By Joe Behan
Ireland’s legendary captain and manager, Mick McCarthy, could hand his Captain Fantastic armband to Roy Keane as Manchester United return to the top of the premiership table. Irish support will be pleased to see the three Uniteds — Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds — battling it out at the top of the premier. It means the nucleus of the Irish World Cup squad is shaping up very nicely in the top flight of the English Premier League.
The EPL top three is a multi-talented playground for Mick McCarthys to watch his players. The three Uniteds feature eight potential Irish players who could travel to Japan/Korea — Shay Given, Ian Harte, Gary Kelly, John O’Shea, Andrew O’Brien, Roy Keane, Stephen McPhail and Robbie Keane.
ABUs (Anyone But United) can read it and weep — Manchester are back on top with Newcastle second and Leeds in third. In ninth place just before the holiday season, it looked like Captain Keane and his Red Devils were plunging in a pitfall to hell. The Reddest Devil, Fabien Barthez, and his defense were at a point of embarrassment in 2001.
Last Sunday, however, United beat Southampton 3-1 to pass Newcastle and Leeds for the top spot. Liverpool and Arsenal matched up also on Sunday, but a 1-all draw kept the Gunners from breaking up the United dominance. The main driving force behind Man. U.’s turnaround is, not surprisingly, Roy Keane. The Corkman’s die-hard attitude in his captaincy is second to none in the Premier. Keano is not the only W.C. interest for the Irish at Old Trafford. Defender John O’Shea is highly rated by McCarthy and Sir Alex Ferguson.
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The man of the moment at Old Trafford is Rudd Van Nilesteroy. His goal in the 3-1 victory over Southampton was his eighth in a row. While it would seem that he is the player to stop, David Beckham pops up yet again to score a special free for the Reds. United’s weapons are kicking in and covering their weakest link, the defense. As the dashing Ryan Giggs oils up, Keane reestablishes himself as the man in the middle. The thoughts of pushing Barthez and Laurent Blanc for their places scares the wits out of the ABUs. For United, the grand finale is the Ferguson story, and if this is what he is giving us at the halfway stage, it’s likely United will get better.
McCarthy and the Irish support now know what a top-class goalkeeper Shay Given has become at Newcastle United. His outstanding performances in the W.C. qualifiers saw Given mature from some shaky blunders to complementing the fantastic one-man shows by Roy Keane himself. Given was impressive in the closing stages of the qualifiers as he closed the gap on Keane for votes.
For Newcastle, Given has sampled twice now what it’s like to be top of the Premiership. The goalkeeper has finally settled down and continues to make game-winning saves. His form for Newcastle gets steadier in the race for the title.
In front of the Irish savior is one of the most interesting Irish stories in the premier — Andrew O’Brien. He is right in there with Toon boss Bobby Robson, and the 68-year-old m’stro is keeping his central defender at a low profile for now. While Robson would rather shine the light on Alan Shearer and Kieron Dyer, it’s no secret that the old fox rates O’Brien’s potential higher.
The reason O’Brien is in is because he is good enough. Robson knows that but wouldn’t boast about it. The old-timer’s influence could give the Irish a surprise defender for the W.C. If McCarthy stays with the philosophy that players must be playing first-team football and on a regular basis in order to be considered for W.C. selection, O’Brien should get the W.C. call.
Dyer could turn out to be man of the moment for Newcastle. He scored in the 3-1 victory over Leeds to boost his comeback. Manager Robson reckons Dyer is also W.C. material.
The Toon army has on their side two old warriors in Robson and Shearer, who will dog it to the end. The desire alone from the two legends will rub off the energetic Newcastle side, which is capable of upsetting all opposition. Newcastle, it seems, interestingly enough, do not need to buy anybody — the way Manchester and Leeds seem to. The grand finale yet again falls on the manager’s lap, the much-traveled Robson, who will be the focus, should his Toon army triumph.
Leeds has yet to see Ian Harte, Gary Kelly, Robbie Keane and Stephen McPhail on the same page at Elland Road. It’s unfortunate for Leeds not to have all four firing on all cylinders; it would certainly help the Irish in the W.C. Kelly featured in the 3-1 loss to Newcastle, while Harte and McPhail sat the bench. Robbie Keane is out injured but should be back to complete a full squad for the EPL run-in. For the Irish interest, it’s whether or not McPhail will get back into the side, a selection that is typical of manager David O’Leary. The Irish manager would like nothing better than to hand over to McCarthy a healthy quartet for the W.C. trip and things could indeed shape up that way.
Leary has taken Leeds to the next level of football. It’s all good for the Irish W.C. chances. An Irish man winning the premier? The Irish will take that. O’Leary has penciled McPhail in as he sits on the bench with his youngest star week in week out. The Leeds Irish story could turn out to be the biggest finale of them all, and the most important for Ireland’s W.C. goal-scoring chances in Harte and Robbie Keane.
The man of the moment at Elland Road has got to be Robbie Fowler. His hunger is back and he’s got the tools to finish the job for Leeds, which is a premier title. Mark Viduka has responded to Fowler’s arrival is with a bunch of goals. Harte will need to get back on frees for Leeds in the EPL home stretch. Expect to see an even more competitive Leeds after being dumped out of the F.A. Cup. Leeds are still looking to combine competitiveness with composure, something that lacked last Saturday. Too many red and yellow cards suggest that players have tended to lose the football plot. Despite the huge spending spree by O’Leary, he still needs to buy a world-class midfielder to win the title, unless, of course, he has something up his sleeve — perhaps McPhail. O’Leary is now in the hot seat as Leeds face Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in their next three games.