Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Year in Sports

The businessmen who run Croke Park are not noted for their wit. A pity; should it be a thing that Dublin win a fourth All-Ireland title in a row, wouldn’t it be funny if the traditional post-match playing of Molly Malone were swapped for Linda Ronstadt’s rather super cover of the Everly Brothers’ classic When Will I Be Loved? It would seem to strike the correct note.

The apparent disdain in which the team is held isn’t easy to understand. Pilar Caffrey’s Dublin, with their notorious Blue Book, were difficult to love. But the Gilroy / Gavin generation are the real deal. They are legit in every way a GAA team can be legit, and yet still Ireland withholds its heart.

Part of this may be jealousy. It would be nice to think there’s more too it than that, but there probably isn’t. Would Kerry of the Golden Years be held in the same regard as they are had they not be rendered mortal by Offaly in 1982?

When Meath were in their dark pomp in the 1980s they were hated. Has time humanised them, or was it the loss to Down (not to take anything away from that fine Down team) in 1991 that had the same humanising effect on them as Offaly’s win had on Kerry?

Those greybeards who remember when snooker was a big deal may remember Steve Davis was never loved until he was past his prime; then he became the Grand Old Man of the Green Baize. Is Ireland waiting on Dublin to lose, to return to the mortal realm, before forgiving them for being so much better than the rest? And when is that to happen, exactly?

Reader, I’m damned if I know. Mayo are in pole position among the challengers for the crown, but the trauma of thinking about my own beloved county actually winning an All-Ireland and all that would imply would reduce your correspondent to writing with crayons on greaseproof paper behind high walls and under medical supervision, so let’s not go there just yet, while the season of brotherhood and goodwill is still with us.

The reality is that it is hard to make a case for anyone living with Dublin, to say nothing of beating them. Leinster is a wasteland and, no more than Mayo, Monaghan and Tyrone can only knock on the door for so long.

Kerry remain Kerry, of course, and the impact of the disgraceful Super 8s remains to be seen, but it’s very hard to imagine any team better suited to a Super 8 structure than the current Dublin setup. Tradition, legend, values – may I introduce you to the Almighty Dollar? God help us all.

When historians get around to recording and passing judgement on these changing times, will the publication of Jackie Tyrell’s book be seen as the most significant event of 2017 in hurling? We’ve waited for over a decade for an insight into Kilkenny in the Cody era. Now we have it, does it take from the achievements of that great team? At what stage is a title not worth winning? At what stage can you say a team has gone too far, and it becomes necessary to remind people that sport isn’t life and death; sport is what we concern ourselves with when we need a break from life and death. It’s something to think about.

As Gaelic Games slide further from shamatuerism to fully-blown professionalism, it’s interesting – and horrifying – to look at rugby, which has been professional for 22 years. What has survived, what has thrived, and what has gone by the wayside.

Who would have thought, for instance, that domestic French rugby would set the standard for the world game, and that this club standard would come at the expense of the French national team, once the personification of a way of looking at the world that is quintessentially French?

The current situation cannot last, but what will come in its place nobody knows. The fruits of the banal weekly brutality of the professional game is also a harvest that has yet to be gathered, and will not be nice when it is. Dónal Lenihan made this point very well in his very thoughtful and under-estimated autobiography, released last year.

The Lions Tour, once described by the late Frank Keating as a cross between a school tour and a medieval crusade, was one of those institutions marked for doom when the game went professional, but went from strength to strength instead. On the balance sheet, anyway; neither the heads nor the hearts of fans seem quite sure what to make of the Lions, just as they don’t quite know where club competitions, Six Nations Tournaments and World Cups fit in relative to each other. In the light of Seán O’Brien’s strident opinion of the second-most successful Lions tour of New Zealand in over 110 years, maybe even the players are struggling to keep up. Or it could be all those bumps to the head, of course.

Rugby fans in Ireland are at a particular disadvantage as Irish rugby journalists take the notion of fans-with-typewriters to new depths. What Martin O’Neill wouldn’t do for the coverage Joe Schmidt gets, even though Martin O’Neill has nothing like the talent available to Schmidt.

Certainly, Schmidt’s artisanal style of rugby has never got the abuse that O’Neill’s hearts-on-their-sleeves, lead-in-their-boots soccer team habitually get, even though Schmidt has a better selection. And that’s not even counting the chaps who make Michael Flatley of the Clan Flatley seem as Irish as the very Blarney Stone itself.