Kevin Madden highlights three Championship game-changers in the Lionel Messi mould
MY love for soccer as a spectator sport has definitely dwindled in recent years. Perhaps I am going weak with nostalgia, but it was certainly something I enjoyed a lot more when I was younger.
This was an era when teletext was king and getting Shoot magazine on a Friday evening was better than any games console you could imagine.
Perhaps there is just too much soccer on TV nowadays, and you know what they say about too much of a good thing.
But when Barcelona are playing, I am always drawn to watching them for one reason: the wizardry of Lionel Messi.
On Sunday night, I sat down to catch El Clasico and once again it affirmed for me who is the greatest and, dare I say it, one of the most entertaining sports-men I have ever witnessed.
I have never been interested in engaging in a heated debate about who is better between him and Ronaldo. What is the point? It is a bit like comparing Gaelic footballers from different eras. Peter Canavan was the best in my book, but folk in Kerry will tell you it was, in fact, Mikey Sheehy, Maurice Fitz or ‘the Gooch’. People of an older generation with an Ulster bias are more likely say it was Sean O’Neill, Paddy Doherty or Jim McKeever.
After all, it comes down to personal preference – what you perceive greatness to be. And whether there is compelling evidence or not, beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder.
In the case of these two, is it a great scorer of goals, a scorer of great goals; a scorer of important goals or a creator of goals? Or maybe it is all of the above along with something else that radiates from them to make them that wee bit more special than the others. I am a lifelong Manchester United fan, so naturally I have a soft spot for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Both men have set incredible records of achievement when it comes to scoring goals. But in my book Messi is not only a scorer of great goals, he is the architect of them.
The glaring statistic for me isn’t that he has scored seven goals more in the biggest game (El Clasico), but it is that he also has 14 assists to Ronaldo’s meagre one in these derbies. Every time he is in possession I get the feeling that something special may be about to happen -– no matter where he is on the pitch.
When you factor in his lack of size, and the physical abuse he attracts on a consistent basis then it only makes his star quality shine even brighter.
Before you get tricked into thinking this is going to be like one of my fellow columnist Brendan Crossan’s great Boot Room pieces, I am sorry to disappoint. That’s where the soccer chat is about to end.
As I watched the Argentinian in action the other night, I wondered to myself if we have anything like a Lionel Messi equivalent among our GAA elite.
After some brief contemplation, I came to the conclusion that Diarmuid Connolly, Lee Keegan, and Michael Murphy are very special talents, but they ain’t no Leo Messi. I am torn to make my mind up if the sport just doesn’t have a Canavan, a Kieran McDonald, or a ‘Gooch’ (in his prime) at this time or whether in fact the game has evolved to the point now where that special player won’t flourish the same.
Nevertheless, I have picked out three ‘special players’ I feel could have a big say in where this year’s Ulster Championship ends up. They mightn’t be the obvious choices, but like Messi, all three have a wand of a left foot that has the ability to turn a game on its head.
Kieran Hughes (Monaghan)
CONOR McManus has been the go-to man in recent years with his constant delivery of brilliant performances. The emergence of exciting prospect Jack McCarron could also give the Farney a greater edge to their attack in 2017.
Darren Hughes is a key player too, but for Monaghan to flourish they will need the younger brother Kieran to play to his undoubted potential, like he did in the 2013 Ulster final. On his day he can be a handful at full-forward, a ball winner at midfield or a playmaker in the half-forward line.
He has been prone to a few off-days, but when he plays well and is on his game Monaghan are a different animal.
Peter Harte (Tyrone)
AT 26, the Errigal Ciaran man is no longer a fledgling of this Tyrone team. He is a leader and, in my book, their most important player. He carries the ball twisting and turning with all the pace and elegance of a thoroughbred stallion, but smashes openings no less robustly than a Jersey bull wading through a china shop.
He is the link man most prepared to turn defence into attack. With the responsibility for the right-sided frees as well, he will be key if back-to-back Anglo-Celts are to be secured.
Paddy McBrearty (Donegal)
A FIT Michael Murphy will be key if Donegal are to make 2017 a successful one. But so will a firing Paddy McBrearty. With Murphy likely to spend most of his time around midfield it will be left to the former teen prodigy to lead the inside line.
In last year’s round four Qualifier game against Cork, he scored 0-11 (0-7 from play) from 12 shots at goal.
It is that type of proficiency that makes him a special talent on his day. He will need the support up there and a good supply of ball.
If both are forthcoming, then he could have a big year in the green and gold.