Nineteen days ago Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni named a squad of 24 players for this evening’s friendly against the Czech Republic at the Aviva Stadium. Since then Trap has added Shane Duffy, James McClean and Paul Green with Aston Richard Dunne and Darron Gibson the only players so far to drop out through injury. I think that the official squad for the Euro 2012 finals will come from those 27 players. At one stage it looked like the unlucky ones might be Everton’s Seamus Coleman, Wigan’s James McCarthy or Sunderland’s James McClean. That might sound strange to exclude promising young players, but Giovanni has always said that he will stand by the squad who got us to the finals. Still a good performance from McCarthy, Coleman or McClean at the Aviva this evening might convince the manager that they are worth bringing to Poland. Richard Dunne had to withdraw from the squad after fracturing his collar bone playing for Aston Villa against Manchester City earlier this month, but will be fit in time for the finals. He has been replaced in the squad for tonight’s game by another uncapped player, Everton’s Shane Duffy.
After tonight our next game is against Bosnia Herzegovina on May 26 which is very close to the date that Trapp will have to name his Euro 2012 squad and barring injury it looks like the players currently in the squad will be the ones on the plane to the training camp in Montecatini, Northern Italy, the day after the friendly against Bosnia Herzegovina. Robbie Keane, who is due to report back to LA Galaxy after his loan period with Aston Villa, will, if he plays, captain the Irish team for a record 50th time this evening. His first game as skipper was also at the Dublin 4 venue in March 2006 when we beat Sweden 3-0 in what was Steve Staunton’s first game as manager.
Meanwhile Michael O’Neill takes charge of Northern Ireland for the first time when they play Norway in a friendly at Windsor Park, Belfast, tonight. The former Shamrock Rovers manager has persuaded former captain Aaron Hughes to come out of retirement and there is also a recall for Burnley defender Michael Duff and Kilmarnock midfielder Dean Shiels.
The National Football League, which got off to a flyer when Kerry beat All-Ireland champions Dublin at Croke Park on Feb 4, resumes this weekend after a three-week break. So far it looks like Armagh are the form team; the Orchard County drew with Cork in their first game at the Athletic Grounds and the following weekend went to Tralee and beat Kerry. On Saturday night Armagh will be favourites to add to their points tally when Mayo visit the Athletic Grounds. Mayo won their opening game away to Laois, but just when we were about to see how good they really were against All-Ireland champions Dublin the game at Castlebar was abandoned due to the foggy conditions. At this stage it’s a bit early to talk about relegation, but Donegal look like they could be in trouble. They lost their opening game to Down in Newry and were then well beaten by Laois at Letterkenny. On Sunday Cork travel to Ballybofey to play Donegal and you would have to fancy the Rebels to get maximum points. Dublin are also pointless, but they have played just one game; on Saturday night the All-Ireland champions play Laois in Portlaoise and should pick up two points. Kerry manager Jack O’Connor will be able to call on the services of the three Dr. Crokes players: Colm Cooper, Eoin Brosnan and Kieran O’Leary for their game against Down in Newry. Kerry don’t have a great record against the Mournemen and they will be without Tomás O Sé, who was sent off in the game against Armagh and David Moran, who is ruled out for another season after a second cruciate injury just days after resuming training after recovering from the first cruciate knee injury suffered against Monaghan last April.
There will be much focus also on the division two meeting of Meath and Kildare in Navan on Saturday night. Meath have won their two opening games against Monaghan and Westmeath, while Kildare have yet to pick up a point. The Lilywhites, who were being talked about as possible All-Ireland champions for 2012, seemed to be going well in the O’Byrne Cup, but their form has dipped in the League. Whatever about All-Ireland champions Kieran McGeeney’s side would need to win a few games if they want to get out of division two this year. Derry, a county who always seem to do well in the League are also struggling in division two are at home to Monaghan. Westmeath will continue to struggle while they are without the Garrycastle players, who will not be available until after the All-Ireland club final on St. Patrick’s Day. But on the plus side 19 year-old Jimmy Heslin has returned from Australia where he was on trial with Richmond Tigers and he will probably go straight into the team for Sunday’s game against a much improved Galway in Mullingar.
NEW SEASON TO KICK OFF
The mood in Irish soccer circles right now is good as we look ahead to the Euro 2012 finals and the clubs in the Airtricity League of Ireland will be hoping that some of that hype rubs off on them and more spectators will go to local games. The domestic premier division is a decent standard, but it’s often ridiculed by armchair supporters, who unfairly compare it to the English Premier League. The new season kicks-off on Friday night with a full round of six games. Galway United were relegated last season and three clubs have been promoted, Shelbourne, Cork City and Monaghan, to give us a 12-team premier division this season. Six of the 12 clubs have changed mangers in the close season and there have been huge changes also to the various squads so it’s difficult to predict what lies ahead. What we do know is that Shamrock Rovers, who will be bidding for bidding for their first three in-a-row since the 1980s will be strong again. Since the end of last season Michael O’Neill has left Rovers and is now managing Northern Ireland. O’Neill has been replaced by local Tallaght-born Stephen Kenny, who is rated as the best young manager in the League. Kenny has done well with Longford, Bohemians and Derry City in the past. Rovers have lost Enda Stevens to Aston Villa and Karl Sheppard to Reading, but Kenny has strengthened the squad by bringing in players like: Colin Hawkins (Dundalk), Conor Powell (Sligo), Daryl Kavanagh (St Patrick’s), Killian Brennan (Drogheda) and Graham Gartland (St Johnstone).
Sligo Rovers, who finished second last season and won the FAI Cup for the second year in-a-row, lost their manager Paul Cook two weeks before the start of the season.
Cook has decided to return to England to manage Accrington Stanley, the club he once played for. At the time of writing Sligo were interviewing candidates to replace Cook. There are new managers also at Bohemians where Aaron Callaghan has replaced Pat Fenlon and St Patrick’s Athletic where Liam Buckley takes over from Pete Mahon. In Dundalk former Irish Youth team manager Seán McCaffrey makes a return to the League of Ireland, while in Derry Kenny’s former assistant Declan Devine has been promoted to manager.
With the expansion of the premier division, this season’s first division will have only eight clubs. The League rejected applications by Cobh Ramblers and Tralee Dynamos and in the absence of Galway United, Salthill Devon will now be known as SD Galway and will play their home games at Galway’s former home Terryland Park.
McGAHAN TO GO HOME
Munster rugby coach Tony McGahan has confirmed that he will leave the province at the end of the season and return to his native Australia where he will become defence coach for the Wallabies. McGahan has been with Munster since February 2005 and was involved with their Heineken Cup wins in 2006 and 2008. He later took over as Munster coach when Declan Kidney moved on to the Irish job. Over the past two seasons 35 year-old McGahan has built a new-look Munster team and this year they went through the qualifying rounds of the Heineken Cup unbeaten. It was thought that former Munster hero Anthony Foley, the current Munster forwards coach, was being groomed to take over from McGahan in the future, but some commentators feel that Foley may not yet ready to step up. So people like former Irish and US coach Eddie O’Sullivan and current Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley may come into the reckoning.
Meanwhile former Munster scrum half Peter Stringer is to stay on in England when his loan period with Saracens ends next week. Stringer will now join Newcastle Falcons on a short-term loan. At home fellow Corkman Tomás O’Leary may way to see who replaces McGahan before deciding on his future. Last week he was reported to be close to agreeing a deal with French club Perpignan.
Former Irish international Niall Quinn has severed his links with English club Sunderland. The Dubliner, who was the man that pulled together the Irish consortium which bought the North of England club in 2006, stepped down as Chairman last October and took on a development role for the club. Now Quinn says he wants to spend more time with his family in Kildare and devote more time to his own business interests.