Big-time sport the unsubtle thief of time


 Sideline Cut: It is all the fault of sport, this business of the years getting faster and faster. I am convinced of it. Soon, they will have to begin testing Time itself for banned substances because the seasons, the years and decades are now travelling by at unnerving and unbelievable speed.

To be honest, I was only just beginning to settle into 2005 and the darned thing is on the verge of disappearing again, sailing back through the mist as we stand teary-eyed on the quay and with nothing for it other than to stoically make plans for the night ahead.

There are two choices when it comes to New Year's Eve. You can go out. Or you can stay in. It all amounts to the same thing. There is a forced gaiety about the social scene at New Year's Eve parties, when tipsy revellers bravely sing in the cold days of January by high-stepping it to the 20th century dreams of Frank Sinatra or by linking arms, in the tradition of their grandparents, to boozily sing the chorus of Auld Lang Syne before shrilly wishing one another a Happy New Year. The alternative is to remain rooted on the couch. "Never go out on New Year's. Never have".

Tea, turkey sandwiches and a late night re-run of Once Upon A Time in America on BBC2: it is just another coping mechanism, a way of pretending that another year has not just rushed by with the frightening and unalterable momentum of a Tyrone man in a Honda Civic on his way to the Chinese to pick up a sweet and sour for his tea.

The days ahead, those stark, uncaring days of early January are never easy. There is always that moment when you have to write down the new date on a cheque or a piece of paper and for a second you have to stop yourself from scribbling down the old year and a chill washes over you as you bang out those brand new numerals: two zero zero SIX. And there is nothing you can do but go with it and so you brace yourself, front seat of the roller-coaster, shiver through the first months, summer comes and goes with a whoosh and the next thing you can't turn on the radio for fear of someone advising you how to decorate your Christmas tree with imagination.

And there you are back on the quay again, waving away good old double-oh-six.

Sport is surely responsible for it. When you were a kid and were out there playing, games had the effect of slowing time down. Three-a-side games of soccer in a field or in the school yard that carried on long after it was too dark to see the ball properly could take such a grip on the imagination as to seem to last for months at a time. And a really good summer's day, one that began early and involved an auld ramble on a bike, a game of soccer, maybe a trip to the beach, a few games of Pacman in the amusements and then another game of football after tea, a marathon game up to 21 where everyone pretended to be Zico or Dalglish or Socrates or Brady and played for the pure, tireless joy of friendship, those days had the power to stay radiant long after the years to which they belonged became obscure.

And even at an older age, when you discovered some magic in yourself, some unrealised talent, by joining the local GAA or gymnastics or athletics club, by finding out that you were actually half-ways okay at some sport and by being fortunate enough to have a coach willing to believe and encourage you, all those winter training sessions or school games or minor championships took on a life-span of their own and now stay vivid long after the injury or apathy or row or girl/boyfriend or party - now that the reason you quit - has been forgotten.

At its most elemental, sport has, like a really brilliant song, the transcendent power, to make real time fall away. But sport for us adults, the clearly demarcated calendar year of shimmering, multi-million dollar must-see events are different. The Six Nations, Cheltenham, the Masters, the Champions League, Formula 1, the Championship, the World Cup, the Premiership, The Ryder Cup, the International Rules are all like stepping stones through which we can skip through another year.

And they are, of course, one huge distraction. The statistic that appeared in this newspaper yesterday that 73 million people watched last May's Champions League final between Liverpool and Milan was not surprising. But it is still astonishing. Imagine the void, the general unease and tension that would follow if big-time sport were just erased from existence as of January 1st, 2006. The children would be fine: they would just grab a ball. But we adults would suffer severe withdrawal systems and the consequences, would, I suspect, be anarchic. As one of the tunes of the fading year went, I Predict a Riot.

Because sport, in all its guises, is surely crushing us now. It is too big and unwieldy and moneyed and powerful, too insistent and hyperbolic and crass and simply too available. It gets so that it becomes really difficult to distinguish what is truly worth celebrating and what is merely sales. Sometimes events are so explicitly wonderful and charming they speak for themselves. Even for those left cold by the morals of contemporary soccer, the Champions League final was the stuff of those boyhood games when the score line lurched and changed in heroic and dramatic ways.

And as the All-Ireland semi-final between Galway and Kilkenny showed, hurling has the power to leave even its protagonists, its magicians, guessing as to what is going to happen next. The point Brian McGuigan scored for Tyrone early on the All-Ireland football final was something beautiful to behold, so effortlessly simple and perfect and a declaration, it seemed, that Tyrone could and would do whatever they wanted that day.

Jewels like that shone through the incessant marketing and guff. I hope there will be plenty more ahead in 2006. I hope too they are given breathing space. In all the commentary and criticism about the attention paid to the death of George Best just last month, it was forgotten how vast and depthless the sports universe is now. It is so easy for excellence to just get burnt up and forgotten. There is always a replacement in the wings. Best's achievement was to stand above all of that, to leave a monumental decade of work and memories on football fields all over Europe before he set upon his more mortal path of alcoholism and loneliness and financial hardship and regret and promises. What distinguished Best was that he was irreplaceable, in both substance and style and the oddly fitting funeral service in Belfast showed that people recognised that. That they are still coming thick and fast to pay their respects at his final resting place is a heartening indication that we, the crowd, cannot be fully fooled. And that as we rush headlong into another lightning year of glossy, comfortable and exciting sport, we can still take the time to slow down, to stand and applaud the ones that shine on long after the years have fallen away.