The truth is a good story spoiled

The truth is a good story spoiled

(First published in the Western People in September 2018)

How would you describe your typical modern-day sports fan?

They’re opinionated for a start. Opinions are the by-product of the echo chamber social media has culitvated – an environment enabling all to air their views before the widest of audiences.

Gone are the days, when asked of their opinion on the weekend’s game, the humble sports nut would point to the fact that they had yet to read Con Houlihan’s post-game ramblings.

But while modern sports fans are certainly more opinionated – nothing wrong with that – they can be prone to changing their minds. From feeling so passionate from one perspective in one instance, they can be found shuffling to join another viewpoint almost just as quickly.

Sports fans these days, as knowledable as they are on an expanding range of accessible sports, can be found jumping to conclusions, no matter what the topic, ad nauseam.

Like the polygraph needle assessing the pleas of a chocolated-faced toddler, adament of their innocence in the investigation to see who tampered with the freshly-baked mousse, sports fans’ opinions are eternally flip-flopping.

In fact that’s a little harsh – given the comparison can stretch as far as journalists on occasion, too. “One man’s remorse is another man’s reminesence” were the prudent words of Ogden Nash – excuse the schmaltz – though the words’ relevancy seem to fade with every passing day in today’s sporting spheres.

We are all guilty, at times, of sturggling to figure out whether we should be remorseful or reminiscent and as we rush to figure it out, we forget to, at least, make an attempt to gather all the facts. A quick stroll through a social media timeline would prove as much.

In the helter-skelter comings-and-goings of contemporary sporting discourse, there’s no time to manufancture opinions with all the facts at hand. Instead, we often rush to the side of the argument we have stumbled upon first, before defecting to the other side with the masses upon the emergence of further facts. Naturally, this can lead to a torrent of noise with substance intertwined sparingly somwehere in between.

Yet another volte-face is likely as a given story develops further while the substance retreats deeper into the dissying conflagration of – often – uninformed discussion.

The Mayo ladies saga is just a singular case in point. In contrast to a political debate where the public can align themselves to one side of a debate – however mind-numbing it may be – and argue their viewpoints, the ire of sports fans – and at times the Fourth Estate – can alter as the various parties take to the podium.

Many of us took umbrage at Peter Leahy a number of weeks ago, before quickly focusing the scope in the direction of the departed players once the manager emerged with his own take on events.

In hindsight, the logical approach would be listening to both sides of the argument before making informed decisions. Alas, we find ourselves regularly opting for a different approach.

It’s a trend which translates right across the majority of sporting stories or, at least, every story which has more than one perspective attached to it.

Yet what many – not all – arguing factions have failed to grasp is an understanding of today’s news cycle where the fight to control the narrative, enabling you to fit into Nash’s reminensce category and have a positive light shed on your corner, is as vicious and vigourous as ever.

In the same aforementioned county, the outgoing men’s manager Stephen Rochford stole the march on the county board, accumulating a swell of support in the process when leaving his position. There was no such outcries, to a certain degree, calling for the officials to give their account of the story which, in turn, insinuated their guilt. Nevertheless the outgoing manager continues to receive a deluge of support despite the fact that many of the jigsaw pieces remain missing.

The boom of social media, with the hive of hysteria it brings along with it, hasn’t exactly hindered such developments. Seen by some as an information hub where people can extract the news they desire, online discourse has become more reminiscent of an Abbot and Costello sketch. Everyone’s confidence in their own hasty views as facts inevitably just leads to confusion.

These past few months, which must eventually go down as one of the most scandal-strewn in recent memory for sport, have served as a timely reminder that tweets don’t equate to facts.

How many of us jumped to the defence of Serena Williams and everything she stands for after the US Open before reading a single article – or tweet for that matter – forced us to ride the tide to the opposite side?

Shame on Serena. No, shame on the umpire. Wait, what happened again?

And how many of us watched the events unfold before producing said opinion?

Of course disagreement is nothing to be frowned upon, but the rush to form an opinion is a trait becoming all too familiar since the advent of instant news.

But are fans and journalists and casual onlookers to blame for their trigger-happy approach to throwing out opinions? Well, of course they are. But sports stars can still escape the brunt of much of the confusion – not all – with a little more transparency.

Unfortunately for sports stars, a lack of privacy comes with the territory these days and they face an inconvenient predicament: share the facts or let the silence lead to assumptions which, more often than not, don’t favour the tight-lipped. While they are entitled to remain silent their taciturn approach will only draw more attention to something they, more than likely, wanted quenched.

The pitchforks were out for Declan Rice before we were all reminded of Roy Keane’s tendencies. Should we have joined the dots a little earlier? Perhaps the national team’s assistant manager had nothing to do with Rice withdrawing from the panel but should we have all jumped upon the shamrock-clad bandwagon deriding the young West Ham player so quick all the same? He has a carer to mind, after all, away from the looming pandemonium in the Irish camp.

We all agreed that what happened Sean Cavanagh was an disgrace by simply looking at his face. For all we knew at that particular moment, he simply slipped down the stairs. But the rush to form an opinion trumps all else – even facts. Perhaps our initial conjecturing of the Sean Cavanagh case will prove right; that’s not to say we struck lucky on this occasion.

We’ve got more wrong than we’ve got right.

Just as we learned upon our high-chairs, there is an onus on us, as the public, to hear both sides of a story, just as there is an onus on journalists to find it.

But with the temptation of social media and a medium for having our voice heard always at our fingertips, there is an onus on those in question to provide us with answers.

Of course, they’re not obliged to. Avoiding the furore, though, requires facts coming sooner rather than later.

 

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We need to crackdown on the leeches

We need to crackdown on the leeches

(First published in the Western People in August 2018)

Calm and composed and unbeaten as a novice, the young colt was a one-way ticket to the bank vault. With the deadpan demeanour of an army lieutenant he shuffled into the stalls with minimal fuss. The same couldn’t be said for his mulish opponents, perhaps subconsciously perturbed by inevitable defeat.

Everything stacked up: this was your quintessential sure-thing. Top jockey aboard an odds-on favourite, yet to put a hoof wrong in a young career – what could possibly go wrong?

The gates flash open and the small field, almost harmoniously, pummel into the moist summer sod as they set out on their seven-furlong trip. Some ran keen, as expected given the age-profile of the race. Not the favourite.

By the end of the second furlong, he had already breezed past his rather skittish opponents, taking up a position at the head of the bunch. Every sinew of muscle from hock to wither and down to fetlock bulged, illustrating the pure unadulterated athletic prowess of the animal, while the aesthetic beauty of forelock and mane, perfectly symmetrical, helped cut a Pegasus-type figure in flight.

Coming round the final bend he comes off the bridle, extending his lead as the galvanised sheets of the grandstand appear on the hill, glistening in the distance like an oasis in the desert, waiting to triumphantly greet an expected winner.

Then, the script crumples. He starts idling, crying out for the haven beyond the line. Sniffing the opportunity, an opponent bolts, ripping up the pristine turf in pursuit of our struggling favourite. Down the final stretch they’re head to head, eyeball to eyeball, both searching strenuously for the winning post.

Not even the racecourse commentator, with that monotone manner, could suppress the palpable nervous energy. Perhaps he, like many behind the whitewashed rails, was clutching to a docket quickly decreasing in value.

To the naked eye, they flash past together. Technology says otherwise: beaten by the length of a hair on the nostril.

And just like that the 50c stake evaporates. The size of the stake, as minimal as it is, still doesn’t prevent your throat from sinking to the pit of your stomach, though the feeling quickly fades when you realise another similarly glorious opportunity presents itself. The laws of mathematics determine a similar result in the next race is almost beyond possibility… I think.

Soon a 50c deficit increases to construct a gaping fiver-sized hole in your online account.

I call it a day, but with great difficulty. I feel robbed and excited and somehow compelled to continue. That’s what it does to you.

I’m a gambling addict, you see.

Because I believe anyone who has ever placed a bet is a gambling addict. Just like anyone who has taken a drink is an alcoholic. Managing these flaws in the personality is an ability which just fluctuates from person to person. It’s a simplistic theory more learned people may completely disregard – and perhaps rightly so – but the buzz it inherently generates has led me to believing in it.

On a recent trip to the local betting office I was reminded of a story involving the famous blind piper, Dinny Delaney. The piper used to travel the country, teaching and playing music, at the beginning of the last century despite his obvious ailment, and to this day his influence is still felt in traditional music circles.

When he visited a place he often stayed a few days, and when he decided to leave the hosts could be found doing everything in their power to convince him to stay, such was the esteem in which he was held.

On more than one occasion, it is said, Delaney’s hosts would pour holy water on his head as he headed out the door. The sprinkling of holy water, it turns out, wasn’t a customary blessing to wish the piper well on his way. Instead, it was hoped the droplets would convince the musician of rain, hence lengthening his sojourn.

Are the modern-day bookmakers all that dissimilar to the crafty hosts of Delaney?

As we seek refuge away from the dankness of the office, with walls adorned with the latest spectacular offer and television screens in a continual cycle of tempting you from your hard-earned cash, the bookies splash the allegorical water on our foreheads in the form of every cunning technique they can conjure. But at least you can escape that prison. There’s no escaping the virtual black hole of online gambling.

On a run-of-the-mill Thursday afternoon earlier this month, I sat at the sports desk, keeping an eye on the racing of the day. Quiet days like this don’t come around very often but when they do I’m somewhat drawn to the only sport available on a midweek afternoon.

You don’t always have to place a bet to appreciate the intricacies of the racing game, as was the case on this day. Personally, I like the thought of possibly coming across the new Frankel and, in years to come, being able to recount seeing him before the rest of the world. Similarly, proud Crossmolina men can boast about witnessing a young Ciaran McDonald, possibly no taller than a hobbit at the time, rattling the onion bag at St Tiernan’s Park with the outside of that seductive left boot.

Likewise, there are probably some that can remember peeping out through the shutters at a young and skinny Ronnie Delaney haring off down the road in Sandymount, while there are certainly more than a few Kerry folk who are sure to remember Dawn Run, galloping past the post for the first time in Tralee with 60-year-old owner Charmain Hill in the driving seat.

I, too, look forward to the day I stumble across the next great while the rest of the world remains oblivious, for the time being. That was the objective, once again, on this particular day. I don’t believe I found the next equine superstar, but I did notice a staggering trend.

Nary a favourite emerged on top from the deluge of races on that given day. Looking back, a total of four hours passed before a favourite passed the post first at any of the meetings. Four hours is a long time; for an addicted gambler it can be a few lifetimes of savings.

Having a wager can create a buzz quite capable of boring a hole through one wall of the bank vault before making way with its contents through another. The list of sports stars with experience of living the horror story of addiction is indeed too long for recollection here. Their stories have been well-documented; the response has been dismal.

Well away from their droll social media humour, the cold-blooded kings of banter have preyed on individuals, destroying lives one wager at a time. They try to camouflage the destruction they cause with banter. Their true nature, however, is undisputed.

As the country with the highest betting losses in Europe what are we doing about it?

More importantly, what are we doing to prevent our children from falling into the same sewer we keep allowing to overflow? Stewart Kenny, co-founder of Paddy Power recently noted that we’re “normalising” online gambling for children. The epidemic becomes a pandemic.

And yet, the political football continues to be kicked around Leinster House, loose change falling from the holes of the gambling regulation pocket. While we await much-needed effective legislation, our change continues to fall into the welcoming coffers of our bookmakers.

The day of expecting a moral compass from those who leech on the vulnerable is gone, if it was ever there to begin with.

Having a wager is no crime, nor should it be. As former NBA star Michael Jordan once noted: “I want people to understand gambling is not a bad thing if you do it within the framework of what it’s meant to be, which is fun and entertaining.”

And the status quo certainly is fun and entertaining… albeit temporarily for us common folk.

As for the glee of our friends setting the odds? There’s nothing temporary about that.

 

 

We’re no country of opportunity when it comes to hurling

We’re no country of opportunity when it comes to hurling

(First published in the Western People in August 2018)

Call it snobbery, or haughtiness, or even downright decadence. But there’s simply no denying it: hurling has risen to assume a position as the sport of kings and lout and every commoner in between. And despite its grand ascension to becoming arguably the best spectator sport in the world, it still finds its begrudgers close to home.

Even I, more renowned for swinging at the air than the sliotar, have been accused of snobbery, though such accusations, one must admit, have been accepted with nothing but pride.

This, you say, is just an excessively large dose of hyperbole. Perhaps it is.

Claiming it as a sport for all certainly is considering accessibility is almost restricted to the burghers of traditional hurling lands in Munster and South Leinster, with some rich pockets of the game elsewhere. It has, however, the capability of reaching such status and most of us, outside of traditional counties, can still acknowledge that this is a sport that is unparalleled in terms of delivering guaranteed ceaseless entertainment for the guts of 80-odd minutes.

Still, ‘hurling snob’ has been a term that has permeated into the Irish psyche, having been bandied about, especially in the dark underbellies of social media, as a slight on our hurling brethren. On our doorstep we have a sport that has dazzled the world since the advent of platforms like YouTube and earlier, and yet many of us just bemoan the manner in which those reasoned observers among us can acknowledge the spectacle they call hurling to be a more enjoyable spectacle than the monstrosity that has been created with the bigger ball, with its defensive systems and handpassing and cynicism and all the rest of the hits.

The development of such viewpoints, a trait which almost seems intrinsically Irish, has been baffling, even for great minds that have gone before us. Sigmund Freud once allegedly noted that the Irish were the only race “for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever”.

As a race we aren’t exactly inclined to figuring out how everything works within our craniums, albeit in this case it appears pretty obvious. Some of those with rigid dispositions away from game that has produced figures like Cú Chulainn and Christy Ring and, by no means least, Johnny Pilkington are living with what they call an inferior complex.

It may be futile to compare sports, or to proclaim one as the ‘nation’s game’ as some in this profession have been found guilty of, but one still feels compelled to make some sort of comparison detailing the current standings of both disciplines.

Put simply, football is to hurling what the primitive cave paintings of France are to the best of the Renaissance. Both draw their admirers but we’re only fooling ourselves by saying they are on par in terms of quality.

And yet, roles could so easily have been reversed. The respective evolutions of the two codes have led us to a point in time where football remains in bleak uncertainty while the small ball code boasts intoxicating – although abundantly untapped – potential.

What’s unfortunate is the manner in which immediate exposure to hurling is restricted to the exclusive club of counties – those currently competing for Liam MacCarthy honours. The year to now has spoilt us by the number of counties with a legitimate chance of capturing the Liam MacCarthy cup, but should eight teams starting out with title ambitions really be considered an embarrassment of riches in a championship format.

We haven’t always been so lucky. Long periods of the last century or so saw competitive hurling confined to even fewer counties in the closed-shop environment it had created for itself.

Between 1940 until 1987, only ten All-Ireland titles went to teams other than Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary and of those only half occurred without the presence of one of the dominant trio. 2013 may have been a false dawn in some respects, yet there has been a continued sense of intense competition since whereby the race for top honours was more open that it had been in years.

Parallels could be drawn between 2013 and 1987; the latter saw Galway win their first title for seven years while Clare’s 2013 triumph is still fresh in the mind. Order was restored briefly after Galway’s second triumph in as many years in 1988 before a frenetic decade, producing six different All-Ireland champions, followed. While Clare, Offaly and Wexford all went on to end famines on the biggest day, a new hunger was reignited in Waterford that saw them become a tour de force in the Munster championship entering the new millennium

The decade witnessed hurling’s revolution years, to paraphrase Sunday Times sportswriter Denis Walsh’s chronicle of the decade, and as we stand it would appear that we aren’t exactly light-years away from a similar period of lustre over the next few years.

The prologue of Walsh’s book details a rather glum day for a Clare hurling team who exited after the first round of the Munster championship at Semple Stadium, against a Waterford side who were far cry from the county of panache and doggedness we know today.

Indeed, Mayo hurlers had beaten the side only six years earlier during the league. The win in Thurles, the Déise’s first in the championship for 39 years, was poignant but it is what happened later on that’s striking.

The recent resurrection of those behind the greater triumvirate tells us is that the coming and going of teams, that usually slot in below the upper echelon, can be cyclical and, therefore, the next few years is likely to throw up some of the vigour and unpredictability the 1990s did. But a lull will inevitably follow.

And when the conveyor belt makes it way around once more which counties will outstretch their arms for a piece of the action? The appetite, unfortunately, is largely lacking in the majority of counties, with preference given to the bigger ball, despite relatively low levels of success in that code, too.

Fears of damaging football seems the only logical reason for hindering the development of hurling, yet Dublin, as a county, have illustrated such fears to be misguided.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the capital’s streets were cluttered with children playing what was seen, in some quarters, as that dreaded foreign abomination. Fast-forward to the current day and you’ll find that most of the footballs from a previous era have been replaced by stick and sliotar.

Hurling is a game Dublin have sought to develop, have done to great success, and have succeeded in doing so without jeopardising the success of football.

When the cycle arrives around again, the capital’s children of this decade look a sure thing to be taking their place in big hurling days at Croke Park. Yet there is reluctance, by and large, in other non-traditional counties.

It would be easy to point the blame towards county boards, but clubs have also failed to take decisive action in offering our children an option.

With this salient apathy we are doing children a disservice; we’re blatantly failing to grant them the opportunity to play hurling should they be inspired by the recent exhibitions on our screens. There needs to be funding, but there also needs to be enthusiasm, and unfortunately both are in short supply for counties like Mayo and over a dozen of their ilk.

Counties like Dublin and Kerry are heading in the right direction, but that still leaves the majority of children in our country deprived of the game. Hurling people may be “snobbish” by the popularity of their game at the moment, but they may have every right to be.

The shame is on others for not applying for club membership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Destinations matter; journeys don’t  

Destinations matter; journeys don’t  

(First published in the Western People in June 2018)

It’s all about the journey, not the destination: pardon the French, but what utter claptrap.

Try saying that to the father of a packed people-carrier, heading off on a two-week holiday through France, equally infuriated by the inadequacy of his Sat-nav as he is by the repeated inquiry of, “Are we there yet?”

Try telling that to your boss after arriving 20 minutes late for work when opting to take the scenic coastal drive there.

The expression has a deeper philosophical undertone, you say? A metaphor for life in general. If so, I remain unconvinced.

Hitler, Himmler and the rest of the posse are hardly looking up from the bowels of whatever pit they’re in, burning tridents lodged in posteriors, thinking, “Sure wasn’t the craic in Berghof mighty all the same?”

Now it’s become apparent to me that perhaps I could have been moronic enough to utter such drivel in the past. I am now, however, contrary to belief, older and wiser and I’ve probably uttered such words as a means of overcoming yet another cold September evening in Drumcondra.

Many fans will naturally disagree with me in an attempt to seek solace from the relentless anguish that comes with the territory of being a Mayo supporter; the Mayo team, in contrast, are beginning to reveal a streak which suggests they’re on the same wave length as yours truly. Great minds and all that.

The destination wasn’t within reach on Saturday evening, but Mayo knew a team like Tipperary were more than capable of putting an end to the journey. That ruthless streak, which has become more and more apparent as Mayo’s season has developed, appeared in abundance once again in the acclaimed home of hurling. Knowing they weren’t going to have it their own way for 70 minutes, Mayo put faith in their own fitness levels to see them through.

Upon reflection the plan looked simple: withstand pressure for 50 minutes and let their superior fitness see out the game in the final quarter.

It may not have always been the plan, but it was soon forced into action.

After a blistering opening five-minute spurt from Mayo, the Premier County eventually settled into the game thanks to a tender flick of the wrist from Michael Quinlivan which saw the full-forward thrust the ball to the back of the Mayo net.

That sole incident alone was Mayo’s forewarning: things weren’t going to be as easily gained as they were at the Gaelic Grounds.

With Mayo knowing Tipperary weren’t going to let them get the job done early, it became a case of avoiding catastrophe and thriving when Tipperary’s urgency began to shrivel. Mayo teams of the past may have continued taking risks but passage through to the next round was all that mattered to this squad. And rightly so.

The Westerners succeeded in avoiding the sort of catastrophic mistakes that has seen them on the receiving end of the nation’s pity and criticism in equal measures, though they were far from immune from poor decision-making, particularly during the first half.

“Most important half-time talk of Stephen Rochford’s career currently in progress,” was the take of Dick Clerkin on social media at half-time and few would have argued with him. There was certainly a tangible nervous energy about them.

Some may have been writing epitaphs for the side, no doubt referring to the epic ‘journey’ they’ve undertaken in recent years. But there’s somewhat of a concealed belligerence about them. There’s no time for fireworks when not needed with this crew.

As well as fitness, the side were always going to hold a psychological advantage heading into the final quarter.

Despite the noticeable near-flawless execution of the plan, there were a number of other positives to take from the game.

While Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons will be sorely missed, a midfield partnership of Aidan O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor is arguably a more well-balanced pairing.

The game has evolved since the likes of Darragh Ó Sé and Nicholas Murphy ruled the skies around the middle. The archetypal midfielder of the modern game is leaner with an endless reserve of energy. Essentially, to paraphrase from another sport, they’re square-to-square players.

Brian Fenton and Jack Barry are just two examples of young players perfecting the newly-developed role. O’Connor, who has struggled for form recently, has all the ingredients to replicate the aforementioned and rediscover some of his best form.

Allied with Aidan O’Shea who has gradually developed into somewhat of a playmaker around the middle, they are, at the very least, a duo worth getting giddy over.

In attack, the situation has rarely looked as rosy. James Durcan continues to progress, becoming Mayo’s top-scorer from play in Thurles. Kevin McLoughlin has now proved he has a penchant for scoring long-range points while a man-of-the-match performance from Jason Doherty has the Burrishoole man back in contention for being one of the first names on the teamsheet.

And all that before reaching last year’s All Star Player of the Year and the man less than a score of points off becoming the highest championship scorer of all time in his mid-twenties.

Paddy Durcan, on the other hand, presents a major dilemma. He clearly hasn’t lost his pacey attacking prowess breaking forward, as illustrated in the final minutes of Saturday’s encounter. Yet he has also presented himself as a possible remedy to the problems Mayo have had at full-back in the past. A player’s versatility can often be their downfall, though the Castlebar Mitchels man looks like a player simply too important not to start.

Elsewhere in defence there are worrying signs. But at least the Mayo management are already aware of their ability to pin down some of the country’s most prolific scorers. It was in attack where fears lied: had Mayo the scoring power to take another step forward? That debate has been put to bed and should they fail to take the final step it won’t be as a result of a lack of scoring talent.

The next few months are set up to be another fantastic journey, especially with the arrival of the Super 8s, but it matters for nothing. All that counts is that winning feeling on September 2.

We will all enjoy the journey and so will the team, knowing that it ultimately means little. Letting such airy-fairy concepts into attitudes can lead to an ambush.

Mayo will approach the game this weekend with the steely sitzfleisch they’ve approached every other encounter so far this term.

The time for taking note of scenic journeys will be on the bus back to Castlebar on September 3.

 

 

Everything but World Cup is playing second fiddle

Everything but World Cup is playing second fiddle

(First published in the Western People in June 2018)

We’re only halfway there but, in time, how will 2018 be remembered?

Will it be for Donald Trump’s Neville Chamberlain moment in Singapore, at the numerous press conferences he came strikingly close to declaring ‘peace in our time’?

Or will it be for the rise to power of what seems like the cast of Duffy’s circus in Westminster?

Should Neymar or Antoine Griezmann or Thomas Muller wheel away in celebration after scoring at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, their actions will be forever associated with a year that has been otherwise…well, let’s just say politically tumultuous.

The year a World Cup pushes itself onto our television screens, the year as a whole is remembered more for the football and drama at the tournament than anything else in the sporting world happening outside the boundaries of the host countries. It has always been thus.

2014? It’s remembered as much for the heroics of Mario Gotze just down the road from Copacabana Beach as it is for other fine sporting achievements.

Who can forget Andres Iniesta’s wonder-strike in Johannesburg four years earlier amidst that cacophony of migraine-inducing vuvuzelas?

While the 2006 final wasn’t quite so gripping, it will still be remembered as that night in Berlin when Zinedine Zidane pulled off an impeccable impersonation of a buck goat.

Of course, memories from other sports can also be evoked from the year of a World Cup, but it does require a second or two of head-scratching to bring them all flooding back. When the World Cup – or European Championships for that matter – is on, every other discipline is just scrabbling for the rare flickers of spotlight on offer outside of the football coverage.

What happened in 1990 beyond the country shutting down to watch Jacko’s Army and admire Roger Milla strut his stuff? Nothing else immediately jumps out.

1986 belonged to the Argentinian wizard/villain, depending on which way you look at it. Dare I say 1966 is the year England became world-beaters and everything else was deemed insignificant. Even the most ardent Galway GAA supporter will recount Bobby Moore on the shoulders of his teammates before the famous three-in-a-row triumph at Croke Park. Not that they will readily admit that.

The mere utterance of 2012 brings back fond memories of the Irish invasion in Poznan for the European Championships, even though Giovanni Trappatoni’s side managed to score just a single goal for their troubles.

Meanwhile, despite all the drama the hurling, football and rugby produced, those memories aren’t as easily forgotten as the major championships are readily recounted.

Whether you’re a fan or a detractor, the World Cup’s standing as the biggest event in the world sport in indisputable. It’s the global fan’s game.

While some sports are more accepting – or at least appear to be – of their position on the popularity pyramid, others’ refusal to accept their inferior position is much to their detriment.

The GAA have more to contend with than other sports considering their prime season for business coincides with major football tournaments, and with attendances at championship games dropping rapidly over the last number of years the trend, it would appear, looks set to continue, especially over the next month.

In their fixture scheduling meetings, GAA authorities would be well-served by acknowledging key matches in Russia but that looks considerably unlikely to be the case – yet again.

Rugby union officials aren’t immune from the smugness that leads them to believe they belong at the top of the sporting sphere alongside football, if not above. The alickadoos, however, don’t have quite the same leeway as their GAA counterparts when it comes to fixing games in a way that avoids clashes.

The clash between Ireland and Australia in Melbourne at the weekend saw them battle for viewership with France and Australia in Russia and perhaps that was just unfortunate considering the Aussies having to make the game accessible for Irish audiences while also ensuring not to too late into the night.

There are similar predicaments for the series between New Zealand and France. A few lines of longitude to the west, the series between England and South Africa has fallen a little more favourably for sport fans with last weekend’s game and this weekend’s game clashing with Peru versus Denmark and South Korea versus Mexico respectively.

Perhaps officials have organised the fixtures completely oblivious of happenings in Russia but it has worked out somewhat.

Despite few challenges, the same cannot be said for the competition administrators in the dear old GAA.

When Manchester United faced off against Barcelona in the Champions League final in 2011, former GAA president, and then Ulster president, Aogán Ó Fearghaíl dismissed what was unarguably the biggest global sporting event of the year by comparing it to an Eastenders omnibus. As expected, the Ulster Council refused to reschedule the fixture between Armagh and Down and the game went ahead to clash with the clash between Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola across the Irish Sea.

The temerity of UEFA to schedule a game without running it by the Ulster Council.

Did the Ulster Championship lose a number of prospective attendees to a ‘foreign’ game at Wembley Stadium? Did anybody attending the Champions League final give up their ticket to keep an eye on the feast of Ulster football at the Athletic Grounds? More importantly, have lessons been learnt since?

The organisation in question is mightily industrious at ensuring provincial finals – and indeed any other noteworthy games – don’t clash, but they still refuse to acknowledge the pull of sports outside their own spectrum.

This year’s World Cup final will take place at 4pm on July 15.

Will other organisations accept the national popularity of the event or will they keep their heads down, ploughing away with the usual run of fixtures as if thinking, by spite, they’re getting one over on those uneducated folk playing an inferior game?

From the outside the organisation can look like a fictional comedy sketch programme and while one can chuckle at their amateur way of dealing with things, there is nothing funny about an overly elevated self-worth.

It was Brendan Behan who once said that it wasn’t that the Irish were cynical but that they had a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody. One can’t but concur with the man.

But when that lack of respects ends up effacing their own popularity and success, then the joke’s on them.

Good luck to any sport willing to take on the might of the quadrennial competition; there will only ever be one winner.

 

 

 

Newcomers thrive in true acid test of credentials

Newcomers thrive in true acid test of credentials

(First published in the Western People in June 2018)

The Donald Rumsfeld school of thought has long drawn parallels with the quasi-ideological stance of the Mayo management team: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

But, whether intended or not, Rochford and his cadre were forced into a reshuffle on Saturday night with Tom Parsons out for the foreseeable future and Diarmuid O’Connor suspended following on from a red card he received against Galway.

In addition to that, the unavailability of Donal Vaughan and Brendan Harrison meant Mayo would have a slightly newer look to them no matter what approach management decided on.

If not new players, new ideas were needed. What has been done in previous seasons hasn’t been good enough to seal that what is craved and there has been nothing to suggest that Dublin will be any weaker this year and, if anything, the chasing pack are strengthening.

What was it Einstein said about lunacy again?

The naming of Cian Hanley and James Durcan in the starting XV was a hint of what was to come. Had Mayo management been reading up on the quotes of famous physicists?

Besides losing a step on his man on an early kick-out, ultimately leading to the game’s early penalty, Cian Hanley put in a highly commendable performance. There was initial apprehension surrounding Hanley’s call-up to the squad with doubts over whether he had been given enough time to adapt back to the round-ball game, and considering game-time had been infrequent in Australia due to reoccurring injuries there were natural doubts over his fitness.

Those fears were clearly misplaced as the Ballaghaderreen man seems to have undertaken a marvellous transformation and has become quite the ace in the pack after initially looking like nothing but another number in the deck.

And while fitness is difficult to gauge based on a performance which saw his day ended prematurely through injury, playing within the confines of professionalism for three years could very well see him boast superior levels of fitness to his amateur colleagues, assuming injuries have not taken their toll.

Meanwhile, James Durcan delivered a performance that could easily have produced six or seven points had the ball fallen more favourably to the Castlebar Mitchels man at times.

The nifty baller was called up to the senior squad prior to championship opener against Galway but it was initially thought to have been just another member of the development panel.

The development panel concept is a head-scratcher. The principle of Chekhov’s gun dictates that every element of a story must have some worth with all irrelevant elements removed from the story. It’s a theory that makes sense but one that Mayo have been guilty of ignoring in the past.

But Mayo management must have been read up on their Russian playwrights as well as their theoretical physicists. It paid dividends.

While the corner-forward managed only a single score, statistics can sometimes brush over what’s truly important.

The Castlebar man’s ball-winning ability and confidence in possession, allied with sheer speed, makes him another option in an attack that hasn’t been scoring enough in recent years.

The one aspect of his game missing, as of yet, was his inability to link up with teammates to the same level of effectiveness as Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor. The former came off the bench to partake in a goal-frenzy with the latter; there was nothing exceptional about the goals scored but their ability to realise where their teammate is going to be and to put themselves in the right position at the right time is something that only comes with the virtue of time.

Given time, Durcan can turn the current full-forward line axis into a treacherous triptych. A three-headed dragon? The headlines would write themselves.

But the most pleasing aspect to the performance of the youngsters was their confidence and conviction. In the recent past, young players have seemed almost intimidated by established names in the squad. That certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday.

Eoin O’Donoghue was happy to venture out from the back when the opportunity arose, while Durcan was happy to demand the ball from the more seasoned veterans.

Embracing youth has been something that has stood to both Dublin and Kerry until now; prior to Saturday’s clash, it was something that has deserted Mayo.

Though the newcomers are already in their mid-twenties, they were inexperienced, so yesterday’s performances were as needed as they were welcomed.

And yet, the day will be remembered for the performance of a man who has yet to have the honour of marquee forward bestowed on him. Perhaps, the definition of the term needs to be revisited. What else is required to be recognised as a truly blue-chip player?

Anyway, it’s a silly term. Marquees are for clowns. A knighthood would perhaps be the more appropriate title.

Any player sitting 22 points behind Colm Cooper’s championship scoring records deserves to be recognised as a great. He also boasts a greater average than most on the illustrious list of championship’s all-time top scorers and suggesting that he has only reached such heights because of his free-taking ability is nonsense, especially considering most of list’s occupants are/were free-takers.

What’s also rather ironic is the manner in which he isn’t considered a solid free-taker by some; such observers are obviously unaware that while making such proclamations they are inadvertently admitting that he’s one of the greats, a conversation he deserves to be involved in at the very least.

With the highest championship scorer of all time-in waiting, a promising conveyor belt of attacking prowess for the first time in a while and the current All-Star Player of the Year for good measure, Stephen Rochford finally seems to be have dealt an very enticing hand from which to go all-in.

These pages discussed what would constitute a satisfying performance last week where it was concluded that a hammering against the third worst team in the country wasn’t enough. Something new was needed and it was duly delivered.

In his post-match chat with reporters, Stephen Rochford once again paid tribute to the travelling Mayo support, but as impressive as it was, it was the first time Mayo contested a championship game with fewer than 10,000 in attendance – not including games in London and New York – since their loss to Longford in 2010.

Saturday’s performance was just what the county needed to reignite the summer passion – if it was ever in danger of extinguishing that is.

Have the team the wherewithal to do it all over again was the omnipresent question throughout the winter? With hearts of stone the Mayo team, led by their ‘marquee’ leader, gave us an answer on Saturday.

Arise Sir Cillian (!) – it has a nice ring to it.

The West remains forgotten for much racing’s calendar

The West remains forgotten for much racing’s calendar

(First published in the Western People in April 2018)

165 days is a long time; it’s particularly long for a sport trying to capture the hearts and minds of new fans.

But when horse racing returned to Ballinrobe earlier this month – Friday, April 13 – that was the exact length of time since a similar meeting took place west of the Shannon. That meeting was in Galway all the way back at the end of October.

Horse racing may have a bit to go before developing the same sort of fanaticism this side of the country as it has in other parts, but it’s hard to develop an appetite for something you taste so little of. Alienating nearly half the country – spanning from the Shannon Estuary to as far north as Lough Neagh – for such a lengthy period is simply shocking considering the Irish industry’s position on the throne as kings of world racing.

Some will accuse authorities of smugness while some will sense an element of incompetence. Personally, a disappointing lack of ambition seems like the most appropriate term, which begs the question: Are the lofty standards we’ve set on these shores only the mere base of our capabilities?

While the flat season has all but climaxed by the time hibernation is set in motion in these parts, the Christmas period is among the most exciting periods in the world of National Hunt racing with the season’s biggest names setting out their stalls and the newest talents making their breakthrough.

And yet the West, along with other forgotten parts, remains in oblivion.

Over the last number of months while regular race-goers elsewhere basked in the entertainment provided by the Dublin Racing Festival, the Irish Grand National, the Christmas Festivals in Limerick and Leopardstown among many other big days, the buzz remained dormant for much of the country.

There have been arguments maintaining the denizens of areas which have traditionally never been a fabric of the sport to simply have no interest in developing a passion for the equine game, but wasn’t the very same said about rugby not so long ago?

Connacht Rugby has provided us with an interesting case study as the last decade has seen their fan base unfurl right through the province, their turnstiles seeing plenty of action as a result.

The Galway Festival? Yes, it may the highlight of the calendar for many but it isn’t enough for people this side of the country to develop a taste for the game on a weekly or even monthly basis.

After all, it happens during a period with no shortage of other sporting events to occupy the conscience, so much so that by the end of August it has already faded into a distant memory.

Despite the assumptions, scratching at the surface reveals the foundations for development, should it be sought.

Mayo has seen local talent gradually emerge with the likes of recently-retired Derby-winning jockey Ted Walsh and the well-renowned Westport rider Conor Hoban both excelling in their trade. Across the border Sligo’s Derek Fox rode One For Arthur to victory in last year’s Aintree Grand National.

Galway’s Paddy Brennan has been a regular visitor to the Winner’s Enclosure at the Cheltenham Festival while former Champion Jockey Kieran Fallon is a native of Clare, another racing outpost.

Killala’s Fergal Birrane is living proof of a Mayo man capable of serving it up to the best in the game, grabbing the attention of all racing savants with his training performances in Dundalk. Sligo’s Mark McNiff and Galway’s Shane Ryder and Pat Kelly have done likewise despite their notable disadvantages in terms of location.

Moreover, the quantity of jockeys donning red and green silks tells you all you need to know about the number of Mayo people with an interest in owning horses; it’s just a pity they don’t get to watch their horses gallop home closer to home more frequently.

Since the first all-weather track in Ireland was constructed in Dundalk over a decade ago it has proved to be a roaring success, but the demand for more winter racing has grew in recent times particularly among smaller trainers.

The lack of prize money for minor races along with balloting issues means many small trainers, continuously struggling to make ends-meet, have a distinct lack of opportunities for running their horses when they wish.

Proposals have been made in recent years in an attempt to introduce a much-needed second all-weather track in the country with places like Two-Mile Borris, the location for gambling mogul Richard Quirke’s plans for Europe’s answer to Las Vegas, touted as a possible location for such a track.

The Golden Vale may be a racing hotbed, but why not branch out in search of new fans in pastures new? Somewhere like, let’s say, the West?

While a city like Galway would seem like the obvious choice for evening racing – though the terrain is admittedly far from ideal in Ballybrit – during the winter months, racing in such a location would still have a lot of competition to contend with. Meanwhile, the sporting sphere is pretty quiet in places like Mayo and Sligo and with appropriate marketing campaigns there is no doubt that such an initiative could become a success.

Smaller trainers may not attract the same publicity as names like Aidan O’Brien, but the experience can still be sold. England has led the way in this regard with all-weather tracks the length and breadth of the country capable of holding events in the evening.

Could Saturday night racing at Ballinrobe become a thing? While there may need to be some adjustments made in order to install an all-weather surface the majority of facilities are already in place.

The likes of Westport receives an influx of visitors to the town on a weekly basis from hen and stag parties to families on short weekend breaks, and with Ballinrobe only a short 30-minute drive from the town surely racing could be sold as a package including transport to such prospective customers.

Schrodinger didn’t know what became of his cat until he opened his box; we won’t know how such a development will develop until we take a gamble, but the scope for local economies to benefit immensely is there.

Meanwhile, it’s a chance for Irish racing to grow its market and with the lack of any meaningful competition throughout the winter the potential is there, for all concerned within the industry, to benefit.

Some trainers, most of who are based in the east and south of the country, may be short enthusiasm of travelling further afield to compete but surely it beats taking the ferry across the Irish Sea.

In the words of the that mysterious whispering voice from the 1989 classic sports film, Field of Dreams:

“If you build it, they will come.”