Glittering Irish day in muddled murky sporting year of 2019
Keith Duggan: Ireland continues to exceed expectation across a variety of sports
Ireland’s Ciara Mageean celebrates qualifying for the final of the World Athletics Championship. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Two athletes and one shining day. It’s October 5th, 2019, a date that they’ll both remember long after the peak of their sporting lives has faded. They’ve probably never met and on this day are separated by oceans and time zones. But the exploits of Ciara Mageean and Aaron Connolly will quickly become part of the rolling, mixed up conversations on social platforms and in the Saturday night pubs around the country and on the streets.
This is the day when Mageean will race the women’s 1,500 metres final in broiling and unloved Doha. Her brilliant qualifying performances and effervescent post-race interviews have captured much of the point of sport even before she summons from within a personal best time for a 10th place finish in a blisteringly fast final. The winner is Sifan Hassan, who has also become the first athlete in history to win both the 10,000 and 1,500 metre disciplines. On the surface, Hassan’s performance has been stunning but, as so often happens in contemporary athletics, it leaves a cloud of unease and suspicion. But Mageean’s incandescence is worth celebrating.
“Tenth place”, she beams when stopping to speak with David Gillick afterwards. “That’s not a bad place to be for a wee girl from Portaferry.”
On the same afternoon, in one of England’s most celebrated seaside haunts, 19-year-old Aaron Connolly from Galway will strike his first ever Premier League goal 32 minutes into Brighton and Hove Albion’s stunning romp against Tottenham. His second comes just a half hour later, an audaciously cool effort which turns Toby Alderweireld, the experienced Spurs defender, inside out.
Football loves insolent arrivals by eye-catching youngsters. Connolly’s scoring turn belongs to the first rank. By the full-time results, his name is everywhere. Premier League goals are expensive commodities and Connolly’s pair is worth more than most. Albion couldn’t have banked on three points against Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs when they viewed the season schedule.
This was a startling result, tipping Spurs’ mindset from the dream heights of a Champions League final appearance in May into a true autumn funk. This was the day when their lacklustre form worsened into a crisis which would lead to major turbulence: Pochettino sacked in November and Jose Mourinho, perched watchfully like a vulture in Sky’s television studios since his sacking by Manchester United, suddenly and improbably back patrolling the sidelines, much too vital and entertaining a figure to leave on the periphery.
The millennium was just 28 days old when Aaron Connolly was born. His childhood coincided with a period when English football had transformed itself into a roaring, ubiquitous and wildly successful sports league. Connolly went to primary school in Briarhill, near Ballybrit racecourse, and soon distinguished himself as an eye-catching and feisty young hurler in a county crowded with such. And he was equally tenacious on Saturday mornings playing soccer on Galway’s soaked and windswept community pitches.
He was a throwback in ways: a small, barrel-chested flier with an eye for goal and burning confidence. It’s probable that the dream of “making it” to the Premier League, ideally in the colours of a United or Liverpool, was probably dancing around the back of his mind. But, then, promising youngsters across the world were entertaining the same dream.
The signs are good for Connolly and if so, a life of material wealth and intense scrutiny beckons
The scouting of talented children by big football clubs is a serious and merciless business. There is something unfathomable about Connolly’s sure ascent, from the local schoolboy leagues in Galway to trials in England to a loan period in Luton Town to a three-year professional contract with Brighton at the age of 18.
It’s speaks of inestimable discipline and internal toughness and drive. The pitfalls and heartbreak of the road to a professional life in English football have become almost a cliché. But it can exact a brutal toll on young footballers who are forced to make adult choices when they are scarcely out of childhood. It gets serious very quickly.
That is why there is something faintly hallucinogenic about seeing Connolly striding forward on this afternoon. You can only guess at the pride of Damian Brennan and Ollie Neary, two of his former coaches in Galway, as they watched him do as he had done for them on many Saturdays, wrong-footing and turning a defender with that low, inside cut of his and then letting fly.
Only now Toby Alderweireld is the defender and Connolly is scoring on Match of the Day. There he is: in your living room. He happens to be making his way as a sportsperson in the age of instantaneous reaction. A teenager banging home two goals against a stellar club like Spurs guarantees an excited response on both professional and social media platforms alike.
Suddenly, Connolly finds himself cast in a new light: the potential saviour of the Republic of Ireland’s grimly prosaic Euro campaign. He is elevated to the status of best and brightest with a haste that was is inevitable as it is unfair. Maybe the groin injury he will suffer shortly afterwards will prove a blessing in disguise. It will halt the hype and give the youngster a chance to take stock. The noise and light will turn elsewhere. It is, of course, much too early to predict how Connolly’s professional career will turn out but the signs are good and if so, a life of material wealth and intense scrutiny beckons.
Ciara Mageean is eight years older than Connolly but they have a similar background; an ordinary Irish childhood suffused in sport. Growing up in Portaferry, she was a terrific young camogie player but it became clear that her potential in athletics was exceptional. And so she dedicated herself to the more solitary pursuit of running.
It’s a life that demands a different kind of toughness. Few athletes have been as bright or enlightening as Mageean on the routine slog of becoming one of the very best track athletes in the world. She has recently been elevated to the world-class level of Sport Ireland funding, giving her €40,000 a year, which is well below the weekly average rate of pay in the Premier League.
Mageean has said she is one of the lucky ones. She pays tax on that grant and pays her rent and pays her flights to races. She’s like a lot of Irish men and women in their late 20s: she hopes she’ll be able to get a mortgage. But just not yet.
“Anyone who is under the illusion that it’s a very affluent life: it’s definitely not,” she has said of professional athletics. But she was grinning from ear to ear all year, clearly giddy at where her solitary dedication and her athletic potential might take her. Mageean is so gloriously local in accent and outlook that her demeanour casts her in a super heroic light, as though she is unknowingly waging an independent struggle against the vast, unseen machine that runs professional sport.
Sifan Hassan, the 1,500m gold medallist, had been part of the Oregon Project. The Nike-funded training camp would be forced to close its gates just a week after that race when Alberto Salazar, who ran the place as a fiefdom, was hit with a four-year ban for doping violations. The camp had been in operation since 2001 and Salazar was the head coach since 2005.
Mo Farah, whose Olympic successes have generated increasing suspicion and doubt, was a resident there for six years. In Doha, Hassan bitterly and vehemently asserted her honesty after her victory. But the Oregon Project was the latest blow to the reputation of elite athletics. Fans and participants alike have had enough. In November, Mageean told Ian O’Riordan of this parish that she had been tested three times since returning from Doha. That’s what she wants: to be tested and shown to be demonstrably clean so that athletics fans have no questions or doubts.
It’s not Mageean’s finishes that inspire so much as the sense that you can believe her
The Oregon Project was the latest problem in an awful year of public relations for Nike. With leisurewear permanently incorporated into the wellbeing; with gym culture and distance running now part of the mainstream, the swoosh logo has become one of the more inescapable. The world’s pre-eminent athletes and stars are on their books: Roger, Tiger, LeBron.
One of their upcoming major names is Zion Williamson, the play-anywhere behemoth basketball star who bounced from his one-and-done obligatory college season with Duke to the NBA to take up a four-year $40 million contract. In February, Williamson laced up his Nikes to play for Duke against North Carolina, the prestige match-up in college sports. Under the stress of his weight and athleticism, one of his shoes just disintegrated as he turned sharply. The most expensive player in college sport was carried off the floor injured, his potential worth suddenly in the balance. The incident led to a renewed focus on the extent to which Nike have come to own college basketball.
But that controversy lasted a few days. After all, the Masters was coming up. Tiger was back! Ten years after the golf’s saviour had been unmasked, 10 years after his sponsors had fled and society forced him to apologise because his private life spilled into the public arena, 10 years after a decade of tortuous back problems and several humiliating experiences on the golf course, Tiger Woods would conquer Augusta again.
Golf had its redemption story. Nike had the material for another cinematic advert. But the Salazar ban and the revelations by former Oregon athlete Mary Cain that she had been subjected to physical and emotional abuse caused by concerted pressure from Salazar to drop her body weight, left it clear that the culture within the project was, at best, deeply unpleasant and at worst engineered by psychological pressure and juicing. What some athletes had believed to be a dream – signed to a Nike sponsored academy of running – turned into a nightmare.
And at some level, athletes like Ciara Mageean are competing against that unseen monster. Athletics is the essence of sport. Running and jumping. Higher. Faster. Stronger. The battle to reclaim it as virtuous and believable is as old as organised sport. It’s not Mageean’s finishes that inspire so much as the sense that you can believe her. But as the year turns to another Olympic cycle, custodians of athletics continue to fret about where their sport is going.
It’s a question that seems to run through all sports once the stakes become serious. Aaron Connolly is part of a conspicuously promising Irish U-21 football squad playing an exhilarating brand of football under Stephen Kenny, who will succeed Mick McCarthy as senior coach. It is ironic that such a thrilling generation of players should emerge during a year of administrative meltdown within the Football Association of Ireland.
What began, in March, with an attempt by John Delaney, the long-standing and lavishly paid chief executive of the association, to obtain a court injunction against a Sunday Times story ended with an abrupt resignation, a series of eye-boggling revelations about how the FAI money was spent, a startling fall from grace and a probable Garda investigation.
The Delaney era leaves the FAI at a familiar crossroads, desperately in need of a clear new direction and a custodian with a vision to develop the domestic game and league in a way that enables it to flourish and grow rather than merely survive. With government funding suspended, there is a threat that coaches like those who are guiding players like Connolly through the local system will lose their jobs.
The other main sporting houses, the IRFU and the GAA, have made a point of running shipshape houses. But the sharply disappointing exit by Ireland from the Rugby World Cup was further proof of the randomness of sport: planning and structures can only go so far on the field. In Gaelic football, Dublin’s anticipated completion of five unbeaten years of splendour in the All-Ireland football championship materialised after a defiant young Kerry team at first held Jim Gavin’s team to a draw.
Tipperary exploded back to life to claim their third hurling title of this decade. But underneath the surface glamour and frequent brilliance of Gaelic games at the highest level, this is an uneasy time, too, for the GAA. That the association can continue to attract so many of the country’s best athletes while promising precisely the opposite of a professional sports career is an ongoing miracle.
There are fears, unfounded or otherwise, that the inter-county game is edging towards professionalism. There are fears that in football Dublin may just have cracked the code of amateurism; that they may well win five to seven All-Irelands every decade ad infinitum. Meanwhile, county boards are in 24/7 fundraising mode just to meet the costs involved of merely fielding county teams, let alone win silverware.
GPA welfare reports do not suggest that playing for the county is a barrel of laughs any more. There is a growing recognition across the GAA that something has to give. But nobody seems sure of what that should be. And they are training right now, the steadfast amateurs, over these grey twinkling days of Christmas, even now as you wonder if you’ll go for a walk or sit down and watch Sean Connery as James Bond, just because.
The cult of the GAA remains as strong as ever. It has survived boom and bust and smart technology and a vast broadening of choices for young people. And maybe, when searching for reasons why Ireland do not win against New Zealand in the World Cup, the answer lies in that truth. In Ireland, so much sporting energy is absorbed by the GAA.
But the peculiar thing is that despite the modest funding for sport in this country; despite the damp climate and the small population, Ireland continues to expect and to exceed expectation across a random spectrum of sports. There, now, is Shane Lowry, bearded and grinning and sauntering to the British Open in Portrush. There is Katie Taylor, still at the apex of women’s boxing. There, too, is Rhys McClenaghan, the Newtownards gymnast who last year practised on the pommel horse in his back garden after his coach was made redundant, claiming Ireland’s first world gymnastics championship medal, a bronze, in Stuttgart.
Sport in Ireland sometimes seems haphazard and always up against the bigger nations. But still the best of the Irish succeed and exceed and shine.
And so it’s Christmas; the season of awards and smiles, promises and vows to tear into through the harshness of January. The Tokyo Olympics beckon for Ireland’s athletes. The new GAA season will soon be upon you, hurtling through the end of that same dark January. Ireland’s small army of resident Liverpool fans will hunker down with increasing tension for every Saturday until May to see if this year’s team can become the first in 30 years to win the English title. For those who remember that distant feat, it would mark a last return to childhood.
Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Barcelona in April, to overturn a 0-3 Champions League semi-final deficit was the stuff of beautiful fantasy even for neutrals; a perfect representation of those rare moments when the business of sports entertainment meets with the street soul to produce something unforgettable and spontaneous.
The glossy race towards the end of the English football season; the non-stop rush of Tokyo in July; the All-Irelands; this stuff will capture the minds of hundreds of children across Ireland. They’ll decide they want to do that, be that. The car journeys to training, the standing on cold fields, echoing halls, and noisy swimming pools will begin for new sets of parents and guardians who just want to see their youngsters run about and get involved.
And the vast, vast majority will discover in their own time that elite sport is an impossibility or an extremely tough and challenging road that they aren’t interested in walking. They will find their level. But the odd one, the blazing exception or the outlier, will go on and emerge in the way Ciara Mageean and Aaron Connolly did, long before their glittering day in the muddled murky year of 2019.
The earnest debates about where athletes like Mageean and footballers like Connolly can “go from here” will largely miss the point. Don’t you see? They’ve already left the vast majority of the world earthbound.