‘You’ll be surprised at the standard we’re playing at. Everyone expects to come along and see a load of lads running around with beer bellies, but that’s not the case. We look at the likes of Ryan Giggs and Kevin Phillips playing in the Premier League and think “If they can play at that level, surely we can play at some kind of decent standard too.”’
Those were the words of former Leyton Orient and Shamrock Rovers striker Mark O’Neill who was telling me about his latest project – the Ireland Over 40s team. The idea came about when Mark’s friend and manager of the Northern Ireland veterans, Seamus Heath, suggested that he put a team together to face a group of over 40s from across the border. O’Neill got in touch with the PFAI and managed to put together a team which subsequently beat their Northern counterparts 3-1 in March.
One of Mark’s first steps was to bring League of Ireland legend and his former manager, Mick Byrne, on board to put the team through their paces and they have been working hard to recapture old form since October of last year.
When I got in touch with Mark, the Ireland Over 40s were about to face their biggest test yet – a friendly game against an over 40s team from the Czech Republic at Home Farm. Originally the Czech squad was due to contain Liverpool heroes Patrik Berger and Vladimir Smicer, (something which obviously captured my interest a lot!) however sadly both pulled out through injury. I suppose in hindsight this shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise given their fitness records at Anfield and elsewhere! Also due to appear on the day was former AC Milan left back Marek Jankulovski, but unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for the Irish lads!) he was also a no show. The big name who did appear on the Czech team sheet was Jan Koller. An absolute giant, both in terms of the Czech game and his physical presence at 6ft7in, Koller is the all time top scorer with the Czech national team with 55 international goals.
Koller first gained attention playing in the Belgian league, first for Lokeren and then for Anderlecht, culminating in him scoring 42 goals in 65 appearances, helping to win the Belgian league twice and winning himself the Belgian ‘golden shoe’ before being picked up by Borussia Dortmund. At Dortmund, he excelled, forming a wonderful partnership with future Arsenal man Tomas Rosicky. In total he scored 59 goals in 139 appearances and won the Bundesliga in 2001/02. He even managed to once win Bundesliga goalkeeper of the week when Jens Lehman was sent off and Koller pulled on the gloves for the remaining 25 minutes of the game, not conceding any further goals. Internationally, he enjoyed his best success when the Czech Republic reached the semi finals of Euro 2004 where he formed a great partnership with Liverpool’s Milan Baros.
Koller was not hard to spot when he walked onto the pitch. He is quite probably one of the biggest men I have ever seen! As the biggest name (and the biggest man) in the Czech team, it was no surprise when he pulled on the captain’s armband. He was joined by a few other Czech Internationals and Slavia Prague legends such as Karel Rada, but in the absence of any form of official team sheet, I’m afraid my knowledge of Czech football let me down and I struggled to recognise a number of the players.
The Irish team was no bunch of amateurs either though. The squad featured the likes of O’Neill, former Wimbledon and Linfield player Paul McGee, ex Spurs and St Patrick’s Athletic player Eddie Gormley and former Celtic and Bohemians player Paul Byrne.
As kick off got underway the game started fairly even. It wasn’t hard to guess who the player that achieved at the highest level was however. Showing lovely footwork, skills and flicks for a man of his size, Koller was expectedly, a step above everybody else. As the first half wore on, the Czechs looked more and more dangerous. Every time Ireland got forward, the Czechs seemed to come back with a series of quick breaks, however there was nothing in the way of cast iron chances. One thing that did strike me however was the competitive nature of the game. For a ‘friendly’ the players all seemed to be taking it quite seriously.
There were a few tasty tackles thrown in and a few penalty claims waved away. It has to be said that a couple of the Czech lads seemed to go down fairly easily, even the big man. Towards the end of the first half, Koller himself found his way into the ref’s notebook following a crunching, studs up tackle on Ireland’s Aaron Lynch, however the Czech legend was quick enough to apologise. Ireland had a strong finish to the first half, maintaining some decent possession, however as the whistle went for half time chances had been few and far between in the first forty-five minutes.
The second half saw the tempo of the game rise. A couple of substitutions for Ireland made them a bit more dangerous. The introduction of former Shelbourne and Bohemians player Mark Rutherford on the left wing added an exciting element to Ireland’s attack. Rutherford showed excellent pace and dribbling skill and gave the opposing Czech full back a torrid time, earning himself a yellow card in the process and being fortunate to stay on the pitch in the end following a tackle where he seemed to throw an arm into Rutherford’s face.
As Ireland began to threaten more however, so did the Czechs and Ireland were lucky to have a shot cleared off the line by Paul Perth. While Rutherford provided an extra element for Ireland going forward, it seemed they couldn’t get him on the ball enough and Ireland struggled to get on the end of the crosses he put in the box. Eventually the Czechs piled on the pressure for the first goal. Koller, who had been growing increasingly frustrated and had watched a couple of shots drift just wide, latched onto an inch perfect cross at the back post to head the ball into the Irish net. The small contingent of about six Czech fans went crazy, singing his name. In truth, it was always going to come.
Ireland had a couple of chances, but just couldn’t seem to get the ball on target. The closest they came to drawing level came right at the end when Ireland’s star man Mark Rutherford craned his neck to turn a header just wide of the Czech post.
Despite the result, Manager Mick Byrne said he was happy with the performance. ‘We probably could’ve snatched a draw at the end,’ he said. ‘We were always gonna have trouble with the big fella. They picked him out well. Eveyone put in a good shift and I’m happy enough with the performance, but I think we can play even better than that.’
The manager also felt that the Czechs were fortunate enough to finish the game with 11 men following a couple of tough tackles on Rutherford. ‘Mark looked good today. He made a couple of good runs and had a couple of chances,’ he said. ‘There were a couple of poor tackles on him too. I think their right back was fortunate enough, but because it was a friendly and they had used all their players, the ref was never going to send him off.’
Byrne stressed that the most important thing was to give everyone a run out. ‘We have a big squad of 22,’ he said. ‘The most important was to give all of the lads a run out. The reason we’re doing this is to keep all the lads fit and healthy. Depression can also be a problem among retired pros and I know for a fact that there are two lads in particular in the squad that this has changed their lives. If we can help just one player in their lives then it’s all worthwhile.’
I waited around after the game to have a chat with Jan Koller. I was looking forward to asking him all about his time at Dortmund and his distinguished international career however it didn’t work out that way. ‘Jan, do you have a couple of minutes?’ I asked. Nothing. ‘Do you speak English?’ He just smiled. ‘No. No. French?’ Being let down by my lack of French I had to concede defeat and settle for a photo with the man mountain.
The result aside, the Irish lads showed that you never lose it. Their close control and passing was very good at times and it was only a lack of finishing that let them down. Next up for them is a game against Wales Over 40s, again at Home Farm FC, on September 28 and if you want to escape the big ticket prices of the Aviva and see an Irish team play a bit of ball on the ground as well as raising some crucial funds for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, then this could be right up your street.
by Podge Byrne (written 16/09/13)