Football: just a game? Or a complex metaphysical belief system?

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I assure you it is much more important than that.”

I was reminded of these memorable words of famous Scotland-born, Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, as my spirits sank beyond despair in the bar of Teac Jack’s in Gaoth Dobhair, Donegal last night watching the team I have supported for the last 50 years of my life make a sow’s ear out of a silver purse.

Such was my wretched state of mind, my dear wife, Columbia, bought me bottle upon bottle of Kinnegar Rye extra-strength IPA in an effort to fortify my flagging spirits and Donal, the genial barman, meandered by my table several times his usual jovial smile replaced with a shadow of concern, trying to ascertain with that innate talent only a skilled barman possesses whether I was in need of an urgent dose of CPR, or at the very least, some immediate psychological counseling.

This was to be West Ham’s ‘BIG NIGHT.’ The last ever FA Cup match after more than 100 years playing there at the Boleyn Ground (Upton Park) in London’s East End (the ‘real’ London where Jack the Ripper so generously plied his trade, where people say ‘apples and pears’ for stairs and ‘Khyber Pass’ for ass – a unique language best illustrated by the late Ronnie Barker in his ‘Rhyming Slang Sermon’ skit).

It was here amid a lively capacity crowd booming out the team’s – rather unmanly – theme song ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ that the ‘Claret and Blues’ were to halt the march of the Mighty Red Army, then stride on proudly and purposefully to Wembley glory, both events being very rare occurrences in the annals of Hammers sporting history.

This was to be West Ham’s final adieu before it starts the new season at the sparkling new Olympic Stadium, a fitting goodbye to the old homestead for a team that modestly started its life in 1895 with a bunch of welders, plumbers, brickies, electricians and other tradesmen, known as Thames Ironworks FC, who themselves were built upon the remains of Old Castle Swifts FC, a club formed in 1892.

Sadly, things – as you may have already heard and certainly as you can read below – didn’t go quite according to plan.

However, as it was an historic game, for what’s worth – below is my one and only West Ham match report…….

MATCH REPORT

Overall West Ham were pretty woeful last night against a bunch of inexperienced kids in Red with a lot of enthusiasm – in effect an experimental transitional team.

Hammers burst their bubble big time, and no worse time to do it, in the very last FA Cup match at Upton Park after 100 years, only one match away from double Wembley glory, against both the Toffees and Palace.

Blowing bubbles at West Ham

Bubbles bursting all around. But no champagne.

To use an old baseball term, they didn’t even step up to the plate. Aside from a final, frenetic 12 minutes gurgling-for-air display, they sank – in a flurry of bubbles – pretty much without trace.

MU are never easy to beat. Their enviable reputation alone means they step on to a field a goal ahead psychologically. West Ham are far from that and last night proved it. After all Bilic’s pre-march talk of not being afraid – that’s exactly what they were (in front of their home crowd too which, in itself, says a lot). West Ham simply doesn’t have the class it takes to win when it matters, during the big occasions. I guess it’s a mindset that enters a team’s DNA at some point in their development (strengthened by continued success, of course). And it’s not all about money either (though that helps). West Ham is nowhere near that point yet – class or money.

Manchester United winns agains West Ham

Hands shaking everywhere. Nerves on the big day?

Right now, they are apprentices in the trade, not craftsmen. Silver perhaps to MU’s platinum.

Their best ‘move’ came when Mark Noble carried off a melodramatic Ander Herrera. Aside from that, MU dominated the match, carried the ball forcefully and confidently into the Hammers half and punished them severely.

FA Cup West Ham

The beginning of the end.

They say you haven’t supported a team until you’ve experienced some pain – watching the SH_T West Ham troweled up last night on what was billed as their ‘BIG DAY’ was rather agonizing. The result simply added more salt to wounds that just won’t heal – the double shot-double save and rightly disallowed goal near the end last night being the vinegar. That’s five successive matches at least without a win to their name.
And as for that ludicrous out-swinging corner by Payet with a minute to go, with big Tompkins and Carroll waiting on the six-yard box to pounce  – what was the little island man hoping his captain could do – perform a soap opera-style ‘East Enders’ miracle.

West Ham against Manchester United

Best West Ham ‘move’ of the entire match – by team captain, Mark Noble.

It only remains for West Ham to beat MU in their final home game (which I think they will) but even that will be lame consolation after last night’s winner-takes-all flop – unless that crucial 4th place/Champions League spot is still in play, which could be, considering the two Manchesters are still in Cups, and may tire – in saying that, I do not want the Hammers to beat Leicester this Saturday, by doing so, they could help ruin a perfect modern-day football fairy story.

If West Ham don’t beat MU on that final home league game at Upton Park, it will be the most whimpering of ends to a season that just six weeks ago seemed like it could provide a delightfully thrilling finish for them.

West Ham manager

As the waiter-cum-football-fan asked an over-the-hill George Best in the room of his 5-star hotel with Miss World in his bed, “Where did it all go wrong?” Obviously here, Hammers manager Slaven Bilić doesn’t know.

West Ham must have been hoping for miracles last night. They brought on Moses (who did, after all, part the Red Sea, but alas, obviously couldn’t part the Reds).

Having said my piece, I’m off now to do my duty as a faithful football fan who’s just watched the team he has supported loyally for most of his life nonchalantly toss away yet another dream-in-the-making – to throw up soundly in the toilet.

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Celtic or Hibernian: which is rightful heir to the Irish tradition in Scotland?

As a Donegal blow-in, I’ve just completed what some here in Ireland’s ‘Forgotten County’ call a key ‘rite de passage.’

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‘Wee Jimmy’ – a winger with panache and a Celtic footballing hero.

On the invitation of Celtic Football Club management, I made my first-ever visit recently not only to the historic city of Glasgow – where half the people in Donegal seem to have originated, and vice-versa  – but also to the venerable stadium known as Parkhead, home of the Hoops, an illustrious team that has become nothing less than a cultural icon for many generations.

So, on a crisp, dry Saturday afternoon, two hours before kick-off against third-placed Inverness Caley Thistle, I found myself walking along a long inner corridor on the upper tier of the stadium lined with the framed autographed shirts of former players including Ireland’s captain, Robbie Keane, Honduran Emilio Izaguirre, Swede Henrik Larsson, Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons.

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Two gray-haired Celts – Professor Pia (l), footballing expert – ahead of game time.

Within minutes, I was seated in the warm comfort of Café 1888 (the year the club was formed) enjoying a tasty lunch rapidly replenished with alcoholic beverage learning about the trials and tribulations not only of Celtic but of Scottish football in general.

And according to the man sitting opposite me – and no better person to grant illuminating insights than someone who has penned not one but three excellent books on Scottish football (‘The Quiet Man’, ‘Scotland’s For Me’ and ‘Sunshine on Leith’) – footie across the water is not in a healthy state.

Not withstanding that my companion, Simon Pia, long-time journalist and now professor at leading universities in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, has been a ‘Hibbies’ (those persons, who for reasons most bemusing to many Celtic supporters, support Hibernian FC) and that his team now lingers in the shadows of the second division, his insights into the sport in his native land were thoughtful and well considered.

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With Scotland battling Ireland this Friday in the Euro Championships, captain Robbie could be a deciding factor.

With money in short supply – at least compared to the massive amounts enjoyed by teams in the English league – Simon’s view is that Scottish football will remain mediocre and largely uncompetitive for the foreseeable future. And with Celtic’s arch Glaswegian rival, Rangers, declaring bankruptcy and being dumped unceremoniously into the second division more than a year ago, even that spark of zesty competition has been extinguished (though the two teams will face off in the League Cup semi-final soon – the first time they’ve met each other for two years).

Setting patriotism aside, or indeed lauding it, Pia – a product of Italian sperm that migrated to Edinburgh many years ago and who was my close pal at London journalism college a world ago – believes top teams such as Celtic would do better playing in the premier league down south.

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Hibbies gracefully acknowledging illustrious history of the Hoops.

“Facing the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal would certainly draw in the big crowds again and probably help other Scottish teams do better in domestic competitions and thus compete on the European stage more often, which would help improve the quality of the game here,” he said.

As for the match itself that day, real excitement was in short supply. The Hoops, under manager Ronnie Deila, struggled to break down a resilient Inverness defense. In the end, a single second-half goal by star forward John Guidetti allowed them to leap over their opposition and into third place, though two late goalmouth scrambles almost sent the visitors home to the banks of Loch Ness in triumph.

Whether good or bad for Scottish football, there are few saying Celtic, the richest team in the league, will not end up winning the premiership for the fourth successive year – especially after leaping to the top with a last-minute winner against Aberdeen on Sunday.

However, after talking to Simon, learning his team was founded by Irish immigrants (thus the nickname ‘Cabbage and Ribs’ and the harp symbol on the shirt) and listening to one of its wonderful musical anthems ‘Sunshine on Leith’ by The Proclaimers, I’m more interested in seeing the Greens promoted than what’s happening in the top division.

But please don’t tell anyone from west Donegal. I’m due to get my residency permit any day.

QUIZ

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Crowds start to gather before kick-off at Parkhead.

Checking your knowledge of Celtic, here are three questions from that day’s match program:

  1. Which two former Celtic captains are this season managing teams in the Championship in England?
  2. Which four clubs did Charlie Mulgrew play for between his two spells at Celtic?
  3. Which two current Celts have in their careers also played in Spanish football?

If you cannot answer these questions, you probably should watch this video Sunshine On leith CIS Final – BBC and listen to the song. I’ll see you at Easter Road.

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Hoopy the Huddle Hound, Celtic’s lovable mascot (in foreground), supervises the team line-ups.