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29 April 1999 Edition

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Sportsview: There's life in the old league yet

by Dan O'Neill

There is still some life left in the much-maligned National Football League. The performances of Dublin and Armagh in Sunday's second NFL semi-final drawn game indicated these two counties are hungry for success in this year's league, unlike the Derrys and Kildares of the world.

But spectators at Croke Park got little entertainment from the first semi-final, where Cork outplayed Meath in a dour and forgettable hour of football.

The Leesiders emerged battered and bruised from a game marred by inaccuracy and weak finishing, to reach their second League final in three years with a 0-6 to 0-3 win. The low scoreline was due to the dominance of both defences. Cork's Mark O'Sullivan, the man who destroyed Derry, was kept scoreless, but more worrying for Seán Boylan was the fact that none of Meath's starting forwards managed to register a score over the hour.

Only two weeks ago, these two sides had earmarked their championship potential with impressive victories over the Munster and Ulster provincial champions. Sunday's game showed there is still a lot of work to be done in both camps if they wish to be back at Croke Park come September.

Armagh and Dublin provided a much better contest and will be happy to play each other again, preferring another competitive fixture in the run-up to the championship.

Dublin are a young side and the more pressure games there are before the championship the better for them. The second half of this game was as good as any game seen for a while, but given the poor performance of Cork and Meath in the other tie, the jury is still out on the worth of the National Football League.

Armagh will be delighted to have Cathal O'Rourke back for the replay to bolster their attack, but the Canavan/McAlinden management team will have a difficult midfield issue to resolve. They were rarely able to compete with Ciaran Whelan and Enda Sheehy in this department on Sunday and could bring in Paul McGrane and Paul McEntee, who powered Crossmaglen's title-winning run from centrefield, to replace Jarlath Burns and Justin McNulty. The Ulster side, though, may have to wait at least another year to win their first National Football League title.

NHL semi-finals

While the lack of interest about the closing stages of the football League has been a huge topic of debate in the GAA this spring, the same cannot be said about hurling. This Sunday's semi-finals will take place at Semple Stadium, Thurles, and with all four counties likely to be highly motivated about the prospect of winning this piece of silverware, the double-header could attract a crowd of over 35,000.

The Clare-Tipperary clash serves as a dress rehearsal for the championship showdown between the two counties in June if, as expected, Nicky English's men defeat Kerry in their opening tie.

I fancy Tipperary to reach the final. They have some scores to settle against Clare and they will be looking to gain a psychological advantage over the Munster champions ahead of the championship.

Tipp have done well under Nicky English, his new faces gelling well with the old hands, but the side is still a few games away from the pace of championship hurling and progression to the League final will be central in the new boss's mind.

Clare are likely to play to win this game also to regain confidence in the squad after last year's disappointing championship exit to Offaly. It should be an entertaining tie.

Galway manager Mattie Murphy, has made it clear from the outset that he aims to win as many games as possible, given the lack of competitive championship action in Connaught., but Galway's clash with Kilkenny will be a real test.

There is no doubt that this tie will be fought out at full pace. Kilkenny, under new boss Brian Cody, have been very impressive, and despite the absence of D.J. Carey on Sunday, should prove too good for the men in maroon.

Celtic hand title initiative to Rangers

Moving to soccer, it has been a depressing weekend for Celtic fans, as the Bhoys yet again shot themselves in the foot and handed the initiative in the title race to Rangers with a 1-0 defeat to St. Johnstone on Saturday. The Gers now have a seven-point lead at the top after their 3-1 win over Aberdeen.

Sunday's Old Firm clash is no longer a ``championship decider'', as Rangers can regain the championship without defeating Celtic.

This will be hard to swallow for a Celtic side undefeated since 6 December before the weekend, but it shows just how far Celtic were behind in the title race before their belated recovery. Every game has been a must-win for the Bhoys since December, and Saturday's game proved one pressure match too many.

Lack of genuine creativity in the final third with both Moravcik and Blinker sidelined proved Celtic's downfall last weekend.

The Scottish Cup Final showdown with Rangers offers the only real;stic hope of silverware this year, but victory here will not make up for losing the title race to the old enemy!

Cliftonville face expulsion from Irish Cup Final

Cliftonville would gladly settle for Cup Final success this Saturday against Portadown as their title defence ended after the first few weeks of League action. Indeed, they now find themselves in a relegation play-off against Ards.

Saturday's game offers the only chance to salvage something from what has been a miserable season for the North Belfast club, but there was speculation in Tuesday's papers that Cliftonville may be thrown out of the final over a row about fielding an ineligible player. It is understood that Linfield, who were beaten by Cliftonville in the semi-final, have sent a letter of protest to the IFA claiming Simon Gribbon, a substitute in the semi-final game, had already played for Kilmore Rec in an earlier round of the competition.

This seems like a serious case of bad apples from Linfield, who cannot be reinstated into the cup as their protest was not lodged within 48 hours of the transgression taking place and have nothing to gain from this exercise except to antagonise Cliftonville and their supporters.

Cliftonville's preparations for the final have already been disrupted by the news that their play-off tie with Ards has been scheduled just two days after their expected final appearance - a scandalous decision to say the least - making it difficult for players to be fully prepared for these two big games.

This is very similar to the situation at the end of last season, when Cliftonville's preparations for their final league fixture, in which a victory would have won them the title, were disrupted by the decision to schedule their game an hour before that of their nearest rivals, Linfield, which gave the Blues a psychological advantage.

Luckily, Cliftonville held their nerve that day. Let's hope that they do not suffer yet another injustice.

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