Effort and valour of these sporting heroes lifts us up where we belong

Thu, Dec 27, 2012, 00:00

REVIEW OF THE YEAR:2012 stands as a bejewelled year in Irish sport even before the last sunset has fallen, writes KEITH DUGGAN

Already, the drums and uilleann pipes are beginning to sound in anticipation of next year’s Gathering, when the clans will converge from far-flung places to talk about what it is to be Irish. But that has been the dominant theme through 2012, which stands as a bejewelled year in Irish sport even before the last sunset has fallen.

It has trailed Rory McIlroy on his carefree, sunny mastery of world golf as the issue of whether he would ‘choose’ to be Irish or British for the next Olympics would not go away. It was the cause of much brow-raising when Michael Bent, the hulking prop forward from New Zealand, was ushered from passport control straight into the frontrow of the Irish rugby team. He qualified to wear green because his grandmother was a Dublin woman and during the professional era, that was deemed Irish enough.

The importance of being Irish drew a shrug of the shoulders from Jason Smyth, the Derry sprinter who broke the 100 and 200 metres records at the London Paralympics. Smyth speaks in a brogue that is pure Undertones but he spends his seasons training in Florida with Tyson Gay and Mormonism is central to his life and he just wants to keep on doing what he does: running beautifully and faster than anyone else. His time of 10.46 in the 100m (T13 class) final left the field in a different, slower dimension. “I’m not particularly Irish or British . . . I don’t really care you know,” he said last summer.

Neither did anyone else seem too worried about that old divide in the Olympic stadium in Stratford on those nights of a billion camera flashes.

When the Irish Olympic team and, a fortnight later, the Irish Paralympians, walked in behind the tricolour for the opening ceremonies, the Brits raised the rooftops as they cheered the Irish: it sounded like a sort of homecoming. And all of Europe wondered what it meant to be Irish on the sorrowful night in Gdansk when Spain’s imperious, beautiful football team tore the Republic of Ireland apart by four goals to nil. By then, Ireland’s Euro 2012 dreams – with reflections of the giant-killing epoch of 1988 and 1990 – had become almost mocking.

But something peculiar happened late in the humiliation, when the Irish fans began to sing loudly and then louder still so that theirs was the only voice to be heard after the final whistle. They sang The Fields of Athenry, the old famine anthem.

The gesture was powerful and noble – “it has shown us what football is really about,” Vincente del Bosque, the Spanish boss, said with sincerity late that night – but it was also undeniably strange. How can fans serenade a team that has failed them so miserably? Was it a show of deathless pride or an acknowledgement that the Irish were happy just to be there?

The bitter aftertaste of Ireland’s moribund European adventure would continue into the autumn, culminating in the 6-1 drubbing at the hands of (who else) Germany in Dublin. It was a new low and forced a mournful introspection of where Irish football belonged on the big stage.

“The worst I’ve seen,” was the bleak summary from Ronnie Whelan on television that night. And it was: John Giles looked ashen and even Eamon Dunphy had lost some of that incorrigible energy of his as he called time on Giovanni Trapattoni. Communication problems had haunted Trapattoni’s summer. But language wasn’t the problem. Perception of Irish football was the main issue. Here was a proud, intractable Italian with a magnificent career spanning five decades. And in his eyes, he had taken a lightweight football nation to the cusp of a World Cup finals and then to the European finals. Where, he just stopped short of asking, was the gratitude?

What Trapattoni never quite understood was that the Irish have never seen themselves as an afterthought in world football. He never understood how implausibly big and colourful Irish football dreams are because he did not know the Ireland of Italia ’90 or USA ’94 or, for that matter, the tragic-comic nation of 2002, when Roy Keane did not play and that made all the difference. Trapattoni never understood – and nor could he be expected to – that Ooh Ah Paul McGrath was and remains more than just another football chant.

It is a statement of national identity.

For a long queasy week, Trapattoni regarded as another casualty in the long, maudlin tradition of failed Irish managers who exit quietly. And then came that desolate night in the Faroe Islands, when Ireland cobbled together a 4-1 victory.

“Winners have a hundred fathers,” he told Emmet Malone late that evening in the Torssvuller stadium, “while losers are orphans.” Nobody was sure what it meant but it sounded Ibsenesque and was enough to soften the cough of the FAI. Trapattoni stayed. This Christmas, the Ireland team sit uneasily in their group and qualification for the next World Cup is still a live – if remote – possibility. All evidence shows that Europe’s best teams are pulling away from the pack. Spain won the European Championship final by beating Italy 4-0. They were simply untouchable.

Just three weeks separated the curtain fall in the Ukraine and the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. London managed to achieve the impossible during that magical fortnight: they made the biggest sporting circus in the world appear charming.

For two weeks, 21st century London reconnected with the Blitz spirit: the place never felt so good. The highlights of the Games are kaleidoscopic. Everyone has their favourite moment: Usain Bolt or the swansong of Michael Phelps or Bradley Wiggins or the stunning triathlons or, above all perhaps, that night when David Rudisha glided into the history books with a spine-tingling world record 1.40.91 performance in the 800 metres final.

“London Calling – and Brother Colm O’Connell answers the phone,” wrote Ian O’Riordan in these pages, who just minutes after the race put a call through from the Olympic Stadium to the Great Rift Valley in Kenya to speak with the Irishman who coaches Rudisha and who was at that moment heading down to the village for a celebratory tincture. It was the line which caught the spirit of the games: at once global and intimate.

For Ireland, of course, the Olympics were bound up in the irresistible story and brilliance of Katie Taylor. Yes, the big hangar by the Thames where Taylor fought was as raucously Irish as any of the vintage nights in the King’s Hall or Dublin and, yes, she was the hot favourite to win gold in her division. But under great expectation, the Bray girl did something more than just win a gold medal: she made people forget about the novelty of ‘women’s’ boxing and just appreciate her for what she is: a pound-for-pound world class fighter.

Every single Olympian was living out a dream that stretched back to childhood but it is too easily forgotten that for years Taylor trained and boxed (in a gym without a proper changing-room) without even knowing if the Olympics would ever sanction her sport. Her faith was literally blind and her story is as much about a struggle for recognition and equality that goes back decades as it is about that late Friday afternoon when she won gold. But did any Irish person ever own London like Katie Taylor did on that weekend? She was the talk of the town.

Through the madness in London, the All-Ireland hurling and football championships showcased the most traditional and beloved celebrations of Ireland. So much of GAA folklore harks back to the lantern lit days of the 1920s or the stoic 1950s, with grainy black and white footage of Ring or Mackey that it was a surprise to witness their modern day equivalent.

In September, Henry Shefflin duly won his ninth All-Ireland medal after a display of spellbinding fury against Galway. He edged past the immortals and isn’t finished yet. The Cats had, of course, been beaten by Galway in the Leinster final and were aptly termed “the wholesome undead” by PM O’Sullivan in these pages afterwards. And they were just that: stakes and cloves of garlic seem as likely as hurls to stop Brian Cody’s men at this stage.

In Gaelic football, the Donegal revolution was completed. The September pairing of Donegal and Mayo was novel but the result did not break from a summer in which Jim McGuinness’s team routed all before them.

“A truly extraordinary passage from nowhere men two years ago to emphatically the best team in Ireland,” was Seán Moran’s summary.

In late autumn, McGuinness confirmed that he had an accepted an invitation to join the coaching staff of Celtic FC on a part-time basis. It was a terrific validation of the Glenties man’s singular world view but also a tribute to the standard of coaching in Gaelic games.

The rugby year was nothing if not schizophrenic. “One of the blackest nights in the history of Irish rugby,” wrote Gerry Thornley in a deserted press box after the 60-0 crushing by New Zealand in Hamilton. Ireland went walkabout on that June night, mentally and physically and the All-Blacks just stamped on them. Make no mistake: the New Zealand exhibition was wonderful and it bordered on contempt.

It was hard to reconcile that embarrassment with the images of a month earlier, when Leinster and Ulster contested the European club final in Twickenham. How can the Irish clubs dominate the continent only to see the pick of the bunch torn apart like that? The year closed with a heartening win over Argentina but next season promises fresh questions.

But for fans, there was hardly time to dwell on disappointments. Just like that, Rory McIlroy won his second Major, the US PGA, and then played a starring role for Europe in the Ryder Cup. Yes, the Ryder Cup is a fabricated version of nation versus nation: McIlroy was right in the beginning when he said it was just an exhibition.

But still, there is something inescapably fascinating about the best golfers in the world – the supreme individualists – losing themselves in the sheer joy of being on a team (although the late, great Con Houlihan, who sadly bowed out in August, would have been aghast that they chose to show the golf in Mulligan’s pub rather than The Sunday Game highlights of the All-Ireland hurling final replay). It was gripping and flashy in its own country-club way. Many millions watched it. And there was young McIlroy in the middle of it. Could this chirpy youngster really be a son of good old NI, one of the most troubled patches of land in all of Europe?

And does it matter which colours he wears in the Olympics?

Philip Reid, who has covered McIlroy from his schoolboy days to his emergence as king of the fairways, put it best. Many Northern Irish twentysomethings struggle for identity, he pointed out.

“Where he is unique and different is that McIlroy is a genuine sports superstar and if already embraced by Irish and British, his appeal transcends international boundaries and his pulling power is a global one.

“Indeed, the so-called Irish card is a big draw in the United States.”

In November, McIlroy and Tiger Woods sat down for a rare joint interview with the Golf Channel: the world’s number one and two. All that crazy talk in the mid 1990s about how Tiger would bring golf to the ghettos was just so much hot air. But as McIlroy acknowledged, Tiger did change the sport.

It stayed mainly white and middle-class but he made it ‘look’ younger and athletic. And now McIlroy is transforming it again. Where Woods turned to stone when confronted with the intense public interest, McIlroy basks in it with easy humour.

“Rory, you are unbelievable . . . you are the greatest golfer in the world right now, I would say,” gushed Jimmy Fallon, the NBC talk show host. “So would I,” McIlroy replied with that cockiness he somehow makes likeable. And there was no dispute: Rory McIlroy from Co Down is the best golfer on earth.

And that is more important than ever after a year in which there has not been much for Ireland to shout about. From a cowed government to a demoralised nation, it hasn’t been the brightest of years.

So the athletes and ballers contained within these pages should all take a bow. They each did their best to offer distraction from the daily woes and to make hearts beat a little faster and reconnect with what it is to be truly alive. More than once, they took our breath away. In the end, their efforts and their valour spoke most eloquently of what it can mean to be Irish.

In sport, at least, Irish accomplishments came so thick and fast that it will take a while for that splendid dust to settle. And when it does . . . in the clearing stands a boxer.

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