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