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European Championships - Roy Hodgson, James McClean and the Irish team - what joy!

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English team's gaffer Roy Hodson
Roy Hodgson has 40 days and 40 nights to get England ready for their European Championship finals challenge in the Ukraine this summer.

He told us as much on Tuesday afternoon, beamed into our living rooms and onto our TV screens from a Wembley Stadium press conference.

Hodgson, in case you haven’t guessed, is the new England football team manager. He is the English FA’s choice to succeed Fabio Capello, but he’s not the people’s choice.

That honor still belongs to Harry Redknapp, the Cockney wideboy currently in charge of Spurs and bizarrely tipped in some quarters on Tuesday morning to take over at Champions League finalists Chelsea.

Redknapp is the big loser in the latest English managerial saga. Hodgson is the winner -- as are the bookies who took so many bets on ‘Arry that he became unbackable.

Irish fans have watched the England story unfold with more than a passing interest this week. England are the old enemy, but they are also our nearest footballing neighbor, and so many here idolize club teams over there.

We wouldn’t have it any other way. Every Irish fan worth his or her salt will bring a green jersey to Poland for the European Championships this June -- and a red one or a blue one or a red and blue one with an English affiliation.
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We are, whether we like it or not, infatuated with English football, partly because we have wall to wall coverage on our television screens, partly because all our good players play there, but mostly because it is a habit.

Sporting events and sporting talk this past weekend summed it all up. On Saturday, Giovanni Trapattoni went up Croagh Patrick, or part of it, with Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny at the launch of a charity event.

A subsequent press conference could have debated Trap’s firm religious beliefs, the beauty of the Co. Mayo countryside or the economic crisis Kenny is trying to get to grips with. It didn’t.

Two subjects dominated the Trap chat that followed -- James McClean and sex.  Not connected for what it is worth.

McClean is a young man from Derry who played for Northern Ireland and then thought better of it.

Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement he is qualified to wear the Republic’s green shirt, and did so for the first time in the friendly against the Czech Republic at the end of February.

Now, after a startling breakthrough season in the Premier League, McClean is a “90-99 percent” certainty to go to the Euros as an Irish player. Trap told us as much last Saturday after his date with Enda.

The whole country has been talking about McClean’s sudden elevation to European Championship status, and who he might replace in the squad that got us there.

The fact McClean scored for Sunderland against Bolton in the English Premier League, at the very time Trap was singing his praises, only helped McClean’s cause.

His name will dominate football talk between now and Monday when Trap will finally confirm the identity of the 23 players who will make up his squad for Poland -- and the Ukraine if we make the quarterfinals.

Those who travel will want for nothing according to their manager, who also told us on Saturday that the Irish players will enjoy some “intimate” time with their wives, girlfriends or both when they represent their country at the Euro finals in Poland.

That got as many headlines as the McClean story, but not as many column inches.

Right now we are infatuated with the summer’s football to come. The English choice for a new manager hit the news just 24 hours before Manchester City and United met in the mother of all derbies.

We watched that one with baited breath as well, marveled at the steely determination that sent Vincent Kompany’s match winning header to the net, and laughed at the touchline row between rival managers Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini.

That was Monday. On Tuesday we listened intently to Roy Hodgson, live at Wembley. On Monday we will wait with baited breath for Trap’s squad announcement.

Football is big news in Ireland right now. And we love it!


Sideline Views

SOCCER: The English FA pulled off a masterstroke on Sunday night when they effectively announced Roy Hodgson as their new manager at a time when the sporting media’s attention was fixed squarely on the upcoming Manchester derby between United and City. Hodgson is a good coach and a nice guy but he’s no Harry Redknapp – which is probably exactly why he’s the new manager and not ‘Arry!

SOCCER: Various politicians are trying to suggest that the European Championships should be moved from the Ukraine because of its treatment of a “political” prisoner. There’s even talk that Germany is willing to host the games due to take place in the Ukraine. What a load of nonsense. Politics should never be allowed to mix with sport. Full stop.

RUGBY: Some 70,000 Irish fans will descend on London for the Heineken Cup final between Ulster and Leinster on May 19 – the same day Chelsea fans will depart the city in their tens of thousands for the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in Munich of all places. I’ll bet Michael O’Leary’s Ryanair make a small fortune that weekend.

GAA:
Cork and Kildare won the two big National League finals at Croker on Sunday but a very small crowd, just over 20,000, turned up for the big games. The Cork support was particularly poor as their team won a third National League Division 1 crown in a row. A “treble without applause” you might call it!

SOCCER: The good news is that Richard Dunne returned for Aston Villa on Saturday. The bad news is that he got turned badly by fellow Irishman Shane Long on more than one occasion. Let’s hope he’s just rusty after two months out with a shoulder injury.

SOCCER:
Several Manchester United fans took to Twitter on Monday night to complain about Niall Quinn’s alleged pro-City bias in his derby game commentary for Sky Sports. Funnily enough they didn’t complain about United old boy Gary Neville’s role as big match pundit!

HERO OF THE WEEK


James McClean scored another goal for Sunderland on Saturday, the sixth of his first season in the Premier League, and his timing was impeccable. Just an hour or so after his goal, Giovanni Trapattoni was asked about McClean’s chances of going to the European Championship finals and said he is “90 to 99% certain” to travel to Poland. I wouldn’t pack the passport just yet if I was James, but I would be very worried if I was Keith Fahey or Stephen Hunt.

IDIOT OF THE WEEK

Ally McCoist tried to claim otherwise, but he did suggest that Rangers and Celtic deserve to be treated differently by the Scottish FA because they are the biggest clubs in Scotland. McCoist is afraid his club will end up in the Third Division next season because of their financial regularities and while he is right to fight their corner, he is wrong to suggest special treatment when they break the rules. As Neil Lennon said after Sunday’s 3-0 Old Firm thumping highlighted the new gulf in class between the two Glasgow sides.


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