Sunday, October 17, 2010

Must Go to Moscow

Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea travel to the Russian capital on Tuesday to play Spartak Moscow in a meeting of the top two in Champions League Group F. Both sides have already notched six points out of six so far in their Champions League Campaign. Tuesday’s match in the Luzhniki Stadium and the return tie in London will surely decide the top two spots in this group. Marseille will have been very disappointed with their start to their European campaign this season while Slovakia’s MSK Zilina will probably have been happy with the achievement of getting to the group stage.
Tuesdays match will also be the first opportunity for Irish most fans to see Aiden McGeady play ninety minutes in the red and white of Spartak. McGeady should relish the chance to test himself against the current Premier League champions. As last summer drew on it looked certain that McGeady would leave Celtic, a club he had been at since he was fifteen years old.  McGeady leaving in 2010 was only a surprise in that many expected him to leave Glasgow a year or two earlier. McGeady’s relationship with Celtic’s erstwhile manager Gordon Strachan was reportedly a bumpy one and the Paisley native looked set to depart in the January of 2009. He however outlasted Strachan at Celtic Park and saw another manager come and go in Tony Mowbray.  Following Mowbray’s departure in March 2010 Celtic’s league performance improved under then caretaker manager Neil Lennon in what were turbulent times for the Scottish club. McGeady was however intent on finding pastures new.
Aston Villa was seen as a likely destination for McGeady in a move that would have seen him link up again with Martin O’Neill. Internal problems at Villa Park, which eventually culminated with O’Neill’s departure, saw McGeady’s move to the Birmingham club scuppered.
Spartak Moscow invited McGeady for talks in early August and the Republic of Ireland international signed a four and a half year deal with Russian top flight side on August 13th for a fee of around £9.5 million.
A move to Russian football was certainly unchartered waters for an Irish player, indeed travelling beyond the familiar surroundings of the English or Scottish Premier League is not something Irish Internationals seem inclined to do. Of the current Senior Squad only Cillian Sheridan of CSKA Sofia has ventured beyond the comfort zone of British league football to earn a living. In recent years there have been very few exceptions to this trend. Ian Harte joined Levante of Spain in 2004 and stayed for three years while in 2008 Steve Finnan linked up with Espanyol in what would be an injury plagued year at the Barcelona club. In 2000 Phil Babb and Alan Mahon joined Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon, Babb made 37 appearances while Mahon only managed one in Sporting’s green and white hoops. If one casts the net back a bit further to Jack Charlton era there were only sporadic examples with John Aldridge’s time at Real Sociedad, Kevin Moran’s two years at Sporting Gijon and Mick McCarthy’s stay with France’s Olympic Lyon. These examples have always been the exception to the rule with Irish players constantly relying on the leagues of England and Scotland for their Football employment, culture and education.
This reliance has undoubtedly shaped our approach to the game. The fact that the vast majority of prospective Irish professional footballers travel to England in their mid teens makes this an inevitability. This reliance means the health of our national football side is inexorably tied to the progression and international standing of the English game. With this in mind events at last summer’s World Cup should be a cause for concern. For those who may have looked down their noses at the Bundesliga in recent years events in the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein on 27th June last should be a cause for extreme concern.
In the absence of a fully professional national league it would be reasonable to argue that it would be healthier to have Irish internationals plying their trade across the continent in four or five of the top leagues rather than 95% plus of them playing in the English Leagues. There is surely plenty to learn from the coaches of the Spanish, French, German and Italian leagues for Irish players. For that matter the coaches of the Dutch, Portuguese and Russian leagues among others could add so much to the skills and knowledge of our professional players. The Republic of Ireland national side have no doubt benefited from the English game over the years; however such a reliance on one way of playing the game, one way of thinking about the game and one way of living the game cannot give our professional players a balanced football education.
Some predicted we may see a mini flight of Irish players to Seire A on the back of a stamp of approval from Giovanni Trapattoni, this migration never materialised. However with the January transfer window on the horizon, given their current club difficulties Robbie Keane and Shay Given could do worse than to consider asking Trapattoni for his little black book of contacts.
If anyone is concerned that McGeady’s game may not develop due to the standard of the Russian Premier League, only five of the current Russian international squad; Zhirkov (Chelsea), Arshavin (Arsenal), Roman Pavlyuchenko (Spurs), Bilyaletdinov (Everton) and Pogrebnyak (Stuttgart) play their club game outside of their native land. Anyone remember the goings on at the Aviva on Friday October 8th?


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