Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Sports: Review and Preview

A year when Kerry won the football and Kilkenny the hurling does not sound like a year of revolution in Irish sport. And neither was it, really. Kerry have been béal-bochting all year about how this was their best All-Ireland yet because no-one gave them a chance, but the nation might be well-advised to take that with a pinch of salt. The 1975 team weren’t expected to win that All-Ireland either, and they turned out to be pretty handy in the end.

But the question of how long can this keep going on is getting more and more urgent in football. Ulster is the only competitive provincial Championship now. Connacht may be next year, or it may not. Leinster will be a parade, and Munster the usual two-handed set. This isn’t good for anybody, but how it’s to be remedied is the Gordian Knot of the GAA.

Two solutions get the most media airings. The first is a dual-Championship, for haves and have-nots. The second is a Champions-League style thing, because the Group games in the Champions League are always such heart-stopping affairs.

Neither of these solutions is acceptable, because both work against the very spirit of the GAA. The spirit of the GAA is representation of where you’re from, and competing against your neighbours. The GAA is not a professional sport, and neither are the inter-county competitions the be-all and end-all of the Association. If anything, they are brocade and it will be a bleak day for the Association if that is ever forgotten.

In an interview on the invariably excellent Second Captains podcast, former Roscommon goalkeeper and aspirant All-Ireland-winning Roscommon manager, Shane Curran, reckoned that for Roscommon to win an All-Ireland, one million Euro will have to spent every year for fifteen years to raise standards to that of the elite counties.

Reader, if the Association spent more time wondering how winning All-Irelands costs one million a year for fifteen years than worrying about Rachel Wyse and Sky’s threat to the Purity of the Gael, it might come a lot closer to finding out why the Provincial Championships aren’t competitive any more.

It is an interesting thing that hurling remains free of accusations of creeping professionalism, uncompetitive provincial Championships and cynical play. After fifty years without a drawn All-Ireland hurling final, we’ve now had two-in-a-row and each final since the Tipperary revival of 2009 has been hailed as the greatest-ever.

Would it be monstrous to wonder about this? Is there a case to be made that the hurling Emperor isn’t quite dressed for the weather? The back-door may be a pox on football, further punishing and humiliating the weaker counties for whom it was theoretically introduced, but at least people can understand it. The complex steps of the hurling Championship are like a puzzle escaped from a cryptologists’ laboratory.

For all its faults, there is general consensus that come the August Bank Holiday, the best eight teams in the country are still in competition for Sam. Can the same be said for Liam, or could the best team fall in Munster and then die the death of a thousand cuts in the purgatorial struggles of the hurling back door?

Such complexities are far beyond a Mayoman’s understanding, of course, but is it time hurling people started to wonder aloud?

The other sport about which the nation seems to be labouring under a particular delusion is rugby. The sports page previews this week will speculate about Ireland’s chances as an outside bet to win the Rugby World Cup, which will be held in England’s green and pleasant land next autumn.

Reader, Ireland have never won a World Cup playoff game in the seven times the competition has been held, including two years, 1999 and 2007, when Ireland couldn’t even get out of their group. The Irish rugby public should think about crawling before thinking about walking.

Will the World Cup be worth watching? An unthinkable question once, but getting more and more relevant now. The best sports columnist in Ireland, Keith Duggan of the Irish Times, wondered recently if rugby hasn’t become a brilliantly-coached bore in recent years, and a perusal of the stats solidify that case.

The former Welsh out-half, Barry John, once said that he could tell how a game would go simply by looking at how the out-half handled the ball in warm-ups. In the amateur game, the out-half dictated the game from his regal throne standing-off the scrum. Now, the only thing that separates out-halves is competence. There are thin degrees of difference between them at international level, but they’re like the thousandths of a second that separate cars in Formula One. Too miniscule to take seriously.

Rugby Union is now a game of continual tackling in defense and not turning over possession in offense. Tackling has become the be-all and end-all of the game that sneaky attackers are now making sure they get tackled, in order to turn the laws to their advantage, as Will Greenwood noted in the Telegraph.

Union may dominate League in England since Union turned professional twenty years ago – the RFU’s turnover is four times that of the RFL – but League’s influence over Union has proved so strong that the codes are closer than they have been in over one hundred years. Good news for the stand-up, pay-up moneymen coining it at every turn, but for what the French used to call la gloire? A victim to progress, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Examiner's Top Forty Irish Sports Books

What marvellous food for thought the Examiner has given us in publishing a list of the top forty Irish sports books. It would be churlish to argue with the ordering of the list, as no two lists will ever have the same order. But there is much to be gleaned from the list about who we are, the sports we watch and how we chronicle them.

The first thing that strikes you about the list is how much it is dominated by the GAA. Eighteen of the forty books listed are GAA-themed. This is astonishing, as Paddy is not a man who has ever liked to go on the record. Paddy felt strongly this way against the Invader, but he feels no less so against the notebook and the Bic biro.

In a culture where omerta rules, how can we get eighteen books about the GAA at all, to say nothing of saying those eighteen are among the best forty of all time?

Well. Firstly, the list betrays a certain bias towards the recent – twenty of the forty books were published in the past nine years, and thirteen of the eighteen GAA books on the list were published after 2005.

This is not to say that some of the books aren’t deserving of their position; of course they are. But is fair to presume that, were the list compiled again in ten years’ time, the position of these books relative to each other will change.

For instance, Michael Foley’s The Bloodied Field, published in the past two months, is 23rd on the list, behind Eamon Sweeney’s The Road to Croker, Dónal Óg Cusack’s Come What May and others. This is the last time Foley’s book will be listed so low, while some of the others ahead of it will be folded back into the mists of time.

The other astonishing thing about the list is relative absence of horse racing and rugby. Horse-racing books can run to a specialist interest, but rugby has traditionally been a well-documented sport – it’s origins in the English public schools make that inevitable. Rugby has also undergone a popularity surge in Ireland as couldn’t have been imagined even as Brian O’Driscoll ran in his three tries in Paris in 2000.

In the light of this, it’s odd that, not only are there so few good books on rugby (as opposed to player autobiographies, say), but the rugby book that is head and shoulders above the other two is about a game that was played in 1978.

The books that top the list are also a bit odd. According to the Examiner list, the five best Irish sportsbooks ever written are Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride, Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Eamon Dunphy’s (first) autobiography, Michael Foley’s Kings of September and Tony Cascarino’s autobiography.

Four out of those five books do not make for jolly reading (all five, if you’re from Kerry). As a matter of fact, you would wonder why anyone would either play or follow sports at all if all that awaits them is what befell Kimmage, McGrath, Dunphy and Cascarino (and Micko, again, only if you live in Kerry).

There is no reason to let sport loom large in your life if the sport itself is the be-all and end-all. We follow sports for what they represent as much, if not more than, the sport itself.

At one level the 1982 All-Ireland football final was thirty grown men chasing a ball in the rain. At another level, it was Greek tragedy brought to life, as those who would think themselves equal to the gods were cut down by Fate. You don’t get much drama like that to the dollar, and that’s one of the reasons why we follow sports as we do.

Breandán Ó hEithir’s GAA memoir, Over the Bar, languishes at number 19 in the Examiner list. On my own list, it’s Number One. Other books show were sport fits in with history. Over the Bar shows where the GAA fits in with the Irish soul. An extraordinary, inspired book and essential reading for students of sport, of Ireland and of writing.

In the print edition of the Examiner list, Over the Bar is compared to a compilation of work by PD Mehigan, published at the same time as Ó hEithir’s book, 1984. Mehigan, who wrote under the pen-name Carbery, was one of the first GAA journalists and a man with a prolific output. But to compare his writing to Ó Eithir’s is to compare water with wine.

FOCAL SCÓR: William Hamilton Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West, first published in 1832, should be on any list of great Irish sports books. Maxwell was something of a rake, who took a holiday from smokey London to do a bit of huntin', shootin' and fishin' in the West of Ireland. The prose in the book is, like Maxwell himself, rich and exuberant. For instance, Maxwell quotes from a contemporary tourist guide as to what exactly Connaught is like:

It lieth under a dark gray cloud, which is evermore discharging itself on the earth, but, like the widow's curse, is never exhausted. It is bounded on the south and east by Christendom and part of Tipperary, on the north by Donegal, and on the west by the salt say.

Now that’s writin’.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Ansbacher - Time to Publish, and Be Damned

Mary Lou McDonald may have impugned the august dignity of Dáil Éireann yesterday, but she has done the plain people of Ireland some service in doing it.

The entire political establishment has known the names on this infamous Ansbacher list for some time; now, thanks to Deputy McDonald, so do we. The plain people of Ireland, for one brief moment, are in with the In Crowd, and now know what the In Crowd knows. Or at least, some of it.

Will anything come of yesterday’s events? Who knows? If the Ansbacher list is just a list of unfounded allegations, then nothing will come of it, and all this will be quickly forgotten by history.

If the Ansbacher list is the goods on the most base corruption at the heart of Irish politics, the question then arises why Mary Lou didn’t drive the blade home and quote chapter and verse on the hows and whys of the thing?

The most likely scenario is that Mary Lou does not have the goods on these allegations, and is simply lobbing a high ball into the square, on the odds-against chance of it falling her way before being swallowed up by the full-back.

This would certainly make Mary Lou guilty of an abuse of Dáil privilege, and question her standing as a parliamentarian. But then, as the current Government cares not one whit for the Dáil, as demonstrated by its eagerness to guillotine debate and to run the country by the four-person junta that is the Economic Management Council, parliamentarian isn’t the title it once was.

It is interesting that, in this moment in history where we worship “whistle-blowers” – reader, do you remember one article that ever doubted Garda McCabe or ex-Garda Wilson, that ever wondered if these guys were just doing a dog even a biteen? No; me neither – isn’t it remarkable that nobody has sat down with Mr Ryan, the current whistle-blower, with a microphone, notebook and ballpoint pen?

The Irish libel laws are incorrectly balanced in the way they favour the establishment over the right to speak out and to question, so this makes the press a little more cautious than it ought to be. The fact that the journalism industry is currently falling apart like a three-dollar suit bought in Bangkok doesn’t help either.

But in abusing the privilege of that august chamber, Dáil Éireann, Deputy McDonald has opened a window for the journalists of Ireland to earn their corn. David Davin-Power reported on the Nine O’Clock News last night that Gerard Ryan’s report to Mary Harney is seven-hundred-pages long. So now it’s time to go through that report, and start seeing if things add up or if they don’t.

Why not publish it on-line, so we all can read it? Maybe it will be some enterprising Citizen Journalist who finally cracks the case.

Either result is fine, funnily enough. If Mr Ryan is simply an obsessive or a fantasist who can’t let this thing go, we ought to know. We ought to know for the good names of those who are currently under suspicion, and we ought to know so people aren’t completely gullible about conspiracy theories.

And if Mr Ryan is correct in his allegations, then we know that biggest lie of all throughout the 2011 election campaign was that not all politicians are the same. We will know they are exactly the same, and that we must find a new way of selecting politicians, the old one being clearly exposed as not fit for purpose.

The plain people of Ireland are in the slips, straining at the start. Time to turn finally open those closets, and see what comes tumbling out.