By Dermot Clarke
To retain a UEFA championship of any description is a mammoth task. Manchester United are about to find out about that. With all and sundry gunning for the champs, retention is an admirable feat. In underage competition, however, the task is always that much greater. Player loss is as inevitable as the rebuilding process it creates. Coaching is a vital part of the underage game. That is why the Republic of Ireland can be grateful for the services of the genial Brian Kerr.
Kerr was faced with a tough first game against the highly touted Spaniards, in this year’s under 18 championship Monday. Spain, with almost 80 percent of its pool made up of players from the Real Madrid and Barcelona academies, were much fancied to add this competition to the already impressive collection of youth titles. After the initial bright opening by the Irish, the Spanish, in fairness, began to look every part the top dog. Irish goalkeeper Dean Delaney gave an inspired display, and this, coupled with the resolute defending of Clive Clarke and Jason Gavin, helped see the Irish leave the field on parity with the Spaniards at the break.
Peter Murphy replaced the yellow carded John Frost at the break and his pressure relieving long balls out of defense later on would prove to be one of the many contributions to this fine 1-0 victory. Liverpool’s Richie Partridge and skipper Gary Doherty’s ability to get on the end of these balls would not only prolong the relief period, it would also secure the points. Shelbourne’s Richie Baker ran himself into the ground in the second half and as the half wore on the Kerr instilled never-say-die attitude was beginning to frustrate our Iberian friends.
On 57 it looked like the Irish resilience was rewarded, when Richie Partridge latched onto a Ger Crossley clearance, his well-placed cross found Doherty’s head and the bustling center-forward tucked it home. The offside decision that followed looked questionable, to say the least. When Doherty found Partridge three minutes later and the little winger was upended after rounding goalkeeper Casillas Fernandez, only the bravest of officials would have waved play on. Thankfully, Mr. Zur from Isr’l did the right thing and awarded the spot kick. Ger Crossley, the Celtic midfielder, struck the kick with power and the Spanish ‘keeper could only help tuck it further into the corner of the net as a result.
It was obvious what would happen now — a Spanish onslaught. Kitchen sink and all, they attacked the Irish, but it was only on the very rare occasion that the strong defense was breached. On those occasions, the excellent Delaney coped admirably. As the minutes ticked away you began to sense that the M’stro had done it again and when the final whistle blew Brian Kerr was his usual calm and collected self. But this was as fine a victory as an Irish team of any description, has secured in International Football.
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Ireland play Georgia today, they would appear to be the weakest team in the group. A victory here and a tie against Italy, should see the boys through to another final. Retaining this title though would be a major achievement and another impressive string to the bow of Brian Kerr will be added.
Ronaldo sparks Brazil
Ronaldo looked back to his brilliant best at the weekend as Brazil walked away with the Copa America title. The hunger seems to have returned, the young Brazilian was everywhere as his side crushed Uruguay in a one-sided affair. Two goals from Rivaldo and one from Ronaldo saw them to a facile 3-0 victory Sunday and the self-belief seems to have returned under new coach Wanderly Luxemburgo. The man in charge would seem to have little time for the Prima Donna element. There seems to be a renewed discipline about the team. Vindication was gained, his decision to drop Edmundo and Romario from the squad gained criticism, but you can do no more than win, so the critics, seventies stars Tostao and Rivelino among them, will have to stay quiet for a spell. Luxemburgo will know though, that achievements are soon forgotten when failure looms and nothing short of World crown will do in 2002 for this expectant footballing nation.
Closer to home, the transfer market continues to heat up. Gerard Houllier’s shopping spree is not over yet, it appears. Dietmar Hamann appears to be Anfield bound, after a sponsorship deal with Granada TV promised a big cash injection into the club. Paul Ince could be on his way to Middlesborough, and bench warmers Sean Dundee and Jean Michel Ferri, it seems will follow. John Gregory has found a part-time babysitter for Stan Collymore. He goes on loan to Fulham and I’m sure that Gregory is hoping that the move will be made permanent ASAP.
Coventry appear to have secured the post season bargain with the signing of African footballer of the year Mustapha Hadji. The Moroccan signed for £4 million from Spanish side Deportivo de Coruna. It could prove to be a real snip this one. The Keanes are still up in the air though. The proposed transfer of young Robbie to Villa still hasn’t been finalized and Roy’s contract with United is still at stalemate. Alex Ferguson last week rated the Wolves youngster at £500, 000 at best. His assessment of the other Keane, his captain at Old Trafford, Roy, is obviously way off the mark also.