a great way to finish the season,” he admits, “I signed for Rovers to win trophies and hopefully with a good result today, we can give ourselves a good chance.

“I signed for Trevor Croly so there is always a bit of doubt whenever a manager is sacked but I’d worked under Pat [Fenlon] before at Bohemians.

“I got my fit after surgery thinking that if I was playing well, I’d be in the team. He had confidence in me and he’s played me.

“I haven’t noticed anything different in Pat from Bohemians, he just expects hard work and he expects everyone to give 110 per cent. I think we’ve given that so far in the games.

“We’re not going to give up on third place in the league, but we’re realistic and we know the Cup is our main chance to get into Europe.

“So we’re not looking beyond Sunday, it’s all about winning on Sunday and see what comes then.”

BRENDAN CLARKE: MY FAI Cup medal is tainted - I wanted to be the hero.

BRENDAN CLARKE admits he’s driven by a selfish desire to lift the FAI Cup this season.

The St Patrick’s Athletic goalkeeper already owns a winner’s medal – but it’s one he claims is ‘tainted’.

Clarke was Sligo Rovers’ starting goalkeeper in the 2011 Final, but was substituted by boss Paul Cook just before the end of extra time, with penalties looming.

Ciaran Kelly took his place, and went on to take the plaudits too – saving two penalties as Rovers saw off Shelbourne.

Now just 90 minutes away from another Final, Clarke insists the 2011 showpiece was a fantastic experience, but missing out on being the ‘hero’ took away from the memories.

“You want to win as many medals as you can, and the first is always nice but it’s a little tainted, with the way things went in 2011,” he said ahead of today’s semi-final with Finn Harps.

“Getting taken off after 120 minutes before a penalty shootout was tough. I wasn’t told in advance, there were some jokes, but no serious discussion.

“We practice penalties, Ciaran does what he does best even in training, so there was the odd joke thrown around, but nothing serious.

“It was fantastic experience, it’s nothing to be sniffed at, but it was tainted because that’s me being selfish.

“I wanted to be the hero, as a goalkeeper does…

“You look at penalty shootouts, there’s no pressure on ‘keepers. There’s the whole excitement about penos, you’re not expected to save any and you want to be the hero.”

Clarke admits coming through that experience, and bouncing back from the following year’s final when he conceded a penalty in the 3-2 defeat to Derry City, made him a better person – on and off the pitch.

“The whole penalties thing in 2011, then giving away a penalty in 2012, you look back on it with a heavy heart, but it made me a better goalkeeper and person, mentally as well, so you have to take the positives from it.

“You learn to deal with disappointment. You look forward and hope it’s the next year, and if it’s not this year it’s the next one.”

St Patrick’s have not won the FAI Cup since 1961, and have lost seven finals in the time since, leading many to believe a curse is hanging over the Inchicore side.

Clarke and his team mates won the Airtricity League last season, but admits the Saints fans urged the players to do all they can to lift the Cup this season.

The Dubliner admits it wouldn’t make up for failing to defend their league title, but insists it would ensure a happy ending.

“It’d turn a poor season into an acceptable season,” he claimed. “A lot of the supporters have said to us last year ‘you won the league, now get the Cup’, but we set our own high standards and we didn’t live up to them in the league this year.

“If we can secure Europe through the League it’d be some sort of consolation, and then we want to try win the Cup.”

O’NEILL: Stay positive, this was only the warm-up.

MARTIN O’Neill insists he’s still in a positive New York State of Mind.

The Ireland boss is optimistic about the country’s Euro 2016 chances despite a disappointing opening half to 2014.

Sitting across the river from the inspiring World Trade Centre, the Ireland boss refused to be pessimistic following the 5-1 hammering to Portugal on Tuesday night and ordered traveling media to cheer up!

That defeat marked a sixth game without victory under O’Neill, following recent draws with World Cup-bound Costa Rica and Italy, and defeat to Turkey.

But the Derry man repeated that he and his players would learn more from playing top sides, and losing, than racking up goals and victories over smaller nations.

With his focus firmly on the Euro 2016 opener away to Georgia in September, O’Neill was adamant that his hopes have not faded over the past few weeks and he’s not despairing over the quality of player available to him.

“In an ideal world wouldn’t it be great if we were choosing 15 or 16 players from the Premier League, but it’s not there,” he said.

“But I knew that when I took the job on, I didn’t walk in and suddenly go ‘Jeeesus, is that who we’ve got!’ honestly it’s not a problem to me, it’s not.

“We’ll get ourselves together for the games, and you hope that as many of your really good players are fit for that day, that’s the one thing I can hope for.

“We will go into matches with a couple of our major players not available, one way or another, so it’ll happen. But listen, stay positive.

“Our confidence has not been shattered by that, just as much as you can’t say we were going to change the world by doing ok against Italy.”

In the Giovanni Trapattoni era, friendlies were used to build and maintain momentum, but O’Neill takes a different approach, insisting they should be learning tools for players and staff.

“To me this is a prelude to the whole affair,” he said, “When I stepped into the job in the first place, I wasn’t aware as an international manager of the ins and outs of friendlies games, but I’d rather do this.

“I still believe in trying to play against really decent opposition, not having the ball for spells in the game, trying to learn from that. For the players to go home look at the DVDs of the games they’ve been involved in, try and learn from that themselves, at club level, and obviously take it into the international stage.

“We went into the game against a team that had two players who won the Champions League a few weeks ago and we’ve an all-Championship back five.
“I’m not despairing. I used that word a while back when they asked me about young players coming through, but I’m absolutely not. I take it as a matter of course that this is the case.”

O’Neill has previously admitted his intention to tap into the ‘granny rule’ to source new players for his squad, and expects to begin recruiting in the next few weeks.

“There’s a number of players, and it’s something I’d really like to chase up during the summer time,” he said.

“I’m told sometimes these things take a bit of time, others can go through relatively quickly, at the end of it all, but there’s one or two who have genuine interest, whose agents have reiterated their desire to chase it up, and I intend to do that the minute I get home.”

PILKINGTON: MON should build Ireland team around Wessi

MARTIN O’Neill should build his Ireland team around Wes Hoolahan.

So says his Ireland and Norwich team mate Anthony Pilkington, who can’t believe the Dubliner only has 15 caps, just weeks after turning 32.

The former Shelbourne midfielder has emerged as a key player under O’Neill having been ignored by previous managers and marginalised by Giovanni Trapattoni.

Hoolahan has played a part in all seven games in the O’Neill era, starting three of the last four, including the 5-1 defeat to Portugal at MetLife Stadium on Wednesday.

Playing the attacking midfielder against a team with such a wealth of attacking options was never an option for Trapattoni, and Pilkington admits it’s about time his team mate got to show his skills to the world.

“He’s a great player, everyone in Ireland can see that,” he said.

“I’ve said many times I don’t know how he hasn’t got more caps than he has because he’s a great little player.

“When he does get a run in a team, he shows everyone what he can do but it’s been difficult for him.

“He’s not had many games for Norwich this season so he’s not really been match-fit coming into the friendlies but he’s a really good player, he’s really comfortable on the ball and he can make things happen.

“When you’ve got players like that in your team, you’ve got to build the team around him because they can always create something for nothing.

“They’re the type of players you need to win games.”

26-year-old Pilkington won his seventh cap against Portugal last week, but like Hoolahan, it’s a figure he knows should be higher.

Knee and hamstring injuries have hampered his international career thus far, but he insists he’s committed to the cause despite the frustration.

“Whenever I’ve been fit, I’ve always come over and tried to get myself in the team,” he said.

“Just because I’ve missed a few games this season didn’t mean I didn’t want to come over. That was never the intention.

“Whenever I’m fit, I’m always going to come over and play.

“The false starts were more frustrating for me than it was for anyone else. The first time I remember, I was away at QPR and there was no one more excited than I was coming away. I had my bags packed and everything, ready to come over straight from the game.

“Obviously I tore my hamstring in that game. I was devastated at the time. I was unlucky the next few times.

“But my knee’s been really good while I’ve been away. I’ve been managing it like I have been at the club.

“I’ve been involved in the last few games and they’ve been in quite a short space of time. I’m really pleased to get the caps in and get some minutes on the pitch.

“Hopefully I can get a bit of a rest but keep working hard in the off-season and hopefully come pre-season I’ll be fully fit.”

ALMEIDA: It’s time Portugal got some luck at a major tournament.

FORGET Ronaldo, Hugo Almeida says Lady Luck is key to Portugal’s World Cup dreams.

Portugal lost to winners Spain on penalties in the 2012 European Championships semi-final, and went down to Vicente Del Bosque’s men again in the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup.

In 2006, Zinedine Zidane was the difference when France beat them at the semi-final stage of the World Cup to add to their recent major tournament woes.

But fresh from a 5-1 hammering of Ireland, and with Ronaldo returning to fitness after an injury scare, Portugal look in tip top shape to launch another assault on the Jules Rimet trophy in Brazil, starting tomorrow against Germany.

“We have had some very good European Championships and World Cups, but some times you need to be a little bit lucky, and we didn’t have that the last time,” said the Besiktas striker.

“We lost against Spain in World Cup by just one goal, and in the European Championships semi-final we go out against Spain on penalties again, so this is a bit unlucky for us to have in those tournaments.

“Our first step is to get out of the group, because the group is very hard for us, with three other very good teams, so we will go step by step.

“If we lose tomorrow we have two more games, if we win, of course it’s great for us.

“The morale in the team is very good, we had three good warm-up games, so I hope to start good against Germany.”

With the fifth oldest squad in the tournament, Portugal line out against Germany in Salvador tomorrow with many of the players that impressed in Poland and Ukraine.

Talisman Cristiano Ronaldo turned 29 in February, and comes to the tournament in the form of his life, having lifted the Ballon D’Or and a second Champions League of his career this season.

Almeida insists age is a positive in this side, and is adamant the Ronaldo circus won’t hamper his side’s chances.

“I’d prefer to have him in the team with me, than against!” he joked. “He’s the number one in the world, so we have to be proud.

“He started good against Ireland, he’s feeling great, but of course it’s the first game after the injury, so you know how it is when you’re injured, you can have something wrong in your mind, you don’t want to get hurt coming close to the World Cup, but I believe he will come good in the World Cup.

“But we have other stars too, and this is important because we’re a small country, but we’ve a lot of good players, we’ve a lot of options available and this is important to us.

“We’re pretty much the same team as 2012, but can we push it and do better? Maybe. But it’s maybes, we have to go out and do the job.

“Our age is an advantage. I don’t see a problem, I see advantages with more experience and more quality.”

Will Ireland’s Italian Job make Roy stay - or help him compile a Celtic transfer hitlist?

ROY Keane made an extra special effort to congratulate every Ireland player as they left the field after last night’s 0-0 draw with Italy.

Was he saying goodbye?

We still don’t know.

But if this was arrivederci for Keano, he’ll be leaving with mixed feelings.

A match dominated in the build up by talk of, well, anything but the match, ended with optimistic Irish fans streaming into the London streets wondering why they’d spent the week talking about off-field issues.

Post-match, Anthony Pilkington was the name on the fans’ lips – with the Norwich winger proving he’s ready to play a key role in the Euro 2016 qualifiers – if he can stay fit. Fellow Canary Wes Hoolahan showed that Wessi magic again, while David Meyler and Jeff Hendrick in midfield gave Martin O’Neill a few things to ponder.

Will it make a difference to Roy? Will it encourage him to say and finish the work that’s just beginning – or will it help him compile a transfer wishlist for Celtic kingpin Dermot Desmond? Ireland fans will hope it’s decided soon, one way or the other, so the focus can return to the obvious potential in this squad.

A group of Italian fans, perhaps ignorant to the ongoing drama, pleaded for a photo with Keane as the Ireland team was warming up, but the shrug and smile that said ‘sorry lads, I’ve a job to do here’ betrayed the inner turmoil in the Corkman’s head.

On the walk to Craven Cottage, fans were making predictions – but they weren’t asking about the game, just the future of the assistant manager.

When Keane was unveiled as no.2 back in November, many commented that there’d not been a fuss made over an assistant since James Bond unveiled Miss Moneypenny.

But in the six months since, things have barely eased off, and it’s hard to think of anyone who’s been out of football management for so long, being linked to so many vacant jobs.

Keane himself was keeping his head down this week, although a photo posted on the FAI’s official Twitter account of him and goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh posing behind plastic headless footballers bodies in Aviva Stadium on Thursday showed a man content to let the talking go on about him.

So, when the whistle was blown by Mike Oliver to begin last night’s game, it was a peep that allowed people to think of the real thing for a change – the football.

After two defeats at home to Serbia and Turkey, and that irritating speculation, O’Neill really needed to give the fans some good stuff to talk about.

The manager made five changes to the side that lost to Turkey, with most of the moving about coming in midfield. Jeff Hendrick was given the shot O’Neill promised him, alongside David Meyler – a midfield duo that promised brains and brawn and it certainly delivered.

While Anthony Pilkington was finally fit enough to add to a cap count that should be higher, and he was man of the match for most observers.
Interestingly, O’Neill was happy to let Shane Long continue up front, despite Kevin Doyle’s availability, with Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan again teaming up behind – a trio the Ireland boss must be hoping can deliver on their obvious creative potential.

Long got in the right place a few times, made the right runs but…proved Robbie Keane’s still the no.1 forward.

Italy, preparing for a World Cup group that includes England and Uruguay, also had a mixed night. Cesare Prandelli, who named his side on Friday, Trap-style, left most of his big hitters on the bench – turning the dugout into something resembling a Dolce and Gabbana photoshoot.

Balotelli, Pirlo, Buffon, Chiellini, De Rossi and Cassano kept warm while a mixture of experienced heads and fringe players fought to prove they should be in Prandelli’s squad, set to be trimmed this week.

Skipper Riccardo Montolivo was hospitalised after a first half knee injury, while replacement Alberto Aquilani also went off hurt – a penny for Roy Hodgson’s thoughts, sitting comfortably in the stands.

A penny for Roy’s thoughts indeed.

MULLER: No Regrets - I’ll return to Ulster for champagne party.

JOHAN Muller’s Ulster career ended in heartbreak last night – but the Springbok legend says he is retiring with no regrets.

The Ulster skipper claims his side were cursed by bad luck this season, and promised to return next May and help the team celebrate some long overdue silverware.

Ulster were 9-3 ahead when Muller left the park in the Rabo Pro 12 semi-final at the RDS, but cruelly he had to watch on as the side once more capitulated and let victory slip through their hands.

The South African praised Leinster’s defensive performance, but insisted Ulster were close to ‘learning’ how to win – just as Brian O’Driscoll’s side had to.

“It’s not the way I wanted to retire, but I’ve absolutely no regrets,” he said.
“I had a wonderful time in my four years here and while it would have been great to have a trophy to show, you have to look at where we are now compared to four or five years ago.

“As a squad, we’ve made huge forward steps, but the difference between those forward steps and the next steps is what we’re lacking.

“We need to find that extra step – and Leinster, who have won plenty of trophies over the last few years, they know what it is.

“When we get there and we can take the next step, it will happen so much easier after that.

“Their time will come, the facilities are there, the players are there, the academy is doing well, I’ve no doubt in next five years there’ll be trophies there.

“We’ve put ourselves in that position four years in a row now but there’s nothing in the cabinet, nothing to show, and that’s disappointing,” he added.

“But I’ve played in a lot of teams, and sometimes you just need some luck.

“This year we haven’t had it, we’d a huge amount of bad luck.

“Not tonight, but in the last 5-6 weeks, we’ve had a huge amount of bad luck.

“If this team sticks together, and new guys come in – there’s no doubt they can win trophies.

“I’d love to be here next year to see them in a final, and share some champagne – I’ve no doubts they can do it.”

Muller heaped praise on Leinster’s defensive performance, but insisted they also had an extra well to dip into when the going got tough.

“Maybe it is psychological, maybe it isn’t, but it could be experience more than anything else,” he claimed of Ulster’s failings.

“Leinster have been there 10-15 times in the last while, whereas we’ve been there four times, and that makes a difference.

“When you know you have to push yourself that extra few yards – they know, it takes something special to win trophies. They know and we don’t know yet.

“It looked like we had the better off it, but once again it showed the quality of Leinster, and how to raise their game.”

GITEAU: Irish provinces won’t suffer Heineken Cup hangover.

MATT Giteau says the end of the Heineken Cup won’t spell the end of Irish power in European rugby.

When the Australian legend arrived at Toulon in late 2011, Leinster were reigning European champions, and defended their title months later, hammering another Irish province, Ulster, in the 2012 showpiece at Twickenham to make it five Irish wins in seven years.

But Toulon and Clermont battled it out for the trophy in Dublin last year, and this year Toulon are going for back-to-back titles, against England’s Saracens in next week’s Millennium Stadium showdown.

With more money and competition spots going to French and English clubs under the new European Rugby Champions Cup structures beginning next season, it’s feared that Irish teams contesting finals may be a thing of the past, but Giteau is unconvinced.

“Im not sure about that,” he argues, “if you look at this year’s competition, the Irish were incredibly competitive again.

“There were three teams in the quarter finals – that’s more than we had in France, we had just two, so that still shows the strength of the teams there.

“I still think the irish clubs will continue to be successful and competitive.

“I can’t tell you why we had two French clubs in the semis, but I think there was a nice mixture in the semis, an English team there and an Irish team, Munster, who pushed us all the way.

“Two French clubs were in last year’s final, and there’s an English club in it this year now, so it’s going to continue to be competitive, I can’t say it will be one country that will benefit in particular.”

Leinster and Leicester are the only two teams who have managed to win back-to-back Heineken Cups, but Giteau insists it not something he and his team mates have considered.

“To be fair, it’s not something we’ve spoken about, it’s too hard to look ahead at the moment because we had a big game this weekend too.

“Something like that is more things you reflect upon at the end of your career, thinking ‘that was something special, or we had a good team – but while you’re in that situation you don’t reflect on the great things or the possibility of achieving it.

“Hopefully at the end, you reflect on the good things and the not so good things, and hopefully we can reflect on Toulon achieving a few things.”

WHELAN: Gerrard will never win title - but he’d have won Six in the 80s.

STEVEN Gerrard will never win the Premier League – but he’s still a club legend.

That’s the opinion of Ronnie Whelan, who says the 33-year-old could have won six league titles for Liverpool had he played in a different era.

“I don’t think he will ever win the Premier League and – after watching him last weekend – I don’t think he will think that he can either,” said Whelan.

“He will think –‘this has passed me by’. But he cannot be really downhearted about it because he has had such a great career.

“I am disappointed for him that it didn’t happen. The slip – against Chelsea – went against him in the end.

“He deserves his place in the all-time list though,” he added. “You think back to the Champions League Final when he dragged them up – how he had the energy to raise everybody.

“He is up there with Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness in that group as one of the greatest players Liverpool has ever had.

“If he had have played in one of the great Liverpool teams of the mid-80s, you wonder how good he could have been because he has been dragging Liverpool through games in the last 10 years or so.

“I would have loved to have seen him in a team with Souness and Dalglish around him to see how good he could have been. He would have won six or seven Leagues but he has a half-decent trophy cabinet.”