Richmond Park. 5th September, 2014
A lot of people would say that someone who missed the opening, and only, goal of a one goal thriller because they arrived late isn’t really qualified to write a review of said thriller. But then others might say that the police at the ground don’t need to go through every one of said latecomer’s pockets or rifle through every one of the many compartments of their backpack when the match has already started. And others might say that the guy on the turnstiles shouldn’t leave his post to watch the match when there are people still arriving at the game thereby ensuring that those latecomers can hear the sound of a goal being scored but, alas, cannot see it. Look, a lot of people say a lot of things. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who knows. Make up your own minds and leave me out of it. I’m just saying is all.
And to the match, which proved to be an odd battle of idealism versus pragmatism where the idealists won out, but in a not uncharacteristically pragmatic fashion. Which can probably be attributed to their overly idealistic approach. There is much to be admired about the, beautifully coiffured, Liam Buckley’s approach to management. He eschews many of the physical and cardiovascular preoccupations of his contemporaries, focusing more on improving his players’ skills and developing his team’s leisurely, passing style. This is evidenced by the often attractive style of play of his team and the questionable physical condition of some of his players. Kenny Browne is a deceptively cultured ball-playing centre-half who appears to be admirably unencumbered by any pressures other professional footballers, or even men in general, might feel to appear like they’re in peak physical condition. Likewise James Chambers, an unused substitute on Friday, is never going to appear on the front cover of Men’s Health but, when in the team, is a really excellent all-round, creative midfielder. And then there’s young Chris Forrester, the jewel in the crown and the most talented player in the league. Although he does appear to be one of these players who tends to look permanently exhausted (Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady would be 2 others I would put in this category) his rakish, skinny physique is less Chris Waddle then Jarvis Cocker and he can appear to sometimes struggle with some of the physical demands of professional football.
There is something incredibly admirable about this approach to football. Rather like the French knights at the Battle of Crécy, whose adherence to a chivalric ideal led to their refusal to employ a weapon as crude and devoid of skill in its operation as the crossbow, Buckley seems determined that his men will never resort to the shortcut of an overly physical approach by ensuring that his players stay just fit enough to play their cool, passing game. But no fitter. It’s a beautiful method, untainted by pragmatism or expediency. Unfortunately, however, it means that when they encounter a physically superior side, such as Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk, they become overwhelmed by their opponents and as their bodies tire so too do their minds. Passes begin to go astray, players begin to drop back and soon you find 9 men camped on the edge of their box trying desperately to keep the enemy at bay. And suddenly the brutal pragmatists begin to not only lay claim to the upper hand by taking control of the game, but also the moral high ground, taking on the role of the adventurous aggressor against a desperate defensive force.
This is, of course, not meant as a slight on Dundalk, nor to undermine their own skilful play. Simply it is to say that while Buckley aspires to aesthetic perfection, Kenny takes the approach of the realist and his team combine physicality with skill and ingenuity. And in Richie Towell – a stocky, skilful and dynamic attacking midfielder – Dundalk have possibly the league’s most effective player and certainly its best this season. However, while many have compared him with Forrester, Towell is too conventional to be in the same maverick genius league as Pat’s playmaker. Rather Towell’s equivalent on this night was Pat’s own number 10 (although he wears 11) Killian Brennan. Both play the role of the heel well. Towell’s spiky, aggressive, on-field demeanour, his trendy footballer’s haircut and tattoos and his cocky, yet impressively skilful, style endears him to few outside of Dundalk. But yet they must begrudgingly acknowledge his ability and it is indeed, perhaps in part, this ability that irritates opposition fans so much. An annoyance borne of the fact that he can back up his cockiness with strong performances. Brennan, on the other hand, is a pure villain. An almost Vincent Gallo-esque provocateur, almost every act Brennan carries out on the field is designed to wind-up opposition fans, players and management. He certainly isn’t adverse to diving, leaving in a late challenge or even a spot of crass showboating. His villainy certainly outweighs his skill, such as earlier in the season in a 5-2 home victory against a poor Derry City where he elected to carry out several flicks and backheels, designed purely to humiliate his already decimated opposition. They were not even particularly graceful or enjoyable, except in a vicarious, sadistic sort of way, but this is part of what makes him so great. His heel status is even acknowledged by Pats fans in his personal chant – “One Killian Brennan! He used to be a wanker but he’s alright now”.
While Towell does have a touch of the provocateur, his superior ability and effectiveness undermine and undercut this image. He is too good, and too effective, for pure villainy. And he will almost certainly be playing in the English Football League in the next year or two. But he remains too conventional and effective for true cult hero status. Give me an evil genius like Brennan or a tired maverick like Forrester any day.
Anyway, Christy Fagan scored the only goal of the game, which I can’t describe because I didn’t see it. More piercing, insightful tactical analysis next week.