Friday, 31 August 2012

Alan Mahon

One day in Madrid

2000 - 01 : Sporting CP (Portugal)

On October 25th 2000, the players of Portugal's Sporting CP walked out of the tunnel and into the cauldron that is the Santiago Bernebeau. It was the Champions' League First Group Stage and Sporting were in last place behind Real Madrid, Spartak Moscow and Bayer Leverkusen, having picked up just one point so far.

In Real Madrid's ranks that day were Luis Figo, Steve McManaman, Roberto Carlos, Fernando Morientes, Guti and Claude Makelele. World Class internationals and the bread and butter of top quality football. 

Pulling on his Sporting shirt for the very first time that day was a Dublin lad by the name of Alan Mahon. Alan Mahon was a central midfielder who had made his name in the late-90s with English First Division side, Tranmere Rovers. Over the course of four seasons, he had made over 120 appearances for the Superwhites and represented his country twice in friendlies at the tail end of the 1999-2000 season. 

That summer, Portuguese giants Sporting Clube de Portugal, also known as Sporting Lisbon, snapped up Republic of Ireland's experienced central defender  Phil Babb on a free transfer from Liverpool. Staying on Merseyside, the club decided to sign Babb's international team-mate Alan Mahon, perhaps as a guarantee against the more senior player becoming homesick. It was cloud nine for Mahon, who went from muddy English second tier soccer, to the sunny reality of Portugal's top flight, the 52,000 capacity Estadio Jose Alvalade and the UEFA Champions' League. He arrived on 4th July 2000 and began training with his new team-mates.

Mahon (front-row, second from right) in a pre-season picture with Sporting team-mates
Peter Schmeichel and Phil Babb can be seen to the left of the back-row.

With over 100,000 registered fans, Sporting CP are Portugal's most well supported side. They constitute one of the Tres Grandes of Portuguese soccer, along with Benfica and FC Porto. Playing at the (newer) Estadio Jose Alvalade the club have won 18 Portuguese League titles and 15 Portuguese Cups. In Europe they were Cup Winners' Cup Champions back in 1964. 

In the 1999-2000 season they were crownded champions of Portugal for the 17th time. This was their first title in nearly two decades and that summer, manager Augusto Inacio was looking to bolster his squad to defend the title. He looked mainly to Phil Babb, and also to Alan Mahon.

The season started with mixed fortunes for the Lions and they found themselves sitting in 11th place by the end of September. Phil Babb quickly cemented his place in the squad, becoming an essential part of the Sporting CP team for over two years. Mahon on the other hand was overlooked from day one. It seems the 22 year old was never intended to be seriously given a first team berth, adding credibility to the rumour that he was only signed to ease Phil Babb's settling to the area.

The Dubliner would not wait long for his chance, his one chance, however as on 25th October manager Inacio gave Mahon his first game. With Sporting effectively knocked out of the Champions' League, many first team regulars, including Babb were rested for an away trip to European heavyweights Real Madrid in Spain. Mahon was picked to lead the midfield and lined out alongside the likes of Mbo Mpenza, Cesar Prates and Joao Pinto. In front of 55,000 screaming Castillians; Mahon made his Champions' League bow.

The match started badly for the Lions however, as they succumbed to a Guti header in the 12th minute. Thirty minutes later, Brazilian international Savio finished off a sublime passing move and a Guti assist. Mahon's involvement ended at half-time, as Inacio replaced him with striker Beto Acosta.

In the second half, Sporting's defeat was compounded further, as two goals in eight minutes from Spain's Fernando Morientes sealed a 4-0 to the Spanish giants. Sporting were outplayed, out done and utterly battered. 

Alan Mahon would never wear the green and white shirt again. In early 2001 Inacio, in spite of leading to club to national glory for the first time in a generation, paid the price for the side's dismal European showing and was sacked. Replaced briefly by his assistant Manuel Fernandes, Inacio's job ulitmately went to former Romanian international Laszlo Boloni who didn't see much worth in keeping Alan Mahon. The Irishman was duly loaned out to English First Division side Blackburn Rovers for the remainder of the season. There he was instrumental in helping Rovers earn promotion back to the Premier League.

Mahon regained form with Burnley
The following summer, the Lancashire club paid Sporting 1.5 million pounds for his services on June 29th, and Mahon's Portuguese adventure was over. He had made just one appearance for the club, for 45 minutes in perhaps the most difficult stadium in the world and against the richest and (at the time) best football team on earth. Quite a story.

The following years he would play for a number of clubs, including Wigan and Burnley before ending his career in 2011 back at his beloved Tranmere. Mahon failed to make any impression on his coaches at Sporting, and was only thrown in at the deep end in Madrid because the club were already knocked out. With Blackburn, he failed to make the same impact in the Premier League as he had in Division One. Quite clearly, Mahon was never anything more than a good Championship quality player, and was never good enough to play at the top level.

His story while interesting, was and is overshadowed by the success in Lisbon of Phil Babb. 

Alan Campbell

1984 - 86 : Racing Santander (Spain)
1986 - 87 : Logrones (Spain)
1987 - 89 : Berchem (Belgium)

Alan Campbell was an Irish striker. Born in Dublin in 1960, he would earn 3 caps for his country as well as various honours for his boyhood team Shamrock Rovers.

Campbell started playing football with St. Joseph's Boys and joined Rovers in 1978, at the age of 18. His debut came on October 11th of that year in a Leinster Senior Cup tie against St. Francis. The Dubliner scored twice in the 5-1 win.

Over the following six years, the forward would score over 70 senior goals for the Hoops as well as win a League of Ireland winners' medal in 1984. Teaming up with fellow front-man Liam Buckley, he was the league's top scorer in the 1979-80 season with 22 goals. By his 24th birthday, Campbell was regarded as one of the league's finest strikers, and a career abroad beckoned.

However, this career abroad did not take place in England. Campbell is one of the few Irish internationals to have never played any football in England. Instead, in the summer of 1984, with his League medal obtained, Campbell headed off to Spain and the turf of the El Sardinero. In the same summer, his partner up front Liam Buckley would move to Belgium.

He signed for La Liga outfit Racing de Santander. Founded in 1913, Racing play their games at the 22,000 capacity El Sardinero. Racing first reached Spain's top flight in 1929, and spent the following five decades bouncing between the top two divisions, failing to land a single major trophy. Between 1922 and 1929 and again between 1947 and 1949, they were managed by Irishman Patrick O'Connell. In 1984, they were coached by former Spanish international Jose Maria Maruregui who put faith in the young League of Ireland star.

The El Sardinero stadium
The club finished the 1984-85 season in a respectable 11th place. Highlights for the season were holding both Real Madrid and Barcelona to 0-0 home draws and a 5-0 home thrashing of Osasuna. The title was won by Barcelona. For Campbell, it was a fruitful season and a successful first experience of Spanish football. He bagged 9 goals, making him Racing's top scorer for the season. 

While with Racing, Campbell earned all three of his caps for the Republic of Ireland national team. The first of these came in Dublin in February 1985. Against Italy, Campbell came on as a 76th minute substitute for QPR's John Byrne. Ireland lost the match 1-2. He made his first start for Ireland later that month, in a 0-0 friendly draw with Israel in Italy. Then in May of the same year, Campbell started for Ireland in Cork against Spain, a moment which amounted to the highlight of his career. The game was a 0-0 bore draw of the Eoin Hand years, but Campbell had the opportunity to strut his stuff against league rivals on his own turf.

The next season, they finished in 12th, with Campbell netting 6 times. However that summer; after 63 appearances and 15 goals, Campbell was sold to Logrones. Coincidentally, Campbell's former team-mate at Shamrock Rovers, Liam Buckley, would replace him at El Sardinero

Today, Racing de Santander ply their trade in the Segunda Division.

Logrones were a relatively minor force in the world of Spanish soccer. They were established in 1940 following the demise of two former local clubs. The Club failed to reach the first division over the next 46 years. When Campbell signed for them, they were in the Segunda Division and playing home matches at the 16,000 capacity Las Guanas ground.

The 1986-87 Segunda Division is one of the most famous in Spanish football history, as it was the longest football season ever. It contained a full roster of 18 teams, yet had two whole phases. In all, each team would play a mind-boggling total of 78 games in the whole season. Campbell played 32 matches for the club, netting nine goals. 

This would turn out to be a dream season for the club, as they finished as best runners up and were thus promoted to the La Liga for the first time in their history. However, that summer the club were informed of new rules in La Liga, which restricted the number of foreigners who could be on the pitch for a team at any one time, to three. Campbell was told that he may have to spend quite a lot of the season on the bench.

This didn't suit him, so he decided not to stay. He was offered a contract by Scottish giants Glasgow Celtic, however, he rejected the Hoops and decided to move to Belgium. Logrones lasted eight years in La Liga, but collapsed in 2009 due to serious financial problems.

He signed for Berchem Sport, a club based in Antwerp. Berchem were founded in 1908, but have spent a majority of their existence in Belgium's lower leagues. However, for a good period of the 40s, 50s and 60s they had bounced between the two top flights regularly.

In 1987, Berchem had just been relegated from the Belgian First Division, and were keen to bounce back immediately the following year. Campbell was thus brought in to help achieve this goal. However, the season didn't bear fruit, and despite Campbell being the club's top scorer that year, Berchem finished 8th in the Tweede Klasse and failed to gain promotion back to the top flight. Campbell, now aged 29 decided to move in order to revive his career at this crucial stage.

He moved to Scotland where he signed for Premier Division outfit Dundee United. He ended his career in 1992 at Forfar Athletic and still lives in Scotland with his wife and daughters.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Matthew Cassidy

2008 - 2010 : Enosis (Cyprus)
2010 - 2011 : AEL Limassol (Cyprus)
2011 - 2012 : Othellos (Cyprus)

Matt Cassidy was born in Blackpool, England in 1988. A midfielder, he began his footballing career with then-English Premier Division side Bolton Wanderers in 2004. 

He spent four years with the Trotters' youth academy and was even named as their player of the year in 2007. However, with Bolton plying their trade in the world's richest league, chances for youth players were hard to come by, and Cassidy would never make a competitive first-team appearance for Wanderers. He did graduate to their reserve team in 2007-08, but never climbed higher through the club's ranks.

Cassidy,  with Ireland
Although born in England, Cassidy's Irish grandparents permit him to play for the Republic of Ireland. He would chose this path, and in 2006 he made his debut for the Ireland Under-17s side. Further appearances at Under-18 and Under-19 level followed, and Cassidy would play multiple times in a green shirt during qualification for the Under 19's European Championships. The season was a disaster for the Irish, as they finished bottom of their group behind Georgia Slovakia and Turkey. Cassidy would never wear an Irish jersey again.

Despite playing in some pre-season friendlies and sitting on the bench for Bolton, the young Irishman by now at the age of 19 left England to find opportunities elsewhere. "When Sammy Lee left, I fell out of favour". He went to Cyprus and a team by the name of Enosis Neon Paralimni. He did this in spite of interest from a number of respectable lower-league British sides inclyding Doncaster Rovers and Luton Town. A rather brave and worldly decision, especially considering the track-record of fellow Irishman in this regard. 

Cassidy was Ireland's second football export to Cyprus, following former Liverpool ace, Ronnie Whelan who spent some years on the island as a manager.

Enosis hail from the town of Paralimni in Eastern Cyprus. Since the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974, many Greek Cypriots fleeing the North have settled in the town, bolstering its size to about 15,000 people. The club have existed since 1944 after a merger of three local sides. They have never won a First Division title (Cypriot football's highest honour) nor have they ever won a Cup, but have competed in the First Division since 1969.  They play at the 5,800 capacity Tasos Markou ground and their nickname is the Clarets.

Cassidy (centre) playing for Enosis
Cassidy would be drafter in for the 2008-09 season, a chaotic one for the club. He would play under no less than 5 coaches that year as Enosis finished the campaign in 10th (out of 14 teams) and avoided relegation. Marios Constantinou, who signed the Irishman, would resign in December. His replacement, Panayiotis Xiourouppas would last three weeks for making way for Bulgarian Eduard Eranosyan. A month later, he would also get the chop, as the club promoted two first-team coaches to the dual roles of manager.

In all this, Cassidy played regularly and cemented a place in the team. He was also, understandably, enjoying the lifestyle aswell; "I had an apartment and a nice car, the beach was close and the weather and food were superb". He even learned the lingo, adding Greek to English and German as languages in his arsenal.

The next season, 2009-10, would be much more stable for the club, as under Macedonian coach Cedomir Janevski, Enosis would finish in 8th. After two solid years and 32 appearances with Enosis, Cassidy won a move to big-boys, AEL Limassol.

One of Cyprus' strongest clubs, AEL have won the First Division 6 times, and the same number of Cups. As of 2012, they are Cyprus' champions. They play home matches at the 14,000 seater Tsirion Stadium in Southern Cyprus' Limassol city.

At AEL Limassol
Cassidy, then aged 21, penned a five year contract with AEL on June 9 2010. The club put in a dreadful campaign finishing in 9th, with Cassidy once again playing under a host of different managers; he Czech Dusan Uhrin, Romanian Mihai Stoichit and finally Dutchman Raymond Atteveld. Cassidy failed to carve a place in the first-team with the club, and after just one year and a meagre 2 games, he left AEL by mutual consent. 

The year with Limassol effectively ruined the Irishman's chances of making it big in his career. After parting with the club, he was forced to move down a league, to the Second Division. All the good performances and accolades he won with Enosis were forgotten, as he signed a deal with lowly Othellos Athienou. 

The club hail from Larnaca and play at the 2000 capacity Othellos Atheinou stadium. For most of their history, they have competed in the Second Division, which is where Cassidy joined them. The season was decent for the Irishman, as he played 25 games for the club. However, they finished in 6th place, missing out on promotion. Cassidy's contract was not renewed, and after just a season with Othellos, he was again unemployed.

He left Cyprus afterward, and in August 2012 he signed a deal with English Conference side Hyde F.C., where he is still playing. It seems he gave it his best shot in Cyprus, and almost became a big player, over there at least.

From believing in Champions League qualification with AEL, to mucking it with Hyde, Cassidy's unlikely career has fallen through. Like many Irish boys, his dreams of Premier League glories were dashed at 19. Yet, unlike many Irish boys, he decided to not settle for lower-league ambiguity and reached for the sun. Brave, sadly it didn't work out. But at only 23, Cassidy still has many years to make a decent and respectable career for himself, but it probably could have been more.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Gary Hogan

2009 : Steinkjer (Norway)
2010 : Skeid (Norway)
2010 - 2012 : Steinkjaer (Norway)
2010 : Alta (Norway) loan
2012 - 2013: Ham Kam (Norway)
2013 - present : Tallinna Kalev (Estonia)

Gary Hogan is an Irish goalkeeper who made a name for himself in Norway during a 4 year spell in the Nordic country. Nicknamed Hulk by fans, Hogan has since moved on to Estonia to play for Tallinna Kalev.

Hogan, who was born in 1983, began his football career with the now defunct Dublin City FC in 2011. Over the next four years with the Vikings, he would make 19 appearances in goal. He spent a year with English non-league outfit Sutton in 2006 and 2007. Seeing his career go nowhere in Ireland and Britain, Hogan then decided to take to the sea and find his game elsewhere. 

He landed in Norway, signing with Second Division club Steinkjer. Steinkjer are an old club, having been founded in 1910 and were managed by Irishman Tony Dunne in the 1982-83 season. Since then however, they have fallen through the leagues of Norwegian football, and by the time of Hogan's arrival, they were playing in Norway's second division. He spent much of the past four years between the posts at the Guldbergaunet Stadion, where he was instrumental in helping them avoid relegation until 2011.

He surprised many by turning down offers from Tippeligaen and English league clubs to sign for another second division Norwegian club, Skeid. He spent one season with Skeid, but returned to Steinkjer later after financial issues at Skeid.

In 2010 he returned to Steinkjer, becoming a club favourite. However, in 2011 the club were finally relegated after years of brave battling, and are now playing in Norway's Third Division. Nonetheless, Hogan is regarded as a hero with the club. He is described as a "physically impressive, strong and agile, natural leader who is comfortable with the ball at his feet". That year he was named as Assistant Coach with Steinkjer.

In 2010, he was briefly loaned out to Alta, as the club had a major goalkeeping injury crisis.

In April 2012, he was loaned out again to Ham Kam, after their two first choice keepers Ivar Ronningen and Dyre Eckeberg were both ruled out with long-term injuries. Ham Kam currently play in the Adeccoligaen, Norway's Second Division. Founded in 1918, the club have a long and proud history in the Norwegian game, although trophies have always proved illusive.

Hogan after signing with Ham Kam

As Hogan is considered a safe and experienced choice, Ham Kam manager Vegard Skogheim was lauded for the signing. In May, with Ronningen failing to recover adequately, Hogan signed a full-time deal and transferred to Ham Kam. For one year he helped keep Ham Kam in the Adeccoligaen. Moves to bigger Norwegian clubs however never materialised, and so in 2013 Hogan made a move unfamiliar to Irish football.

Hogan in action for Ham Kam

He signed for Estonian club Tallinna Kalev of the country's top flight Meistriliiga. Kalev were founded in 1911 and play at the 12000 capacity Kalevi Keskstaadion, a Soviet-era concrete block. They club were twice Estonian champions, in 1923 and 1930 after the country broke free from the Russian Empire but before they were occupied by the Soviets.

Hogan's new coach in Tallinn was German tactician Frank Bernhardt. Kalev are by no means big hitters in Estonia, and live in the shadow of bigger names such as Flora and Levadia. As of June 2013, Kalev are battling relegation from the top flight. Hogan wears the no.1 shirt and had been favoured by the management since arriving. 

Hogan demonstrates an adventurous spirit and a globe trekking attitude are in Irish soccer players. He learnt Norwegian and has been able to settle wherver he has gone. Good luck to him in future, wherever he ends up.

Peter Fitzgerald

1959 - 1960 : Sparta Rotterdam (Netherlands)

Born in Waterford in 1937, Peter Fitzgerald was a fairly succesful League of Ireland footballer in his native city. He began playing for local side Bohemians as a minor. He moved to Waterford United at the age of nineteen and would go on to make a number of appearances for the Blues over the next three years. With Waterford he would win two Munster Senior Cups as well as reach the FAI Cup Final in 1959, only to loose to St. Pat's.

Fitzgerald and the Waterford 1959 FAI Cup Final side
In the summer of that year, Fitzgerald was signed by Dutch club Sparta Rotterdam. Founded in 1888, Sparta are the Netherlands' oldest football club. Since 1916, they have played their home matches at the unique Stadion Het Kasteel. Between 1908 and 1915, they won five league titles. Soon thereafter, Dutch football would become dominated by Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eidnhoven. However, in 1958-59 Sparta reclaimed the title after an absence of 45 years. It was into this team that Fitzgerald was brought.

Football in the Netherlands had turned professional in 1954, but Sparta Rotterdam, in spite of being national champions, had still not adopted a full-time structure as of yet. Fitzgerald was therefore hired as a part-time footballer and given a job in the city. All of Sparta's players were employed on part-time contracts, these included dockers, labourers, clerks, salesmen, an engineer, a physiotherapist, a Naval officer and an airport worker. Fitzgerald was given the lucky job of working in the local brewery.

He would link up with other English speakers at Sparta. The manager at the time was an Englishman named Denis Neville. A continental journey-man manager, Nevile had previously managed Odense in Denmark and Atalanta in Italy. He was appointed Sparta's manager in 1955 and led them to their league success in 1959. In later years he would even manage the Dutch National team.

Also in the squad was Northern Ireland's inside forward Johnny Crossan. He arrived in the same summer as Fitzgerald after he had been banned from British football for a breach of contract regulations. In spite of the ban, he would later be capped by Northern Ireland 24 times and return to Britain in 1962.

Sparta Rotterdam 1960
As champions of Holland the previous year, Sparta were thus entitled to compete in the 1959-60 European Cup. in the first round they came out on top against Swedish champions IFK Goteborg, drawing 4-4 on aggregate before defeating them in a play-off. Fitzgerald played no part in any of these matches. However in the Quarter Finals Sparta drew Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers. Neville decided to call upon Crossan and Fitzgerald for this tie, believing their British/Irish style to be a good match for the Gers. The first leg was a disappointment however, as Sparta fell to a 2-3 defeat at home, with neither the Irishman nor the Northern Irishman able to get on the scoresheet. The second leg at the Ibrox resulted in a 0-1 win for Sparta, as Dutch international and life-time Sparta player Tonny van Ede smacked home an 82nd minute winner for the part-timers. A play-off at London's Highbury ground saw Rangers run out 3-2 winners. Neither Irishman hit the net yet again, and Sparta's Euro dream was over. The Cup would eventually be won by Real Madrid.

Fitzgerald played for Sparta against Rangers at Highbury

Domestically, the season was an upset for the club. Fitzgerald played in the club's humiliating 0-5 drubbing in their own ground to bitter rivals Feyenoord. In spite of finishing the previous year as champions, Sparta slumped to a finish of 7th place, missing out on European qualification in the process. No Dutch Cup was played that year. 

Games were hard to come by for Fitzgerald, and in the whole season he only made 14 appearances for Sparta. He did however put in a respectable tally of 7 goals for 1959-60. The next August he was signed by Leeds United manager Jack Taylor for 7,000 pounds, as part of a large overhaul of his ageing squad. At Leeds, Fitzgerlad would link up with future Ireland manager Jack Charlton. The season wasn't a happy one for him however, and he would soon move to Chester City where would spend three happy years before returning to Ireland and Waterford United in the mid-1960s. He finished his career in 1979 with non-league English side Hyde United. While at Chester, he would even make four appearances for the Republic of Ireland.

Still considered a legend at Waterford United, Fitzgerald was probably never good enough to play for Sparta Rotterdam. But his adventurous spirit drove him to go to Holland and try. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Paddy Sloan

1948 - 1949 - AC Milan (Italy)
1949 - 1950 : Udinese (Italy)
1950 - 1951 : Brescia (Italy)
1954 - 1955 : Rabat Ajax (Malta)
1964 : South Melbourne (Australia)
1965 : Brunswick Juventus (Australia) 

Joshua Walter Sloan, better known as 'Paddy', was a dual Irish international footballer, who played as a winger for numerous clubs in post-war England and beyond. Born in Lurgan, County Armagh in 1920 he would first play for his local side Glenavon in the Irish League. He transferred to Manchester united as a seventeen year old, but failed to make an appearance and in 1939 he switched to Tranmere Rovers.

Sloan at Arsenal
World War Two broke out that year, and Sloan joined the Royal Air Force, being stationed in Canada. Throughout the war he made 22 appearances for Tranmere, and a handful as a guest for other clubs, in various war time matches.

After the end of the conflict, he moved to London giants Arsenal. The move was successful and Sloan became an integral part of the Gunners' post-war team over the next two years. A brief move to Sheffield United ensued in 1947 where he played for one season and just over 10 games.

In 1945, Sloan was called up to represent his country. He would go on to earn a further 5 caps for Ireland over the following two years. However, all of these caps would not be earned with the same Irish team. Until a FIFA ruling in 1950, which called for two separate teams Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, international football was graced by two distinct teams, both claiming to be and calling themselves Ireland. Once was the Belfast-based IFA's Ireland (predecessor to Northern Ireland) and the other was the Dublin-based FAI's Ireland (predecessor to the Republic of Ireland). Between 1924 and 1950, a number of footballers represented both teams at varying times, becoming referred to as dual internationals. Sloan was one of these men. He made three appearances for the Belfast Ireland, twice against Wales and once against England. In spite of this, in 1946, he travelled with the Dublin Ireland, on an Iberian tour and played twice against Portugal and Spain. After 1947 however, Sloan would never be called up for either team again.

Sloan with Milan team-mate
Albert Gudmundsson
In the summer of 1948, he signed for Italian big boys AC Milan. It marked a major upturn in the fortunes of the Lurgan man, as he would be playing in the 1948-49 season alongside some of Europe's top footballers, including Albert Gudmundsson and Riccardo Carpellese. His coach would be the legendary tactician Giuseppe Bigogno who managed Milan, Inter, Fiornetina and Lazio in his time.

Milan had finished the previous season in 2nd place and were still searching for their fourth scudetto. Sloan would enter a Serie A that was full of British names. City rivals Internazionale were then coached by Welshman David John Astley, while over in Turin, Torino were being led by Englishman Leslie Lievesley and Juventus by the Scot Will Chambers. Also in the Juventus ranks was English forward William Jordan

Sloan at Milan
He made his debut at the San Siro on October 24th, and even got on the score-sheet with a 48th minute goal. The match, against Triestina, ended in a 3-1 win to Milan. A week later he scored again, in only his second match in a 2-2 draw away to Lucchese. In December he netted another strike in a 4-1 away win over Padova. Padova's goalscorer that day was Englishman Charles Adcock.

By Christmas, Milan were sitting in 5th place in the league. Then, on January 1st, the club would make one of the biggest signings in their history by bringing in Swedish striking ace Gunnar Nordahl. Signed from Norrkoping where he had scored 93 goals in 95 matches, Nordahl had already become a legend in his native Sweden. He even found the net 43 times for his country, in just 33 matches. Over the course of the next seven years, he would score over 200 goals for Milan, earning the accolade of league's top scorer for five years in a row.

From January, Nordahl linked up successfully with Sloan, Burini and Carpellesse, scoring on his debut against Pro Patria. Milan would push forward for the second half of the season, and chase down Juventus, Inter and Torino. Sloan found the net another six times, including strikes against Roma in January and a 34th minute equaliser against Internazionale in a thrilling 4-4 Milan derby. He hit the net against Triestina again in February and against Novara in March. In May he picked up a slight injury, and missed out on the season's run in. However, he returned for the season's penultimate game against Sampdoria at home, and scored twice in a 3-2 win to earn Milan a 3rd place finish for the season.
Sloan (front-row, far right) with AC Milan against Torino

The Serie A that year was won by Torino. The season is notably famous for the Superga Air Disaster which claimed the lives of 18 of Torino's championship winning squad at the close of the season. In a gesture of supreme sportsmanship, both AC Milan and Inter put aside differences and requested that Torino be named Champions before the season had even ended. 

After 30 games and 9 goals, Sloan was released by Milan, and signed briefly for Torino in the summer. The move broke down however, and within the week he had moved again to Udinese. Italy's second oldest club ,they were founded in 1896 as a gymnastics and fencing club, and first gained promotion to the top-tier in 1913. By the time of Sloan's arrival in late-August 1949, the club were still in search of a trophy and languishing in Serie B. The club were then playing their home matches at the 25,000 capacity Stadio Moretti (moving to their current Friuli ground in 1976). 

Sloan (back-row, fourth from left) with Udinese

Sloan's manager at the Moretti was 1938 World Cup winning goalkeeper Aldo Olivieri. He made 23 appearances for Udinese in the 1949-50 season scoring 6 goals. His form and goals helped earn the Friuliani promotion back to the Serie A for the first time in 25 years. They finished in second place behind winners Napoli. Sloan would not get to play in Serie A again, as the club had decided to sign a Danish player called Sorensen, and the league's one foreigner policy meant that Sloan was released.

In the summer, he was signed by another Serie B side, Brescia. Rondinella (the Little Swallows) as they are known were founded in 1911. They first reached the Serie A in 1913. Between then and 1950, the club bounced between the top two divisions, without tasting much success. Today they play their home matches at Stadio Mario Rigamonti (named after a defender who died in Superga), but in 1950 they played at Porta Venezia.

Playing alongside Sloan in the Rondinella squad that year was a young Lorenzo Bettini who would go on to become one of Serie A's most prolific ever goalscorers. His manager was the experienced Luigi Bonizzoni, who would later coach a young Giovanni Trapattoni at Milan in 1958. Sloan played 19 games for Brescia and scored 8 goals, as they finished the campaign in a disappointing 9th place, seven places and thirteen points adrift of promotion. That season, Sloan's old club AC Milan won the Serie A for the first time 42 years, while Udinese would finish in 9th.

The season with Brescia would be his last in Italy, and in 1951 he returned to England at the age of 31 to play for Third Division side Norwich. Sloan was third Irishman to grace Italian football, and the first Irish professional footballer in Serie A.

After another 3 years in England, Sloan decided to move back to Southern Europe. He was hired by Maltese outfit Rabat as their player/manager for the 1954-55 season. He replaced the Scotsman Donald McDonald, who was sacked after Rabat had come short the previous season, despite mass hype.

Today they are known as Rabat Ajax, but back in the 1950s there were simply called Rabat FC. They won their first Maltese Championship in 1985, but when Sloan arrived, they had never won anything. In another Irish connection (just like Roddy Collins' Floriana), Rabat owe their origins to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers playing a match in the town, at the site of Rabat's present stadium.

Although he was the player/manager he didn't actually play any matches for the team, but coached them instead. The season was utterly unsuccessful however, as Rabat would falter and finish in seventh place, second last. Sloan left the club, and returned to England.

In the mid-1960s he emigrated to Australia with his family. He worked briefly for South Melbourne Ringwood City and Brunswick Juventus during the decade before retiring from football in 1969.

Paddy Sloan died in Australia in 1993 and the age of 72. It was a quiet end to the great life of a gentle and unassuming character, who broke ground for Irish professional footballers. The first professional Irish football in Serie A. Paddy Sloan.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Frank Stapleton

1987 - 1988 : Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
1987 - 1988 : Anderlecht (Belgium)
1988 - 1989 : Le Havre (France)
1996 : New England (U.S.A.)

He was born Dublin in the summer of 1956 and would go on to become one of Ireland's most talented players of his generation. In a career that saw him become a favourite at Arsenal and Manchester United; he scored over 150 goals for his clubs and 20 for Ireland. This international tally made him Ireland's leading goalscorer until Niall Quinn broke his record in 2001.

Frank Stapleton joined Arsenal as a teenager with fellow Dubliners Liam Brady and David O'Leary. Partnering Malcolm McDonald up front, the two scored 46 goals between them in the 1976-77 season. The highlight of his career with the Gunners would be the FA Cup Final in 1979 when he scored in a 3-2 win over Manchester United.

Two years later, he controversially moved to the Red Devils for 900,000 pounds. With United he won two further FA Cups in 1983 and 1985. However, in 1986 United hired Alex Ferguson as their new manager. The Scot was determined to reshape the team, stamping his own seal and signing new players. This new policy affected Stapleton and Irish team-mate Kevin Moran.

Both decided to head abroad, as Moran headed to Spain in 1988, and in 1987, at the age of 31 and having scored over 70 senior goals for Manchester United  , Stapleton went to Holland.

He was sold to Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam for 100,000 pounds, becoming the second Irishman to work for the club after Jack Kirwan, their first manager in 1910-15.

Stapleton, centre, beside manager Johan Cruyff
Stapleton began the season with Ajax, in a talented side that included Frank Rijkaard, Danny Blind and Aaron Winter, and coached by Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. Cruyff wanted an experienced "English style forward" to replace Milan-bound Marco van Basten and Stapleton seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

In September 1987 he played against Irish side Dundalk, as Ajax looked to defend their European Cup Winners' Cup crown. He scored the sixth goal in the first leg at De Meer, being set up by Rijkaard in the 87th minute. This would prove to be his only goal in an Ajax shirt. He was named Ireland captain that month, leading his country to victories over Bulgaria and Luxembourg.

However, this promising start to the season soon broke down. Stapleton's kick and rush style, so well suited to Manchester United and Ireland, didn't transfer at all well to Ajax's direct, fluid passing game. To add to this problem, a hernia injury cut his season short after just six matches. When he returned to fitness, he found his place taken by a young Dennis Bergkamp. Clearly he wasn't going to fit in well at the club, and having arrived in summer fanfare, he departed quietly on loan to Belgian club Anderlecht. He is still considered one of Ajax's worst players, and certainly one of Cruyff's worst signings.

He spent three months with Anderlecht at the end of 1987. However, the club already had Luc Nilis, Eduvard Krncevic, Pierre Janssen and Arnor Gudjohnsen as striking options, meaning Stapleton would have huge competition. All four of these forwards played extremely well that season, as their goals helped Anderlecht march to the European Cup Quarter-Finals and the Belgian Cup title. Stapleton barely featured and returned to Ajax in January.

Early 1988 saw Cruyff become the manager of Spain's Barcelona, and when Stapleton returned from Belgium, he was told that new coach Kurt Linder didn't want him. So it was he returned to England in March to spend the remainder of the season on loan with Derby County. Following this stint, he was released from his contract by Ajax.

While his career at club level appeared by be going nowhere, at international level Stapleton was flying high. In June of 1988, still without a club he led the Republic of Ireland at the European Championships in West Germany. Stapleton didn't find the net, but Ireland gave a good account of themselves, beating England and earning a hard-fought draw with the USSR before being beaten by the Netherlands, who featured a number of Stapleton's former team-mates at Ajax.
Stapleton (back-row, far-left) with the Rep of Ireland team at Euro'88
He would spend much of the next season without a club, and still struggling with his hernia problem. Eventually in January 1989, he was signed by French Ligue 2 side Le Havre. Another new signing for Le club doyen that season had been Irish striker John Byrne. A fellow member of Ireland's Euro 1988 squad, Byrne had sparred before with Stapleton in England's Division One. The two Irishmen linked up front for the rest of the 1988-89 season. 

Le Havre were founded in 1872 as a rugby club and play at the 25,000 capacity Stade Oceane. Although they have never won the French Championship in their long history, they do have a Coupe de France title to their name, winning it in 1959. 

In 1988, they were in the French second division and coached by Pierre Mankowski who signed the two Irishmen. Stapleton played 18 games and scored 5 goals in his only season in France. While with Le Havre, he represented Ireland three times, including a friendly against France. Le Havre finished the season in 3rd place, 3 points behind Lyon who were promoted. Stapleton wouldn't stay and moved to Blackburn Rovers.

Byrne faired better, netting 16 goals in two years with the side. Byrne is still fondly remembered by Le Havre fans, while Stapleton is virtually forgotten.

He spent two years with Blackburn before having a swansong with Bradford in the early 90s and retired from football in 1995. 

In January 1996; he was appointed the Head Coach of New England Revolution in the United States. The Revolution, and indeed the MLS (Major League Soccer) were both in their first full years of existence. MLS had been created that year to once again attempt to improve American/Canadian soccer. This was the first major attempt at such a feat since the heyday of the NASL decades before.

New England were set up in Foxborough, Massachusetts and attempted to garner support and identity from the six states in the region. Their name refers to New England's significant role in the American Revolution, and their colours and emblem reinforce this. Their ground was the Foxboro Stadium, which was once the home field of Gerry Daly's New England Tea Men. 

Among others, Stapleton had legendary American defender Alexei Lalas in his squad. The Revolution's first ever game was a 2-3 loss at the Tampa Bay Mutiny in April, but just a week later they scored their first ever victory away to the New York/New Jersey Metrostars. On April 27th, Revolution played its first ever home match at the Foxboro. Against DC United, it ended in a 1-1 stalemate, but as Americans weren't comfortable with ties, they match went to a penalty shoot-out and Stapleton's team won. 

Stapleton's Revolution squad in 1996

In the end, the Revolution came last in the Eastern Conference, winning 6 tied games but not enough in regular time. It had been a tumultuous year for the team, with rumours that Stapleton and Lalas had often clashed in the dressing room. He was also vastly unpopular with the Revolution fans and had regularly criticised the soccer culture in America and the new MLS. Stapleton's record stood at 17 losses, 6 ties and just 3 out-and-out wins. A negative return, and he resigned in June. Upon departing he said;

"After reflecting on the season and the affective structure of Major League Soccer, I have determined that it is in the best interests of my family and my future career as a professional soccer coach to return to England to pursue opportunities there."

That future career in coaching never materialised and today he is an occasional television pundit and after-dinner speaker.

He wasn't the first Irishman at the Foxboro Stadium, and wouldn't be the last. Richie Baker, Bryan Byrne and Paul Keegan would all grace New England again, with varying degrees of success.

Stapleton was a giant in English football in the late 70s and early 80s. His goal scoring abilities marked him out as one of the finest strikers of his age, and certainly made him unique amongst compatriots. But perhaps, by the time he left England for a new challenge, his playing abilities were on the wane. Whatever about his style of football, there is little to suggest that Stapleton was anything like a top-class footballer after he left Manchester United. Perhaps Alex Ferguson was right.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Jack Kirwan

The Lowlands of Holland

1910 - 1915 : Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
1923 - 1924 : Livorno (Italy)

In 1918, Ajax Amsterdam clinched the Dutch Championship for the first time in their grand history. After only 17 years of existence, Ajax were now sitting atop Dutch football, a position they would hold for most of their history. The architect behind their triumph was an Englishman named Jack Reynolds. Reynolds would become a legend in Amsterdam, becoming the clubs first great manager, winning 8 league titles in a ten year spell with the club. Reynolds pioneered Ajax's Total Football approach and established the club's famous youth system. A testament to Reynold's status with the club, was the naming of a stand at the De Meer stadium after him, following his death.

However, the foundations for Reynolds' success were laid by another manager,  a Wicklowman named Jack Kirwan. 

His real name was John Kirwan, but he was known to everyone as Jack. Kirwan was born in Dunlavin, Ireland in February of 1878. A natural sportsman, he would play Gaelic Football for Dublin in his youth, winning the All-Ireland with the county in 1894. Following his success in his native sport, he switched codes to soccer and moved to England to play for Southport Central. Here the winger impressed Division One scouts and he was snapped up by Merseyside giants Everton. He played one season with the Toffees who finished the season in 4th. He then moved south to London's Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs were competing in the Southern League, and Kirwan's maiden season with them would be the club's first at White Hart Lane.

This was to be the height of his career, as in a six year spell with Spurs, he won a Southern League, a Western League, an FA Cup and a Charity Shield trophy. When he died in 1959 he was the last survivor of the club's 1901 Cup winning side. To this day, Tottenham's 1901 team remain the only non-league side to ever lift the FA Cup. Kirwan played over 350 games for Spurs, and is considered one of the club's early legends

Internationally, he would represent Ireland 17 times, scoring twice. He was a member of the Ireland team that famously won the 1903 British Home Nations Championship. A highlight of the tournament for Kirwan was scoring the second goal in Ireland's shock 2-0 victory over Scotland at Celtic Park. This was the first time that Ireland ever beat the Scots.

Kirwan would go on to play for Chelsea, Leyton Orient and Clyde, retiring at the age of 32 in 1910. Immediately, he would move to Holland taking up his role as manager of Ajax Amsterdam.

Ajax had been founded in 1900, playing for a decade in the lower reaches of Dutch football. By 1910, Ajax were still an amateur club and were in the nation's Second Division. It was then that Chairman Chris Holst made the decision to raise funds, invest in players, hire a British manager and push for the top tier. During a summer tour of England, he came upon the recently retired Kirwan. An available, FA Cup winning, international footballer suited Holst well, and Kirwan was readily hired. 

At the time, Ajax played in a red and white striped shirt with black shorts. 1910 was their first season at the Houten Stadium (another product of Holst's investments). Kirwan would become the first ever professional manager in Ajax's history.

Kirwan (far-left) with his Ajax players in 1912
Kirwan was an instant success, steering Ajax to the Second Division title for the first time. This earned the club a promotion play-off against Breda Zeste, with whom they drew but achieved promotion. The club had finally penetrated the top tier and would be playing alongside Holland's biggest clubs  for the first time. Therefore, the first manager to achieve success and guide Ajax to glory was an Irishman.

Because of Sparta Rotterdam playing in similar colours; Ajax were forced to change their kit to their now familiar white shirt with a single red stripe and white shorts. It was Kirwan who chose these colours. The club's name also changed slightly, from simply Ajax, to Ajax Amsterdam. This was done to avoid confusion with Liedsche Ajax, who had just been relegated from the top tier.

The Dutch National Championship (predecessor of the modern Erstedivisie) was then divided into two division, East and West. Ajax entered the Klasse West alongside the likes of Sparta Rotterdam and Haarlem. (Familiar names such as PSV and Feyenoord would not enter the National Championship for another few years) The 1911-12 season was successful for the club, as they finished in 8th place, avoiding relegation. The title was won by Sparta. The club's profile was rising as more fans turned up for matches, and winger Gerard Fortgens was selected for the national side.

Kirwan took the club to Austria-Hungary in the summer of 1912 for its first ever matches against senior foreign sides. In Budapest they were beaten 5-1 by pre-war giants and Hungarian League runners-up MTK. 

The 1912-13 season was again championed by Sparta and Ajax finished in 9th place. However, the following year would see a downturn in fortunes as Ajax were relegated after finishing the season last with just 12 points. The 1913-14 season is also noted for featuring Ajax's biggest ever defeat, when they were trounced 9-1 at home by Dordrecht FC. Most of the club's big name players left and Kirwan was forced to rebuild the club again from the bottom-up. After steadying the ship and beginning the regeneration, Kirwan's efforts were cut short by the outbreak of World War I, and he was forced to leave Holland. He would be replaced by Reynolds who would continue his work and bring the club back to the top tier and further glories. 

The relegation of 1914 must have been a bitter disappointment to Kirwan and Holst. However, Kirwan had helped develop the club from its humble status of 1910 and paved the way for Reynolds to win trophies. Although overlooked slightly in favour of his successor, Kirwan was voted as Ajax's 19th best manager of all time.

The clouds of war would follow Kirwan's career, as he next returned to his troubled Ireland to manage Bohemians of Dublin. This was during the savage Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and Southern clubs were refusing to participate in the Irish League. In 1921, the League of Ireland was established and Kirwan would manage Bohs to 2nd place. 

In 1923, Kirwan took up his second managerial role on the continent, this time in Italy with Tuscan outfit Livorno. Founded in 1915 as L'Unione Sportiva Livorno after a merger between two local teams; Livorno played its first season in Prima Divisione (predecessor to the Serie A). Following the war, they finished the 1919-20 campaign in 2nd place, after Internazionale, and came fourth the following year. 

In 1923, they finished the Northern section in 3rd place, narrowly missing out on the championship play-offs. It was following this disappointment that Kirwan was hired. His star player was Mario Magnozzi, an early football celebrity in Italy, who would be the league's top scorer in Kirwan's second season.

In his first season with the Amaranto, Kirwan guided the club to another 3rd place finish, level with Internazionale, six points behind champions Genoa, and a point ahead of Juventus. However, the next year they finished in 5th place, nine points behind champions Bologna. The season featured a 4-0 win over AC Milan at Villa Chayes, Livorno's then home ground.

Kirwan left Livorno in 1925 and retired from football. He was replaced by Hungarian Jozsef Ging, and Livorno would continue the inter-war years as a decent side, but never managed to win the championship. Today they play in the Serie B.

Kirwan returned to England and settled in London with his wife Eileen and two daughters. He died in 1959, close to his beloved White Hart Lane and his family later gifted his medals and items to the Tottenham Hotspur museum.

A talented winger and decent manager, Kirwan's career was full of important milestones. An All-Ireland winner, an FA Cup winner, a member of the first good Irish team and Ajax's first manager, Kirwan was a pre-war icon.