Every Friday, Caolán Conroy provides his take on three different sporting developments across the UK and Ireland. This week he looks at Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland soccer team’s hopes of World Cup qualification, boxing’s Carl Frampton, and unveils his GAA football All-star team.
World Cup Qualification: Winners and losers
There were mixed fortunes this week for Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland in terms of World Cup qualification. I was planning on doing a combined 11 from the best performers across both teams, but had to shelve the idea – it would have been dominated by Northern Ireland players with the exception of Shane Duffy.
Northern Ireland are riding the crest of a wave currently; their fans are having the time of their lives. They’ve come a long way in 3 years; it’s hard to believe it took Michael O’Neill 10 games to win his first game as Northern Ireland manager; he has repaid the patience shown to him by the IFA and then some.
O’Neill’s team secured second spot in Group C qualifying with their fifth win in a row and this time around have almost certainly guaranteed themselves a World Cup play-off place. Michael O’Neill is not being arrogant or boastful when he says that ‘no one will want to play his team’ in the November play-offs.
The Republic of Ireland, on the other hand, had two games to forget. They drew with Georgia on Saturday – which has to go down as one of their worst performances under Marin O’Neill – and lost 1-0 to Serbia in Dublin on Tuesday.
The Republic took 10 points from the first four games of the group to leave them in a strong position. However, since then they have only picked up three additional points to leave them on the brink of missing out on a trip to Russia. They must now win their last two games to have any chance of qualifying.
My winners and losers from this week’s internationals are –
Michael O’Neill: His reputation continues to go from strength to strength. It’s hard to believe that Norwich is the only team in England to have made a public approach for him.
Josh Magennis: The versatile frontman has shown over the last two games that he is of international quality, and one of the first names on the team sheet. He may have eclipsed Conor Washington and Kyle Lafferty as the main striker going forward.
Chris Brunt: Scored a cracking free-kick and is playing the football of his life. After the disappointment of missing out the Euros through injury he will be overjoyed about a potential trip to the World Cup.
Jonny Evans: Put the last month of transfer speculation and injury behind him to score his first international goal in eight years.
Shane Duffy: Scored his first international goal on Saturday versus Georgia. Starting to become a leader of the Republic’s defence.
Martin O’Neill: This indecisiveness that has come over him in the last four games has cost his team dearly. He is obviously not sure what is best team is and the players look scared to take risks. His post-match interviews are becoming feistier by the game.
Kyle Lafferty: Is he now third choice striker? Lafferty had a disappointing performance against San Marino and showed his displeasure to getting substituted in that game with his petulant reaction.
Robbie Brady: Has not been the same player for the boys in green since his performances at the Euros. I think he needs to be played in the left-back position as he will have more space to operate. He has struggled when playing midfield in this qualification.
Glenn Whelan: Was dropped for Tuesday night’s game against Serbia. Will we see him in a green jersey again?
Ulster GAA All-stars – The Unsung Heroes
The Irish News hosted their annual Ulster All-stars awards and announced the 2017 All-stars team. It got me thinking about who caught my eye this year in Ulster and the unsung heroes who go about their business with less recognition than they should get. My team includes:
Goalkeeper – Michael Cunningham (Down)
Cunningham was steady for Down all season and was reliable free taker when needed.
Fintan Kelly (Monaghan)
Scored three goals in three qualifier games from corner back. He was also one of Monaghan’s most reliable defenders.
Aidan McCrory (Tyrone)
Many of his defensive colleagues have taken the plaudits over the summer but I thought McCrory went under the radar and was one of the most impressive Tyrone players.
Darren O’Hagan (Down)
The Down captain is everything you want in a corner back. He is tenacious and aggressive but rarely gives away frees. I am not sure I would enjoy him marking me for 70 minutes.
Caolan Mooney (Down)
Mooney was one of Down’s leaders this year and made a telling contribution in all four games that he played in. He also scored an impressive total of seven points.
Padraig Hampsey (Tyrone)
His contribution to Tyrone in the Ulster series was immense. He had man of the match performances against Donegal and Down, and will be central to Mickey Harte’s plans for years to come.
Tiernan McCann (Tyrone)
Improved defensively this year and retained his attacking threat, scoring 1-4 in the Ulster championship.
Colm Cavanagh (Tyrone)
One of the only Tyrone players to show up against Dublin. His frustration with his lethargic team mates was evident from early on in that game. I thought he was overrated before this year, he certainly proved me wrong.
Niall Grimley (Armagh)
Winner of the Ulster GAA writers award for July. The Madden club man made a name for himself in 2017 with some excellent performances. He scored 18 points in the qualifiers and was one of Armagh’s most consistent players.
Conor McCarthy (Monaghan)
This guy is more than a super sub. He rescued Monaghan on more than one occasion and scored 18 points in the championship despite mostly starting on the bench. Without doubt Monaghan’s best forward in 2017.
Conor Maginn (Down)
Maginn is a throwback to the ball playing number 11. He is more than just a playmaker, he consistently chips in with important scores. He was the heartbeat of Down’s attack and made them tick.
Niall Sludden (Tyrone)
Can score and assist, he was probably the only Tyrone forward that threatened Dublin in the All Ireland semi-final. When he gets the ball the intensity in Tyrone’s attack ramps up.
Paddy McBrearty (Donegal)
Seemed to carry Donegal all year. He consistently performed well even when those around him didn’t. Scored 1-26 over the course of the summer with limited supply.
Connaire Harrison (Down)
I could watch him play all day; his performance against Monaghan in Croke Park was one of the best I have ever seen. He reminds me of Ronan Clarke; I think he is underrated and deserves more recognition.
Andrew Murnin (Armagh)
Murnin was a huge miss for Armagh against Tyrone. He has a great pair of hands and although doesn’t score as much as he could he is a constant goal threat.
Carl Frampton: The beginning of the end?
This week Carl Frampton announced that Jamie Moore was to be his new trainer just weeks after splitting from Cyclone Promotions and trainer Shane McGuigan. The relationship with the McGuigan’s had been a fruitful one for the Belfast boxer and saw him voted the 2016 ESPN fighter of the year.
However, since the turn of the year things have begun to go pear-shaped for Frampton. He lost his WBA featherweight title in January, then had his homecoming fight spoilt when he missed the weight and then his opponent fell in the shower in July.
Perhaps missing the weight showed signs of a strained relationship with Shane McGuigan and promoter Barry. At the age of 30 and in his prime Frampton should be looking to reach a new level in the next year or two. Concerningly, he currently has no future fight lined up. It’s been over eight months since his last bout; it may be over a year before he finally steps back into the ring.
Plenty of questions have been asked about his new trainer’s experience and if he is a big enough name. I hope this isn’t a rushed decision from Frampton and he can reach new heights under Moore.
He also needs to sign up with a new promoter; it’s rumoured that Eddie Hearn is his first choice. Hearn has shown he can secure his boxers top billing fights. Possibly this was the frustration Frampton had with Cyclone promotions and their failure to do so. We eagerly await his next move and look forward to seeing him in the ring soon.