Season’s greetings: Time for Santa to draw up football's naughty and nice list

Since it’s that time of year when journalists are contractually obliged to begin every article by pointing out that it’s that time of year, your resident Father Christmas (aka Liam Mackey) has decided to get in on the act early doors and dispense a few baubles and brickbats among the football family (and associated stakeholders, of course).

Here then are the naughty and nice recipients for 2018. 

NAUGHTY

Alive But Not Kicking

Opting to rest a player is one thing, laying him to rest quite another, especially when he is still manifestly above ground.

Ballybrack FC’s terminal solution to a temporary problem made headlines around the globe, as the club got out of playing a scheduled fixture by falsely claiming that one of their players, Fernando Lafuente Saiz, had been killed in a car accident after leaving training.

The match against Arklow Town was duly called off and, all around the Leinster Senior League, teams donned black armbands and held a solemn minute’s silence to honour their fallen comrade.

Fortunately, having learned about his apparent demise while still conspicuously alive – if not kicking - in Galway, the boy Lazarus was not too put out.

“It’s serious on their part but I’m finding it a little bit funny because, basically, I’m not dead,” Fernando said, reasonably enough.

Social media exploded in glee and the tabs had a field day – ‘Brack From The Dead’, ‘One Footy In The Grave’ – but the apotheosis came with Ballybrack getting to rub shoulders with, among others, Winston Churchill, in the ‘Odd One Out’ round of ‘Have I Got News For You’.

Team captains Paul Merton and Ian Hislop had a good chuckle about it all but the final word went to guest presenter Gary Lineker who reported that even as Irish football was united in grief at the tragic news, Roy Keane had bucked the trend by launching a tirade in which he’d questioned the player’s commitment. Ho, ho, ho.

Wailing And Gnashing Of Teeth

Under the headline, ‘No Shirt, No Cry’, the magazine FourFourTwo declared: “We’ve said it for years: no club in world football represents the ethos of reggae legend Bob Marley quite like mid-table League of Ireland Bohemians.”

Oh, but football can be cruel, and copyright law can be even less forgiving, as Bohs discovered when they were refused permission to use Marley’s image on their spliffing – sorry, spiffing – new shirt.

The idea had been to commemorate Brother Bob’s famous concert at Dalymount Park in 1980 but even before the legal eagles spoiled the fun, rival supporters (translation: Rovers fans) had been having a go, with one of the more amusing ripostes coming from Eoghan Rice who tweeted: “Looking forward to United v Juve tonight. Juve have embroidered an image of Adam Clayton on their jersey to commemorate the time U2 played the Stadio Delle Alpi. United going for Mick Hucknall.”

The bad news for us scribes is that should we happen to find ourselves covering a no-score bore at Dalyer next season, we won’t even be able to enliven our deathless prose with the observation that neither side was capable of breaking the dreadlock.

As for Bohs’ replacement sartorial move: time to send for super sub Philo, surely?

Mrs Browned Off

Christmas hats off to Brendan O’Carroll who, along with his wife Jenny, beat the festive rush with the gift of life back in October, launching the ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys FAI Heart Care Programme’ which they funded to the tune of €460,000. The initiative aims to provide cardiac screening for children and adolescents in the National League squads as well as, at grassroots level, training for coaches in CPR and the use of defibrillators.

After the ceremonials were completed out at FAI headquarters in Abbotstown, O’Carroll – a committed football man who played in the old League of Ireland B division with Bohs and has been a regular at Ireland games since 1965 – proceeded to go spectacularly off message, leaving FAI personnel present not knowing where to look as he turned a wintry eye on the state of the national team, whose most recent outing had seen them lose 0-1 at home to Wales.

“The last couple of games we went to, I’d have needed the heart-screening myself,” he said. “It was shite. But listen, that’s the game. You’re up, you’re down.

Or in our case, you’re down, you’re f***ing down. I think we invented the phrase ‘mathematically possible’.

‘It’s still mathematically possible for Ireland to do it’. F*** off! I don’t want mathematically possible, I want to qualify.”

When even the Mammy (of all Mammies) was getting on his case, we should probably have known that Martin O’Neill’s time was nearly up. 

NICE

So VAR, So Good

France weren’t the only winners at the 2018 World Cup: the appliance of science also proved to be an unexpected success.

Even those of us who’d long advocated its introduction in football had to admit to a degree of trepidation that it might have been a bit premature to debut VAR in Russia, the fear being that the teething problems would disfigure the greatest show on earth.

What we couldn’t have foreseen was not only how well, most of the time, the technology would work in its most important goal of righting wrongs, but just how much it would end up adding to the drama of a memorable Mundial.

And when even a resolutely old-school type like Graeme Souness had to admit to having his scepticism confounded, it was clear we were in game-changing territory.

“I wasn’t sure about it but I am an advocate now,” he told us in Dublin at the end of the tournament.

“We are an entertainment business. If you have a drink in your hand — a pint of lager, orange or lemonade and peanuts — then you put them down when VAR starts. There’s a 45-second period when you’re on the edge of your seat. It adds to the excitement, a minute of ‘what’s going to happen here?’”

True, the system is not perfect but those who are still holding out against the technology — hello, Danny Baker — put me in mind of nothing so much as those prim parents you hear insisting that, really, their kids would be much better off with a wooden toy you pull on a piece of string rather than the latest state

of the art Virtual Reality gizmo. Bah and, if you will, humbug.

He Stooped to Conquer

Not content with apparently teaching Theresa May how to dance and supplying the best ever answer to the question ‘what would you been if you hadn’t been a professional footballer?’ (“A virgin”), Peter Crouch is now in mortal danger of becoming a full-blown national treasure in Blighty on the back of his witty manual, How To Be A Footballer.

Given the season that’s in it, it’s worth drawing special attention to the revelation that, while at Anfield, he was the Secret Santa who arranged for Rafa Benitez to recieve the gift of a book about how to win the league, penned by none other than his arch-foe Jose Mourinho. Them were the days, eh?

Remembering Liam

Páirc Uí Chaoimh ended the year making headlines for all the wrong reasons but back in September it was the setting for a wonderful sporting occasion as a star-studded fund-raising game, played out in front of a full house, paid tribute to the late Liam Miller.

At the age of 52, one of Cork’s finest, Denis Irwin, got to make a little bit of history by scoring the first ever association football goal at the famous venue while, running the rule over some of those on the pitch who hadn’t aged quite so well, Martin O’Neill offered a contender for quote of the year when he observed: “I suppose time catches up with all of us but one or two performance were particularly poor today. Johan Mjallby was a real serious hero of mine. My ambition in life was to play like Pele and look like Johan Mjallby. I achieved neither.”

But, of course, the day was all about Miller whose death at the age of just 37 had so shocked the football world. His voice catching, Damien Duff summed up the occasion perfectly after the final whistle.

“We all knew why we were here. It was incredibly emotional. Liam was such a great guy.

“That was why we’re here and what a turn out by the people of Cork and Ireland. An incredible day.

“It was a game of football and hopefully it showed a bit of respect to Liam and his family and his career, and made a bit of money.

“But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t bring Liam back. That’s the hardest bit. Taken too young. It puts everything in perspective.

“Again, putting things in perspective, Liam’s kids came in to the dressing room before the game and you don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what to say now. How hard is it for them?”

Indeed. Thoughts with all those who will be without loved ones this Christmas.

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