Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Never mind Paolo Di Canio, our cups runneth over with passion

I hail from Ballymena, a place where the words 'passion' and 'football' usually meant that there was heavy rain approaching the Showgrounds from the direction of Slemish.

But over the weekend they were the words on everyone's lips as across the land fans gnawed nails, bit lips and tore their follicles (or anyone's they could find in some Millwall supporters' cases) out in clumps.

It was cup semi-final weekend, north and south of the border, and if that wasn't enough they then threw Paolo Di Canio into the middle of the Tyne and Wear derby with displays of ecstasy from an Italian not witnessed on our screens since Capt Bertorelli caught a sneaky glimpse of Helga in her undies on 'Allo Allo.

Things kicked off early on Saturday lunchtime in Scotland as Falkirk took on Hibs in the first semi-final of the weekend and I'll be honest I wasn't hopeful of being entertained.

How wrong was I? What a game, the Bairns of Falkirk racing into a 3-0 lead with football Barcelona would have been proud of, although helped somewhat by a Hibs defence that had their loyal 'fans' departing in droves after half an hour.

Suddenly it became clear what had gone wrong as at the interval we went to the studio to find Michael O'Neill sitting having watched a team in green and white get a good pasting – he can't even escape that in his time off.

But then the greatest comeback since Take That occurred, Hibs levelling in normal time before Leigh Griffiths scored a screamer in extra-time, to ensure a final place and make Pat Fenlon wonder could it be magic?

"It seemed like mission impossible, it was certainly mission implausible, suddenly it turned into mission accomplished," wailed commentator Ian Crocker at the end, as Hibs fans sitting on a bus halfway to Edinburgh wondered what all the fuss was about.

From there we were off to Wembley for the opening FA Cup semi-final between Millwall and Wigan Athletic or as Jon Champion put it: "A day of contrasts - London vs Lancashire, Lions against Latics, Football League taking on Premier League, gritty urbanites and provincial pie-eaters – an occasion of geographical and cultural differences."

I've looked up my Big Boy's Book of Regional Stereotypes and nowhere does it mention that 'gritty urbanites' means knocking seven shades of something unpleasant out of the nearest person and then running off with a policeman's hat.

It all seemed to kick off as the pie-munchers scored their second goal.

"For the first time this season Callum McManaman has scored as many goals as there are syllables in his name," said Champion, as Danny Welbeck watched on at home thinking that he is halfway to that feat, and wondering what all the commotion was in the stands in the background.

Craig Burley kept talking about how awful it was and how it would put you off going to games but at ESPN they seemed to be brushing the ensuing thuggery under a lovely red carpet.

"It's got to the stage where we've got to show you some of the scenes," muttered Champion and head shaking and tutting were very much the order of the day by Ray Stubbs, Kevin Keegan and John Barnes back in the studio.

This was the same station that two hours earlier had opened their coverage with a menacing Cockney geezer actor growling at the screen, waffling on about the pride of Lions who were rampant and no-one likes us but we don't care.

Onto Sunday and a return to some calm, a nice quiet Scottish Cup semi between Celtic and Dundee Utd would help ease nerves, but no, another mad seven-goal game followed so what we needed was a level-headed individual to smooth things over as we returned to the parts of Wembley left in tact and not in some geezer's gritty urbanite gaff. Ah, Roy Keane, nice to see you.

"No disrespect to defenders, but you don't win leagues by having good defenders, you need them, but it's about putting the ball in the net," hinted Roy, sitting beside two defenders in Lee Dixon and Gareth Southgate wondering should they tackle him but worried that there may have been a policeman's hat poking out from below his jacket.

"Let's hope the football makes the headlines in this semi-final," said Adrian Chiles and it did as Man City and Chelsea put on great show, or as Clive Tyldesley suggested: "It's like a good NBA game this." Surely a contradiction in terms?

"Why can't all football matches be like this," carried on Chiles at half-time. "I wonder what the big European technicians, one of the theologians of the beautiful game, say a Guardiola, would say?" Yes, yes, calm down, Adrian.

It wasn't all beautiful, Sergio Aguero's long jump onto David Luiz, an unseemly moment, but unlike ESPN at least ITV showed it.

"It's the worst tackle I've seen in a semi-final since Roy tried to castrate me at Villa Park 15 years ago," said Gareth, prompting one of the scariest sights known to man – a Keane smile.

But if it's joy uncontrolled you want, then it's north we must travel, as MOTD2 captured the best of Paolo as Newcastle were treated very badly and brought scenes of celebrating Sunderland managers last witnessed when Bob Stokoe went buck daft at Wembley in 1973.

No trilby or brown mac though for Paolo, although he ruined his natty Italian suit with a number of celebratory knee slides, prompting Colin Murray to ask him if he could take the blemished outfit off his hands. He'll probably need it for future job interviews.

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