The 2010 Scandinavian Championship began in earnest on Saturday last in Copenhagen and much like last year’s, this wasn’t for the faint hearted. With the competition boosted by the forming of Oslo and Stockholm GAA clubs, last year’s champions, Malmo, were sure to have a tough defence of their crown.
A dry, still day greeted the clubs to the western shores of the Oresund and with throw in at an early 11am the time for catching up with friend and foe alike was at a premium. The opening fixture was between defending champions Malmo and last year’s kings of Europe, Copenhagen. This match was to serve up one of the most physical bouts of the day with the neighbours going at it hammer and tongs.
Malmo drew first blood with opening scores from Noel Grehan and Mark Rattigan. They seemed to settle quicker but this Copenhagen side is made of stern stuff and had other ideas. With Malmo trying to utilise their tried and trusted formula of passing and working fast ball up the park, Copenhagen were quick to spoil and capitalise on the lost possession. Their much more direct style of play gained some nicely taken scores as well as disrupted the Malmo strategy. Copenhagen were on the up-swing in the second half but due to superb displays from Aidan O’Reilly, Dave Loughnane and in particular Simmi Josteinsson their efforts were thwarted. The introduction of David Page-Brown added a bit of urgency to the Malmo forward line and this was boosted by Martin Long and Brian Boyd who played well in the engine room and helped force more scores for Malmo. Despite the Copenhagen pressure, Malmo ran out victors by the slimmest of margins 0-5 to 0-4. Next up, Stockholm.
Having suffered a scare at the hands of their neighbours, one would think Malmo would pull together and try harder as a unit. This proved true for the opening half of this encounter but Stockholm, this year’s young pretenders, had a message to send out to the four corners of Scandinavia. With captain Denis O’Riordan opting to play with what little breeze the ground offered the ball was thrown in for what many believed may be the decider for the top spot. Again Malmo began rightly with passing between O’Riordan, Boyd and Rattigan unlocking the Stockholm rearguard. Page-Brown, one of the latest to pick up the round ball for the Oresund men, was also making a nuisance of himself and picked up a score from a tight angle for his efforts. Again, Josteinsson at the back proved a thorn in the Stockholm side. With possession and chances being spurned by both sides it was still all to play for at the half.
A coolly taken goal in the opening seconds of the second half by Conor Moynihan had the game firmly in Malmo’s hands but this team seem slow to learn some hard truths from last year; Small pitches and short halves make for handy scoring from quick counter attacks. A lot had been made of this Stockholm side before the first ball had been thrown in and they showed why after this setback. Stockholm regrouped and with some nice hand passing soon scored a goal of their own. Malmo didn’t seem to have a reply and from here Stockholm raised the white flag three more times in quick succession. Malmo surged again but Stockholm were firmly in the driving seat at this stage and rallied for a late point to finish with a scoreline of 1-6 to 1-3. The men from the Swedish capital had surely thrown down the gauntlet.
Gothenburg proved tricky opposition last year for the reigning champions and last Saturday was to be no exception. Despite travelling with a weakened side they had shown a lot of skill and ruthlessness in front of goal in their opening games. The Malmo manager Dave Fahy rang in the changes for this clash, tactically with one eye on a possible deciding duel with either Copenhagen or Stockholm. O’Riordan was moved to the more familiar half back position with Loughnane in at full forward. On too came Shane Doherty at corner back with Josteinsson pushing to the half slot. Newcomer Sami Mohammed picked up his second championship start as did Tipperary native Pat Phelan. Having lost their goal keeper, Jorg Pareigis, due to injury Moynihan stepped between the sticks for the men in green. Gothenburg were never going to let this go easily and from the outset hassled and harried the Malmo troops. O’Riordan flourished in the half back role and played some clever ball to Phelan who picked up his first score in the Malmo colours. Again Loughnane proved his worth at top of the left to set up further scores for Long and Grehan. Despite a two goal cushion Malmo’s defending made life difficult for themselves and it wasn’t long before Moynihan was forced to make a fine point blank save after an excellent Gothenburg break from midfield. Doherty led by example and on two occasions broke up play in his own full back line which led to Malmo scores. O’Riordan, bringing his running game to the fore linked up well with Page-Brown to turn another slate for the Malmo men. Gothenburg rallied again but fine performances from Phelan, O’Reilly and the effervescent Josteinsson were enough to see off the men from the West. Joe Whelan, Sami and Grehan also accounted well for themselves as did Boyd. The final score here was 0-5 to 0-4. Another tight finish, with Malmo the victors despite a gutsy performance from Gothenburg.
Oslo , the other newcomers to this competition, lay in wait for the Skåne side in the last match of the round robin. They had already achieved the unenviable tag of whipping boys earlier in the day but with Malmo serving up the best and worst of football all day they were not being taken lightly. Again Fahy tactfully sent on fresh legs as in the prevouis game. Sami began to operate around the centre with Boyd; Long in as target man and Grehan roving on the 50. Again Doherty was in the backline but this time on the half. With Boyd in fine fettle all day for the Southerners he combined well with Long and Grehan to prise open the tired Oslo defence. O’Riordan and Phelan also put together combinations leading to scores for the Tipp man. With Calle Hellman in at top of the right his give and go game was causing problems for the Norwegians. Another debutante, Hellman proved he can be a handful for the tightest marker. He was unlucky not to be on the scoring end of some tidy passing moves. With O’Reilly mopping up everything at the back, Doherty was also staking a claim for starting place in the final should it come about. Despite travelling with a far from strong side, Oslo did play some nice football and were unlucky when a possible goal chance was spurned at the top of the left. Malmo did eventually run out comfortable winners 0-8 to 0-1 while Oslo were doomed to the wooden spoon.
All eyes turned now to the clash of Copenhagen and table toppers Stockholm. A win for the hosts would see them through to the final on points difference over Malmo but Stockholm won this contest to set up an all Sweden decider.
With an hour until the final, Fahy had ample time to discuss strategy with selector O’Reilly. The new kid on the block, Hellman, nominated himself for goals, never an easy thing to do, and applied himself to his duties with gusto. Moynihan formed the second to last line of defence with O’Reilly, with Loughnane and O’Riordan lining out on the 50. Again Long flanked Boyd i lar na pairce with Rattigan, Page-Brown and Josteinsson making up a three man half forward line. Grehan was chosen in the full forward slot having shone there all day.
At the time for throw in, the sun was casting a log shadow from the West and although this was billed as a 30 minute affair the teams agreed on a 20 minute game, fatigue being the overriding factor.
Long immediately had an impact on proceedings when a cheeky hand pass set O’Riordan off through the centre. A neatly played ball to the chest of Grehan followed and from his trusty right boot the Longford man scored the opener. Some excellent fielding by Boyd in the centre led to an interchange with Page-Brown and Grehan with the ball finally being cleverly punched over the bar by Long to raise the white flag. Long had been blowing hot and cold all day but was finally coming into his own.
Stockholm broke some Malmo possession midway through the half and working in groups with their patented hand passing worked a nicely taken score. 0-2 to 0-1 to the Southerners. Stockholm threatened further but O’Reilly and Loughnane spoiled on the 21 forcing the ball wide. Half time came and this was still in the melting pot and all to play for.
The men in green and gold certainly had their tails up but as was evident earlier in the day you write this Stockholm side off at your peril. With Grehan now roaming on the 40, Josteinsson found himself in an acre of space from a great ball over the top from Boyd. Having beaten his man he failed to capitalise and sent the ball wide. Grehan was causing all sorts of problems now as were Boyd, Long and Moynihan, Boyd’s flamboyance matched only by his shorts. O’Riordan and Rattigan worked well on the left, the Meath man creating for Grehan and this sent Malmo two for the good with the finish in sight. Stockholm replied but Malmo broke from the kick out and turned another slate. With a slender two point gap nerves and frustration were showing on both sides. This, however, was soon to be put to bed. Following a foul on Moynihan, a build up began on Malmo’s 40 and down the right flank with the ball ending up in the hands of the crafty Page-Brown. A glance at the posts was all he needed when he let fly with a point good enough to have graced Pairc ui Caoimh or Croke Park alike. This had the Oresunders up by three and sent their following into rapturous applause. The resulting kick out was caught by the Malmo captain, O’Riordan and with that the referee blew a halt to proceedings in Copenhagen, Malmo taking the spoils and so ending the tale of two cities.
While much can be made of the Malmo win there were many more lessons to be learned on the day. Stockholm, Copenhagen and Gothenburg are no mugs and Oslo can surely only be on the up swing. These will all be different, stronger teams for the next outing in Malmo on June 19thand will have taken some positives from the opening round. With the supplementing of their teams they will be putting a heavy shoulder to the doors at Fortress Malmo. As for Malmo, one swallow doesn’t make a summer but for now, with a slight advantage over the challengers for their crown, they’ve earned their day in what little sun the Oresund region can afford.
Thanks to all the Malmo members both on and off the field for the huge effort put in to bring the cup back home.
Thanks also to the other clubs for their participation, especially Copenhagen for hosting the event and hope to see you all in Malmo on June 19th.