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Watching Celtic’s Champions League victory in the Florida sun

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Celtic’s Victor Wanyama in action against Barcelona's Andres Iniesta.

A holiday in Florida is always a good thing.  The sun shines most of the time, the golf is good and the steaks are sizzling.

The first time I got to the Sunshine State, soccer was a non-entity of a sport.  We quickly came to that conclusion back in the summer of 1994 – and we were there for the World Cup!

A couple of things convinced us of this fact, not least the way a group of elderly American women readily accepted that three of my colleagues and I were members of the Irish soccer team in town for said World Cup.
If we were, it would have had to be renamed the Rotund World Cup, trust me.

Another story from that tournament way back when further illustrates the story.

Niall Quinn was at the ’94 World Cup as a TV analyst for Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE.

A knee injury cruelly denied him a second World Cup finals but he would, thankfully, put that right in 2002 when he famously set-up Robbie Keane for the mother of all goals against Germany.

Back in the American World Cup, Niall was accompanied by his wife Gillian, his mum and his very young daughter who is now one of Ireland’s top up and coming models.

Breaking away from the tournament for a night, and with a ready made baby-sitter on board, Niall and Gillian escaped Orlando for a country and western music haunt many miles from the big smoke.

A Garth Brooks fan before anyone else I know, Niall was big into his line dancing for a while.  So that night he was enjoying the music – and probably the dancing – when an Ireland fan spotted from afar and crossed the dance floor to say hello.

Dressed in a green jersey with the number eight and the name Houghton inscribed on the back of it, said fan had a simple request for our Niall.

“See when that girl I’m with comes over, will you make sure you call me Ray,” asked the fan of the then Manchester City striker.

Asking why that was, Niall laughed his head off when he said, “She believes I’m Ray Houghton and I scored the goal against Italy in the Giants Stadium last Saturday night!”

Quite what became of the other Ray Houghton and Gullible’s Travels we never found out. Maybe he scored again; maybe the girl realized his dance-floor moves weren’t that of an elite athlete.

Whatever, the story is a good one and it tells a tale.

I thought of Niall and Ray last Wednesday afternoon as I trawled the Florida Mall in Orlando in search of a television screen showing Glasgow Celtic against Barcelona in the Champions League.

The self-proclaimed “world famous” sports bar at the Florida hotel was no use to me.  The barman could offer me beer and 17 screens worth of American football but no soccer on one of the biggest days of Champions League action.

At least he knew what I was talking about. And he did offer one insightful piece of advice.

“There’s a soccer shirt shop down the mall, they might be showing it,” he said.

Indeed they were.  And so, just after four on a Wednesday afternoon Orlando time, I found myself sitting on a couple of benches in a soccer shop in the Florida Mall watching Celtic against Barcelona with a couple of new best friends.

The commentary was in Spanish, which suited two of the Mexicans beside me, while my buddy from Newfoundland was able to describe in detail the tactical complexities of a riveting match.

The fact a soccer shop now exits in the Florida Mall proves soccer is taking some sort of a foothold in America, however small that may be almost 20 years after the Green Army invaded Church Street and made it their own.

The fact I was prepared to sit on a cold metal bench in a shop with only a Starbucks coffee to keep me warm as I watched Celtic beat Barcelona in the middle of a rare holiday shows what a draw the Champions League now is.

The game, by the way, was brilliant. Celtic were brave and spirited and had the best player on the pitch in Victor Wanyama. As I told my Canadian friend, he won’t be at the club come the January transfer window.

The Bhoys played with the same belief and passion that typified Ireland of the Orlando World Cup era, the belief and passion that was badly missed in Poland last summer.

Neil Lennon, thanks to a wonderful finish under pressure from teenager Tony Watt, got the result he wanted, and the Irishman left the soccer shop in the Florida Mall happy.

The next day I learned, via our Irish Central website, that Donegal manager Jim McGuinness is to join Celtic in a part-time role. He is going to be in good company.

McGuinness proved last September that nothing beats winning, no matter what the sport.

Celtic proved the same thing against Barcelona. Celtic and McGuinness, Neil and Jim – they are both matches made in heaven.

So is a cold metal bench and a Spanish satellite dish in Orlando. And at least this time I was happy with the result.

The only Irishman happy with his result in Florida back in 1994 was the Ray Houghton dancer at the country and western nightclub. Or so I like to think!

(Cathal Dervan is the sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin.)

Sideline Views
GAA: If you see a young man from Kells staring up at the skyscrapers in Manhattan this weekend, chances are it is my Irish Sun colleague Gordon Manning. The great Gordy, the man who broke the Jim McGuinness for Celtic story last week, is a New York virgin, and he’s in town with the Opel/GPA all-stars ahead of the big game in Gaelic Park on Saturday night. Gordy was like a child in a sweet shop ahead of his departure on Wednesday for Fitzpatrick’s Hotel at Grand Central.  I’ve advised him to get to PJ Clarke’s and O’Neill’s, and he might even audition for a modeling job with Abercrombie and Fitch.  But I did tell him not to stare up at the buildings – makes it obvious he’s a tourist!

SOCCER: Have to say I understand James McClean’s decision not to wear a poppy on his jersey when Sunderland played Everton last weekend.  McClean is from the Creggan estate in Derry. Six of his family’s neighbors were murdered by members of the British Army on Bloody Sunday. Enough said.

RUGBY: The pressure is mounting on Ireland rugby coach Declan Kidney after five straight test defeats, but he should be thankful he’s a rugby coach and not the national soccer team manager. Such a run in football would lead to a real campaign to get the coach out. And it would succeed as Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton will tell you.

HURLING: Henry Shefflin is human after all. The Great One missed two penalties in the Kilkenny county final on Sunday but his Ballyhale Shamrocks side still won with ease to add another medal to his ever growing collection.

SOCCER: Robbie Keane made it 20 goals for the season as the LA Galaxy beat the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the MLS playoffs on Sunday night. It’s an impressive tally – but it is still a Mickey Mouse league.

SOCCER: For all their claims that Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli are doing a great job with Ireland, how come we are down to 36th in the FIFA rankings? And who is going to do something about it!

SOCCER: Mick McCarthy has now recorded two wins from three games as Ipswich manager and hauled the team off the bottom of the Championship table. Not a bad start to his return to management.

GOLF: Rory McIlroy is now the official number one golfer in America, Europe and the world. Little wonder then that Nike want to splash out $250 million to get him on board.

HERO OF THE WEEK
IT’S old hat at this stage, but Celtic’s win over Barcelona in the Champions League last week really was hair standing on neck stuff, capped off by a wonderful winning goal from teenager Tony Watt. It might not be up there with winning the European Cup in Lisbon, but in the context of modern day football it wasn’t far off it. And it made for great television.

IDIOT OF THE WEEK
THE malaise surrounding the management of the Irish national soccer team isn’t funny anymore. On Monday, the assistant manager Marco Tardelli described 2012 as a “fantastic” year for Irish football. What planet is he living on?  And where was he when we were getting thumped by Croatia, Spain, Italy and Germany in the same 2012?  Time for change folks, time for change.

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