Will Glasgow Rangers be out of their depth in the lower leagues?

I only know on genuine Glasgow Celtic fan.

Having made that statement I think I better explain that I am using the word “genuine” as defined by former Cork City FC manager Pat Dolan. It used to irk him when he heard somebody claim to be a fan of Liverpool or Manchester United.

“Are you from Liverpool/Manchester?” he would ask. The answer was invariably no. This would open the door for Pat’s pièce de résistance, “Then why do you support them, and not your local team?” (This meant ‘why don’t you support Cork City FC?’ when he worked around here.)

Now that the word “genuine” has been defined, my genuine Glasgow Celtic fan is named Charlie. He was born in Glasgow in the 1950s. He is a life-long Celtic supporter and like many other genuine Glasgow Celtic fans; he has some Donegal blood in his veins.

Charlie is also a socialist, and a great believer in fairness and equity for all. He loves a good argument on the subjects of distribution of wealth or equality of opportunity in education. He is also a realist, and understands that competition is the spice of life.

I last met Charlie back in June. At that time I jokingly sympathised with him on the demise and demotion of Glasgow Rangers for making illegal payments to players and generally cooking the books.

He asked what did I mean. I replied that with Rangers gone, Celtic will have no serious opposition in the Scottish Premier League.  Celtic would have a bloodless victory in winning the competition. I also added that without strong opponents, Celtic would have no measure of their own ability. This situation usually leads to a drop in standards, so Celtic will show a decline rather than an improvement over the coming. I honestly expected him to agree. He didn’t.

“I see your point” Charley said, “ordinarily I would agree, but in this case I could never agree with ya. If you ever had anything to do with Rangers you wouldn’t agree either.” Our discussion took place before Rangers had been formally demoted to the Third Division by the other Scottish clubs, but Charlie added with great confidence, “And no other team in Scotland will support them either.”

I did not understand the vitriol from Charlie. I could understand that sentiment if it came from the more bigoted element that follow Celtic, but Charlie is a reasonable man.  It is not his form to be so dead set against anyone.

I did some research. From antidotal evidence (i.e. the opinions of a several people I know who have lived in Scotland for a while) it appears that Rangers are more unpopular with the other clubs than Celtic.

More importantly however, there is a general agreement among the Scottish football clubs and fans that Rangers have achieved all their success since 2001 by cheating. This cheating relates to their method of wages payment since 2001. To put it another way, Rangers are to Scottish football what drugs cheats are to athletics. This is why all the attempts to enter a Rangers team, albeit as a new company, in any league other than the Scottish Third Division have failed.

This decision means that Rangers will not play in the Scottish Premier league again until at least 2015/16. This could have huge consequences for Scottish football. According to the Economist news magazine the loss of Rangers from the Scottish Premier League could cost the Scottish football up to £16m per year in each of the years that Rangers are missing. In purely economic terms, that is an awful lot of righteousness. Nevertheless, it is a price that the other clubs in Scottish football are prepared to pay, in the interests of justice.

I have been a fan of statistics for along time and I like to read all the football results from all the English and Scottish leagues each Sunday. I constantly marvel at the fact that the home attendance at the Celtic or Rangers match each weekend generally makes up more than 50% of the total attendance at all games. When you add on the fact that the second biggest attendance is usually the attendance at the Celtic or Rangers away game, you quickly see that 60% of all the supporters of all Scottish football attend either the Celtic or Rangers game each week.

All this is by way of getting around to the shock result of last weekend. Because of the fact that the Olympics were closing, Rory McIlroy won the US PGA Golf tournament and Galway beat Cork in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final, there was too much going on to allow proper coverage of this score line; Peterhead 2, Rangers 2. And what’s more, Rangers only equalised in the final minute of the game. Peterhead, by the way, is the most easterly point of mainland Scotland and the photograph on www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk is uncannily like Birr, Co Offaly with a seafront.

Leaving aside the politics and the cheating aspect of Rangers predicament for a moment, this result raises a more interesting problem for Rangers and their manager Ally McCoist.

Because of their home gates, (each one will be greater than the season aggregate of any other team in the league) Rangers will be able to buy and play players who are technically much better than the other players in the league. The question that has to be asked however is, what type of player do you buy to get your team out of the Scottish Third Division?

In an interview with BBC Radio after last Saturday’s game Ally McCoist hinted that he needed to buy players before the end of the month transfer deadline. He also said that he realises now that every away game Rangers will play this year will be the equivalent of a third-round cup game.

I would think that sending out players of quality and finesse is not the answer to playing league games on artificial turf against the likes of Berwick, Elgin or Annan Athletic. You need warriors for those kind of games; seasoned pros who are past “making it” in the big time, but who can kick shins as well as, if not better, than the next man.

It is a skill to be able to buy players who can play in the Champions League and compete against Celtic, Hearts and Hibs. It is a completely different skill to be able to buy players that will get down and dirty with the teams in division three of Scottish football. In horseracing terms, it is the ability to be able to buy a point-to-point horse that has the potential to become a winner at Cheltenham. We know this can be done, but is Ally McCoist the man to do it for Rangers?

Like my friend Charlie, I have no great love for Rangers. That said, Rangers should be by far the most interesting soccer team to follow, in the academic sense, over the next few years.

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What I learned from Ciarán Ó Lionaird run last night and what I hope it means for Rob Heffernan

I was very disappointed for Ciarán O Lionaird after last night’s 1500 meter Olympic race. He was clearly overwhelmed by the occasion and there is nothing that hurts more (in a athlete’s life) than flopping like that before your family, friends and the world.
However, I was not surprised.
While I am not a regular attender of athletics events I have attended enough sports and participated as a player and a coach to be able to make certain observations. I attended the Cork City Sports recently and watched Ciarán run in the mile event. He did not perform well. There was an air  of hesitation about him; an aura of doubt .
Later in the evening I watched Robert Heffernan glide around the track to take the 3,000 meters walk. There was no doubt or hesitation there. 
After the event I bumped into Robert and his wife Marion out side the CIT stadium. Robert was shaking hands and standing for photographs with children. He was in great form. This is his fourth Olympics and he is very relaxed about it.
After saying good bye and good luck to Robert, I passed by Ciaran O Lionaird on the steps. The contrast could not have been greater. A cloud hung over his head. This was a man who clearly was not looking forward to the Olympic games with any degree of excitement.
This is why I am very hopeful for Robert Heffernan tonight. If confidence and experience count for anything, his obvious class should see him take an Olympic medal.
Go Robert Heffernan. Go(ld) Robert Heffernan.
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Fulfilling my Olympic promise

While I was watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics my then 13 year old daughter Bríd, declared that she would like to go to the next summer games in London. It seemed like a good idea and, reckoning it is likely to be the nearest the Olympic Games will ever be to Ireland; I agreed to bring her to the London 2012 games. Thankfully we both have survived the intervening years, and I have now fulfilled my promise.

Securing tickets was troublesome. Eventually I landed tickets for mens Volleyball in Earls Court on Sunday and womens Basketball at the Olympic Park on Monday. Any accommodation problems we might have had were solved by an invitation to stay my friends John and Julie Gilligan and family. With all our ducks in a row, as it were, Bríd and I headed off to London last Friday.

We arrived into a London city that was just three hours away from the opening ceremony. There were Olympic Information volunteers to be seen at everywhere in the airport. It was obvious however, that there was an air of nervous anticipation in the city.

The volunteers were anxious to help; even when they could give no practical help. To paraphrase the old joke; “Why did the old lady cross the road? Because the Olympic volunteers thought they were being helpful and carried her across.”

Our taxi driver was anxious too. He was worried about road closures and traffic jams.

It appeared to me that most of the 27 million or so Britons who sat down to watch the opening ceremony did so with a feeling of apprehension of what London 2012 would bring. The opening ceremony allayed all their fears. It was a triumph in morale boosting and reassurance for the organising committee.

Saturday morning was a beautiful morning. It was reminiscent of the type of summer mornings we used to have in Cork during the last century. As we were not too far from Hampton Court we decided to head up and watch the early stages of cycling road race.

We found a viewing spot at that roundabout near Hampton Court which gave us a good view of the cyclists. They were leaning to their right to negotiate the roundabout. As they whooshed passed us, they leaned to left and exited the roundabout.

Action from the Olympic Road Cycle race near Hampton Court on Saturday July 28th. The first day of competition at the London 2012 Olympics .

The entire episode took about 20 seconds. A cavalcade of support cars, vans and ambulances followed. Once they passed the show was over.

The crowd which had been three or four deep broke up and began to about their daily business. We headed back to “Base Camp Gilligan” to pick up the race on television. We watched the race develop during the nine circuits of Box Hill then headed over to Hampton Court Way to watch the peloton zip past (again) before another enormous and cheerful crowd. After they passed we dashed back to TV for the final 10k. Team GB with new Tour de France champion, Bradley Wiggins were a disappointment for the locals. Nevertheless, it was a great achievement for the organising committee who got almost 1m people out to watch the race, and the vast majority of them only saw 20 seconds action.

Bríd and I headed to Earls Court on Sunday while the Gilligans headed to Olympic Park to see Basketball and Hockey.

I had never seen a live volleyball game before last Sunday. It is a very entertaining game which requires teamwork, tactical knowhow and courage. Here are a few facts I bet most people do not know. Volleyball was first played in 1895. It was designed by PE instructor, William Morgan as gentle game for older members of the Massachusetts YMCA. It was originally called “mintonette” but changed to volley ball in 1896. The name became one word (volleyball) in 1952 and has been an Olympic sport since 1964.

We saw two games; Argentina v Australia and the USA v Serbia. The Arena looked to be about 85% full. Argentina always had the Australians at arms length but, as is befitting an Olympic Games competition, there were some very brave and courageous efforts from players on both sides. Argentina won by three sets to nil.

Earls Court was the venue for the Olympic Volleyball tournament. Above is a shot from Serbia v United States of America on Sunday July 29th. (Pic Bríd Ní Dhonnabháin)

The second game was more competitive and of a higher standard. The USA defeated Serbia by three sets to nil. I would think that Serbia, even though they lost, have a better team than Argentina. Four teams from the group will qualify for the quarterfinals. From what I saw, expect the USA, Serbia and possibly Argentina to make the quarterfinals.

We arrived back at the Gilligan house about 10pm and swapped notes on our experiences of the day. We felt we had had a great day but they were adamant we should withhold judgement until we experienced Olympic Park. They were correct.

Nothing – not Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium with the roof closed, not Croke Park not even the new Yankee Stadium – can compare with the enormous complex that is Olympic Park. It is huge. It takes 40 minutes just to walk from the entrance gate to the opposite side. The place is about the size of Tralee (including Blennerville) with massive sports arena, restaurants, shops and other buildings dotted all over the place. I cannot be sure but I suspect there was up to 160,000 people in the complex on Monday.

When we arrived about 11.30 and the entire place was agog with excitement. Our games were not due to begin until 2.30 so we explored as many of the public places as we could get to.

Olympic Park is an amazing place and really has got to be seen to be appreciated. (Pic Bríd Ní Dhonnabháin)

The Basketball arena is amazing. It is a temporary structure which will be dismantled after the games. It was full (15,000 people) for the first game of our two-game session. Australia played France. It was a ding-dong struggle with Australia making the early running then being out played by France and falling 11 points behind midway through the third quarter.

Australia then regained the initiative and reduced the gap to one point by the end of the third quarter. With four seconds to go France held a three point lead. France were awarded two free throws and scored on point to make it a two point game. Less than a second later France was awarded two free throws and also missed one. That left Australia three points down with 3.2 seconds on the clock. Australia had no option but to try a “Hail Mary” shot from inside their on half of the court. The buzzer sounded while the ball was in mid air. Everyone watched as it hit the back board and dropped through the hoop. Draw game. A huge roar went up from the 15,000 in the arena.

The comeback had knocked too much out of Australia and France pulled away to win the game by five points in overtime. The excitement also knocked a lot of the life out of the crowd for the second game in which Russia defeated Brazil rather easily.

It was almost 8.30 before we left Olympic Park. The competition was still in full swing in most of the arenas. The volunteer stewards were still working flat out too. We left the greatest show on earth to the cries of “safe journey home”.

All good things come to an end. We arrived home last night with a stack full of Olympic memories. The Olympic dream fulfilled its promise. More importantly, I fulfilled my promise, that’s priceless.

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Referees should take charge of games

There is a story in Cork GAA circles about an incident between former Cork fullback and President of the GAA Con Murphy, and Cork’s greatest hurler, Christy Ring.

The story goes that one day when Christy Ring was playing for Glen Rovers he challenged for a ball with a defender. The ball passed cleanly between the two players and continued in towards the Glen Rovers full forward line. Con Murphy was refereeing the game and he immediately blew for foul against Ring.

Christy Ring protested his innocence, but Con Murphy was adamant, “The only way the ball could have passed between ye is that you did something,” Murphy said. Needless to say both Christy Ring and the rest of Glen Rovers were left fuming. Obviously that incident happened before I was born, but I’m sure the whole of Blackpool howled their dissatisfaction with the decision at Con Murphy. But the ref stood his ground.

I have heard that story several times and it has always been told as a funny incident, but there is a serious side to it too. Firstly, it tells you that Christy Ring was so good at every aspect of hurling that he could use the margins of fair play to suit the situation he found himself in at any stage of a game.

Secondly, it showed that Con Murphy not only knew Christy Ring’s style of play well (the pair were teammates in the 1940s), but he also understood the game of hurling. He may not have seen what Christy Ring did, but he knew that what happened could only have occurred if Christy Ring fouled his opponent in some way or other. Finally, he also had the courage, or the nerve, to award a free against Christy Ring.

For the sake of argument let’s suppose that Christy Ring did foul, and that Con Murphy, like everyone else, did not see the foul. Was he correct to blow the whistle? I think it can be argued that even though he did not actually see the foul, he got the correct result. It also sent out a signal to all the players that he was in charge.

Now, let’s take the Ring v Murphy case and apply the logic to some of the refereeing we saw over the weekend. Firstly take the Kerry v Tyrone game and the performance of David Coldrick. I know a man who used to referee junior provincial club rugby in Leinster in the 1970s and 80s – before the sin bin. He maintained that if a referee had to send a player from the pitch it was tantamount to admitting that he could not control the game. I wonder what this man would make of David Coldrick who issued 15 yellow cards, then a red card –which was deserved- and then two more yellow when at least one of them was a carbon copy of the red card incident.

Seventeen yellow and one red card is hardly the performance of a control freak. Neither is it the performance of a man who understands the basics of the game he was supposed to be refereeing. Former Kerry great Darragh O’Sé wrote a very revealing article on the Irish Times of July 11th last where he outlined how team set about “controlling” the play in modern inter-county football. “The truth is,” he wrote “to be really successful, you need to have a strong element of cynicism in your play.”

Ó Sé added, “You learn to play the opposition and you learn to play the referee. If you see a referee letting a push in the back go early on, you’re damn well going to give a little nudge…if he looks lenient on pulling on a loose ball on the ground…you’re going to assume you have a bit more licence in that area as well.” (Its not just Gaelic Football that is like this, all sports from horseracing to yachting are like this at the top. Fair play to Darragh O Sé for being honest and straightforward about it.)

Back to last Saturday. Both the Kerry and Tyrone players are hardened and experienced veterans. They all knew how to read David Coldrick. After 10 minutes both sets of players had him sized up. Thereafter, they basically ignored his “Ah lads, cool down” approach and set about stamping their own authority on the game. The result was a game that the late writer and broadcaster Breandán Ó hEithir would have described as “one that should only be played between consenting adults.”

Moving from Killarney on Saturday to Croke Park on Sunday and the Leinster Senior Football final. Marty Duffy was the referee. (Marty Duffy also got “honourable” mention in Darragh O’Sé piece in the Irish Times for his role in the Tadgh Kenneally affair at the beginning of the 2009 All-Ireland final.) On Sunday Duffy was fortunate that the Dublin and Meath teams seemed to concentrate on their own game plans rather than trying to cancel out the other plan. This allowed him to remain reasonably anonymous for three quarters of the game.

All that changed when Eoghan O’Gara shot a point for Dublin. The Meath defence claimed it was wide. They bullied the umpire into agreeing. The linesman Maurice Deegan saw it was a point and, ever before it was shown on the big screen, entered the field to tell Marty Duffy that it was a point. Only then did Marty Duffy tell the umpire to signal that the shot went over the bar. The real problem here is that Duffy had a perfect view of the ball going over the bar. He was only 30m away from the kick. Why did he not have the gumption to instruct his umpire to raise the flag immediately? If you are put “in charge” of the game, then take charge. What ever the Glen may have thought of Con Murphy the day he whistled Christy Ring, you have to say he took charge of the game.

Having become the centre of attention for a few minutes during the Eoghan O’Gara point incident, Duffy then decided he was not going to risk the wrath of the Dubs anymore. Meath brought the margin down to a goal and, as injury time ticked away, the Royal County needed to get the ball up the field quickly to get an equalising goal. As they tried, both Eoghan O’Gara and Barry Cahill “rugby tackled” Meath players. Both tackles were sending off offences. Duffy did award frees to Meath but he did not dismiss either offender.

Had he taken the correct action and issued red cards, it probably would not have saved Meath, but it would mean that Dublin could not use those players in their quarterfinal in two weeks time. It would also have removed the suspicion that surely is out there among the teams remaining in the championship, that Marty Duffy is not a strong character in a crisis situation. As Darragh Ó Sé would put it, they “will assume they have a bit more licence”.

There is no denying that referees, in all sports, have a difficult job to do. Incidents happen very quickly and it is often difficult to tell the difference between a great skill, and a well-executed piece of chicanery. Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal or Neil Back’s robbing of Peter Stringer in the 2002 Heineken Cup Final are just two of many examples. No referee will be correct all the time, and nobody expects that. All the players and the spectators want is for referees to be consistent and to take charge of the game without fear or favour.

 

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Ever wonder what it is like to be a coach with a GAA Development Squad?

LAST weekend was the big weekend of the year for underage inter-county Gaelic football in Munster.

The annual one-day development squad tournaments were held in Waterford (U14), Duhallow (U15) and Limerick (U16). While the U16 competition is on the go for almost 20 years, the U15 and U14 are of a more recent vintage. They have quickly become important as well as entertaining events. This year, Cork won the U16 tourney, Tipperary won the U15 and South Kerry took the U14.

I had an involvement with one of three Cork teams in last year’s (2011) U14 competition in Waterford. It was an enjoyable experience. One of our teams won the plate and the other two lost in the semi-finals of the main tournament to Tipperary and South Kerry. Tipperary won the final.

Last year’s U14s have become this year’s U15s. Four of the 2011 mentors – Joe O’Hanlon from Buttevant, Brian Lotty, Glanmire; Paul Holland, Timoleague and yours truly – moved along with them. Three new coaches, Stephen Quinn (Clondrohid), Gerry Dineen (Inniscarra) and Ronan McCarthy (Douglas), joined us. This brought about a nice blend of continuity and freshness.

While the tournaments played last Saturday attract a good deal of media attention, little or nothing is reported on what happens in the 12 months between tournaments. The Cork public, and the Kerry public for that matter, will look at the results and raise eyebrows at Tipperary winning underage tournaments. They forget that this is the price of developing Gaelic football across the province. The old order will have to change.

What was even more interesting than Tipperary winning on Saturday was the outstanding performances by the Clare team. The Clare mentors put in a lot of work over the last 12 months. They defeated North Kerry in the quarter-final and pushed the Cork team I was involved with to a point in the semi-final. Two of the Clare players, Colin Hehir (Milltown Malbay) and Niall McCarthy (Lissycasey) gave what may have been, the best performances of the day. (As I didn’t see all the games, I cannot say with certainty that they were the best performances, but I did not hear of any other players being spoken of in such superlatives.)

Billy Hennessy Cork gets his near hand in to try and dispossess his opponent during last Saturday’s Humphrey Kelleher under-15 inter-county tournament final at Millstreet. (Pic John Tarrant Millstreet)

Tipperary and Clare have adopted a completely different approach to their development squads than that of Cork and Kerry. Clare and Tipp are concentrating on a small panel of players. Cork and Kerry, who have larger playing populations enter two teams and do not grade these teams as firsts and seconds. All four counties have their eye on the 2015 Munster Minor Football championship. It will be very interesting to see how things will develop.

A great deal has happened within the Cork squad since the competition in Waterford last July. There were more than 90 players involved at U14 level and we were able to pick three teams. After the tournament there was about five more field sessions between July and the end of September. After that, three venues were set up around the county where the players were taught the proper posture and techniques for strength training. As the boys are going through their growing phase, no weights were used.

That growing phase is remarkable. We said farewell to the faces we had become familiar with in November. When we met again in mid-February they looked completely different. In November the average height was about 5ft-4in and I’d say the average shoe size was about size five. In mid February the average height was about 5ft-8in and the shoe size was nearer size 8.

You can add another inch and shoe size between mid February and now.

This is another reason why it is important to keep the development squads as inclusive as is practical during the 14 to 16-year-old age group. Boys develop at different stages. When they grow, they grow like bamboo: fast and tall. They often lose strength and co-ordination during this period, only to recover it again within six months.

There were two players who were not considered for last Saturday because, quite literally, they are currently suffering from growing pains.

As some boys lost form, others found it. There were 10 players involved in the larger squad this year who were not in the squads in 2011. Six of these made it into the panels for last Saturday. Do not be surprised if some of the players who dropped down this year make their way back again.

Humphrey Kelleher was undoubtedly one of the most under-rated full backs to play for Cork. He did not play inter-county minor or under-21but once he broke into the Cork senior football team, he made the full back position his own. Although Humphrey was renowned for his great strength and fearless tackling he was also an excellent footballer. He was the perfect foil for any slick moving attack and he only had to look west from his home in Millstreet and the whole of Kerry shook with fright.

The Munster U15 competition is organised by the Duhallow Board. It is named the Humphrey Kelleher tournament in memory of one of Cork’s greatest full-backs and an All-Ireland senior medal winner in 1973.

My team, which was called ‘Rebel Óg’, were based in Knocknagree for our early rounds. The other Cork team named ‘Corcaigh’ played first in Boherbue and later in Cullen. The weather played havoc with the venues and several games had to be moved because the pitches could not cope with two successive matches.

Given the difficulties the Duhallow Board did a great job.

Our first game was against Waterford who were a big and strong side. They made life very difficult for us in the first half. Eventually we pulled away and won 1-12 to 1-2. Corcaigh also had their hands full with a game Limerick side in Boherbue before pulling away to win 1-12 to 2-0.

We were expecting to play North Kerry in our semi-final and were a little surprised to learn that Clare won. We sent a man to watch the game and he reported back that the better team won and Clare had some very good players. I met Michael O’Shea, one of the North Kerry mentors, in Millstreet later and he confirmed my reports.

Our semi-final with Clare had not started long before we knew we were in a battle. We did well to be two points up at half-time after playing with the wind. Clare got on top in midfield in the second half and we were forced to rely on the unlimited substitution rule to keep up our intensity on the field.

We were three points down with four minutes to go before one of our subs Luke Hackett, got the all-important goal. After that, our defence held out in true Humphrey Kelleher fashion to get us home by a point.

A Classic shot of Humphrey Kelleher in action for Cork against Galway in the 1973 All-Ireland final. The defending of the Cork backs against Clare last Saturday was reminiscent of Humphrey in his prime.

While we were put to the pin of our collar to defeat Clare, Corcaigh were doing battle with Tipperary in Cullen. Tipperary won by two points. It was back to Millstreet for the Rebel Óg versus Tipperary final. It was strange to see the two Kerry teams playing in the plate final before the big game. But that’s the risk you run when you don’t play your strongest team.

Tipperary were stronger than us in the final. They created and took more chances than we did. Fair play to them they deserved their victory.

Cork’s P J Dennehy charges past two Tipperary defenders in the final. Note how P J is guarding the ball and how the Tipperary defender is using his near hand to tackle. Best practice from the players … and the coaches.     (Pic John Tarrant, Millstreet)

That is not to say that this was a disaster for Cork. It certainly was not. All year we worked hard on re-enforcing the basic skills of kicking with both feet, catching and blocking, and most importantly playing for the team.

We are still a little weak on tactics, but that will come because the basics are right.

When we sit down with our Games Development Officer, Paudie Kissane, who does tremendous work organising everything, we will assess what has happened and set out the plans for next season and beyond.

The Humphrey Kelleher tournament may have ended in defeat, but certainly did not end in failure. It would have been nice to keep the trophy in Cork but it would be nicer still if the players can build on all that they learned over the past year.

It is a bit far out to make a definite prediction, but Cork are well on course to win the 2015 Munster Minor Football championship.

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Big Red Bench interview

Red FM’s Big Red Bench Sports programme contacted me on Wednesday and asked if I would talk about Saturday’s Humphrey Kelleher Tournament.

The Humphrey Kelleher Tournament is an under-15 inter-county football competition for county development squads. There are eight teams in the competition. Two from Cork, two from Kerry and one each from Limerick, Clare, Waterford and Tipperary. I am the manager of one of the two Cork teams that will take part in the competition.

Rather than write any more, I’ll try an experiment….

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Filling the stadiums could cost the sports organisations as much as the fans

This column was published in the  Evening Echo of July 11th, 2012. It is significant in so far as it marks the 10th anniversary of my first column.

It is nice to be able to say that my opinion and comment have been published 520 weeks in a row. There are a great many people out there who are more than capable of achieving this, but they have never been given the chance.

Five people need to be mentioned. Liam Horan, the then Sports Editor of the Evening Echo, who gave me the start when he said, “You’re always going on about things, why don’t you put it in a column?” (This should be read in a Mayo accent!) My wife Anne, who has had to read a lot of dodgy first drafts, and my children Donal Óg, Seán and Bríd, who, in fairness, never criticise the “Old man’s” work; they just call it as they see it!

Everyone has a favourite sport. And most people believe that their favourite sport is one of the best, if not the best, to take part in or to watch. Somewhere in the world there is a group of people who believe passionately that curling or rodeo are as good to watch as hurling, football or rugby. Strange, but true.

“To each his own” Cicero said. Another anonymous Latin scholar put it more accurately, “De gustibus non est disputandum” which means, “There is no accounting for taste”.

Taste is one thing, but when it comes to the art of  “accounting” or making money, one sport stands head and shoulders above the rest; the National Football League (NFL) in the USA. No sporting organisation anywhere in the world comes within an ass’s roar of the revenue generating and profit sharing capacity of the NFL.

There are 32 teams (franchises) who share the profits of everything from TV rights to jersey and merchandise sales. The organisation tries everything it possibly can to keep all 32 teams competitive. This includes salary caps that limit the amount of salary a team can pay its players and a recruitment policy (known as the draft) that allows the teams with the worst playing record recruit the best incoming players.

Of course not everything works, there is a human element to the NFL, as there is with every other organisation, and that brings its own problems. In general however, the NFL has done a better job than your average communist country in treating everyone as equals.

That is why I was surprised to read an article in CBS Sports last week with the headline “NFL in scramble mode in what could be a losing battle to keep fans filling its stadiums”.

“My God!” I thought, “if the NFL can’t fill its stadiums, what hope have the sports over here?” The short answer to that is NONE.

Last weekend was a record weekend for attendances in GAA’s provincial finals. That is record low attendances. The combined attendance at the Leinster Senior Hurling (22,171) and the Munster Senior Football finals (9,138) was 32,309.  Ten years ago an attendance of 32,000 would have been considered below average for a Cork v Kerry Munster football final. Even the Kerry v Limerick clashes of 2003 and 2004 brought attendances of around 20,000. To fail to pull even 10,000 paying people to the most important football game in Munster must ring alarm bells.

The Leinster Hurling game was different. In fact, I would suggest that the 22,000 attendance was good, considering there was no real prospect, in advance, of a close game. Those who stayed away missed an incredible display by Galway. But given the gulf between the teams in their league game, a Galway win over Kilkenny was unforeseeable.

Attendances are down at all the GAA championship games. And it is not just the GAA either. It is the same in English soccer, cricket and rugby where there is a far greater population base to support the games. If the NFL is suffering a drop in attendance you can be sure it is the same for every sport across the world.

Mike Freeman, the author of the CBS Sports article blamed advances in technology as the main reason for falling attendance. “Technology is getting so good that one day (very soon) stadiums will be vastly less populated and the fan experience will be mostly limited to watching the game in HD, on a couch, roast beef sandwich in hand, no line for the bathroom, no traffic…technology and comfort will trump the excitement of being at the game.”

He went on to say, “…it’s only a matter of time before tablets (iPads etc.) get better too. One day you’ll be able to answer the doorbell, get the nachos, cool the beer and resume the game at your own leisure…you can’t do that in a stadium.”

Maybe he’s right. It is certainly much easier to organise your Sunday sport around a television broadcast than to take off to Limerick or Thurles or Croke Park and lose the whole day.

The readers of CBS Sports did not agree with Freeman. There were nine pages of comments at the end of the piece. Almost all the comments told the author he was wrong.

“How can you write an article about declining attendances and not mention the outrageous cost of attending a game?” was one comment. “Pretty simple solution: stop charging $100/ticket and $9 beer” said another. “Why would I take my three daughters to a place where I have to continually bow up to foul mouth drunken idiots to keep them from offending my kids?” said a father. While several others cited the view from their seats in the stadium compared to the TV coverage as the reason they don’t go to games anymore.

On that point, the NFL insists that the lowest seats must be six feet above the pitch level. Can you imagine what these people would say if they sat in the first five rows of Croke Park, the Aviva Stadium or Páirc Uí Chaoímh?

There have been several articles written on other websites in response to the CBS piece. The main thrust of all of them is that it has become too expensive and too intrusive to attend live games; especially when the alternative is to watch the games in HD, with slow motion playback, in the comfort of your own home.

Sport has always been a mix between show business and competition. For a long time the main source of income was what came in through the turnstiles to see the “show”. That was the 20th century model. That model no longer works because with new technology, you don’t have to be there to experience the event.

The average sports fan has reached saturation point. There are too many matches that are billed as “vital” and “important”, but in reality they are little more than warm-up events. Last Sunday’s Munster Football final was a typical example. The Cork team has too much power for Clare. The Clare management knew this, so they used the game as preparation for their fourth round qualifier game in three weeks time. All this is fine. But don’t try and cod the people by charging exorbitant prices and asking them to give up a full Sunday for this type of game.

If an NFL team, which has only eight home games a year, cannot make their games special enough to fill its stadium, what hope has a Cork v Clare non-knockout game?

The GAA will have to re-think its policy on the early round of the championships and qualifiers. While it is true that there is no accounting for taste, the average GAA fan is discerning enough to decide that over-paying for non-competitive fixtures is not palatable any more.

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On the subject of the Higgs boson…

When I entered secondary school in the autumn of 1971, chemistry was a relatively simple subject. “All matter is made up of atoms” we were told, “and all atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons.

“When two elements such as Sodium(Na) and Chloride(Cl) exchanged electrons in a chemical interaction you got a new substance called Sodium Chloride (NaCl) or salt.”

This, we were told, is how everything is made. It is called the Standard Model.

But things are never that simple, there was more; more to protons, more to neutrons, more to electrons, even more subatomic particles. In short, there was more to everything.

Now that the science world has nailed the Higgs boson (the Higgs (sub)particle might be a better name) it seems that the picture is complete.

“We have the whole atom” they say.

They have; at least until they find the next hole in the atom.

It all reminds me of a little poem my primary school teacher J.J. Fennessy taught us.

“Big fleas have little fleas

Upon their backs to bite them,

And little fleas

Have lesser fleas,

And so on infinitum.”

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The fear of success

ONCE upon a time I used to encounter a dog whose favourite hobby was chasing cars. Every time I drove this particular road, the dog would emerge from the gate of a bungalow once it heard my car approach. It would stand and wait until I passed. Then it would race down the road yelping and barking after my car.

As this is a narrow road, it was not possible to travel it a great speed.
The dog was a collie and it was capable of staying with the car for about 100m. It would run along side the car, snapping at the rear wheel.

Sometimes, just to see what would happen, I would speed up a little; the dog would quicken also.

Then one day, I decided to see what would happen if I stopped.
As I approached the gate the dog appeared and got into the ready position. Once I was passed the gate it took off after me, barking and snapping as usual. I led it on for 30 metres. Then I stopped the car and turned off the engine.

The dog stopped running. It stopped barking too.

It looked at the car, then at the wheel, then back to the car again.
It stood there puzzled and clearly did not know what to do. After a short while the dog began to walk back towards the gate. At that point I started the engine and took off as fast as I could.
When I looked in my rearview mirror, I could see the dog haring down the road after me.

The dog had spent its whole life dreaming of catching a car. When I stopped it finally caught one,  it did not have a clue what to do next.

How often have we seen this scene played out on the sports field?

The underdog takes on the champion and has a right go at it. With 10 minutes to go in the contest, the result is in doubt. Yet even though the winning line is in sight for the underdog, it does not pull away. No, it hangs in there clinging to a precarious lead. Then, just as the underdog is about to grab victory, the champion steps up a gear and drives home the winning score.

In this case, both the champion and the underdog are comfortable when they are playing out their regular roles. By not falling too far behind, the champion knows when to surge for victory. As for the underdog, it is fine when it is chasing victory; it is when victory is in its grasp it does not know what to do.

We saw a real-life example of this in Croke Park last Sunday when Wexford played Dublin in the Leinster football semi-final. Wexford have a good team. They have been chasing success for several years now. They have reached National League and Leinster finals but always seem to come a cropper when they face the football superpowers such as Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone and Cork.

It was the same last Sunday. Even though Wexford were not given a chance by most commentators, they took the game to Dublin and snapped at the Dubs’ heels throughout the first half.
A Wexford upset looked even more likely when Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly was sent off early in the second half. Wexford were playing well and Dublin were struggling with their form.

With the extra man it was suddenly advantage Wexford. Sharpshooter, Ben Brosnan was having a good day. Once Wexford got numerical advantage however, he and the other forwards started to miss, relatively easy scores. They kicked 11 wides in the second half, six of which were scoreable.

The other side of the sending off story was that the Dublin players realised their run of unbeaten championship games was in danger of ending. The 14 players left on the field began to put in an extra effort to compensate for Connolly’s absence. Dublin pulled away in the last few minutes of the game leaving Wexford puzzled and dispirited.

A similar story began to unfold in Wimbledon on Thursday last. The Czech, Lukas Rosol, (ranked 100th in the world and better at doubles tennis than singles) caused a major upset by defeating former Wimbledon champion, Rafael Nadal (ranked 2) in the second round.
of the Wimbledon Championships.

This was not a fluky win. Rosol played out of his skin. Every shot was hit with purpose and counted. In the fifth set Rosol jogged to his  seat at each change of ends. He calmly sipped his drinks, ate his snack, towelled off and jogged back to baseline ready for action. And what action! Serve after serve had Nadal struggling and every return put Nadal at a disadvantage.

Rosol had caught his prey.

When Saturday came it was a different story. Lukas Rosol found himself in the unusual role of favourite in a round of a major championship. His opponent was Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany.
Kohlschreiber is ranked 272 in the world. As the New York Times correspondent put it, “he could walk through Wimbledon Village, and lots of other villages undisturbed.”

Rosol did not kick on from the Nadal victory as a champion might; he retreated to his regular role as a chaser. The result was almost inevitable, Rosol lost in three straight sets. The third set was surely the most telling of all, as Rosol lost a tiebreak 8-6.

The symptoms that paralysed Lukas Rosol, Ben Brosnan and the Wexford team over the last few days are often the result of a fear of success.

This is a completely different problem to the fear of failure.
Wexford and Lukas Rosol are not afraid of failure. God knows, they live with it all the time. If they feared failure, they would never compete. The fear of success is a far more subtle and insidious problem.

It is a problem that is usually deep rooted in the subconscious. For athletes there are often other consequences to attaining a goal.
For example, becoming a top-ranked tennis player would probably force Lukas Rosol to give up the comfortable and reasonably lucrative doubles partnership he currently enjoys on the tennis circuit.

Likewise, winning a Leinster or All-Ireland would change the status of the current Wexford footballers within their county forever. Maybe they would not like that as much as they think they would.
The side effects of success can be a real problem for some people, and deep down in their subconscious they are not willing to change their current state and deal with these issues.

Fear of success is not confined to sport. It is often the reason why good musicians do not quit the day job and go professional, or why people do not start their own business, or change their lifestyle with regards to eating or smoking.

For some it is much easier to chase the car down the road, rather than catch it and bring it home.

That involves learning the skills of driving. Wanting success is an admirable trait, knowing how to deal with success is the hallmark of a champion.

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Frank O’Farrell: The interview

This is a long piece. I hope you will find it worthwhile. Frank O’Farrell was in Cork on Friday June 15th, 2012 last. I did a hour-long interview with with him. He is a fascinating person. I planned to write a shorter piece but there was so much to Frank O’Farrell and his story that I asked my editor John McHale to give me more space. He agreed. This is the result.

I BUMPED into William Geoghegan of Liam Ruiséal’s Bookshop one day recently. In the course our chit-chat he told me that former Irish international, and Manchester United manager Frank O’Farrell was coming to the bookshop to sign copies of his book, All Change at Old Trafford, The Frank O’Farrell Story. 
I asked William if he could arrange an interview for me. He said he would try. He contacted Frank O’Farrell who said yes and we agreed to meet at 3pm in Ruiséal’s Bookshop. 

Frank O’Farrell was a great player. He made his reputation firstly here in Cork and later with West Ham and Preston North End. 
He then went into football management and in the late 1960s, when I reached the age of sporting consciousness, I saw him on the TV. 

The front cover of Frank O’Farrell’s book

That was the era when RTE used to broadcast two live soccer games each year, the FA Cup final and the European Cup final. 
I remember him as manager of Leicester City in the 1969 FA Cup final. 
Two years after that he became manager of Manchester United and although they were not my favourite team, I knew even then, that they were the most famous club in English football. Just the mention of the name Manchester United conjured up soccer magic and thoughts of roaring crowds. 

I remember hearing adults talk sport about that time. “Isn’t Frankie Farrell doing well for himself,” they used to say. 
They were proud, as all Cork people were, that one of their own had reached the top of English football. 

When I entered the Ruiséal’s Bookshop Frank O’Farrell was standing off to the right, in conversation with a customer. Although he is 84 years old, he looks almost the same as he does on the front cover of his book. He is a little greyer, and there may be  a few extra wrinkles (not many), but the aura and the features have not changed. 

He is still the man who played in the Mardyke, who moved to West Ham, then played at Preston with the great Tom Finney, managed Leicester to an FA Cup final, took charge of Manchester United, the most famous club in Britain, took on George Best during his hell-raisin’ days and coached Iran to win the 1974 Asian Games. 
He has been through a lot but he remains, calm, neatly dressed, attentive and enjoys a chat. 

There were other people to be met so I stood back and observed while he spoke with Tony Drummond, an old teammate from his Cork United days, Plunkett Carter, a regular contributor to the Evening Echo and several more. William Geoghegan did the introductions and we sat down to talk. 

Frank O’Farrell was  born into a Cork City that was very different to the one we know today.
 He was born in 1927 and grew up in the economically depressed 1930s and Emergency years of the 1940s. Born in Lower Dublin Hill, Blackpool. His father, Patrick worked as a train driver. When Frank was five, the family moved to Turner’s Cross and Frank went to school in the South Mon and later Christ the  King in Turner’s Cross. 

He led a normal childhood for that time. He was good in school, won prizes for doing well in exams, played soccer, hurling and football, swam in the Lee Baths, picked blackberries in September, threw bowls (His granduncle “Buck” McGrath was a bowling legend) and generally made the best of life. 

Gradually, soccer became his sporting focus. He played for Nicholas Rovers, Clapton Celtic, Western Rovers and finally Cork United. Workwise he followed his father into the railway. 

The Western Rovers minor soccer team pictured at Turners Cross. Included is Frank O’Farrell (back row, third from left). 22/06/1945 Order this photograph from the Evening Echo Ref. 899C

“I wanted to become a train driver like my father,” he said. 
When he finally joined the railway, the young Frankie Farrell was stationed in Mallow. 
“I sometimes would get the train up to Cork and play for Cork United and then borrow my brother’s bike and cycle in the dark back to Mallow to be on duty for  midnight.” 

He was getting £3 a week from the railway and another £3 plus bonuses from Cork United.  I was doing very well, I had two jobs.” Then as he says with a touch of irony, “West Ham came calling and spoilt it.” 

“I found it very hard to leave. I loved the trains. It was the steam engines I really loved. Steam was great. One day the 800 or the 801 (steam engines) would be running smoothly, and everything would be flying. The next day it was impossible to get them going properly. You would be totally frustrated. It was great preparation for football management actually.” 

But the call of professional football won  and the move to England is a move that Frank O’Farrell has never regretted. He brought his strong Catholic faith with him and although he was often slagged for not eating meat on Fridays and getting up early for Mass, he is as strong a Catholic today as he was the day he  left Cork. 

Frank learned a lot about football during his years at West Ham. The club were very progressive in their approach to the game. There is a photograph in the book of a West Ham team in the 1955-56 season. Of the six players in the back row, five, Dave Sexton, John Bond, Malcolm Allison, Noel Cantwell and Frank O’Farrell, went on to become successful First Division managers. “We used to sit around for hours and discuss ideas about how the game was played. It was also while he was playing with West Ham that he met his wife, Ann. 

He played with West Ham until 1957. That summer he moved to Preston and in 1957-58 Preston finished runners-up to Wolves in the old First Division. During his years with Preston, Frank played with England international Tom Finney. He was affectionately known as “The Preston Plumber” because that was his trade. 

“He always had his tools with him” Frank said, “and he would go up to your house after training and fix any plumbing issues you might have.” 

How good a player was he? “He was the best I ever played with. He was marvellous. I drove to the north of England for his 90th birthday party recently. I wouldn’t do that for many.” 

All good things must eventually end and when Frank was in his early 30s he was let go by Preston. He was picked up by Weymouth of the Southern League as their player manager and spent four seasons with Weymouth during which time they finished sixth, third, seventh and finally won the league. 
“I went there as player/manager which I found difficult at first. You had to think about the team you picked and then back up picking yourself by the way you played.” 

After four seasons at Weymouth, he moved to Torquay. 
“We won promotion from the Fourth Division in the first year and finished near the top of the third for the next two seasons.” 
This was the 1965 to ’68 era and, presumably because of the lack of live football on the TV and the afterglow of England’s 1966 World Cup triumph, Torquay could have a home crowd of 9,000 on a Saturday. 

Midway through the 1968-69 season, Leicester came calling for Frank. Leicester were struggling near the bottom of the First Division and were hoping that O’Farrell would save them from relegation. He failed, but they did get to the FA Cup final where they lost 0-1 to Manchester City. 
They had some very good players like Peter Shilton and Allan Clarke but they had a very bad start to the season and it eventually cost them their place in the First Division. 

Leicester just missed out on promotion in the 1969-70 season when  they finished third. The following season they finished in first place and won back their place at the top table. 

Promotion coincided with the end of Frank’s contract. Negotiations on the new contract were slow and during the summer of 1971 he received a phone call from Matt Gillis, whom he had succeeded as Leicester manager, telling him that Sir Matt Busby wanted to talk to him. 

Frank met Matt Busby privately. “He (Busby) told me that he wanted to step back from managing Manchester United. The team had been together too long, some players were getting old and the team needed to be rebuilt. He said it was a five-year job and that he wanted me to take it on.” 

“I asked him what the terms of the contract would be. He said, ‘so many thousand bonus if you win the league, so many thousand if you win the cup, so many thousand for the European Cup and so on and a basic pay of £12,000.’ I said I’d think about it over the weekend, talk to my chairman at Leicester, and get back to him on Monday. 

“I spoke to my chairman and he wasn’t happy about it, but I had not signed a new contract so agreed I could talk to Manchester. 

“I then arranged to meet Matt Busby and the Manchester United chairman, Louis Edwards to discuss the matter again. We were to meet in a hotel but Busby wasn’t happy with that so I drove out the country, found a lane where we parked and I sat into Louis Edwards Rolls Royce to discuss the matter with them. 

I asked Matt would he repeat the terms again and he said ‘so many thousand for the league and so on…’ and he finished with £12,000 your wages. At that point Louis Edwards interrupted and said ‘No Matt your wrong, it’s £15,000.’ 

“Of course I knew I was in trouble at that point, but what could you do? Manchester United was such a big club. I was happy at Leicester but I couldn’t turn Manchester down.” 

He received a further indication that Matt Busby had not fully retired on his first day on the job. 
“I was met by Matt and he showed me a new office they were building down the hall from the office that Matt Busby had always used and where he intended to stay. 
“I told him that this wouldn’t do. People would think that he was still the manager. He reluctantly agreed to move out of the office.” 

Frank set about making changes at Old Trafford. Not big changes at first, but changes that needed to be made. He changed things that were not seen by the public but things that suggested that Matt Busby was not really the nice guy people saw on TV. 

Frank gives a few examples in the book. “I noticed that George Best was not the best paid player on the staff. So I made him the best-paid player. The physio Laurie Brown did not have all the equipment he needed to treat players. I made sure he got all the equipment he needed.” 

At Christmas of the 1971-’72 season, his first at Old Trafford, Manchester United were five points clear at the top of the league. Things were going so well that Matt Busby declared, “Frank O’Farrell is probably the best signing I ever made.” 

“They (Manchester United) were a difficult team,” Frank said. 
“They had a funny attitude to tactics. ‘If they score four, we’ll score five was their attitude’. That was all very well when they were 24 or 25 years old, now the team was in its early 30s. George Best was easily our best player. He was carrying the team.” 

But if Best was the team’s best player, he was also the most disruptive element within it. 
“He would go missing. Nobody knew if he was going to turn up.
“Denis Law was another peculiar person. If he wasn’t playing he wasn’t even interested in watching the game.  Eventually, I dropped Bobby Charlton for three games. He was not playing well and Matt Busby was very unhappy about that.” 

Results were poor during the second season. It was also Bobby Charlton’s testimonial year. Charlton wanted to arrange a game against Benfica as part of the celebration but the Portuguese side would not play. Frank help organise Glasgow Celtic as a replacements. But Celtic wanted a fee and Matt Busby was furious. 

There was a testimonial dinner arranged for December. Frank and his wife Ann attended as guests. Even though he was the manager, and as such Bobby Charlton’s boss he was not afforded a seat at the top table. After nearly 25 years in professional football, Frank O’Farrell knew what was coming next; the sack.

It is not the fact that he was sacked that rankles most with Frank.
He was told it would take five years and he was only given a season and a half; that annoyed him.
Tommy Docherty succeeded him and Manchester United were relegated in Docherty’s second season; that annoyed him too. It was the way Manchester United behaved after he was sacked. That really bothered him.

The club refused to pay up his contract. He was forced to instigate legal proceedings to recover his payment. He could not work while the case was waiting to be heard and this meant he had to sign on for the dole. He was also worried that because many of the local judges were regulars at Old Trafford he would not get a fair hearing.
“Don’t worry Mr O’Farrell” his Queens Council told him, “I’m a Manchester City fan, I’m looking forward to getting Matt Busby in the witness box.”

Eventually Manchester United settled the case and by then Frank O’Farrell had been out of work for nine months.

After the case he picked up work at Cardiff City and in 1974 became manager of Iran’s national team where he led them to victory in the Asia Games.

He returned to Torquay for short spells in the late 1970s and eventually retired from football. He began to work with the St Vincent de Paul Society and still serves Mass as an altar boy.

Would he like to be involved as a manager in football now, especially with all the coaching aids they have?

“I don’t think all the coaching aids make a difference to the good players. What could they teach the likes of Tom Finney?”

Well could the coaching aids teach defenders to cope with Tom Finney? “Not really.” Frank said. “The really good players will always find a way to beat you.”

Do you watch much soccer now? “Well I don’t have Sky. I don’t like it when the commentators are bigger than the game. I go to Torquay a lot. I have a seat in the director’s box there. They’re a good team but the capacity of the ground is too small 2,400. Every time they get promoted they come right back down again because they cannot raise the money to survive.”

I asked Frank if he kept an eye on Cork sport? “I still keep an eye on the Cork teams, but I don’t know who the players are any more. I liked to go to hurling and football games when I was young. I was at the 1945 All-Ireland football final when Cork beat Cavan.”

I couldn’t resist asking him about his GAA club loyalties. Born in Blackpool, but raised in Turner’s Cross, did he support the Glen or the Barrs?”
He smiled, “Oh! The Barrs of course. Mick Kenefick was a great player.”

Are there any other players you liked? “Micka Brennan, Alan Lotty, Sean Condon, Batt Thornhill and Jack Lynch, there were more but I cannot think of them right now.”

More than an hour had passed since we began talking. I thanked Frank for his time. I bought the last available copy of his book; he signed it for me. Most of the print run of All Change at Old Trafford has been sold out and it is difficult to find a copy for sale. It is a fabulous account of football in a different era. With surprising stories about Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and some of the other giant personalities of the 1960s and ‘70s era.

Would Frank O’Farrell do it all again? I won’t spoil the end of the book, except to say he would make one change, and it has nothing to do with football. Suffice to say you will never knock the steam out of Frank O’Farrell.

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