Billy Weir: Crues taking on Blues was perfect start to TV season and Irish League refs must be allowed to show common sense
One thing you can safely say about men, the lesser being as I like to call them, is that when we are under the weather we just get on with things, without fuss, moaning or the need for neither song nor dance.
Thus it was with heavier limbs than usual and dripping nose that I came to work on Friday evening even though when I left the house I noticed a big cross on the door, a man with a cart banging a gong and neighbours discussing what kind of sandwiches we’d like for the wake.
It also meant I didn’t get to see BBC NI’s first Friday Night Football offering of the season, the non-title decider between Crusaders and champions Linfield, but, even in my stricken state, I had the presence of mind to record it.
I took to my bed on Saturday, armed with Lemsip, Lucozade and lozenges (other man-flu medications are available) but little was helping, drifting in and out of consciousness I can remember hearing Sportsound and Grant Cameron but I may have been hallucinating.
I will not have a word said against this essential listening for the fan of the Irish League, back in the day traipsing around the country with Adam Coates in the studio and now Grant, the under-used Michael McNamee et al keeping us up to date.
It was refreshing to hear Grant interview Gareth McAuley, much water having trundled under the Bann bridge since they cut their teeth in Coleraine, with Big G (McAuley, not Cameron) announcing his retirement from football this week.
It was great to hear how he fondly remembered his time with the Bannsiders and Crusaders before getting his belated chance at the full-time game, something Gavin Whyte is doing to great effect just now at Cardiff City, but more of that later.
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With three games on Friday night, the Saturday offering was off a more limited menu but still some cracking stuff, especially as Warrenpoint defeated Dungannon Swifts for their first win of the season.
By Sunday I had managed to clamber onto the sofa, with enough drugs in me to stock a chemists, and there, sandwiched between six episodes of Dr Pimplepopper and Say Yes To The Dress Swatragh, was Friday Night Football. Live Irish League football. On the telly. Still makes me all warm and gooey, although that may have been my fever.
Stephen Watson was our guide as he beamed brightly that live football was back and yes, we are all happy, but, and I don’t wish to seem ungrateful here, why did it take to the tenth series of matches for this to happen, especially since, for some inexplicable reason, the Irish League Show was axed during the summer?
It has been replaced by a NIFL Premiership highlights programme, which is grand, but is only available online, thus meaning, as I have banged on about for years, people have to go looking for it.
And that is a shame because we have such a good product here and while it may not have the glamour or over-paid show ponies of the Premier League, it has a brutal honesty and no shortage of damned good football that a potential viewing public is being denied.
Hold on, I’m getting angry here, the doctors have warned me not to get excited, that’s why I watch Manchester United for goodness sake.
Anyhow, let’s accentuate the positives here. Sky have also dipped their tootsies into our murky pool, but it still has the awkward presence of a flame-haired step-child.
You’re in and out quicker than a bluebottle with an upset tummy, a couple of minutes introduction and then a ‘bye-bye’ from Graham Little at the end as the players haven’t even got the Mr Matey out.
At least we had a quarter of an hour to set the scene, Watson joined by David Jeffrey and Chris Morgan, with the latter stating it was ‘two juggernauts coming together’ and I think he was talking about the game and not our pair of pundits.
“A great start to the televised season,” he added, and maybe in my befuddled state I was reading ‘and about blooming time’ into the statement, but as I may have said, I haven’t been at all well.
Seaview was bunged, another joyous sight and Jeffrey, who never knowingly misses a chance to proselytise about the game here was in full flow.
“You and I and Chris have been banging on about the quality of this local product and here we are on television and have people decided to stay at home? No they haven’t, they’ve come out in numbers and it’s fantastic,” he said, words that probably didn’t sit hugely comfortably with the Beeb but they need a wee rap across the knuckles.
One thing they do that Sky don’t is put someone who knows the local game beside the commentator, on this occasion Coleraine boss Oran Kearney who was very good alongside Thomas Kane.
Sky usually plump for Steve Lomas, nothing against him personally and I know why they do it as he is known to viewers across the water, but his knowledge of the local game is nowhere near what we have here at our fingertips.
By the break, despite all the endeavour we were scoreless, the irresistible force of Linfield denied by Crusaders’ immovable objects, with Morgan, not renowned for the rough and tumble side of the game looking a little nervous on the touchline as he proclaimed ‘it’s not for the faint-hearted’.
As for Jeffrey, a man who could start a row in a graveyard, he was beaming.
“Absolutely loved it, not a game for the purist, but it’s feisty and just shows how our local game is developing,” he added.
And that is a key point, the speed and ferocity of the game is changing with more teams, like the Blues, Crues, Larne and Glentoran going more down the full-time route and that can only improve the product as a whole.
We had a brief break for Nial Foster to head to Wales to catch up with Whyte, the former Crusaders man making a big name for himself at Cardiff, described by manager Neil Warnock as a ‘breath of fresh air’.
He picked up on a point made by Whyte himself that he learned more coming through as a kid at Crusaders playing against men than he would have had going across the water as a nipper.
“In Northern Ireland you have to learn quick or you’ll end up on your backside,” added Warnock, and he’s right.
The second-half was more of the same, the only difference a fabulous winning strike from Rory Hale to settle it, and afterwards Crues’ boss Stephen Baxter joined our panel for an enlightening chat, stating how much teams are learning from playing against teams in Europe.
“We’re all working really hard behind the scenes, lifting our standards,” he said, and the proof of that is what is being served up each week.
The next helping on the Beeb is next Friday evening, with two of those ‘more professional’ sides Larne and Glentoran in action. It should be another cracker, the perfect tonic for those bed-ridden or simply bored with what’s on offer elsewhere. Oh, and get the highlights show back on the telly.
Sometimes being right feels very wrong
Right, I have waited long enough, let’s get to the thorny issue of the weekend, a perfectly correct — if morally wrong — decision by a referee.
The sending off of Glentoran’s Darren Murray by Steven Gregg for not leaving the pitch by the shortest possible route when he was being substituted has reverberated across the globe.
As I said, by the letter of the law, the ref was correct. It is a yellow card, Murray had been booked earlier, and thus a second yellow means a red, that is the new rule, daft as it is.
But as Glenn Ferguson rightly pointed out on the NIFL Premiership highlights show, the precedent has been set and now every referee must do the same.
Now, it looked to me on Friday night across town at Seaview that referee Arnold Hunter had told Paul Heatley, who was ambling off in whatever direction he wanted, that he should have gone another way, but no card was shown.
The powers-that-be have created a problem where one didn’t really exist.
Murray’s team was drawing with Cliftonville when he was subbed, he wasn’t seeking to waste time and I am sure manager Mick McDermott will be hauled up in front of the disciplinary committee for his remarks.
“We talk about upgrading football, everything is moving ahead and developing, but a performance like that from one person was absolutely pathetic,” he fumed.
“I think it was a ridiculous decision and a ridiculous rule. The referee was only carrying out instruction — he did what he is told to do. But to me, it’s a farcical rule,” said opposite number Paddy McLaughlin.
There are things in football that do need tackling, but this wasn’t one of them. Please let referees show a bit of common sense before all hell breaks loose.
Under-fire bosses manage to survive
I THINK it would be a pretty safe assumption that Gary Hamilton and Stephen McDonnell enjoyed rather different weekends.
McDonnell could finally celebrate a Warrenpoint Town win in the Danske Bank Premiership, at the NINTH time of asking, and bizarrely means they are just four points behind Hamilton’s Glenavon.
Seven goals at Linfield was bad enough but to then ship in another six at Larne was incredible, but while many expected him or the club to bring an end to his reign, to his credit, he is battling on.
“I’m gutted. There’s no-one hurting more than myself. Not only am I the manager of this football club, I’m also a supporter, it’s a club close to my heart.
“I’m sure people are doubting me as a manager at this moment in time because of the last couple of results. There’ll be no-one who will fight harder to turn it around than me.”
McDonnell (left) was in a similar position, the somewhat surreal sight of Mickey and Minnie Mouse leading the teams out at Milltown on Saturday making it perfectly understandable that there would be a fairytale finish.
Lorcan Forde’s last-gasp winner to see off Dungannon in a seven-goal thriller prompted scenes of delight and next up a trip to Coleraine who last lost a league game under Kearney when Mickey was Steamboat Willie.
“All I said to the boys was that I didn’t know what the people in charge of the club would think if we go and lose another game of football,” said McDonnell afterwards.
“We knew we had to find something. They turned it round and for a young group of players, they’ve shown b****.”
It’s now time for Glenavon to do likewise, we need managers like Gary and Stephen to carry this league forward and for directors and chairman not to reach for the panic button.
As McDonnell put it himself: “I didn’t feel the pressure. I believe I’m the right man for the job and if someone else comes in, they would be coming into my squad. This is my squad and I put it together, so don’t bin the process after eight games.”
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