Eddie Dunbar: Ireland’s next Tour winner?

Irish Cycling hasn’t had a hero since the days of Seán Kelly and Stephen Roche. The sport has undergone something of a Renaissance in the last five years with more and more people out on the roads putting down hard miles. Soccer has Robbie Keane, golf has Rory McIlroy and rugby had Brian O’Driscoll up until last season. Nicholas Roche is at the forefront of strong Irish cyclists but unless he wins a Grand Tour he will always be in the shadow of his father.

Corkman Eddie Dunbar has all the credentials of a tour rider elect. He is a frighteningly powerful, aggressive rider who is currently testing his ability with Pro team NFTO. Officially ranked the no.1 British team in 2014 there’s no better place for Dunbar to learn the trade of Continental-Tour riding.

The 18-year old starred in the junior ranks of Irish racing last year and is a two-time yellow jersey winner at the Junior Tour of Ireland and won the national time trial championship as well last year. Amongst other victories he also had overall victory at the NFTO Junior Tour of Wales.

Despite interest from the UK, Europe and the US Dunbar chose the Yorkshire based outfit to ride with this year. Already he’s been making waves particularly with a sensational performance in one of the UK’s biggest races of the year. The Chorley Grand Prix saw Dunbar lead an attack that split the breakaway from 18 men to just three. This paved the way for teammate Ian Bibby to claim the win. 28-year old Bibby was full of praise for the rookie at the end of the race.

“I looked behind and saw there were only two of us so our best chance was to get across to Eddie and really commit,” said Bibby.

“Eddie killed himself and sacrificed it for me. He’s done incredible for his first year.”

His talent is only rivalled by his ambition. Speaking to Lucca Sports Dunbar says he wouldn’t hesitate at the chance of riding in the Pro Continental or World Tour:

“I want to get to the World Tour as soon as possible. I am a very ambitious person. That’s the way I have always been so I can’t see the point in waiting if the opportunity arrives.”

Such is his talent that Paddy Power have him at a meagre 11/8 to win a Tour de France stage at any stage in his career.

Maybe Eddie Dunbar is the icon Irish Cycling needs? He certainly has the potential.

Watch this space.

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God Spieth!

This weekend Jordan Spieth became the second-youngest golfer ever to don the famous green jacket at Augusta. A remarkable feat for the 21 year old who finished runner-up to Bubba Watson last year.

This year he was coming in to the Master off the back of a string of impressive displays. A victory at the Valspar Championship in Florida, runner-up in the Valero Texas Open and eventually missing out on victory at the Shell Houston Classic via a play-off saw Jordan Spieth in good form before this weekend.

Odds on him halved in the week before the Masters too with most bookmakers seeing his price fall from 20/1 to 10/1.

Last Thursday the young Texan took a three shot lead and finished the day eight under par. The following day he broke the 36-hole record as he posted a score of 130 and finished up 14 under par. The previous Masters record was set by Raymond Floyd all the way back in 1976 where he scored 131 shots through 36 holes.

On Saturday the young American continued his scintillating form. Unfazed by all the media attention he went out on the famous runways of Augusta and put another record-breaking round on display. This time he set a new record for the least amount of shots required through 54 holes. Scoring 200 exactly he sat atop the leader board.

Spieth celebrates in front of the crowd.

Spieth celebrates in front of the crowd.

British Open winner Darren Clarke spoke of his amazement at the Americans scoring.

“I don’t know what course Jordan is playing but it’s not the same one I’m playing. Wow.”

Coming in to the final round of the 2015 Masters it was impossible not to draw similarities between Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irishman leading on the Sunday four years previous.

Of course we all know now that McIlroy completely capitulated on that fateful day in 2011. Holding a four-shot lead he proceeded to drop eight shots and finished well off eventual winner Mark Schwartzel. This only served as motivation for the man from Holyhead, Co. Down as he went on to lift the US Open two months later.

Spieth was determined not to fall in to the same trap, and used his loss last week and his second position at the Masters 2014 as fuel for his fire to win.

“I was already hungry from last year, having already had an opportunity and watched it slip away and watched Bubba win and everything that came with Bubba being the Masters Champion, and the announcements of it, going on the shows and whatever, I knew I had a chance to win that tournament.”

Thankfully, we didn’t see what would have been an even bigger collapse; in fact we saw the exact opposite. Records continued to tumble at his feet when he became the first player in the history of the tournament to reach a score of -19 and score 28 birdies throughout the entirety of the tournament. He is the first player to lead the Masters on the opening day and win since Raymond Floyd, once more, in 1976.

What we saw was one of the most complete performances where records fell and Spieth rose. A star for the future, at 21 years of age who would back against him?

My Tournament Experience

On March 19 the men’s UL soccer team travelled to Dublin to take part in the Crowley Cup. The event, which was hosted by UCD, took place over three days from Friday March 19 to Sunday March 21.

Universities from Ireland and Northern Ireland took part in the annual event. UCD, DCU, NUI Maynooth, UL, Queens University Belfsat and Coleraine all took part with UCC fielding two teams.

It was a new experience for me and a lot of other squad members as we never travelled to a soccer tournament before. After almost seven months of training, two to three times a week boiled down to this. We loaded the cars and went to Dublin Thursday evening.

When we eventually arrived at the hotel we checked in and were allocated our rooms. Having only arrived at 11:30pm we had a half hour to ourselves before we had a team meeting.

We all piled in to one of the bedrooms and went through tactics and specific roles for the upcoming game against a well fancied UCD. The team was named as well and I was starting right-wing. It was a change from my usual position as the striker where I played all year, but I was just glad to be on the pitch. We headed off to bed that night while watching a really bad kung-fu film on the television.

Usually I’m a heavy sleeper and this night was no different. I woke around 10:45am the next morning and we headed for breakfast. After a protein laden breakfast we had another team meeting and headed off to the pitches around 1:00pm in anticipation of our 3:00pm kick-off against UCD.

UL Crowley Cup squad that beat UCD 3-0. If you look closely you can see me in he back row, 5th in from the right!

UL Crowley Cup squad that beat UCD 3-0. If you look closely you can see me in the back row, 5th in from the right!

I felt a pang of nerves a few hours before the start of the game. I figured it was a good thing and I was a lot more excited for this match than I was a lot of others previous. When I listen to sport stars talking about nerves they usually say that they’re a good thing and it’s a matter of controlling and using them to your benefit.

After a tentative first half we opened up in the second half and beat UCD comfortably 3-0. It was the first time a UL side beat UCD and it was an important victory, not only for us to progress, but UCD have one of the top senior sides in the country and to beat them so convincingly was a boost to our confidence and morale.

We had a physiotherapist with us the entire time and after the match some of us went for rub downs. After we travelled back to the hotel we went out for dinner and walked around for a couple of hours.

The following day we did more or less the same thing, only we lost 4-3 on penalties to UCC in the semi-final after a 1-1 draw after extra time.

What I want you to understand from reading this is the process of teams participating in tournaments. We had a wonderful weekend and were unlucky to lose on penalties, but I came away from the experience relatively satisfied with what we had achieved and with a sense of wonder how professional players get on at major tournaments. Some teams participating in tournaments like the FIFA World Cup or UEFA European Championships stay in hotels for periods up to five weeks. Despite the fact we were gone only one weekend, we found ourselves sitting around the hotel bored with not much to do for a couple of hours each day.

While it might seem like a simple problem there was very little we could do. Energy saving and recovery for the next day were all on the agenda and we had hardly any creature comforts. Being realistic too there’s only so much Playstation, reading or browsing the internet you can do before you grow tired of it.

This is only a petty gripe on what was a wonderful weekend that I’ll never forget. It was a bonding session with friends that I had made over the previous months of training and on top of that we got to play soccer which I will enjoy as long as I live!

Can Dopers be Considered as Greats?

Blood doping is categorically the single biggest problem in the world of professional cycling. According to some riders it has been in the sport as early as the 1900’s. With this in mind the question has to be asked; can riders who have been convicted of doping be considered as greats?

Jacques Anquetil is regarded by many as one of the greatest cyclists of all time. He won the Tour de France an incredible five times, the Giro d’Italia twice and the Vuelta a Espana once. He also won the one day classic Liege-Bastone-Liege once, the gruelling Bordeaux-Paris once and the Paris-Nice five times. The stance he took on performance enhancing drugs was controversial as he was forthcoming on the use of them and said what other riders would only utter.

The Bordeaux-Paris is one of the most difficult races of all time because of its length. At approximately 560 kilometres long it was the longest single stage race. Riders would leave Bordeaux at 2am and would take riders anywhere between 12 and 14 hours to complete. In an interview with a government official over the issue of doping Anquetil replied by saying: “Only a fool would imagine it was possible to ride the Bordeaux-Paris on just water.” In another television interview he said: “Leave me in peace; everybody takes dope.”

There is no question that Jacques Anquetil was using performance enhancing drugs, yet he is seen as one of the best cyclists ever to have graced the earth.

The case of Lance Armstrong is well documented. He profusely denied that he took performance enhancing drugs at any stage during his career. When his web of lies finally caught up with him, he was implicated in one the most elaborate cover-ups in sports history. What is the difference between the case of Armstong and Anquetil? The time-frame is certainly a factor as better drug testing practices were in place in the 2000’s. Another factor could be the stance they both took on the issue of doping, but that shouldn’t be counted as doping is an illegal practice.

These are two very different cases in which riders both achieved immortality because of their use of performance enhancing drugs, but both with polar opposite legacies. Undoubtedly Lance Armstrong will go down as the greatest villain in the history of cycling, whereas Jacques Anquetil will go down as one of the greats.

There are many more cases of riders who were convicted of doping but going on to achieve greatness. The troubled Marco Pantani is still considered one of the greatest climbers of all time. Alberto Contador will go down in the history books as the most successful rider post-millenia. Alexander Vinokourov was a serial doper but that didn’t prevent him from winning the Men’s Individual Road Race in the London Olympics. He left the Rigoberto Uran in his wake as he sprinted to success. In my mind, this is the greatest shame of them all. Uran has shown much potential and this could have been the kick-start in his fledgling career, instead he was robbed of this success.

Whatever your opinion of dopers and drug users, history suggests it remembers them as greats. They are not conveyed as pantomime villains who are booed and jeered wherever they go, rather they are embraced as heroes and kings.

Winter Sun is not for Everyone

England is the only country in Europe’s top five divisions that does not take a winter break. Italy, Spain and France all have breaks lasting at least two weeks. In Germany the winter break lasts five weeks. Who decides that a break is not necessary and who decides that a period of over a month is needed?

In England the festive period is the busiest time of the year. Four matches are played in between the 20th of December and New Years Day. Seasoned veteran and Premier League new boy Louis van Gaal says it’s about time England caught up with the rest of Europe:

“I don’t want to change the culture of England, but it is not right. I have read that I have to change [the players] but when you say something like that you have to know if we can change and we have too many injured players.”

It is commonplace for teams to travel for a week of training in warmer climates like the UAE or Qatar during the winter break. Every team from Germany’s top tier went to warmer countries to take part in training sessions and practice matches – as well as some promotional and sponsorship events as well no doubt.

Manchester City are famous for having Arab owners who have pumped money limitlessly in to the club. The owner, Sheikh Mansour, is the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, minister of presidential affairs and a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. Recently, Manchester City went on a midweek trip to the UAE where they trained and took part in promotional work. Playing their last competitive match on the 18th of January, the team flew to and from the Middle East by 8pm on the 23rd of January, less than 24 hours before their home FA Cup tie versus Championship side Middlesbrough. As we know now City were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition and faced heavy criticism for their pre-match preparation from the media and fans alike.

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini defended the decision to fly to the Emirates before the match:

“People can think that if they like, but I have a different opinion… I don’t think there was anything wrong at the start of the game, because we had six or seven clear chances to score in the first half and we were in control. Before they scored we were playing very well.”

Clearly other commitments are taking preference over football and they suffered because of this. Football is the biggest sport in the world so marketing makes a massive difference to the finances of a club, but surely you can’t allow it to affect on field matters.

This shows where each Bundesliga club went during their five week break. All of them are acceptable holiday destinations.

This shows where each Bundesliga club went during their five week break. All of them are acceptable holiday destinations.

Manchester United went on a pre-season tour of America where Louis van Gaal, once again, complained about the fixture list and travelling being too much for his players. Manchester City also took part in the same Guinness International Champions Cup that city rivals United took part in. Chelsea, on the other hand, opted for a low key tour of Europe doing little in the way of promotion and marketing.

By the end of November Chelsea were six points clear of City in second and a further five clear of United who were in fourth.

This appears to show that travelling and promotional work overseas only works when players are given enough time off, which brings me back to the winter break.

Ronaldo enjoying his time off in Dubai.

Ronaldo enjoying his time off in Dubai.

Ligue 1 players are given around 17 days off to recuperate, Serie A 15 and La Liga 14. I find these odd fortnights to be a perfectly acceptable amount of time to be given off mid season. We even saw England’s very own Raheem Sterling being given a mid-season break. Personally, I was a fan of this decision by Rodgers and felt the criticism was unwarranted. Players, especially younger ones, need a few weeks to recover from the demands of professional football if they don’t want to suffer from burnout.

What I don’t understand is in the Bundesliga they get an extended break of five weeks – only to play three games in the space of a week on their return. Surely if they reduced the break to a month they could play a match every weekend rather than having mid-week matches.

It’s obvious the winter break will be a bone of contention for the future with players and staff looking for downtime mid-season. It will never be refined perfectly and breaks ranging from two weeks to five weeks to no weeks will continue as normal. Numbers of teams in the league will be a factor too with Germany having only 18 top flight teams while the rest of the top divisions have 20.

In regards to England, the amount of money paid out in broadcasting rights will hamper any festive break for the foreseeable future, if you pardon the pun.

Lloris is Good, but not Great

Hugo Lloris is one of the Premier League’s finest goalkeepers. On many occasions he has kept Tottenham in contention of winning matches, just like versus West Brom recently. His shot-stopping, reactions and control of the penalty area and back line are all exemplary. In terms of Premier League goalkeepers he is only beaten by David de Gea, who is one of the top goalkeepers in the world.

Lloris in action for France. The French captain has appeared 65 times for Les Bleus.

Lloris in action for France. The French captain has appeared 65 times for Les Bleus.

There is one aspect of Lloris’ game that needs drastic improvement if he is to be considered as one of the greats in the pantheon of goalkeeping, and that is his concentration.

Goalkeepers are prone to bad spells every now and then. David de Gea and Joe Hart are two high profile goalkeepers who had turbulent times in their careers. When de Gea arrived from Átletico he struggled under high balls from crosses and corners. Joe Hart was dropped last season after a series of calamities culminating in Fernando Torres’ last minute winner at Stamford Bridge.

It’s one thing for a first-choice ‘keeper to make a mistake. It is critical when a second choice ‘keeper makes a mistake.

In January we saw Michel Vorm put in a mixed performance in the FA Cup that ended with him spilling Jeffrey Schlupp’s tame stoppage time winner in to his own net. Hugo Lloris’ first clanger came under similar circumstances.

Second fiddle to Brad Friedel on his debut season, Hugo Lloris was only playing Europa League games for Tottenham. Lack of match-sharpness may have been an issue but Lloris failed to clear a Kyle Naughton backpass which led to Maribor’s first and only goal. Under some pressure the Frenchman failed to make a substantial clearance which would have definitely stopped the goal.

First choice ‘keeper by November 2013, the shotstopper was beaten by a magnificent Jesus Navas strike after 14 seconds. His failure again to clear a backpass saw the ball fall to Aguero, whom he made a smart recovery save from, only to be beaten by the onrushing Spaniard.

At Stamford Bridge in December Hugo Lloris’ poor goal-kick allowed a chance for Didier Drogba to score for the home side. Crucially, it was the second goal of the game and it put real daylight between the two London clubs.

The most recent mistake was against Liverpool in Anfield on the 10th of February. What could turn out to be a pivotal game in the battle for fourth, the Lilywhites were coming off the back of a massive victory over Arsenal. Tottenham were in contention of getting a result but were behind after 15 minutes when Lazar Markovic won the second ball in Spurs’ half and was allowed advance to the penalty area. He hit a low strike across the goals to Lloris’ left that he got down to quickly to, but let the ball bounce haplessly off his hand and in to the goals behind him. Liverpool went on to win the match 3-2.

Hugo Lloris is a wonderful goalkeeper. He is agile, acrobatic and is the best sweeper ‘keeper other than Neuer. I don’t believe Tottenham could get a better goalie if they scouted the length and breadth of the world, but there is something inside of him that allows him to collapse under the pressure of a big match. If he can work on this aspect of his game, then he can seriously be considered as one of the greatest goalkeepers ever to have played football.

What Happened to the Brazilian Conveyor Belt?

Brazilian football has suffered greatly in the past year. Gone are the days when Brazil dominate at an international level, and gone are the days when every European team is monitoring the progress of the latest group of exports from the spiritual home of football.

Lucas Silva is a player highly rated by Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti. Scouted for some time he eventually made the switch from Brazilian side Cruizero to the bright lights of the Bernabeau in late January. A talented central defensive midfielder he is seen as the long term replacement for Sami Khedira.

Included in Madrid’s Champions’ League squad he made his European debut in a comfortable 2-0 win over Schalke last night. Casemiro, on loan from Madrid, was a constant threat for Porto as they drew 1-1 away at Basel.

Casemiro is also a central midfielder brought to Los Blancos in the summer of 2013 after a successful spell at Castilla, the Madrid ‘B’ team. He made 25 appearances throughout the 2013-14 season for the first team, but still failed to make a considerable impression on Carlo Ancelotti.

Now on loan at Porto he must wonder does he have a future under the Italian manager. He was a constant threat in the Basel half last night and was unfortunate to have a goal struck off from two of his teammates standing in offside positions. Porto have the option to buy him at the end of the season but Real have a buy-back clause should the Portuguese side decide to buy him.

There will be obvious pressure on Lucas Silva to succeed at Madrid, but there is the added pressure that the Brazilian Serie A arguably haven’t had a world-class export since Neymar in 2013. This might not sound like a big problem, but a country with such a proud footballing tradition as Brazil takes pride in the players it produces.

Stars like Pato, Kaká and more recently Oscar have been snapped up by European clubs but the desire for the South American players is not as strong.

Ricardo Goulart finished top scorer in Brazil’s Serie A last year with 15 goals in 26 league games. A former teammate of Lucas Silva, Goulart made a £11.5 million move to Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande, a club most notable for having Nicolas Anelka on their books before.

Newspapers in Brazil called him the country’s biggest mercenary moving to China instead of a move to greener pastures in Europe but, simply put, no one in Europe would sign him. He now will reportedly earn around £3 million a year after tax.

Lucas Silva will be the outlier in a more recent trend if he succeeds in Madrid. No doubt he has the talent, but if he can apply himself better than Casemiro he should fare better. More importantly for Brazil he can prove that their league exports can play at the highest level, which will encourage more European teams to put faith in Brazilian based players.