Impressive opener from an Eamon Dunphy of two halves
The Rocky Road, by Eamon Dunphy
Eamon Dunphy signing autographs for young fans outside his club Millwall’s ground in 1970. Photograph: Hulton Archive
The first thing I did when this book passed into my hands was what I expect many readers will do. I turned to the index to discover who gets a namecheck. Jack Charlton is in there, naturally enough. And so are Bono, Matt Busby, Charlie Haughey, Michel Platini, Dermot Morgan, George Best and Vincent Browne. But there’s no Roy Keane. No Denis O’Brien, Michelle Smith de Bruin, Owen O’Callaghan, Proinsias de Rossa, Pat Kenny or Bertie Ahern.
Although it doesn’t say it on the jacket, The Rocky Road is volume one of Eamon Dunphy’s autobiography, taking us up to the summer of 1990, when he became, for a few weeks at least, Ireland’s public enemy number one.
Presumably, a sequel will follow at some point in the near future. And the more pages of this book you turn, the more the realisation dawns that, rightly enough, Dunphy’s story is too good to try to shoehorn into a single volume. In the parlance of the game, the first half has to be described as an absolute cracker.
At 68, Dunphy is no longer the fire-breathing iconoclast of his younger days or even the self-described highly paid boot boy of his middle years. The decades have worn the hard edges off the public’s feeling for the man who, during the febrile weeks of Italia 90, lived in fear of being publicly lynched. Nowadays, Dunphy is generally liked, even loved.
The fear with this book was that, by the time he got around to committing it to print, it would be the account of a man looking back on the span of his life with a world view leavened by age. Thankfully, it’s not. The Rocky Road bristles with all the rancorous energy and righteous anger that made Dunphy the most important and the most interesting media commentator of his age.
It doesn’t take more than a dozen pages to get a handle on the forces that shaped his personality. His parents, Paddy and Peg Dunphy, were proud and formidable country people. Peg went to the Four Courts to contest an attempt to evict the family from their tiny Drumcondra home, which had no electricity and where they slept on the floor. She won. Paddy was a devotee of Noel Browne with a profound sense of social justice, who made himself unemployable in the building trade by refusing to join Fianna Fáil but kept his pride despite spending years in “the shuffling shame” of the dole queue.
As a boy, Dunphy was sexually molested by a neighbour, although he denies that it had any formative effective on him. Later, he writes with surprising restraint about Fr James McNamee, the paedophile priest and football coach, objecting to the media characterisation of him as “a monster”.
Dunphy spent his childhood between the local dump, where he played football, the library, where he discovered Just William, and the kitchen, where he was a voracious reader of newspapers. He was a boy with a questing intelligence, who grew up with “an enduring sense of being different”. He had no strong sense of Irishness – or, rather, the “shabby narrative” of Irish nationalism left him cold. He hated Amhrán na bhFiann, even as he lined out for it years later, with, as he saw it, its glorification of violence and its articulation of a virulent anti-Englishness. Leaving the country that de Valera created to play football in England was like escaping “a pantomime prison”.
The course of his early life was determined when the revered football scout Billy Behan arranged for him to go on trial with Manchester United. He was never more than a journeyman footballer, which he puts down, at least partly, to physical cowardice and the cigarettes that stunted his growth. He cottoned on quickly that he didn’t have what was needed to become one of Busby’s second batch of Babes.
But, evidently, he enjoyed his time in Manchester, where he came of age at the dog tracks and in the betting shops of the city, as the broadsheet-reading wingman to the savvier and more sexually prolific Barry Fry. One time, a conman managed to take the two luckless losers for £1,000 worth of FA Cup final tickets that they were attempting to sell on the black market for John Giles. When Dunphy informed the United first-teamer that he’d managed to lose what was the equivalent of a year’s wages, Giles said nothing more than, “Don’t worry about it.” It was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted for 50 years.
Dunphy’s football career took him next to York, and then to Millwall, where his crowning achievement was Only a Game? , a critically acclaimed, bestselling book about the soul-crushing stasis of life at a football club not good enough to go up but not bad enough to down. The book and the newspaper columns that preceded it revealed something about him that his teammates already knew. The Little Irish Commie, as they called their shop steward, had views on matters other than the old standbys of birds, booze and bookies. He wrote about football as a form of “indentured slavery” at a time when players earned poor wages and had no freedom of contract.
Dunphy says his growing outspokenness was encouraged by the example of Muhammad Ali refusing the Vietnam draft and the sight of Tommie Smith and John Carlos offering the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. He wore a black armband after Bloody Sunday (he says he rang around other Irish players asking them to join him in the gesture but none would), criticised the English and Irish rugby unions for entertaining South Africa during the years of apartheid and was apparently banned from ever playing for Ireland again after telling the Sunday World that he and his team-mates were wrong to have played in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.
There is a fascinating account of his attempt, spearheaded by Giles and Ray Treacy, to turn Shamrock Rovers into a full-time, professional club, with the dream of emulating Celtic, who, just a decade earlier, had won the European Cup while drawing their players from a catchment area similar in scale to that of a pub team. Their efforts at Rovers were doomed, he says, because of stupidity, cronyism and small-island begrudgery, the same forces he would rail against not only in football but also in public life, when, overdrawn and with the bank threatening to repossess his home, he made the move into journalism.
The first nonsports-related story he was commissioned to cover was the Stardust fire in 1981. In the company of two other journalists, one of them Emily O’Reilly, he was told to elicit stories from the families of the dead. The disaster, he says, had a profound effect on him, and he saw it as a metaphor for Ireland.
“Cronyism,” he writes, “the brutal cynicism of politicians; the callous indifference of a lazy media class; the endless prevarications of authority when faced with inconvenient truth; and the prosecution of the whistleblower. The ugly, defining features of a sick society.”
There’s lots of meat of this flavour. The voice is, unmistakably, that of the polemicist who set his crosshairs on Official Ireland in the pages of the Sunday Independent in the 1980s and early 1990s, complete with signature epithets. Thus, Fianna Fáil are referred to as “the Soldiers of Destiny”, de Valera as “the Thief”, Ireland as “the Land of Saints and Scholars”, purblind nationalists as “true Gaels” and John Charles McQuaid as “the bastard in the Archbishop’s palace”.
He knows how to tell a good story, and there are some wonderful set pieces. With a copy of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, he turned up one night at the Shrewsbury Road home of the Shamrock Rovers owner Barton Kilcoyne to plead for clemency for four players caught fiddling their expenses. He read him Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech. Kilcoyne sacked the players anyway. But the story captures wonderfully the heart-on-the-sleeve, big-statement essence of Dunphy’s personality.
He writes movingly about his parents, their struggle to feed and clothe their two boys, their betrayal by the Catholic Church and, especially, their devotion to one another. He later reflects with sadness on the trouble that his persona as “Eamon the Agitator” brought to their door, particularly when he turned his pen on Eoin Hand and Liam Brady, whose families were among their neighbours.
“I think there’s two Eamons,” his mother told him one night, trying to discern the ornery man whose face had just popped up on her TV screen from the sweet-natured boy she raised. “That fella and you.”
It’s doubtful whether a better summation of Eamon Dunphy exists.
Fans of the man, or even just seasoned watchers, will feel they’ve waited a lifetime for this book. It’s unlikely they’ll be disappointed. The Rocky Road is rather like its subject: provocative, endlessly entertaining, occasionally over the top but brimming with passion and heart. A memoir worthy of the life and times it describes.
The Rocky Road by Eamon Dunphy, Penguin Ireland, 400pp, £20
Paul Howar d is amanuensis to Ross O’Carroll-Kely, whose latest book is Downturn Abbey