Supporting Cast also had their moments


SIDELINE CUT:TODAY, YOUR slate is wiped clean. It is the first of the year and you are, as they say, a new person. You don’t feel all that new, admittedly. You are a little bleary-eyed from last night. Your pocket is more than a little empty. And you fit more snugly into your casuals than you did a month ago. Still. You have made promises to yourself that, over the long months ahead, you are going to recover something of the old sporting glories.

Perhaps you, friend, are one of the Supporting Cast. You are one of the innumerable who never did and never will feature on these and other sports pages across the world. But you had talent once! You, too, could have been a contender. And they can’t take that away from you.

Who were you? Well, nobody may remember it now but once, when you were 11 or 12, you could make that football sing and you skipped by other boys with feints and swerves that were so instinctive and natural you never did quite understand where they came from. There was talk of “trials” – with Arsenal, with Spurs, with Liverpool.

There was a league game once – a Saturday afternoon in Tallaght or maybe Monaghan or Sligo town. You were playing and you shone. You ran the show. And afterwards your pal Mike’s old man told your old man there was a guy scribbling notes every time you touched the ball and that someone said he was the scout for United. It was only a matter of time, you were told.

Or you might once have been the supremo in your snooker hall. You had your own cue, which you carried in a slender black suitcase with a beautiful cushioned interior. On Tuesday nights, you would walk up the town with your case, looking like an assassin heading for a book depository with at least six floors. And you were an assassin, too. You had style to burn and you would assemble your weapon leisurely and take a table and soon, the others would drift towards your light, mesmerised by the nonchalant speed with which you cleared ball after ball, the way you would walk to your next shot and wait for the white to travel obediently to where you were already crouched. Even the good players said you were serious. Embassy world championship material, if you had the chance.

And then one year the club managed to get one of those tuxedoed television players to appear for a fund-raiser and play a game against local stickmen. Maybe it was Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White. Maybe it was Stephen Hendry. Maybe it was Tony Meo. Nobody remembers now but you. You played him best to seven. And you went two frames up and were 20 points clear and cruising when you fluffed this laughably easy red into the middle pocket, the shot you have made a million times and then the professional stood up and reached for the chalk in those little rib-cage pockets that are good for nothing but holding chalk and did what he was paid to do: he put on an exhibition. He won 4-2 but afterwards, as you shook hands, he said quietly to you, “You’re some player,” and you know – at least you think – he meant it and you remember it always.

Or in 1985, you were in that 800 schools race featuring the most promising young middle-distance runners in Munster. A Cobh girl named Sonia O’Sullivan was in the field and you heard she was good but you knew you were better. You led from the off and you didn’t even see her for the first 600 metres; you had half forgotten about her. You heard her breathing with 30 metres remaining. Years later, when the Olympics of Atlanta and Sydney were on all the televisions, someone’s face would cloud and they would ask: “Didn’t you race against O’Sullivan?” Once, you would tell them.

Or it could be something else. Decades ago, a basketball player named Mario Elie came to Ireland to play basketball and spent a couple of triumphant seasons with Killester before leaving again. For a while he seemed to be just another of those superb, obscure young Americans who found themselves extending the dream life of college basketball stardom – the encore – before accepting the feathery descent to mortal, everyday life.

Except that Elie was good enough to make it into the NBA and ended up winning two rings with the Houston Rockets. And what that meant was there were – and are – dozens of part-time Irish basketball players who could legitimately claim to have marked an NBA star. It meant you could boast of being marked by the same Mario Elie who was later detailed to shadow Michael Jordan.

You could claim – in headier moments of reminiscence – Elie could never really “deal” with you. And you might remember a single moment – a lay-up, let us say, that was the culmination of an ill-advised drive through the paint which started badly and turned worse after you tripped over the trailing leg of your own power-forward which resulted in you careering towards the feted Mr Elie having lost all control of your body and all cognisance of where the basket was. It left you with no choice but to not so much shoot as abandon the basketball, to fling it away from you as you might something repellent and then complete your graceless and inevitable fall to the ground so you didn’t even get to see your shot had slammed off the backboard and, because the backboard was fitted in January 1971 and had no life left, somehow absorbed the shock of this cannonball shot and, by divine fluke, helped the missile to drop through the net.

And so: You scored a “floater” over Mario Elie, who mixed it with Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, with Jordan and Hakeem. And it was not the most famous basket ever scored. Even your team-mates don’t remember it – you were losing by 35 at the time. But they can’t take that away from you.

It doesn’t matter what age you are or what happened. You have your moment, this fleeting few seconds when you mixed it with the best and that was your lasting contribution to the infinite glossary of sport. That rainy day challenge game when you “held” Mikey Sheehy for the first half. Mikey finished the game with 2-6 but only because you had gone off. Hamstring. Again!

You were Eugene Cloonan before Eugene Cloonan was but then the Féile weekend – the Trip to Tipp – was on the same weekend as the minor trials and there was no way you were missing a line up featuring Iggy Pop and The Shamen so you went. And it was brilliant. And even though you lit up the club championship for years afterwards, you never got a county trial again. You played in a Leinster Schools game against the Blackrock of Brian O’Driscoll and you were pasted by them but you did this one thing where you faked a pass and the O’Driscoll kid bought it, pounced on that ghost pass like a cat and you made a break that led to nothing but a knock-on. But you – and only you – will recall the feeling of faking O’Driscoll with pleasure whenever you see O’Driscoll play with Leinster or Ireland.

You all have your own tale. You were one of the Supporting Cast; one of the thousands who brushed shoulders with the best and made them stop and look at you for a split second. That is no mean thing.

And a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and you sometimes wonder what might have happened if you hadn’t got lazy or distracted or injured or liked the nightlife so much or if you had listened to the coach who patiently and repeatedly told you that talent was not enough on its own.

Every so often you hear his voice coaxing you again and you know it is too late to make a comeback but you want to do something else: run the roads, ride a bike, get fit, get your heart beating, swim 20 lengths, all the rest.

January, you promise. Come Jan 1st, you are going to pull the trainers out of the attic and pound the roads. You know that you owe it to yourself because you, too, had game.

Happy New Year.