Football/Soccer

Praise Nations League for almost killing friendlies

The Nations League has brought more competitive games - and meant fewer friendlies.
Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press.

‘THERE'S no such thing as a friendly’.

Sadly, that’s still not true.

Happily, it’s almost true.

Friendlies are the Colin Robinson of matches. Apologies to anyone actually named Colin Robinson; I’m referring to the ‘energy vampire’ from the brilliant comedy series ‘What We Do In The Shadows’.

Rather than sucking someone’s blood, ‘Colin Robinson’ drained the energy from his victim with his dull, tedious, boring, enervating, monotonous, long-winded, dull, repetitive, boring talking. You get the picture.

Arguably the permutations pertaining to the potential play-offs for Euro 2020 are getting close to ‘Colin Robinson’ territory but there are worse things. Like friendlies.

Can anyone actually remember what happened in one? My mind is as blank as if I’d been hypnotised during most of them.

The Uefa Nations League may be hard to love for many, mostly because of it’s complicated, convoluted nature, and the fact that it never seems to end.

Next March’s play-offs for Euro 2020 are effectively an extension of the Nations League – but that’s a good thing because the Nations League has almost killed off the dreaded friendly.

Most matches are meaningful now, or at least not meaningless.

What We Do In the Nations League matters.

Ask Greece, who took four points off Bosnia & Herzegovina, finished above them in Group J, but cannot reach Euro 2020 because of their poor performance in the Nations League, only finishing third in League C2.

In contrast, the Bosnians will have home advantage in a play-off semi-final next spring due to them topping League B3.

In Group G, which wasn’t concluded at the time of writing, North Macedonia and Israel were also assured of at least a play-off place because they’d done better in the Nations League than group rivals Slovenia.

There may be an element of unfairness in that, especially as North Macedonia were competing at a lower level, in League D, but it’s hard to begrudge newer nations like them, or Kosovo, the chance of being involved at Euro 2020. It’s almost a pity that those two will meet in a play-off semi-final in Skopje.

At least of the winners of that, or Georgia or Belarus (who meet in the other Path D play-off semi-final) won’t have to travel as far as others might for some of their Euro 2020 group games, which will take place in Azerbaijan and Italy.

Yet the weird new multi-host finals format will probably be a huge pain in the posterior for many fans, certainly those who plan to follow their teams around.

Twelve host cities is simply too many, even if there is some geographical proximity between some of the pairings: London & Glasgow (although Scotland still have to qualify, of course), Copenhagen & St Petersburg, Munich & Budapest.

Dublin & Bilbao isn’t a terrible combination, but Rome & Baku and Amsterdam & Bucharest make no sense whatsoever, other than in the eyes of the Uefa money men and vote-gatherers.

Those gripes apart, the play-offs are something to look forwards to, unlike forgettable friendlies.

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THE outcome of the Ulster Club Intermediate Hurling Championship Final at the weekend should have left most observers with mixed feelings.

Happiness for winners Naomh Eanna, Glengormley – but huge sympathy for Eoghan Ruadh, Dungannon, who lost out after a penalty shoot-out following extra time.

Although the provincial intermediate title is usually won by the Antrim champions, this particular triumph understandably meant a massive deal to the club from the Hightown Road after all they have suffered over the decades.

Naomh Eanna manager Terence McNaughton was typically thoughtful in acknowledging the heartache of the beaten team, though, saying: “I feel for Dungannon, I do. I’d hate to lose a game like that.”

This column has already expressed the view that there should be a replay before a game goes to a shoot-out – and that’s especially the case at the end of a provincial campaign.

Dungannon deserved better than losing out in a penalty shoot-out, having beaten experienced campaigners Lisbellaw and Keady along the way to the decider.

They deserve a great deal of credit for their performances, especially in the final.

Dungannon came closer than any Tyrone team has ever done to claiming this title, although their arch-rivals Eire Og of Carrickmore did reach the finals of 2010 and 2015.

The manner of their defeat at the weekend will be incredibly hard to take, but hopefully they can feed off that pain, make this a stumble along their journey to provincial silverware rather than the end of the road.

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Asterisk – the gall.

No, that’s not a spelling error, just as Saracens didn’t break the salary cap rules in rugby’s English Premiership in error.

The English* and European champions* should have asterisks placed against all their recent ‘achievements’, having accepted that they failed to disclose player payments over the past three seasons.

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger coined the correct term for this sort of sharp practice – ‘financial doping’.

Sarries have been flexing their financial muscles for a few years in an effort to lift the top trophies and their chicanery paid off, winning the European Champions Cup in 2016, 2017, and again earlier this year.

Those last two victories, and their last two English titles, are definitely questionable, as they were won by paying players more than was allowable.

Saracen have accepted a punishment of a fine more than £5m and a deduction of 35 points. That handicap, putting them on -22 points at present, will surely stop them qualifying for the Champions Cup next season, but their participation in this tournament is dubious, to say the least, given that it was achieved in breach of the rules.

Their arrogant owner Nigel Wray said that the club accepted the penalties “with humility” – although, unsurprisingly, he went on to quibble with the decision:

"It is significant that following extensive investigations the independent panel stated that we have 'not deliberately sought to circumvent the regulations' albeit we recognise that some of our actions were considered to be 'reckless'.”

Clearly Saracens built up their impressive squad by paying players more than the salary cap allowed.

Wray claimed: "We confirm our commitment to the salary cap, and the underlying principle of a level playing field, and will continue to work transparently with Premiership Rugby in this regard."

Obviously the playing field wasn’t level. Saracens were kicking downhill in both halves.

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