Every Friday, Caolán Conroy provides his take on three different sporting developments across the UK and Ireland, and shares his predictions for match-ups ahead. This week he looks at football – soccer and Gaelic – and rugby.
A big year for local talent
With the English Football League kicking off next weekend, it’s an important year for many Ulster-born players.
They’ll be hoping to impress and cement their places in the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland squads ahead of what we hope is a massive season for both ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
Three players deserving of closer inspection are Liam Boyce, Marc Wilson and Shay McCartan.
Liam Boyce (Burton & Northern Ireland)
Burton Albion broke their transfer record to bring in Boyce earlier this summer from Ross County. Last season was an impressive season for the ex-Cliftonville striker who finished top scorer in the Scottish Premiership.
He also became a firm fixture in the Northern Ireland squad, and scored his first international goal against New Zealand in June.
He’ll be desperate to prove himself in England and a good season could see him catch the eye of some bigger clubs in the division.
Marc Wilson (Bournemouth & Republic of Ireland)
Last season saw a frustrating time for the versatile defender. A move to Bournemouth from Stoke City was expected to revive his career, however Wilson did not make an appearance for the South West club.
He moved on loan to West Brom in January to link up with his former Stoke manager Tony Pulis, but only made four appearances in that time.
The experienced Aghagallon man missed out on a place in the Republic of Ireland Euro 2016 squad due to injury.
Last season’s struggles saw him lose his place in the Republic’s squad; his last appearance for the Boys in Green came nearly 12 months ago.
Reports suggest Wilson’s already been told he can leave Bournemouth by manager Eddie Howe if the right offer is received. He’s odds-on joining West Brom permanently.
It’s speculation for now, but one thing is for sure: wherever he does move to, for the sake of his international career it’s important Wilson gets back playing regularly.
Shay McCartan (Bradford & Northern Ireland)
In June, Bradford City snapped up the County Down man after an impressive season for Accrington Stanley in League Two. In total McCartan made over 30 appearances and scored 11 goals.
He signed a three-year contract with the Bantams and, similar to Liam Boyce, will be hoping to prove himself at a higher level.
Also in June he made his international debut for Northern Ireland against New Zealand. He’ll be hoping to remain in the squad for this autumn’s key World Cup qualifiers.
PRO12, 13 or 14?
In rugby, what is going on with the Guinness PRO12? Last week senior PRO12 officials announced they were in ‘advanced negotiations’ with former South African Super rugby teams the Cheetahs and Southern Kings about joining the league. Both teams have been cut from Super Rugby as part of downsizing the league.
Then, on Monday the Italian Rugby Federation announced that Zebre were set to withdraw from the league due to financial difficulties.
What will this mean for the future of the League?
It was expected that the South African teams and the structure of the new league would be formerly announced this week. Yet, with just five weeks until the competition commences everything seems up in the air.
Where does the league go from here and what will be the actual benefits for the incumbent teams when the South African teams do join?
TV rights are expected to increase by 50% this year, but will the addition of two of the whipping boys of Super Rugby add to the competitive nature of the league?
Many questions continue to surround the structure of the league. Two leagues of seven is said to be the likely outcome, but if Zebre do not enter where does it leave organisers?
No doubt it’ll leave Irish rugby fans scratching their heads over the coming weeks, and with all if the off-field problems at Ulster it seems it’ll be an interesting August for fans across the province.
Double-header ache at Croke Park
There are two massive double headers at Croke Park this weekend. I’ll be keeping a close eye on attendances.
Over the last couple of years attendances have started to slip. Numbers held up over the recession, but in 2015 and 2016 attendances for All-Ireland Quarter finals in particular fell.
Whereas historically both of this weekend’s doubleheaders would have been seen as near sell-outs, this isn’t the case anymore.
It’s a disappointing fact that Croker only receives a full house for music concerts and for three or four GAA matches a year.
And with the reopening of Pairc Ui Chaoimh the GAA will be under more pressure to host more games there; it’s also more popular with the hurling public.
In an interview with the Irish Times this week, County Armagh’s Aaron Kernan said he expected just 30,000 to attend on Saturday. He also said that players who weren’t used to the surroundings might struggle with the ‘eerie’ surroundings.
Unlike Aaron, I’m a bit more optimistic on the number of fans travelling to Croke Park. The likes of Monaghan, Down and Armagh don’t get there that often these days, and each county possess some of the largest fan bases in Ireland.
Whatever the attendances this weekend, it’s something the GAA – not just me – need to look.
Predictions for this weekend’s sport
Round 4B Gaelic Football Qualifier: Down v Monaghan – Monaghan win by 3 points
Round 4B Gaelic Football Qualifier: Armagh v Kildare – Armagh win (heart over head)
All Ireland Football Quarter-final: Kerry v Galway – Kerry
All Ireland Football Quarter-final: Roscommon v Mayo – Mayo by 2 points
Hungarian Grand Prix: Sebastien Vettel