Michael Conlan: A Fighter, Not Just a Boxer

As published on Pundit Arena

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The Riocentro Exhibition resembled a wake-house as Vladimir Nikitin’s hand was raised aloft following Tuesday’s quarter-final bout with Michael Conlan. Shock mingled with both anger and sadness.

Having had his say with the assembled media, he stormed back to his chambers passing a troop of Irish supporters who looked at him and then at each other, bewildered by the downfall of their Belfast boy.

As with many of those looking on at these Games, not all will have understood the scoring mechanisms, but that mattered little on this day. Michael Conlan clearly won the fight – only Michael Conlan wasn’t awarded the fight.

Such was the farcical nature of the unfolding events that it was like the annual Christmas pantomime at the Gaiety Theatre. The crowd hissed and booed but on this occasion, the villains were not to be deterred. An anticlimactic sensation permeated through the arena like a dusty hangover, not so much because Conlan had lost, but because he had been clearly let down by his sport.

The record books will show that Nikitin won the bout, with Conlan down on all three judge’s cards (29-28), but any of his admirers looking on will always remember the dubious circumstances.

In the aftermath of his defeat to Nikitin in the previous round, Thailand’s Chatchai Butdee told the Bangkok Postthat he should have won the fight:

“I think I was more on target. I do not really understand the judges’ decision.”

Conlan echoed similar concerns on Tuesday, albeit with added venom.

It was a disconcerting occasion for the RTÉ Sports Person of the Year, his father John and Zoar Antia. While the Russian was beatable, he was far from being a lamb to the slaughter – indeed Nikita had claimed Conlan’s scalp before.

The 24-year-old has always been the better fighter though. As Nikitin took to the task with fury, going all-out to deny Conlan his accustomed dominance, the Irishman remained at a distance. The crowd began to find their voice as the Belfast man slipped a flurry of punches before landing several of his own. Nikitin never looked to have landed a telling blow. The Russian support grew silent, while those bedecked in green rose to their feet.

Yet, as Conlan returned to his corner after the first round, his hand punching the air with satisfaction, his coaches quickly realised that they would have to conceive of a way of beating not only their immediate blue opponent, but also those seated at ringside. Nikitin was deemed to have bettered his Irish adversary.

Conlan is not the World, European and Commonwealth champion for nothing, however. His adaptability has been one of his greatest strengths and so there was no immediate concern from a strategic perspective. His greater movement would take him away from a Russian flurry while his accuracy would secure the points.

Those sitting at home though were alive to the unconvincing adjudication that has dominated these Games. At the outset Hugh Cahill and Darren O’Neill, commentating for RTÉ Sport, expressed some concern for the private volitions of the Brazilian, Sri Lankan and Polish judges.

But what could Conlan do other than to control the controllable?

Thereafter the statistics back up the claim that Conlan should have been the rightful victor. Over the course of the next two rounds, Conlan out-landed Nikitin 71-49 while throwing an average of 122 per round.

At the end of the bout, Nikitin looked completely deflated. His bloodied head and beaten body stumbled back to his corner resembling that of a broken man (his injuries were such that he was forced to forfeit his place in the competition on Wednesday). Conlan, meanwhile, skipped the other way in anticipation of another Olympic semi-final.

The moment Nikitin was declared triumphant spoke volumes about what had actually played out. As Nikita’s hand was raised triumphantly aloft, his knees buckled beneath him with a mixture of delight, disbelief and exhaustion. Conlan looked at the Algerian referee with disgust: “f*** off!”.

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Immediately faced by the television cameras, an exasperated Conlan left us in no doubt as to who he blamed for the debacle:

“AIBA are cheats. F**king cheats. As simple as that. That’s me, I’ll never box for AIBA again. They’re cheating bastards, they’re paying everybody,” said Conlan in an interview with RTÉ after the fight.

“I was here to win Olympic gold. My dreams been shattered now. You know what, I’ve a big career ahead of me. And these ones? They’ve always been cheats. Amateur boxing stinks. From the core right to the top.

“It’s like Katie (Taylor) yesterday. No way she lost that fight. It was a close fight, but she didn’t lose.

“I thought I boxed the ears off him in the first round, but they scored it against me. So I had to fight his fight, which I did, outfought him. It’s a shambles to be honest.

“I’m gutted, from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to go back with a gold medal to Ireland. Now I feel I’m going back a loser. I’m not a loser, I’m a winner. Today just showed how corrupt this organisation is.

“Cheating b****rds” he exclaimed, “My Olympic title has been robbed from me!”

Some inevitably questioned his use of language throughout his tirade and the bitterness with which it was spewed, but taken in context, what is more surprising is that Conlan didn’t go any further.

Speaking to Pundit Arena as part of our ‘Secret Olympian’ series in the lead up to the Games, Conlan professed:

“This game is my life. It is not for everybody and I understand that. To get to where I have got to, to become an Olympian, I have dedicated my life to the sport of boxing. It has made me who I am today.

“I have done the early mornings, I have done the late nights, I have given up things that young people my age take for granted in their lives.”

Conlan is a mature individual. He has had to be. Growing up on the Falls Road in west Belfast, Conlan’s childhood was marred by underage drinking, drugs, theft and vandalism. Given his growing reputation in boxing circles, Conlan managed to keep much of his misspent youth under wraps. There was also the added fear that his brother Jamie would find out.

As an acclaimed boxer in his own right (he is the current Commonwealth and WBO Inter-Continental Super Flyweight Champion), Jamie undoubtedly had a positive influence on his younger brother, while Michael’s growing awareness of his own talent prompted him to take stock of his spiralling lifestyle.

Conlan is mindful of the environment from which he emerged. He will always be a home boy, but he appreciates that he managed to escape a life where many have succumbed to depression, economic uncertainty and even death. Thankfully, Conlan chose a different path.

At all times shrewdly managed and expertly coached, he ascended through the ranks with ferocity. His determination shone through like a beacon of light for Irish sport. No longer was he a fighter – he was now a boxer.

Conlan became a national hero when he claimed bronze for Ireland in London four years ago. His star has been rising ever since, with European and Commonwealth medals adding to his haul. Then last December he was named as RTÉ’s Sports Person of the Year having become the first ever male boxer to return home with an AIBA World Championship gold medal.

Now the proud father to Luisne (1) and fiancé to Shauna Olali, Conlan is a settled character and his one burning ambition was to claim gold in Rio 2016. From the very floor of society, Conlan was set to scale the peak of his world.

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To have such a dream, one to which he has dedicated his life, taken away in such farcical circumstances beggars belief. It is generally accepted that athletes go to their first Games to compete, to their second to challenge.

Gold has undoubtedly been in Conlan’s sights ever since Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez put an end to his tournament in London four years ago. This time around, there would be no stopping him – other than those beyond the reach of his gloves.

The fighter in Michael Conlan resurfaced on Tuesday, but nobody should begrudge him of that. We all have our dreams.

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The Trail of William Prunier

As featured on Pundit Arena

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Despite Eric Bailly’s impressive early season performances, the jury remains out on the ability of Manchester United’s defence to back up the challenge that will undoubtedly be posed by their potent strike force. One need only reference Eliaquim Mangala at the Etihad to understand that expensive defenders do not guarantee security.

20 years ago however, United were in a much more precarious position. With a backline comprising entirely of English and Irishmen, it was a 28-year-old Frenchman to whom they turned.

It is the ambition of a great many fellows to be summoned to Old Trafford; William Prunier was – and departed not long after.

It’s not an altogether strange occurrence; many youngsters earn and waste their opportunity. However, the misadventure of Mr. Prunier is one of the most fascinating of all during Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure at the club.

It concerns New Year’s Day some years ago when I sought exile from the festivities to watch Manchester United take on Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.

It was a time when new signings captured the imagination. Rather than following online updates on any impending transfer, fans were forced to rely upon page 222 on Aertel, wait for the morning papers or call one of those dodgy 1800 numbers to get the latest news (the folks still don’t believe me).

1995/96 was a rather depressing time for United fans. With Blackburn Rovers having clinched the title, everyone expected a significant response from Ferguson. Instead he cashed in on some of his prized assets with Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes all departing the club. Raimond van der Gouw was the only meaningful addition to a squad that closely resembled a nursery.

But as the busy Christmas period approached that season, it appeared that Ferguson’s lack of activity in the transfer market had finally come back to haunt him. Despite a rich vein of form, United were several points adrift of Newcastle United while Steve Bruce, their stalwart captain, lay prone on the treatment table with Gary Pallister and David May on either side.

So it was with some relief when teletext informed us of an imminent debut for a new player at Old Trafford.

In latter years, Laurent Blanc and Rio Ferdinand evidenced Ferguson’s fondness for cultured centre-halves. Yet the Scot first experimented with a ball-playing defender in December 1995 when William Prunier was invited to Manchester. Having come through Auxerre’s famed academy at the same time, Eric Cantona was an advocate of his compatriot.

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Ferguson conveyed some interest but hesitated on the offer of a contract. Prunier would have to prove his worth behind the scenes on a trial basis. That all changed when Denis Irwin joined the list of absentees within days of the Frenchman’s arrival. Ferguson was left with little option other than to thrust Prunier into the heart of United’s defence for an upcoming clash with QPR.

Alongside Gary Neville, who at 21 was United’s most experienced defender, Prunier showed glimpses of the quality that had earned him an international cap for France a few years previously. United kept up the heat on Kevin Keegan’s rampant Magpies with a 2-1 win. In so doing, Prunier became somewhat of a cult hero on the Stretford End, setting up a goal and rattling the crossbar with a thunderous drive.

The Independent swooned that Prunier had become an “instant hero of the Old Trafford hordes on a debut when he was in the mood to storm the Bastille.” Ferguson was a little less enthused: “We will see how he [Prunier] defends away from home. There is always that thing about European defenders and how quickly they can pick up the pace.”

Lo and behold Prunier was back for the next match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane live on TV. Having negotiated my way out of the family dinner to cast my eye over this welcome addition, I sat back with the last of the Christmas pudding. Reality soon dawned.

Despite a hefty £4.5 million price-tag, Chris Armstrong was not the most feared striker in the Premier League when he moved across London from Crystal Palace. Yet on this particular evening, Prunier had the Spurs faithful drawing comparisons between Armstrong and his great predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann. Having galloped into the Theatre of Dreams, Prunier was now like a cowboy who had lost his horse. By full-time, his obituary was going to press.

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Before Prunier arrived in Manchester he had enjoyed a decent career. Having come through the ranks at Auxerre, he progressed into the first team amassing 221 appearances and many plaudits. Olympique de Marseilles, following their triumph in the newly-formatted Champions League, were soon batting their eyelids at the defender as they sought to solidify their status as one of Europe’s premier clubs. With a heavy heart, Prunier reciprocated their advances. However, amidst match-fixing scandals and financial irregularities, Ligue 2 beckoned and Prunier promptly sought the exit door.

By 1994 Prunier was a much-respected centre-half in the French game and many took pity on him for the unfortunate situation into which he had been landed. There were a number of suitors, not least Bordeaux, who were becoming a force to be reckoned with as Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry led the charge.

It represented a sensible move for Prunier. But in time, the Frenchman began to lose his patience with his bit-part role to the point where he felt he had no option but to buy out the remainder of his contract. The timing could not have been better (or worse).

Prunier never appeared again for United. Having been cast as the scapegoat in the aftermath of a disappointing 4-1 defeat (United’s worst league defeat in four years), Ferguson invited Prunier to extend his trial period, proposing that, given his lack of English, a little more time would help him to adapt to the United way. In truth, Ferguson’s olive branch was out of concern for the individual rather than his potential to play for United. Indeed, in more recent years, Ferguson has admitted that he too was subject to errors of judgment, citing Prunier, Ralph Milne, Kléberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba amongst his most notorious.

Prunier’s agent, Alain Migliasclio, did not agree (via The Irish Times):

“Manchester United were due to give us a definite answer but they offered William another trial period. With more than 350 French first division appearances and 35 European matches under his belt, William is no longer an apprentice.”

Prunier returned to France before opting for a switch to FC Copenhagen instead.

Clearly angered, Migliasclio felt that his client had been hard done by. Ferguson’s patched-up team had their chances and were the better side for much of the opening stages. But with the game level at half time, the forced removal of Peter Schmeichel became the predominant nail in United’s coffin. Kevin Pilkington, his young understudy, was simply not up to the task. Yet it was Prunier, the lad nobody knew or could speak to, that became the fall guy.

In the dressing room, Prunier’s temporary teammates appreciated his contribution, many sympathising with the timing of his arrival. To arrive at a big club to train with the reserves is one thing. But to lead a Premier League defence without a word of English is quite another. They would never see Prunier again.

In the years that followed his trial at The Cliff, Prunier became somewhat of a journeyman. After an eleven-game spell in Copenhagen, the likes of Montpellier, Napoli, Hearts and Kortrijk in Belgium were all graced with his presence, albeit briefly, before he arrived in Toulouse in 1999. For five seasons, Prunier went some way to redeeming a flagging career as the club bounced between divisions, peaking in 2002/03 when he was named in Ligue 1’s Team of the Year. He ended his playing career with Al-Siliya in Qatar in 2004.

A spell in management followed therafter, firstly as assistant to Stéphane Paille at AS Cannes until their dismissal a few months later. He managed local sides in the Toulouse area for a period including a three-year stint with US Colomiers, before moving onto GS Consolat – an amateur side based in Marseilles for a further year. In 2015, Prunier became the reserve team coach at Ligue 1 side Montpellier HSC, where he made 27 appearances in 1996/97. He remains there today.

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GRAMMONT FOOT CFA 2 / MHSC II / VILLENAVE ENTRAINEUR PRUNIER

Sadly, Prunier’s reputation never truly recovered from his two-week stay in Salford and it precedes him at every opportunity.

And yet for the title of most obscure player to have appeared for the Red Devils, Prunier would not lack rivals. Bebé, Dong Fangzhou, Manucho and Massimo Taibi all wore the famous shirt at Old Trafford…

But then Prunier might not have been so obscure had he rattled that net…

Ryan’s Riddle

As featured on Pundit Arena

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Ryan Giggs put on a brave face before the television cameras during Euro 2016, yet despite his own off-field experiences one can only imagine what he has been going through.

While several players put themselves in the shop window in France, Giggs was doing likewise on ITV. Having joined Manchester United almost 30 years ago, the club legend can no longer be found at Carrington.

Having had his managerial appetite whetted in the aftermath of David Moyes’ tenure before becoming assistant manager under Louis van Gaal, Giggs was overlooked for the main job in favour of Jose Mourinho. The subsequent installation of Rui Faria at Mourinho’s side further proved that Giggs’ aspirations clearly conflicted with the plans of the new manager.

While a position further down the pecking order was in the offing, Giggs’ pride intervened. He now finds himself on holiday in the middle of August for the first time in his professional career.

The reason is simple: Manchester United are no longer a football club; they are a corporation. Corporations demand success, often spending vast sums to ensure it. This sentiment has only been enhanced by the world record acquisition of Paul Pogba. Despite an overhaul that leaves only five first-team players from Pogba’s initial stint in Manchester, Van Gaal’s failure at the helm dictated that further change was needed.

It was no secret that Giggs yearned for the top job and he will have pointed to the success enjoyed by several ex-professionals at Europe’s biggest clubs. But while the Welshman may have pitched his desire to create a new dynasty at the club just as he had been bred in the culture of success in the No. 11 shirt, ultimately his credentials were much less certain in a shirt and tie.

In any event, those to whom Giggs most likely referenced were in different positions before they acceded to the main role in their respective clubs. Pep Guardiola, for instance, profited from the work of his predecessor. It was Frank Rijkaard who largely assembled the squad that would go on to dominate European football.

In his first season in charge Guardiola’s biggest alteration was to remove Deco and an injury-plagued Ronaldinho from his ranks to give more authority to those already at the club, namely the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and a certain Lionel Messi. The Argentine duly contributed 38 goals as his side claimed a domestic double and the Champions League. Giggs would not have enjoyed the same privilege – whether he could have attracted the type of players that Manchester United required was an obvious worry.

Guardiola’s greatest achievement has been in maintaining a level of success at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. However, neither required much repair work. At Barcelona, the famed La Masia academy ensured that his squad continuously evolved, while all were well-versed in his favoured tiki-taka style first advanced by Johann Cruyff during Guardiola’s playing career at the club. Furthermore, when Guardiola assumed control at Bayern in 2013, they were the reigning Bundesliga and European champions.

Now at Manchester City, the Spaniard’s managerial capacity will be given its sternest test yet. Having already scaled the heights of the Premier League under Roberto Mancini, Sheikh Mansour demands Champions League success. While Xavi would maintain that Guardiola has all the characteristics and experience to finally transform them into a European heavyweight, others would argue that he already has European semi-finalists in his control, in addition to a £300 million war chest.

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Having led Barcelona B to promotion from Segunda Division B, Guardiola and his assistant Tito Vilanova were ideally placed to assume the reins from Rijkaard in 2008. Similarly, at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane ascended to the coaching zenith from within. Giggs undoubtedly considered this modern trend of promotion when pitching his cause. However, it is largely ignored that Guardiola had already been expanding his ambition by playing out the latter part of his career in Italy further developing the tactical education that is provided on the continent.

Zidane, meanwhile, waited patiently for eight years in a variety of guises learning from the likes of Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and even Rafa Benitez before being entrusted with the wheel. Moreover, like Guardiola, Zidane should be grateful for a team replete with the two most expensive players in the world and a support cast comprising a host of international stars.

While pride was undoubtedly at play, Giggs’ decision to depart his beloved home is a brave one. Now, while on holiday with his estranged wife, he must consider his options. Several clubs have been mooted – not least Hull City where a partnership with Mike Phelan (Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant) is conceivable. However, there is arguably too much at stake for the Tigers for them to consider employing someone of his inexperience.

Giggs’ own former colleagues knows only too well that jumping the gun to manage a top-level club is risky business. Gary Neville’s tenure at Valencia was an unmitigated disaster, Clarence Seedorf’s stint at AC Milan wasn’t much better, whilst Alan Shearer (Newcastle Utd), Gary McAllister (Coventry City), Attilo Lombardo (Crystal Palace) and Gianfranco Zola (West Ham) have all experienced less than successful stints in the top flight.

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Kenny Dalglish is an obvious exception, but when installed as player-manager at Anfield in 1985 Liverpool were already the best team in England and had contested the European Cup Final. In any event, the landscape of football in England has changed considerably. Were Giggs to lead Manchester United through another mediocre season, the knives would have been sharpened and the status of a great legend would have been diminished. Given the success that the corporation demands, Mourinho was ultimately too much of a guarantee to ignore.

Of those who have managed a measure of longevity in the English top-flight, the vast majority has plied their trade in the lower leagues. Sam Allardyce famously managed Limerick City before returning to England. His ascension to the English job comprised tenures at Preston North End, Blackpool and Notts County before Bolton Wanderers finally thrust him into the spotlight. Harry Redknapp guided Bournemouth from the brink of relegation to the Division 3 title in 1987. Tony Pulis also spent time at Bournemouth before moving to Gillingham and Bristol City. Alan Pardew began at Reading in Division 2. Famously, Claudio Ranieri was at little-known Vigor Lamezia and Puteolana before guiding Cagliari from Serie C to Serie A.

Every manager will aspire to the top jobs, but if a sustained career in the managerial fold is the goal then one must learn their trade. With less straining economic anxieties to contend with, managers tend to be given more time at a lower level.

Time is invaluable in the game and an increasingly rare commodity. Time affords managers the opportunity try different things, acquire a grounded knowledge base, the experience to deal with the inevitable pressures and learn to adjust alongside an ever-evolving game. Such adaptability will be essential to surviving in the Premier League where success must be instant and extraneous concerns are prevalent – fans, the media, transfers and egos.

The likes of Guardiola and Zidane happened to be in the right place at the right time. Old Trafford was no such place for Ryan Giggs. Whether or not he will ever return is anyone’s guess. Many others have departed for pastures new with similar aspirations and simply failed to show the abilities that the job demands – therein will lie Giggs’ primary concern.

But while he will have been undoubtedly devastated, much like a separation, in time he will learn that as difficult as it may have been, it is for the best. Perhaps now he will have a career in management, only it probably won’t ever be in Manchester.

 

 

Furlong Chasing Consistency

As published on Pundit Arena

“To be on the line in the third Test pushing for a series victory, only to let it slip away is something that has plagued me all summer. We also had history in our sights with just 20 minutes to go the week before. I have been looking forward to getting it all out of my system for a while now.”

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For Tadhg Furlong, the summer tour to South Africa was a bittersweet experience. Having come off the bench in the momentous victory in Cape Town, Furlong made his full Test debut a week later opposite Tendai Mtawirra.

For much of the encounter, the Beast struggled to contain the Wexford native in what was a clear demonstration of his Test credentials. At just 23, it seems clear that Furlong can look forward to a long future in the Irish front-row.

After what has seemed to be an all too brief off-season, Furlong and his Leinster colleagues kick-off their campaign on Saturday in the unfamiliar surrounds of Navan RFC (3pm).

“It was a relatively quick turnaround but while South Africa was testing it was also a really enjoyable tour in what is a rugby-mad country. We went on historical trips, on safari, got into the water with sharks and embraced the culture. Then there was the boon of representing my country at the weekend – not a bad complaint!

“From a personal perspective I felt that I had a decent tour. But international rugby is a massive step up. If you are struggling in a Pro 12 fixture, you can generally find a way back out. But if you get caught with a bad engagement or shoulder placement on the Test stage, the power that some of these guys can generate will blow you out of the water.

“I need to find consistency in those technical areas. When I sit down in the next few days to assess my goals for the season, that will be on my list and I’ll shape my training around it. For the moment though we’re barely back in the door after the summer. It’s all about maximising potential gains and putting ourselves in the best physical condition to take on the season.”

While Furlong has made great strides in recent seasons, the evergreen Mike Ross continues to play an important role for both club and country. But as he approaches his 37th birthday, he will know that he can’t fend off Furlong’s challenge forever. For now both men will be happy to continue to share the workload.

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“It’s going to be a demanding season. Our performance in the Champions Cup last year is obviously something we will be looking to improve on this year. It’ll be important to get results early on so that we can build and progress from the group. That has to be the first goal.”

Castres Olympique, Montpellier and Northampton stand in the way of that objective.

In what will be a particularly busy period for Furlong, the New Ross man will be hoping to be involved in a challenging November series with Ireland. While the prospect of fronting up to the three northern hemisphere heavyweights within six months might have once frightened an Irish side, Furlong is excited about the prospect of the Australians and Canadians visiting Dublin, while he is also likely to face down the haka for the first time.

“Given how close the lads came in 2013 we’ll be keen to finally get one over on them [New Zealand]. Of course there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and then but Chicago is looming larger on the horizon. Soldier Field will be a crazy atmosphere as I’ve no doubt that the Irish ex-pat community will make up most of the 80,000 capacity.”

Having coming so close to taking a giant scalp in South Africa, Ireland ultimately left the country with just one win from three. Would an evasive victory against New Zealand redeem their 2016?

“Obviously we will be looking at winning all of those games. If you consider that our squad was missing a lot of senior players in South Africa, we gave a good account of ourselves. Lads had to fill those big shoes and I think that experience will stand us in good stead. We never go into a set of games shooting for a 40% success rate. Irish rugby has to move beyond that.”

After a relaxing few weeks off that included the “greatest tour ever” to Barbados alongside a number of his international colleagues, Furlong now returns to a Leinster fold with a few notable absentees – both Eoin Reddan and Luke Fitzgerald have hung up their boots, Ben Te’o is now at Worcester Warriors while Isaac Boss has returned to his Kiwi roots.

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“Given some of the premature retirements we’ve had recently I think it’s important to start developing skills that will help you adapt to life post-rugby. You never know what’s around the corner – this time last year Kevin McLaughlin was leading Leinster into a new season. I’m looking at my options at the moment.

“I finished my Business degree in DCU three years ago, so I’ve had a decent break from studying. But I’ve an ambition to take my education further now again so that I’m set up whenever that day comes – hopefully not for a long time. The books can actually provide a good distraction from all the rugby.”

By all accounts, Furlong is a keen student and this was evidenced when he sought to master new skills whilst on holiday.

“I struggled to get to grips with wakeboarding! I tried it a load of times and just couldn’t manage to stay up. But I couldn’t leave the place until I did. When it finally happened, it might have been so quick that the lads may have missed it but it was certainly satisfying! It’s actually getting bigger in Wexford, so maybe one day I’ll get back to it!”

With such determination and a thirst for knowledge, Furlong looks set to take his young career to new heights this season.

For more information on Tadhg Furlong, check out his new website: tadhgfurlong.com

Mourinho’s Misfits

As published on Pundit Arena

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Given José Mourinho’s treatment of Juan Mata last weekend, it became eminently clear that the Portuguese has not arrived at Old Trafford to make friends. His stern expression ever since his appointment was announced suggests that he is a man on a mission.

As with all of his previous roles, Mourinho has a definitive plan that he will seek to implement. If a player cannot adapt or abide by his instructions, then there will be only one place for them – Manchester Piccadilly train station.

It seems certain that several players will pass through the exit door in the coming weeks. Paul Pogba’s expensive acquisition requires it. While David Moyes performed meekly in the transfer market, Louis van Gaal stepped up the game in signing the likes of Angel di Maria, Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo for considerable sums. Meanwhile, several stalwarts of the Ferguson era found themselves on the scrapheap. It was a substantial turnover of playing staff.

Van Gaal adopted the same approach the following year. Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Anthony Martial all became Red Devils, whilst Tom Cleverley, Robin van Persie, Nani, Rafael, Jonny Evans and Di Maria were excused.

Of those who were plying their trade in red when Pogba was last at the club, only five senior players remain: David de Gea, Phil Jones, Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young. The landscape of Manchester United has been changing for the past number of years and more will surely come to pass through the exit door.

 

Victor Valdes

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Widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the history of Barcelona, Valdes joined United following his rehabilitation from a knee injury in January 2015. While the Spaniard was never expected to oust David de Gea from the number one jersey, he was a most capable deputy. However, after refusing to play in a reserve fixture, Valdes was banished from Louis van Gaal’s first team. A loan spell at Standard Liege soon followed, before Jose Mourinho finally signed off on his departure to Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough in July.

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Donald Love

One of ‘Louis’ Lads’, Love made a promising debut albeit in the 2-1 defeat to Sunderland last February. While he started in a depleted side against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League the following week, the simultaneous development of Guillermo Varela hampered the young Scot’s first-team prospects. Love is set to follow Paddy McNair to the Stadium of Light for a fee thought to be £1 million, while Varela is now at Eintracht Frankfurt on a season-long loan.

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Cameron Borthwick-Jackson

Another to have been promoted by Van Gaal, Borthwick-Jackson prospered on account of Luke Shaw’s unfortunate injury last season. While Mourinho has claimed that he has given 49 youth players their first-team debuts, there is a sense that he will continue put his faith in those he feels are ready to do a job. Borthwick-Jackson, despite signing a contract keeping him at the club until 2020, is not quite at that stage yet. With Shaw’s return, allied to the ability of Darmian to cover the left-hand side of defence, it is likely that the youngster will be offered out on loan this campaign.

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Paddy McNair

An unlikely hero at the outset of Van Gaal’s tenure, McNair suffered a sudden fall from grace after a disappointing first-half performance at Southampton in December 2014. The Dutchman later claimed that it was McNair’s lack of confidence thereafter that precluded him from the first team for the rest of the season, and he has only made a handful of appearances ever since. Nevertheless, his contributions to Northern Ireland’s journey to Euro 2016 have ensured that he was not going to be forgotten entirely. He is set to make a £5 million switch to David Moyes’ Sunderland for the coming season.

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Marcos Rojo

Eternally linked with a move away from the club, Rojo’s off-field antics have not endeared him to the Old Trafford hierarchy. Signed by Van Gaal for £16 million from Sporting Lisbon, the Argentine has struggled to hold down a place in the starting XI. Last year, Rojo failed to appear for United’s pre-season tour following his international commitments at the Copa America, prompting Van Gaal to offer him to AS Monaco as a makeweight in the Anthony Martial deal. Mourinho would appear to carry a similar opinion of the defender and was apparently left incensed when Rojo recently turned down a £12 million move to Shanghai SIPG, who are managed by Sven Goran-Eriksson.

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Phil Jones

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Once hailed as the new Duncan Edwards, Jones has fallen far short of the future that beckoned when he first emerged on the scene at Blackburn Rovers in 2009 at 18 years of age. Given his no nonsense approach, Jones is the type of defender that Mourinho arguably requires. While Eric Bailly is a tremendous athlete and Chris Smalling an ever-improving defender, the loss of Nemanja Vidic has been keenly felt by the Old Trafford faithful. However, Jones badly needs to stamp out the errors that have strewn his game time in recent years and must shift the liability tag that has consequently followed. There had been suggestions that Steve Bruce was keen to offer him a shot at redemption at Hull City, but whether Mike Phelan, as his likely replacement, chooses to explore that option is unknown.

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Bastien Schweinsteiger

As Germany’s fourth-capped player of all-time, Schweinsteiger’s recent demotion to the reserves suggests that the World Cup winner will not be at Old Trafford for much longer – provided a suitor can be found. Schweinsteiger’s injury troubles have been well documented to the point that Pep Guardiola claimed that he has not been fit enough for several years. Last season, the veteran managed just 18 appearances for Van Gaal’s team. Bayern Munich have reportedly expressed an interest in taking their former captain back, but significant wage demands may prove to be a stumbling block.

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Ashley Young

A loyal servant throughout his time in Manchester, Young’s ability has often been a divisive point of conversation in the Stretford End. Arriving with aplomb in 2011, Young’s United career reached stratospheric heights following his role in the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal. However, neither Young nor the management have managed to find a full-time position for the 30-times capped England international. Indeed, more often than not Young has been asked to fill a void on the pitch and has appeared as a makeshift right-back, left-back, central midfielder and striker during his time. Rumours of his impending departure have intensified in recent days when he was spotted on the train to London, with Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace believed to be his destination.

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James Wilson

Having suffered the ignominy of being overlooked last season when Van Gaal was shorn of a strike force, a further nail in Wilson’s Old Trafford coffin arrived when the promising youngster failed to receive a squad number for the coming season under Mourinho. As United faced an uncertain period at what was a crucial juncture of the season last February, there were widespread calls for Van Gaal to recall Wilson from Brighton & Hove Albion. With only Anthony Martial and the inexperienced Will Keane at his disposal, it seemed like a wise decision. However, Van Gaal, as is his wont, went in a different direction, promoting the unknown Marcus Rashford to the first team. Rashford, of course, quickly became a revelation and nobody spoke of Wilson again. Now, with Rashford, Martial, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Memphis Depay all being employed in the central striking areas, Wilson must finally say goodbye to Old Trafford for good.

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Juan Mata

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There are contrasting views on Juan Mata’s situation in Manchester. While José Mourinho sold him to David Moyes in 2014 under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, there is a belief that the Portuguese may be willing to hold onto the fans’ favourite on this occasion. Yet, following his introduction and swift hooking by Mourinho at Wembley last week, it is hard to deny that Mata remains under scrutiny. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s arrival, allied to the likely deployment of Wayne Rooney in a deeper position, Mata – who was recently omitted from Spain’s Euro 2016 squad – may have to take things into his own hands and prompt a transfer. At almost 29 years of age, he will know that time on the Old Trafford bench will not be something he will look back fondly upon.

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Adnan Januzaj

Having endured a difficult time during Van Gaal’s first season, Januzaj looked set to redeem himself in the following campaign when he scored his first goal for over a year to defeat Aston Villa in August 2015. However, just two weeks later the Belgian found himself on his way to Borussia Dortmund. Over the course of the next five months, Januzaj only managed to start three games in the Bundesliga and was recalled to Manchester in January 2016. Having made such a promising impact upon his introduction to the first team under Moyes, Januzaj’s stuttered career has disappointed many. Nevertheless, his potential has not deserted him. While Mourinho may have already decided that the Belgian’s career lies elsewhere in the future, he maybe given one more chance to prove that he is of some economic value in a temporary arrangement.