IT’S been a pretty hectic period just now for football fans here in Northern Ireland.
The Danske Bank Premiership continues to produce some totally unexpected results on a regular basis and at international level our new manager Michael O’Neill has finally been able to see just how competent and capable our international players really are now that the World Cup qualifiers have started.
Last Saturday I took in the Ballymena United v Donegal Celtic game at the Showgrounds and the best way to describe it is heart attack football”
It finished 3-3 and in pure football terms it wasn’t a great game, but in terms of excitement it most certainly deserves top marks.
Both teams gave a perfect display on not how to defend, enough to guarantee that top of the agenda for both clubs at training this week will be defensive duties.
The previous day is a day I will remember for a long time to come.
First up I was in prison to give a talk on physical and mental fitness.
As it was National Suicide Prevention Day I had been asked some time ago would I give a talk inside the prison to inmates which I agreed to do – a reality check for me if ever there was one.
The governor and his staff were extremely hospitable but I must say I was pretty glad when it was over and they led me through umpteen gates until they opened the final one and I was free once more.
It is a serious issue and the topic was indeed one I was quite happy to help them with.
I got out of prison (literally) as the Northern Ireland v Russia game was just kicking off and I quickly got the car radio on to listen to the Joel Taggart and John O’Neill do the BBC commentary from Moscow.
Both lads tell it as it is and I could detect that although the hot favourites Russia were the better side, Northern Ireland were by no means simply there to fulfil a fixture.
This was music to my ears.
Yes, of course we lack quality in depth but at least it appeared our lads were playing with pride and giving it all they had – that’s all fans ever ask and for me that’s exactly what we got.
I managed to get home in time to watch the second half on telly and although the commentary wasn’t as good (only joking lads), I really enjoyed seeing a Northern Ireland team who clearly seem intent on rolling up all the derogatory, arrogant and disrespectful comments made pre-match by the Russians and their manager and shoving them back in the same hole they came out of.
We may have lost the match but for me the team would and should have won over all of the loyal Green and White Army fans, many of who were beginning to doubt the very basic passion and commitment required to be shown by all Northern Ireland players when they represent our country – for me this is a must.
Whilst on the subject of commitment and amidst the glut of fixtures we had both domestically and internationally last week it didn’t escape my notice that two players from the north, who chose to pledge their allegiances to the Republic of Ireland, were grabbing lots of headlines – but for all the wrong reasons this time.
I refer to Darron Gibson and James McClean who both spat the dummies out when they discovered they were not going to be automatic first team choices for the Republic team.
I said it at this time last year when news broke that two of our better players were hell bent on switching allegiance to the south, that getting a game for the Republic might prove much more difficult than either player imagined.
The manager Giovanni Trappatoni has not bowed to either players’ petulance nor is he likely to pander to idle threats.
Such was Gibson’s annoyance at being totally overlooked at the Euros he decided to withdraw from last Friday’s World Cup squad.
Clearly he is not as invaluable as he thought.
McClean, pride at this stage well and truly swallowed, did accompany the Republic team to their first World Cup qualifier versus Kazakhstan but alas, once again, was not required to appear from the subs bench.
In fact the Republic’s physio has had more pitch action recently than these two put together.
This latest show of rejection proved just too much for McClean who then appeared to direct a Tweet towards Trappatoni, but someone must have whispered in his ear and it was removed and McClean also decided to offer a grovelling apology to his manager and team mates.
It’s sad in some ways because both lads are good players.
I know young McClean well. I had him as a young player when I was manager of Institute.
In fact I remember when I had to leave the club that I put it in writing the clear message and instruction to extend the contracts of James McClean and David Ogilby – who is now at Coleraine.
A short time later McClean was released to Derry City, free of charge!
Who’s to blame for McClean’s international stallings? It’s simple, James himself.
McClean and Gibson clearly saw bigger fish to fry elsewhere, chose the Republic of Ireland ahead of the country of their birth.
But now both find themselves at loggerheads and marooned in an international wilderness.
I prefer to settle for the lads who have committed to Northern Ireland and I will be at Windsor Park to cheer them on tomorrow night in their World Cup game with Luxemburg.
So C’mon Northern Ireland, c’mon!!