Seattle: A sound football lesson

“The love of soccer is now a universal language.”

So said then US President Bill Clinton at the opening ceremony of the 1994 World Cup. Hosting the tournament around some of the greatest cities in the USA, we were told, was vital to the development of the game in North America. A chance for Americans to appreciate all the great things we already knew about football, we added.

My parents had a visitor from New York staying with us when Brazil took on the host country in the second round. He, bless, didn’t understand how a country with a lower GNP than his own could be better in one particular sport. The comment reinforced a stereotype already being implanted in us all, everywhere we looked.

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CenturyLink Field, home of Seattle Sounders, with Safeco Field in the background.

The MLS has continued to appear in our media every now and then. Players no longer at the very top of their game in the Premier League have sought moves across the Atlantic, including our own Robbie Keane. Many (not all, no doubt!) admired the publication of the league’s salary list; others suggested franchises might be a way forward for domestic football in Ireland.

Earlier this year I had the chance to travel to Seattle with work. On my first day strolling along the waterfront, having visited the world famous Pike Place Market, I spotted the outline of a stadium on the horizon. I couldn’t resist a peak. It turned out to be CenturyLink Field, the home of the Seattle Sounders and Seattle Seahawks, and it just happens to be right alongside the city’s baseball ground (Safeco Field) in what’s akin to an ultra sports campus.

The Club Shop was open, the merchandise was top class (Adidas – jealous!), and the staff were happy to fill me in on the background. The Sounders and Seahawks have been co-operating for years (though they became independent of each other earlier this summer), and work together to promote both brands.

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Sounders merchandise

Having already given the world grunge (or ‘Seattle sound’!) as well as Starbucks, football has found a real home in the state of Washington. The club has 32,000 season ticket holders, while 64,207 fans attended the derby fixture against Portland Timbers back in July.

The Sounders are actively involved in their local community, with the underage game in the area and, interestingly, have something called the Sounders FC Alliance despite being in private ownership. The Alliance allows supporters play a more active role in their football club than is typical – and Sounders themselves believe this has been critical to their development.

For a more in-depth insight, check out this excellent feature piece by Business Week: http://www.businessweek.com/videos/2013-10-15/sounders-c-suite-with-jeffrey-hayzlett-10-15

Luckily, Sounders had a home fixture against Philadelphia Union while I was in town. The famed ‘March to the Match’ is great to see (fans march from the centre of town to the game singing and chanting in colours).

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The club’s brass band welcome everyone. After going through security (think airport scanners), club reps are available to direct you to wherever your seat is. You can drink beer within sight of the pitch, red carpet greets the teams, the national anthem is played and you’re given streamers to throw at the pitch. The on-screen graphics and stadium announcers are football on steroids compared to what we’re used to.

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Red carpet treatment

When the Sounders score, flames of fire shoot from the top of the goal posts. The announcer will call the scorer’s first name, and the crowd will respond with his surname. Cheese, yes, but it really is enjoyable and the enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.

Looking around, the stands were full of families, couples, groups of friends, women, children, older folk – all the age categories we would love to see at League of Ireland games. There was a genuine sense of collective, in-this-together and everyone was very welcoming to new faces. Awesome may be an overused word, but the experience – genuinely – was awesome and it’s clear that the people of Seattle are very proud of their football club.

The Sounders won 2-1 on the night. Outside back (full back) DeAndre Yedlin is currently being linked with a move to Tottenham, while names like Djimi Traore, Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey will be familiar to fans that watch the Premier League. The latter is their star man and, generally, a cut above the rest of terms of talent. There is no shortage of determination and passion though, as exhibited by the entire US squad during the World Cup that followed.

So the question has to be asked? What can we learn from this club in particular but also the MLS as a league. RTÉ pundits were disrespectful of the US team throughout the tournament, often expressing the view that because MLS players were involved, the the US line up was weaker than other sides. The view has echos of how many pundits view our domestic league – judging from a distance without being familiar with the details.

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Another view of CenturyLink Field

The finances of the League of Ireland itself and clubs that participate in it are consistently the subject of guessing games. If we had a true and accurate picture of all involved year in year out, we could then measure improvement (or otherwise) in a meaningful way. The FAI led the way in introducing the 65% Salary Cost Protocol for the League; imagine if clubs had to publish their total wage bill or individual players’ salaries?

The Sounders are unique in terms of fan engagement, but having heard Tim Connolly of the Green Bay Packers speak at the 2013 Supporters Direct conference at St. George’s Park, it’s also clear we need to stop turning our nose up at what our American friends are doing and start to take on board what works because something is stirring and, like everything in life, we can learn from it…

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CenturyLink Field


Me, Myself & Roy

If Roy Keane is not your thing, you might be best to stop reading now. This isn’t so much a glowing tribute either mind… more the story of when and how the lives of Keano – a fellow Corkonian – and I have intermingled at times.

It’s fair to say I only started to appreciate Keane’s true capabilities as a player later in his career. As someone who kept an eye on Leeds, he had a ridiculous ability to haul Manchester United and Ireland back into games they should have long been out of.

This was not so fun to watch when he was playing in red and dragging United to trophies seemingly beyond their reach. For Ireland, he was incredible to watch – though he didn’t fare so well against my ultimate football hero Zinedine Zidane when France won 1-0 at Landowne Road all those years ago.

I was studying journalism in DCU when Saipan happened – running in and out of the new library at the end of the campus, while trying to study French, to hear the latest about Bertie Ahern’s mediation efforts.

Keane was sent home, something often misunderstood, and I spent that World Cup tournament defending my Cork roots as various customers in the lovely (genuinely!) Dublin pub I worked in felt the need to vent their frustrations.

Sample Conversation:

Customer A: ‘You’re from Cork – what do you think?’

Yours truly: ‘He’s dead right’

*promptly leaves to serve another customer as bedlam ensures*

Roy’s exit from Manchester United coincided with Cork City’s second league title. Instead of piling the plaudits on an exceptionally-talented City squad that had sealed victory with a classy win in front of a packed home crowd, the papers were full of Keane and pictures of him walking his dog.

One clever Sky journalist decided the news from Ireland might get the proud Corkman he was stalking to say a few words, and he did duly respond: ‘Very good, yeah’ or words to that effect while darting behind a car. A genuinely hilarious moment for all watching.

I might have seen Keane play in Celtic hoops after that but he unfortunately went for a quick toilet break right around the time manager Gordon Strachan was looking to make changes during the one game I went to in Glasgow but it’s the closer encounters that have left a longer impression.

While working for Setanta Sport, I had a chance to interview Keane one-on-one in 2007 as his Sunderland team visited Ireland on a pre-season tour. There was a press briefing beforehand where he played an enjoyable (from his point of view) game of cat and mouse with the Irish newspaper corp.

TV questions went first, followed by radio – where the last question was whether or not Keane would make any further additions to his squad. When he said he was hoping to pick up a player locally in Ireland, the red tops sat up a little straighter.

‘Is it a League of Ireland player, Roy?’

‘Yes,’ accompanied by the Keane ‘I know something you don’t know’ smile.

‘Is it a Cork City player, Roy?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is it Roy O’Donovan, Roy?’

‘Yes.’

‘You said last week that you didn’t have any interest in Roy?’

‘I changed my mind…’

Keane is articulate, genuine and thoughtful when you ask him a question, as I found out after the press conference. Times are changing (slowly), but – as a female reporter – I would often see surprise flicker across an interviewee’s face when I asked them something that makes it clear I know what I’m talking about. There was no such surprise with Roy. I was there to do a job, he expected I would do it – and that’s something I will always appreciate.

Keane attended Cork City’s post-League Cup final drinks in 2011 (having lost out 0-1 to Derry City), but there was an unmistakable buzz of excitement when he arrived in the door much to everyone’s amazement.

Players and fans alike were reduced to whispering huddles and star struck kids – much to the amusement of then City manager Tommy Dunne who insisted that Roy was quite happy to talk to anyone. Instead, the ‘but it’s Roy Keane’ excuse allowed the Mayfield man have a couple of quiet pints in the corner though he shook every hand pointed in his direction.

More recent Keane, in his role as Ireland assistant manager, attended the launch of Cork City’s new Patrons scheme. Having Keano’s name on the invite drew people in from across the county, without doubt, and you could have heard a pin drop throughout his Q&A with RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue (he doesn’t like giving speeches!).

The pair covered a huge range of topics – including the fact that Keane could never have seen himself playing for Jose Mourinho (cue lots of laughter) – and it’s clear he’s never lost his passion for the game, his hometown or his need to be true to himself.

Knowing exactly what was needed, he spoke of the importance of education and his regret around not getting more opportunities to study himself – and his presence meant a huge bump in coverage for the event itself.

And that’s the thing. To anyone who knows Roy, who has followed his career and who has listened to him speak at length, he has characteristics that are fairly typical of where he comes from. He has a strong opinion, he’s hugely interested in many sports, he’s mastered the art of conversation, his voice goes that little octave higher when he’s annoyed and, mostly, he says it as it is.

League of Ireland fans have often tried to rile Cork City fans by singing about Keane being a traitor. Much like the man himself, City fans are not bothered by nonsense and appreciate the fact that when Keano is nearby he’ll stop by and watch the club he signed for before Cobh Ramblers…

In the meantime, I’m personally delighted to see him involved with the Irish set up. I’m not sure what his future holds in terms of management, but it’s hugely encouraging that he’s willing to take a step back and learn from a new perspective. I wish him only the best when his time comes to move on (as all managers do!)

The quips, guffaws, smirks and ‘Roy’ stares will at least keep everyone on their toes along the way!


A Woman’s Place is at the Match

It’s rare that I ever feel conscious of the fact I’m a woman while attending a football match. A recent visit to the Athlone Town Stadium was an unusual exception for two reasons: there was a female line official and I was only female supporter (that I could see!) in a crowd of about 100 away fans.

Unfortunately, some of the City support on the night – many of whom choose to wear no club colours – decided it was appropriate to indulge in the usual ‘Get your t**s out for the lads’ chants or, when there was a poor decision, that criticism should include references to her gender.

Referees and their officials are most likely well used to abuse and criticism from supporters. I don’t have an issue with that – I frequently have a few choice words to say myself – however, there’s no place for sexism in football, especially idiots that get slapped on the back for roaring ‘Women have no place in football’ at a lines official just doing what she’s there to do.

I was recently part of a discussion panel that touched on a couple of topics around Women in Football at an FC United of Manchester event at Gigg Lane in Bury (Full Video here). The panel included a FIFA official Jane Simms who recently refereed one of the club’s League fixtures and apparently received considerable admiration for the way she officiated on the day.

The question that took everyone’s interest was a simple one: FC United have had two female referees in recent times – one had a poor day and one had an impressive day. Simms was asked her thoughts, and her answer was both honest and genuine: she wished to be judged by her performance only – not the fact she was a woman – and pointed out that she was equally capable of having a poor day at the office. The same as any male colleague.

So, why then is it the case that gender is still part of the narrative for any woman involved in football?

I don’t want to see more female officials in the game just because they are women. I’d like to see better officials in the game and, if they are women, great. However, equally, because women’s participation in sport lags so far behind our male counterparts – for many, mostly historical reasons – we do need to focus on how we can change mindsets, funding arrangements, facilities and organisations in the first place to allow women’s sports lay stronger foundations, on which so much can then be built.

I’m not usually the only female supporter in the away end at Cork City fixtures, I must add. There are plenty of female supporters at the club but I see them as fans and not ‘fellow female fans’. We don’t have a ‘sisterhood’, but we do probably know each other to see as we do stand out just a little more. How did I cop that there were no other women in the away section? When I went to the Ladies toilets at half time, the door was pulled shut, the light was off and I didn’t see a single other woman while there! A quick look at the stand after half time confirmed my suspicion.

When I first went on the Board of Cork City FC, I was one of four women (of a total of ten) involved. Looking back now it was an incredible time and I’m not sure I can see that happening again – at least not in the near future. What did those women bring to the Board? Expertise, skills, life experience – the same as their male counterparts. As one of my managers once said to me: a management group needs different points of view, varying backgrounds, friction and discussion etc. to succeed.  However, it also needs to be able to work together and move forward in spite of the same differences to ensure it is a strong collective.

The UK Sports Minister, an MP by the name of Helen Grant, suggested in February that women can “look absolutely radiant and very feminine” while participating in such sports as ballet, cheerleading and roller-skating. 

I think (and hope) that she probably meant that the choice is important to get women involved but it is interesting that the reasons we believe sport is so good for boys and men (activity, being part of a team, learning to win and lose, making friends etc) are rarely cited girls and women as considerations. 

I grew up just outside Cork city and the main organised sport open to girls was the martial art Tae Kwon Do, which I practiced for seven to eight years. It was only when I went to all-girls secondary school that I had the chance to play an organised team sport, and even then participation wasn’t really encouraged after Junior Cert. PE also stopped being a compulsory subject after 4th year.

At the same time, I’ve been delighted to see schoolgirls’ sports develop in recent years. It’s wonderful to see schoolgirl clubs attending Cork Women’s FC matches (and the advent of the Women’s National League in general), and my own local junior GAA club now has a camogie set up at underage level. There are efforts being made, and these need to be supported, encouraged and continued if the impact is to be felt in the longer term.

The bottom line? Not all women want to play or participate in sport. That’s their choice. However, sport has a lot to give society and its communities, women are an integral part of both and need to be enabled (for want of a better word!) to be heard and get involved as a result.


What’s left to say about Schumacher?

I spent some time yesterday rooting in boxes and cupboards around my house, searching from a letter I received from Monaco about 14 years ago or so. The initials of the logo at the top of the page form the outline of a racing car, it’s addressed to me personally and contains a quick note to thank me for my “good wishes”. It’s signed (or squiggled) by Michael Schumacher.

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My interest in Formula 1, and Schumacher in particular, became more than passing phase during the 1995 season when our respective choice of driver left my older brother & I at loggerheads. He supported Damon Hill, I opted for Schumacher – and one of us never looked back!

The British media’s adversity towards Schumacher only helped his cause in my eyes, and it very quickly became apparent that F1’s heir apparent was a very special driver indeed. However impressive his days at Benetton (can we sneak Jordan in there for a mention?!), many of his ultimately supreme days would come in the red of Ferrari – where he brought new meaning to the idea of galvanising a team around their driver.

There were spectacular wins – none more memorable than his win in the rain in Spain in 1996, where he lapped up to three seconds faster than every other car out on track, or the French Grand Prix in 2004 where a daring and high-risk 4 pit stop strategy allowed him outwit and outrace the rest of the grid (a rare enough occurrence even then).

He was no angel – as his clashes with Hill and Jacques Villeneuve demonstrate – but apart from the Fernando Alonso-Lewis Hamilton spat, when was there last a decent rivalry in the sport? Remember (briefly) wondering if Schumacher could finish the race with three wheels after his clash with David Coulthard in 1998? He was THAT good.

And a sport is exactly what Formula 1 is – a point Schumacher, more than any other driver, showed time and time again. It was his approach to fitness and preparation that heralded a huge sea change in the 1990s. It was Schumacher that led a niche group of drivers capable of making up the difference between an average car and a race-winning car for over a decade, and it was Schumacher who brought personality, mental toughness and an edge to a racing discipline that suffers from bouts of blandness on occasion.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Schumacher race on two occasions. First, at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2001, where he was beaten into second place by his brother Ralf and then at the Belgian Grand Prix a year later where we had prime seats to view the fantastic run down to Eau Rouge (absolutely awesome and worth every cent!) and see Michael receive his winner’s trophy. I’ve said it often over the years but there really is no comparison to being at the races themselves and hearing, smelling and seeing the racing close up.

I finally got a chance to see the man himself close up and in ‘real’ life at the Race of Champions event in London five years ago. Schumacher joined forces with an up-and-coming starlet by the name of Sebastian Vettel to represent Germany in the team competition – and even though it was just for ‘fun’, the duo were streets ahead of the rest.

What astonished me was the fuss that followed him everywhere he went that day. When Schumacher arrived at the press briefings (I did get to ask a question – very exciting!), a whole gaggle of people would follow and inch closer – eager to get his views on every possible topic. Walking down the corridor, he was greeted by shouts of ‘Schumi’ from anxious autograph hunters, and even the other ‘celebrity’ participants seemed in awe of the man from Kerpen, whose childhood wasn’t a million miles away from normal by anyone else’s standards.

And it was that back story – of knowing Schumacher overcame so many hurdles to get to the pinnacle of motor racing, before going on to rewrite the record books – that led me, following his crash at Silverstone in 1999, to send him a card with a grizzly bear holding his foot (he broke his leg – god, the cheese when I think about it…), and wish him all the best for the future.

I’d like to do so again about now, and just pay my own small tribute to the man that has inspired so many in such different ways. Godspeed a full recovery Michael.


Two cities, two clubs – but only one Alan Bennett…

A piece I worked on with AFC Wimbledon captain Alan Bennett earlier this year about his time at Cork City FC and the Dons, amongst other things…

Two cities, two clubs – but only one Alan Bennett…

Founded in 2002, AFC Wimbledon is a well-known name to anyone interested in the issue of Fan Ownership in football. The Dons hold the distinction of being promoted five times in nine seasons and will ply their trade once again in League Two – thanks in no small way to former Cork City FC centre half Alan Bennett.

A central element of CCFC’s League-winning squad in 2005, 31-year-old Bennett is captain of AFC Wimbledon for the new term, and took some time out to catch up with City Edition.

“When asked about my CCFC days, I always wonder should I start with following the team of ‘93 from a grassy bank at Turner’s Cross, watching Derek Coughlan’s header in Dalymount Park or going to reserve games in Ballinhassig?

“For me personally it started with a youths game in which my local club, Richmond, played against Cork City youths. I was asked to come in after that, and what followed was a great year as our group won the league, national cup and some additional silverware under Paul Bowdren and Stuart Ashton.

“My senior debut came in the Intertoto Cup against FK Liepajas Metalurgs. I brought my boots ‘just in case’ so coming on as second half sub was incredible. There was a header at the back post that I might have scored and for the away game in Latvia, I played in midfield due to my energy and running ability.

“The club was moving forward into a professional era at that stage. The collapse of the ITV deal meant younger players were being released and coming home from the UK. It meant no more smoking on the bus, no more gravy at pre-match meals, a slight increase in money and full-time training for some.

“I learned to work hard in every training session under Murp (Liam Murphy) and that graft also gets you a long way. Pat Dolan took over in 2003 – and love him or loath him, he was brilliant entertainment. Training was never dull and we made strides in Europe with trips to Malmo, Nijmegen, Nantes, Limassol, and Belgrade. The home games for those fixtures were magic: the energy in Turner’s Cross was incredible and the passion of people immense.

“Pre-season 2005, and Pat was replaced by Damien Richardson. The next season was steadier and with the groundwork in place, we went on to win the league and should have claimed the double. The final game will always be a beautiful memory for me. My grandfather – in his elder years – tore onto the pitch at the final whistle with family, friends and loved ones. Celebrations in the Shed End, fans and players in it together – only people there that night understand how special it was.”

So, the move to Reading?

“In December 2006 Damien asked me to his house in Bishopstown. I sat in his back garden – he talked, and I got a dictionary out. In hindsight he was telling me to prepare for a move to the UK, though at the time I thought he was sharing the secret of life!

“The move itself was done during the last days of the window. Damien called me to his house and I took his dogs for a walk. I left them off the leash and while one stared at me, the other shot off into the fields. Damien wandered out to find me missing a dog, and 15 minutes of whistling later, the suspense ended and I was told that I had been sold to Reading FC.

“We played Man United in my first game that summer. I also got called into the Irish squad and played during a tour of the US. A difficult loan move to Southampton followed, before another loan move to Brentford FC – where I won a league winners medal. I was also promoted with Wycombe and later reached a play-off final with Cheltenham.”

Next stop, AFC Wimbledon and the captain’s armband…

“In January of last season, having captained Cheltenham to the play-off final, I got a call from Neal Ardley (the Wimbledon manager). I wanted to return to London as that’s where I’m based and although it was going to be a massive challenge to get a team in the bottom two out of the relegation zone in half a season, it was an offer that suited me perfectly.

“The history of the club is everywhere and the passion of the people who run it and follow it became evident during the final run in when we were desperate for results. Fans openly voiced their concerns after some bad results, but the support for the club is incredible for a League Two team with average gates of between 4,000-5,000.

“For me, Fan Ownership is an effective way to maintain common sense at a football club, within an industry that lacks common sense. It’s democratic and supporters get to make decisions with regard to all aspects of the club; the only issue being that it’s a lot to ask fans to contribute to the budget and to pay to support the team as well.

“There are obvious similarities between Cork City and AFC Wimbledon. They are fan owned, both are former glories ripped apart by greed, both are being rebuilt by the people for the people, and with past players now managing the clubs, both are now looking optimistically towards the future.

“The season ahead will be AFC (A Fans’ Club!) Wimbledon’s third in the Football League. We, as a group of players, have a duty to preserve and move this club forward and that’s the plan for the season. There are a few rebel Wombles in the crowd and I do recognise the odd ‘Come On Benno Boy’ in the unmistakeable Cork accent. Of course, a few more are always welcome when the league of Ireland wraps up!

- Benno


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