What if… Albert Camus had stuck to goalkeeping?

Michael Moynihan
Sunday October 8, 2000
The recent retirement of French football supremo Albert Camus prompted a predictable outpouring from the Left Bank, but what the intellectuals such as Leboeuf and Ginola have overlooked is the great man’s contribution to thinking in the twentieth century. Football thinking, that is. Camus began as a goalkeeper for the Algerian Universities and turned his back on a promising literary career to stay with football, though he did say at one point that reading Wittgenstein, Aristotle or ‘some other German’, as he put it, had prompted his realisation that the corner flag was ‘absurd’. He first came to prominence in the 1962 World Cup when he committed the now legendary ‘Killing an Arab’ foul. When the Moroccan Al Raschid tore past his marker, the no-nonsense Parisian stopper Sartre, Camus hurtled from his goal to scythe down the swarthy striker. Sent off immediately, he shrugged (a thousand writers had to have ‘in classic Gallic fashion’ edited from their copy within the hour) and strode from the field. As the whistle had already gone and the foul was needless, it was blamed on Camus’s seething desire to prove his existence through a random and unexplained act; the great man’s deafness was conveniently overlooked in this analysis. His dismissal meant the anticipated meeting with the Italians never occurred, so we were denied a confrontation with the deep-lying Bari striker, Fellini, and his ‘calcio di surrealismo’. When Camus returned from suspension it was to face England in the third place play-off, when he held the Angry Young Men – Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and Nobby Stiles – scoreless and ensured bronze for la France. Given that the same Angry Young Men usually began brightly before descending into a three-way slanging match about beer, baldness and class, this was not quite the achievement it might have been. It had a particular air of anti-climax following the epic encounter during the group stages with the great Irish side led by gloomy Sammy Beckett, a rabid midfielder who paved the way for the likes of Norman Whiteside and Roy Keane. Beckett’s languor contrasted with the barrelling pace of Behan on the wing and shaggy-haired neophyte Seamus Heaney, the Tarantini of Derry. Beckett’s great tactical innovations were the Twin-Bin defence, wherein an unknown number of players lurked unseen in two bins outside the penalty area, and the Waiting Game, in which the No 9 engaged his marker in inconsequential banter before striking. In the final these strategies came unstuck when Fellini’s Italy countered the Irish with a fat woman, mime and a pair of circus elephants. Camus re-emerged in an unlikely setting when he was named Arsenal manager in 1970. Many respected observers thought this Gunners side on the brink of greatness, but Camus took the side to pieces and reassembled it as a contemporary dance group which wowed the crowds at the 1971 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His tenure ended the following week when Dungby Harriers beat them 6-2 in the FA Cup. Camus left Britain with the throwaway line, ‘Hell is other people… and most of Finsbury Park.’ He returned to the wilderness, picking up international management work in such soccer backwaters as Brazil and Argentina while the Total Football of the Swiss and Lebanese dominated the Seventies. However, when his former teammate Sartre became head of the French FA, Camus returned to favour and was appointed national manager. Now came the years of greatness: the ’82 World Cup, defeating Picasso’s unpredictable Spain, with their abstract 1-3-2-2-1-2 formation; the ’84 European Championships, putting Solzhenitsyn’s Russians to the sword and the gulag; and the great ninety minutes against the United States in the World Cup final of ’86. Who can forget the angry managers confronting each other on the sideline, Camus squaring up to the pugnacious Norman Mailer? The crunch of Depardieu’s tackles, the elusive running of Spielberg, international football’s most hirsute and prodigious winger? In the dying moments Depardieu launched a hopeful ball forward which was crashed home by the gallant veteran, Sacha Distel, and France ruled once more. Camus stayed on, despite the sniping of intellectuals, such as the novelist Michel Platini, that he was reducing France to a nation of ball-kickers and was far too interested in motorbikes. When he was captured on tape by French radio saying what he would like to do to Platini with his motorbike, it was the last straw and Camus was forced to retire.   What if…

Commentators’ cliches came true?

Michael Moynihan
Sunday March 4, 2001
The Observer
It was another sad day for sport yesterday when the Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman was seriously injured by a free-kick from Stuart Pearce of West Ham, during an FA Cup tie between the two teams. Seaman was slammed against a post and suffered serious internal injuries after being hit by a ‘piledriver of a free-kick’, as described by veteran BBC commentator John Motson. Motty was taken into custody following his remarks in accordance with the new Potent Description (Amendment) Act, which requires commentators not to employ excessive clichés. As he was bundled into the police van, Motson was heard to shout, ‘You’re lucky I didn’t say it was an exocet.’  The Act has been rushed through Parliament in response to the serious consequences of a bizarre series of events in recent months. Indeed this isn’t Motson’s first clash with authority, according to Scotland Yard’s recently formed Linguistic Rectitude Section, the branch charged with pursuing loose and lazy sporting descriptions. A few weeks ago Motson described Alan Shearer as being ‘sick as a parrot’ after missing a penalty, and the Newcastle player had to call on an array of veterinary experts and gastric specialists to effect a recovery. The Toon Army were aghast at the sight of their talismanic captain reeling around the opposition box, flapping his arms and babbling about wanting a cracker, while Bobby Robson angrily maintains Shearer’s abdominal delicacy has robbed his star of a vital yard of pace, even if his ability to perch on opponents’ crossbars is now a vital, if unpredictable, attacking asset. Aston Villa’s David Ginola has been another whose game has suffered following a casual remark from a Match Of The Day stalwart. This time the culprit was Motson’s colleague Barry Davies, who made passing reference to the Frenchman’s ‘wizardry on the wing’. The next time Ginola received the ball he continually tripped over his flowing, star-spangled gown, while his heading, never emphatic, deteriorated totally because of his pointy warlock’s hat. ITV have their own problems, with Clive Tyldesley’s thoughtless reference to Thierry Henry’s ‘lightning pace’ in the recent FA Cup clash the subject of a million-pound writ from Ken Bates. Marcel Desailly is making a good recovery from the electric shock he suffered, but Frank Leboeuf’s bald pate means that he’s not expected to play again this season. He joins Ed de Goey in the treatment room. The Dutchman is being treated by toxicologists following what Tyldesley described as a ‘venomous drive’ from Dennis Bergkamp in the same match. Tyldesley is also one of a number of commentators helping police with their enquiries with perhaps the most common and most embarrassing cliché: ‘handbags at 10 paces’. The FAare particularly keen to eradicate this one, as it views the proliferation of feminine accessories during off-the ball flare-ups as bad for the game’s macho image – though it has added to the list of possible new Premiership sponsors, with Prada known to be interested. Tyldesley’s partner in crime, Ron Atkinson, is another to have been taken into custody, after typical comments such as ‘What’s happened there Clive, is early doors there’s been a nasty crowd scene in the box but the Latvian lad’s leapt like a salmon to nod it down at the back stick’ resulted in some remarkable incidents on the pitch. However, his lawyers are confident that they can get their man off on a technicality: strictly speaking these are ‘Big Ron-isms’ and not clichés, and therefore not covered under the Act. But, prosecution lawyers maintain, surely this is just another case of Big Ron playing his oft-used ‘get out of jail’ card?* Worryingly, these developments are now beginning to spread into other sports. Veteran rugby union commentator Bill McLaren described Scottish front-row forward Tom Smith as ’17 stones of prime Scottish beef on the hoof’ – England then refused to play the Calcutta Cup game after two Welsh players were trampled to death after an Aberdeen Angus bullock packed down at prop for Scotland. For once, there was no dancing in the streets of Kelso, Jedburgh and Hawick. Tragic though these occurences certainly are, they tend to obscure the central question: how is this happening? What has occurred in the last couple of years to render the cliché real? Perhaps the answer can be found with John Motson, widely regarded as the ringleader of these dangerous commentators. When taken into custody recently a Harry Potter novel fell out of the BBC man’s sheepskin-jacket pocket. Questioned about the significance of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , Motson said he was simply trying to bring a bit of magic back to the cup. * As in: ‘The big German keeper’s used his get out of jail card there Clive.How to… write a footballer’s autobiography

Michael Moynihan
Sunday August 5, 2001
The Observer
Obviously the photos are the most important part of the biography. Always start with yourself and the school team (‘First time a winner! I’m in the middle of the back row’) before moving on to apprentice (‘First team hopeful – don’t think much of that hairdo!’) and thence to first cap (‘A proud day’). Phase out the exclamation marks after the first few snaps. Try to think of a minor celebrity you met in the offseason at Snifters’ nightclub and include a photo of her (‘It’s not all hard work being a footballer’) but always close with a happy families snap (‘Becki, me and little Kim’). I start with the photos because that’s what people look at first. After that everything falls into place, really. Sure, you’ve got to organise a couple of hundred pages, but the pictures are the key. The early chapters should mix burning determination with bashful acknowledgement. The best way to combine the two is with a chapter on Youthful Rejection: if you were let go as an apprentice by the club you followed, invent a scene where you stood outside their stand and shook your fist (‘I vowed the next time I went there it’d be wearing a Premiership club’s shirt’); you don’t have to mention the fact that you got shown the door for snorting cocaine out of the thigh-high leather boots of the director’s underage daughter. Don’t leap straight into first-team regular: some stock characters have to be overcome – the Embittered Pro (‘Maybe he thought I was after his place’) and the Sceptical Manager (‘The injury crisis was for me the silver lining on other players’ clouds’). The former usually becomes a friend and adviser (‘Funny, Frank and I became great mates afterwards’) while the latter never warms to you: the important thing is to end your character assassination of the manager with some magnanimity (‘I’ve never forgotten that he gave me my first break’). So what if he lost his job because you broke curfew the night before the crucial cup replay? When you get to mid-career it’s as well to throw in one of two options: the Career Threatener or the Great Controversy. I prefer the Career Threatener as it gets sympathy immediately (‘I feared the worst when the doctor could barely look me in the eye’) and prepares the reader for the obligatory Triumphant Return, a mandatory chapter finish (‘I didn’t score on my comeback, but it didn’t matter. I was back’). There’s always the possibility the book may sag with the Painful Rehabilitation but a minor crisis with the wife can always pep things up here – just don’t go into detail about the three stone you put on after six months gorging on Kung Po chicken takeaways. The Great Controversy is more difficult to pull off, but if it works you’ve got two chapters ready-made, lovely. There’s a standard opener (‘I’ve never told anyone my side of this story’), a touch of disbelief at the ruckus (‘It happens every Sunday all over the country but you never hear anything’) before the icing on the cake – the Loss of Proportion (‘Someone told me the Prime Minister was asking about it!’). This allows you to wind up with Support of the Common Folk (‘The fans never abandoned me. I’ve never forgotten that’). You’re almost there now: the penultimate chapter should detail a World XI, Club XI or toughest opponents XI. I prefer the Club XI – it gives you a chance for revenge on dressing-room enemies when swatting away their chances for inclusion, but you have to be subtle. ‘Stan was deceptive – he wasn’t the quickest – but he got away with it by reading the game’, for example, is understood to mean that your teasing Stan about his waist size led to physical confrontations in which his weight advantage was used to some effect. The last chapter is usually ‘The Future For’ section. Get in a free plug for media work (‘I’ve always admired Alan Hansen’s fairness’), it doesn’t matter if your flattery’s at odds with private, forcefully expressed views, and mention any bars you’ve bought into. I always leave the decision on an index to the players, much as I do with the title. You get the odd smart alec looking for something different, a pun, but I prefer ‘My Story’. Timeless, adaptable: you can’t beat class.  

  For First Time, Croke Park Is Ireland’s Common GroundBy Michael Moynihan
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 6, 2007; E03
DUBLIN — When the British army wanted to strike back at those fighting for Ireland’s independence in 1920, there was one obvious target: Croke Park, a ramshackle sports venue on the north side of Dublin and focus for the national sports of Gaelic football and hurling. On what became known as Bloody Sunday, soldiers fired on the crowd watching a Gaelic football game, killing several spectators and one player.Visit Croke Park now and it’s a superb stadium that seats 82,000 people, a sleek emblem of Ireland’s economic growth with luxurious corporate boxes and convention facilities. But one of its towering stands is still named after Michael Hogan, the young footballer killed on the field in 1920.Croke Park always has been more than just a sporting arena. That fact will be underlined once again in the coming weeks, when rugby and soccer matches are played there for the first time.The constitution of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which owns Croke Park and administers the indigenous games of Gaelic football and hurling, had forbidden rugby and soccer at its facilities since its founding in 1884. But when it was announced in 2000 that the home of Ireland’s national rugby and soccer teams, Dublin’s Lansdowne Road, would have to be closed for refurbishment, some suggested Croke Park bend its rules.The debate that ensued soon became a touchstone of Irish cultural life: You were either for or against, and your values could be extrapolated from your position.The debate focused initially on whether the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) should open its biggest stadium to the Football Association of Ireland and the Irish Rugby Football Union, the governing bodies for soccer and rugby, while Lansdowne Road was being rebuilt. Those who wanted Croke Park opened pointed out that the Irish government had funded its development to the tune of 60 million euros ($77.6 million). Since the stadium had been funded publicly, they said, it should be open to all.Those who opposed the opening of Croke Park maintained that the GAA was an amateur sporting organization confined to one small island, while rugby and soccer in Ireland were outposts of international professional sport.Croke Park had hosted other sports since the 1970s, including boxing and American football, but some viewed soccer and rugby as direct competition to the native sports that called the grounds home. They also asked why the GAA was being pressured after having the foresight to develop its own facilities.The rugby and soccer associations said that if Croke Park would not host their teams, they would have to go to England to find stadiums large enough to host their international contests. On and on it went. You were a narrow-minded backwoodsman if you were opposed to opening Croke Park; if you were in favor, you were sabotaging Irish culture.The debate raged until April 2005, when the GAA, to the surprise of many, decided to allow international rugby and soccer matches to be played in Croke Park while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped. The first rugby match — a Six Nations contest against France — is scheduled for Sunday, and the first soccer game — a Euro 2008 qualifier vs. Wales — will be played on March 24.One man played a large role in the resolution of the issue. When Sean Kelly was appointed GAA president in 2003, there had already been two years of squabbling on the topic within the GAA and without.“Inclusivity was the key word,” Kelly said. “In modern Ireland every organization has to be inclusive, and the GAA is no exception. It’s a form of maturity, of advancement, that you can see people not by their differences but by what you have in common. Welcoming people is the way to sum it up.”He was guided by the changes in Irish society as a whole. Prosperity has transformed the country’s demographics: When Muhammad Ali came to Dublin to fight in 1972 (in Croke Park, coincidentally), he asked where the black people hung out. “There aren’t any,” was the reply.Today’s Ireland has a significant black presence in all the major towns. The number of Polish immigrants in Ireland is greater than the population of the country’s third-largest city. Kelly felt the GAA would have to reflect the new realities of modern Ireland, although he also was conscious not to abandon older values.“Helping your neighbors is an old Irish custom, after all,” Kelly said. “I remember at one meeting about Croke Park a man said, ‘If your neighbor’s house burned down and you had a spare room, wouldn’t you give him the room while he was having his house rebuilt?’ “Kelly worked hard to get the GAA to combine old hospitality with an awareness of the new realities. The idea that Ireland’s rugby and soccer fans would have to go to England to follow their teams was intrinsically unpalatable, Kelly said, but he was also motivated by common sense: “That would have been an immense cost to the economy, it would have been a major drain on the fans, but the prestige and image of the country would also have been affected badly.”His pragmatic patriotism paid off. When Kelly finally won the vote to open Croke Park at the GAA’s National Congress almost two years ago, the decision led every news broadcast and newspaper front page.“At the end of the day the GAA would have suffered a backlash” if Croke Park had not been opened, Kelly said. “The situation wasn’t our fault, but we were the only people who could help.”The aid offered by the GAA impressed many, particularly those from the Unionist tradition in Northern Ireland, who identify culturally with rugby and soccer rather than the GAA and its sports.“I think there’s been a transformation in attitudes towards the GAA because of the decision, though,” Kelly said. “In Northern Ireland, I’ve met many people from the Unionist tradition who’ve thanked me for it, saying it was a major step forward. When we did that, it gave a lot of people in the North the courage to cross over themselves and shake hands.”Even with the historic games in view, there may be choppy waters ahead. The Irish rugby team trained in Croke Park last week, and Michael Greenan, chairman of the Ulster Council of the GAA, weighed in with a final broadside: “We have not been sold a pup but a whole litter. [The national rugby team] will have five training sessions before a match. Would any county get five sessions in Croke Park before a match? Not a chance. They are training more often in Croke Park than any of our counties would get to play there in a year.”For his part, Irish rugby team captain Brian O’Driscoll — a self-confessed GAA fan — was gracious about the venue.“The passion and the history behind [Croke Park], it might not be so well known by the countries who come and play, but there is so much of it at Croke Park,” O’Driscoll said last week. “A lot of the boys will have gone there and seen the fanaticism of the hurling and Gaelic football for sure. There is an aura about the place and we just feel we are incredibly fortunate to be allowed to play there.“It’s an honor and we just feel, hopefully, it will give us that little extra element, and we don’t want to let the GAA down for granting us the opportunity to play in one of the best stadiums in the world.”There are legitimate worries. The GAA fears Lansdowne’s zoning difficulties may keep rugby and soccer in Croke Park for longer than anticipated; the IRFU and FAI are keen to get back to their own stadium as soon as possible. However, on Feb. 24, Ireland’s rugby team will play England at Croke Park. The fact that the two teams will listen to “God Save the Queen” on the same field where Mick Hogan was shot by British soldiers will serve as a reminder of how far Ireland has come.Michael Moynihan is a staff writer for the Irish Examiner. 

Dub trouble as Freeman fallout comes to a head

By Michael Moynihan
WE’RE WORKING hard on a title here for events in Dublin’s Parnell Park last weekend. Buttgate sounds like an animated comedy for MTV. Headgate suggests a revolutionary trepanning procedure. Parkgate is a street near the Phoenix Park.
We almost settled on Parnellgate, but the whole idea of scandal aligned with the name Parnell (see the entire works of James A. Joyce for more) seemed already taken. We’ll keep going, though; we’ll come up with something.

Fallout from the Donnycarney Kiss that Monaghan’s Tommy Freeman received at the end of last Sunday’s NFL game against Dublin continues to fall all around us like radioactive spores from a nuclear explosion.

At first, it was suggested that a member of the Dublin management team had run onto the pitch after the final whistle and tested the strength of Freeman’s brow with a firm header. Then the goalposts shifted, much as they probably shifted in the unfortunate Tommy’s field of vision right after the alleged assault when Dublin County Board chairman Gerry Harrington said that he’d been informed by his Monaghan counterpart John Connolly that Freeman had been attacked by one of the match stewards in Parnell Park.

The ever-increasing distance between the Dublin management and responsibility for the incident suggests that by the middle of next week the finger of blame will probably be pointing at a bewildered linesman in Tallaght.

Last night’s statement from the Dublin County Board on the matter was more specific, particularly the part which read: “The Dublin County Board, team management and the individual involved have personally apologised to Thomas Freeman.”

It doesn’t make the trouble go away, of course. The increasingly crowded sidelines at intercounty games must have been one of the inspirations behind Monaghan player Dick Clerkin’s suggestion during the week that pitches might have to be enclosed.

(That initiative brought to mind an administrative exchange some years ago in Cork, when the manager of a certain club sought such a pitch for a forthcoming encounter at junior B level; asked to justify seeking to limit the number of people on the sideline, his answer was short and sweet: “The opposition”).

It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks for discipline in the GAA, which is a sentence that remains in wearyingly common use.

A fine of €5,000 imposed on Mayo County Board because their supporters were throwing missiles at Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy is a precedent which suggests that Dublin will get a severe rap in the wallet, if not across the knuckles, when this incident is fully investigated.

In that context Dublin manager Paul Caffrey chose the wrong day to indicate solidarity with forward Mark Vaughan. Sent off for hitting a Monaghan player in the face, Vaughan was greeted warmly by his manager on the sideline.

That’s helped to conflate several matters: the crowded sidelines issue in general, the assault on Tommy Freeman and the apparent hostility of the Sky Blue supporters towards Monaghan players after Sunday’s game specifically, with all of the above augmented by the fact that two Dublin players were sent off during the Monaghan match itself. That’s all now bundled together like a telecoms provider offering a three-for-one deal on general badness.

A willingness outside the Pale to believe the worst about Dublin’s support, fuelled primarily by their apparent inability to get to games in their own backyard on time, shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat them until all the facts are in (and, er, not necessarily then either, if you get me).

But if those facts support the initial allegation — that a member of Dublin’s backroom team was responsible for the assault — then it’ll be Caffrey who comes under scrutiny, and the extent to which he’s responsible for the brouhaha.

You can’t have a gate without a pillar, after all.

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

mention the dog

‘THERE is always the shock in seeing him again. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.’

The words of Norman Mailer, ladies and gentlemen, the celebrated writer who died last weekend. A lot of his work is pretty hard to get through now — could anyone nowadays read something called ‘The White Negro’ without mopping their foreheads? — though some of his real-life adventures make for an eye-popping read on their own merits.

Married six times, Mailer stabbed one of his wives and spent 17 days in a psychiatric ward.

He nearly lost an eye in a fight when — seriously — a sailor challenged the masculinity of his pet dog, while he head-butted renowned writer Gore Vidal before they both went on live television.

As for the time he ran for Mayor of New York, Jimmy Breslin, another writer from the Big Apple was stunned by Mailer’s campaigning style. And Breslin was his running mate.

Anyway. He fetches up here because of his sportswriting. For instance, Mailer was friendly with both Hollywood actor Ryan O’Neal and light-heavyweight boxing champion of the world Jose Torres, and all three worked out in the same gym.

One day O’Neal, who was big and athletic, pestered Torres to spar with him, and the pro consented; the two of them worked out for a few minutes — O’Neal taking it far more seriously than his opponent, one of the all-time greats — until a lucky punch from the actor drew blood from Torres’ lip.

Torres suddenly stopped and left the ring, and as Mailer recalled, O’Neal was the only one in the gym oblivious to the fact that the champion’s sudden silence was far more threatening than anything he could have said . . .

But it’s for ‘The Fight’ that sportswriting aficionados will remember Mailer — the book he wrote about the heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.

The quotation which opens this column describes the arrival of Muhammad Ali at a press conference in the lead-up to the fight, which of course became known as the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’.

Mailer’s eye didn’t desert him in the long preamble to the fight in Zaire.

He was the one who noticed that Foreman’s sledge-hammer blows to the heavy bag in the gym left a huge indentation in the bag ‘like a melon with a bite taken out of it’.

Mailer also noticed that Muhammad Ali studiously avoided looking at the bag, with its big dent, whenever he entered the gym.

It was Mailer who registered the fact that Ali began that fight with a right-hand lead, taking the battle to Foreman, so it’s only fitting that we quote his description of the fight’s climax in the eighth round:

‘Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career.

‘Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like with a parachute jumping out of plane, and in this doubled-over position he tried to wander out the centre of the ring.

‘All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world and would see him on his dying days.

‘Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position, eyes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down.

His mind was held with magnets high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground . . . He went over like a six-foot 60-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news.’

Not bad, eh?

AND just in case you thought Mailer was a pushover, try this: ‘If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.’

Rest easy, Norman. Don’t take it personally if anyone comments on your dog.


Getting to the heart of Cork selection

WHERE DOES it end? Last Friday we wrote here about Norman Mailer, the famously combative American writer who died last week. Norman was a man who loved an argument, but it’s doubtful whether even he would have enjoyed separating the Cork players and their county board.

First things first: the question of whether or not an inter-county manager should or should not be able to choose his own backroom team answers itself. It beggars belief that any experienced coach would be happy to have
colleagues imposed by an outside body,
colleagues with whom he would be expected to forge working relationships — and then succeed with them at inter-county level.

As one player said, making switches in the heat of a Munster championship game is hard enough for a manager who knows the selector standing at his shoulder on the sideline. How could two strangers work like that?

Reverting to an old system is no answer. There was a time when it was believed that drinking water during a game played on a hot day was harmful, and nobody is suggesting reverting to that system. Novelty isn’t a guarantee of quality, of course. But neither is venerability.

The notion of addressing the fixtures
problem which affects the club player by way of changes in inter-county management isn’t so much odd as vaguely insulting. Think about it: if the motivation for changing the
selectorial appointment system is to create a more fixture-friendly selection committee, isn’t there an implication that that incoming group will be more malleable — that whatever about previous regimes, this particular man-
ager and selectors will be more easily influenced when inter-county replays and back-door games need to be accommodated?

It’s unlikely that Teddy Holland and his
incoming backroom team, no matter who they are, would see themselves as puppets.
Fixtures aren’t an issue, but a problem, and one that needs to be addressed directly rather than obliquely.

So, is the current crisis about something else? Money was cited as the real motivation behind the change in the management-selector system last weekend, and a few figures have fluttered in the air since then.

One of those figures is 150,000, the value of the board’s deal with Coca-Cola which has since ended. The players are getting the heat for that one, but as pointed out elsewhere on this page, they say they offered a compromise deal to the board during the summer which was rejected. The players’ decision to threaten a strike has been criticised as hasty, but that maybe depends on what you take as a beginning point in the negotiating process. We said ‘where does it end?’ at the head of this
column; maybe we should have asked ‘where does it start?’

The stand-off has sparked plenty of chat, a lot of it inane or insulting. But it has put the spotlight on the workings of the county board, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

We’re not being sarcastic or condescending when we say that. The focus on procedure — notice of motion and so forth — has maybe concentrated minds and brought home to people that they should pay more attention to what goes on in committee rooms.

Of course, a focus on procedure can have other results. It occurred to us during the week that the seven-man committee which was appointed by the county board to find a new manager was supposed to be made up of four members of the executive and three club representatives. The four executive representatives were board chairman Mick Dolan,
secretary Frank Murphy, treasurer Pearse
Murphy and development officer Declan Walsh.

The club representatives were board members Finbarr Hennessey, Kieran Hegarty and Bob Honohan. However, Honohan is the county board’s Central Council delegate rather than a club delegate, which means the agreed club representation on the sub-committee was one short.

Accordingly, is the committee composed along the agreed lines? If not, does it have any standing, or, more pertinently, its recommendations? No doubt there’s a ready answer. But the fact that there’s a debate to start with is something to take away from the week.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

Michael Moynihan

nothing for granted in new deal

AS ever, the devil is in the detail.
Yesterday’s announcement of the nuts and bolts of the administration of GAA player grants made for interesting reading. The first general sensation — relief the threat of strike action has been lifted — will soon subside, as dressing-room lawyers study the small print.

And they’ll find very interesting provisions, particularly the criteria for participation in the schemes. Whatever about managers or players, team trainers are going to have their hands full.

For instance, take the “player responsibilities”, which establish that players must “attend at least 80% of training sessions/matches … demonstrate improvement through regular fitness testing … strict adherence to anti-doping code… players who violate the code will not receive awards.”

Granted, that’s an admirable onus to put on players, but there hasn’t been time to establish agreed ground rules on what exactly constitutes improvement? Accordingly, a couple of alarm bells, while not exactly chiming out like Notre Dame, are tinkling gently in the background.

How is “improvement” going to be defined, when there seems to be more emphasis in the provisions on physical fitness than skills improvement, which is more difficult to define anyway?

Elsewhere, there are provisions for committees to oversee the fulfilment of criteria for the grant, but operational management of the system seems to fall on one man’s shoulders: the team trainer.

There may be some headaches ahead for the men who send county panellists on laps of the field as they seek to keep players improving, week on week — or rather, as they seek to prove that players are improving week on week.

We’re used to teams suffering a lull in national leagues when stamina takes precedence over skill, to the detriment of immediate results. Given the focus on fitness, is that likely to occur more often under the new dispensation as teams try keep the physical graph going up early in the season — to maintain eligibility for grants?

Expect the constitution of the Gaelic Trainers Association to slip through the letterbox of the Companies Office by first post Monday.

Though all parties recognise the amateur status of the GAA is not affected, accountants and financial service workers on inter-county teams may find themselves more popular due to another one of the criteria: “Any tax liability that might arise from these schemes is the responsibility of the individual player.”

That’s fair. But what may catch everyone’s eye is a later provision, where players… “commit to participate in an agreed level of coaching and games development work in their county on a voluntary basis… as part of an overall policy to promote increased participation in their sports.”

This is admirable as it establishes interaction between the sports’ biggest names and the most impressionable support. No objections there.

But it’s also admirably deft. There’s a clear inference here that the entire grant system could be justified as paying for coaching and games development work undertaken by inter-county players rather than paying for play per se.

Announcing an arrangement to put player involvement in coaching on a formal basis would have smothered at birth that long-running palaver about pay-for-play and professionalism by stealth. Nobody would object to players getting a few bob for training kids.

But while having a trump card for negotiation means you sometimes keep an ace up your sleeve, the GPA could have saved themselves months of adverse publicity if that had been their stated angle from the start.

Contact: michael.moyihan@examiner.ie

Michael Moynihan

Food loving Hitman’s hunger
for success

RICKY HATTON fights tomorrow
night in Las Vegas, where he takes
on Floyd Mayweather at the MGM Grand for the WBC world welterweight
title. Enjoy some chips and curry if you watch the fight, and toast the men you’re watching.

Here’s why. Welterweight is 140 to 147 pounds, or about 10 stone in your socks. The reason this column is taking an interest in that specific weight is because Hatton — whose name can’t legally be printed in an English newspaper without lovable Mancunian/never forgotten his roots following close behind — doesn’t have an ascetic’s approach to his waistline when he’s out of training.

Mayweather’s midweek sneer at his
opponent came pretty close to the mark: “Ricky Hatton never had this many fans here before — it’s all part of the Mayweather experience. I’m putting him in a position to buy a lot of Guinness.”

Ouch. Hitman’s fondness for beer and chips when he’s away from training camp is well-known, and he often balloons up to 13 stone between bouts. For those of us whose well-padded upholstery means 13 stone is quickly receding in the rear view mirror, this might not seem too drastic,
until the following realisation sinks in.

Three years ago Hatton fought four times in 12 months, which meant that the cycle of training and starvation alternated with the curry and lager cycle. The net result was that Hatton lost 13 stone in a year, or well over his (total) fighting weight.

If the notion of grinding away until you shed a couple of pounds doesn’t entice you, consider losing a quarter of your body weight four times in one year.

Makes you think twice about putting butter and jam on that breakfast scone, doesn’t it?

Boxers must deny themselves a lot if they’re slightly too big for their weight class, and for ‘a lot’, read food.

One famous middleweight in the 1930’s had to starve himself for a fight and couldn’t sleep for days ahead of the bout, crying with hunger in his bed. When the fight was over he ate so much ice cream that he put on five pounds in an hour.
Another world champion used to lick a near-empty spoon to get the taste of a
sliver of honey.

Joe Calzaghe, who recently made a
successful 21st defence of his WBO super-middleweight title, had a fairly spartan regime in the run-up to that bout. Porridge in water; diet yoghurt and a banana; small chunk of chicken and salad.

If you blinked, then you just missed Joe’s three meals a day. It comes to about 500 calories on which to train for a world title fight, but for the 48 hours before the weigh-in it’s even less: nothing whatsoever.

THERE are associated advantages for a
boxer, of course. If he’s not too weak
from the starvation, a man at odds with the world because he’s living on
porridge and water is likely to be in the perfect frame of mind to stand in a ring and fight someone else. Anger doesn’t quite cover it.

And believe it or not, it could be worse. Jockeys are another breed of sportsman who need to be as light as possible, and Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Seabiscuit’ tells some harrowing stories of the wild old days of the twenties and thirties, when jockeys spent so much time in saunas with rubber suits on that some of their bones warped and twisted.

One group of jockeys were being given a pitch by a dubious salesman about the
“reducing” powers of a concoction he was flourishing in a jar when the contents spontaneously combusted. The jockeys watched in silence as the stuff they were supposed to use as a laxative burned and fizzed away in front o them.

Don’t feel too sorry for Ricky, by the way, he’ll pocket £5 million for his trouble. And if Mayweather wants to continue with the verbals, Hatton counter-punched when the two were on a promotional tour: “I’ve missed my son, my six-year-old son, for a week, but I probably haven’t missed him quite as much as you would probably think … because I’ve had the good fortune to spend the full week with another six-year-old.”

Seconds out.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

2007 Sports Highlight

March 27, 2008

MOMENT TO SAVIOUR: Pat Tobin celebrates after scoring Limerick’s match-saving goal against Tipperary.

The moment when
everyone seems to
settle deeper into their seat — happy there’s
a bit of time left

THE BOSS is only human. He finds the late pull as irresistible as the rest of us. When he asks his staff for their sporting highlight he usually plants the butt of the hurley between our ribs with something like: “Or in your case, the annual Waterford-Cork highlight.”

Cheeky bugger.

Off the proverbial top of the head, when it comes to a highlight of the year it’s hard to overlook Limerick-Tipp Mark II back in mid-June. The Premier were 10 points up with 15 minutes left, but then Limerick began to come hard at them, and it quickly became one of those rare communal experiences — impossible to replicate, difficult to describe, but unmistakable to anyone who’s been at a game like it. The realisation that something special is happening ripples through the crowd and everyone seems to both settle deeper into their seat — happy there’s a bit of time left — while craning forward to drink in the spectacle at the same time.

It looked like an exercise in gallantry for Limerick rather than an attempt to rescue their season, but Tipperary started to doubt, and the unlikeliest of draws materialised in the distance. It still didn’t look likely with 10 minutes left; in fact, it looked impossible. But Limerick did it.

Afterwards you saw stunned Tipp fans and players trying to make sense of the result. It couldn’t have happened. Could it? But when you’ve eliminated the impossible, as that fine wing-back Sherlock Holmes used to say, whatever remains, however unlikely, is the truth. With the evening sun stretching young men’s shadows into legend, we thought it couldn’t get better.

Not spectacular enough for you, maybe. Then how about one of the scores of the year: Dan Shanahan alone served up enough to choose from, and we’d go for that sweet ground stroke which beat Cork’s Dónal Óg Cusack low to the left in Croke Park (there’s something about that Railway End goal and the snappy pull: 17 years ago John Fitzgibbon planted a ball in the exact same spot in the exact same way).

It was a goal to prove to a generation of kids that pulling on the ball is a skill that must be practiced and acquired — and used properly. It proved to a generation of opponents that Dan has all the weapons in his armoury, but they probably suspected as much all along.

More? How about Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh or Ken McGrath’s spectacular catches the same day? Tommy Walsh in the same department on any day you care to choose? Pat Tobin’s late equaliser in Limerick-Tipperary Part One? Richie Bennis saying he wanted to go out and hurl himself after seeing it? The ovation Cork supporters gave the Semple Three at Waterford-Cork in the Munster championship? Richie hugging Babs Keating after the second Limerick-Tipp draw? Babs’ face when he did so? Or, above them all, how about the heartfelt tribute Henry Shefflin and his teammates paid to the late Vanessa McGarry on the day of the All-Ireland?

That afternoon after the game, as Shefflin limped from the dressing-room out the tunnel to go up the steps of the Hogan Stand, he was handed the proverbial slip of paper with the speech written on it. He didn’t need a note, however, to tell him to bring young Darragh McGarry up to collect the McCarthy Cup. It was a simple gesture, as obvious as the right thing always is. And it summed up Kilkenny in 2007. Class on the field. Class off it.

None of the above are our highlights of the year, however.

Our selection from 2007 comes not from any spectacular catch or decisive goal, no pithy description or angry outburst. Our highlight is the morning of Monday June 11th.

That was the day after the first Limerick-Tipperary draw, and the replay was scheduled for the following Saturday, with Cork and Waterford due to play their Munster SHC semi-final the next afternoon. The championship had been electrified by Limerick-Tipp, and while we didn’t know, obviously, that that story would become a trilogy, an extra Munster hurling championship game is like found money. As a good omen it didn’t let us down.

The rest of the summer was suddenly ripe with possibility, and what’s more, improbably enough, that possibility was fulfilled.

And that was the Monday which held all the promise you could ever want in the middle of the year. A few days to a perennially entertaining encounter, with an old rivalry being reactivated the night before.

Life at that stage could hardly have been better because it was all ahead of us. As readers well know, the championship season takes on a life of its own, and the days between the big summer Sundays fall into a predictable rhythm for even the casual follower: recovery and analysis on Monday. Injuries being discussed on Tuesday. Teams being named on Thursday, and plans being made on Friday. Those plans are inevitably broken on Saturday, so the last round of phone calls to discuss moves, switches and replacements takes on a practical edge.

A practical edge is needed, because at a couple of months’ remove the season looks like the work of fantasy. The three Limerick-Tipperary games. The three Waterford-Cork games. Tipperary-Wexford. Limerick-Waterford, both versions. Kilkenny-Galway. And at the very start, Waterford-Kilkenny in the league. That’s 11 class games in one season.

Did we imagine it all or is the rear-view mirror too rosy? Not so, said Justin McCarthy at one point during the immortal summer: “You’re seeing hurling at its best, to be honest about it. The best hurlers are around at the moment. They’re the greatest players of all time . . . they’re playing at a level so high that it’s nearly at breaking point at this stage.”

Well, that’s for another day. So is the annual threat to the Munster hurling championship in favour of a new format — open draw/champions league/whatever you’re having yourself. For the moment console yourself with the prospect that it won’t always be winter. June 11th, or some similar day, will dawn in 2008.

And once again the summer will stretch before you.

Michael Moynihan
NOWHERE TO HIDE: Eddie O’Sullivan stands dejected following elimination from the World Cup in France. The Ireland boss is still in place, but his position is not what it was six months ago, given the imminent arrival of several helping hands.Picture: Julien Behal/PA Wire

PERHAPS it’s the Johnny Onion Rings.

Usually even the listless mid-Christmas lull doesn’t get us too downhearted here in Talking Sport, but we’re glum this last couple of days. There may be extenuating circumstances: at a pal’s 40th birthday party the other night the food and drink flowed, but somewhere north of 2am the packets of Johnny Onion Rings started to circulate, and your correspondent is suffering a little yet.

And perhaps that explains the dark clouds over the desk and the gloom facing into 2008. From this seat the coming 12 months may be a long, dark stormy tea-time of the soul.

Count them down. Ireland still doesn’t have an international soccer manager, and the dancing around getting a head-hunter to appoint a team to advise on who to pick in order to appoint shows no sign of stopping.

There’s an element of common sense in waiting, but as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, there comes a tipping point when, consciously or unconsciously, people expect a decision. Or a direction. Or something.

The unhurried air doesn’t sit well given Ireland’s placing in the FIFA rankings: currently just two places below Guinea, though presumably we’re narrowing that gap with every day that passes. We now face a tricky qualifying group for 2010, and if anything symbolises our reduced circumstances, it’s the presence of our bogey team in Group H Cyprus.

THIS past year was when Irish rugby was to come into its own, with much enthusiasm ahead of the Rugby World Cup about our chances of progressing in the tournament. Three months on and the word ‘blip’ now has a very different meaning in the country, though the fact that Eddie O’Sullivan used a very different four-letter word over the weekend to describe the experience may suggest an outbreak of common sense.

Unlike the national soccer team, the rugby side’s boss is still in place, but Eddie O’Sullivan’s position is not what it was six months ago, given the imminent arrival of several helping hands. Given the method of his ascent to the top of the pole in Warren Gatland’s time, O’Sullivan will know exactly what that means.

On a broader front, though Munster continue to do well in the Heineken Cup, the demise of Leinster and Ulster is a worrying portent for the medium term. A lack of candidates for some key positions means trouble if one or two players come down with toothache or common cold. Given the Irish performances before the World Cup began, we may even return to the depressing scenario wherein the Scots can’t help beating us.

And that would be truly depressing.

EVEN in the sports where we’re
acknowledged market leaders,
the clouds continue to lower and loom.

The GAA and GPA may have kissed and made up, but the grants issue isn’t going anywhere for a while – the fact that county boards won’t be administering the grants means there’s already some tinkering going on and that’s likely to continue.

Other signs? The All-Ireland finalist who left to play Australian Rules within a couple of weeks of that game? The perennial discipline problem? The perennial gripes about hurling being a boutique sport?

(Though we feel obliged to point out that while hurling is a joke because Kilkenny have won three of the last five All-Irelands, somehow football is thriving because Kerry have won three of the last four football titles?)

WELL, maybe it’s just us.
The December rain falls on
the just and unjust alike, and perhaps it’s just too much hard work to feel good about what’s on the way. However, 2008 has the potential to be scratchy and fractious on several fronts.

It could be that we’re just building up our sense of enjoyment for the – deep breath – overwhelming joy of New Year’s Eve, or just suffering the inevitable downtime after the glory that was Fair City Sings on Christmas Night, but we don’t think so. We think there may be trouble ahead.

Or maybe it’s just the Johnny Onion Rings after all.

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

When finding genius is more than Beane-counting

IT WAS with a good deal of interest that we saw some English newspapers singing the praises of Billy Beane

Readers with better-than-average recall may remember some time ago we mentioned Beane, a baseball manager of some repute with the Oakland Athletics, and the book written about him by Michael Lewis, Moneyball.

Here’s the 30-second version: the book explains how Beane decided to ignore the hunches and gut instincts of baseball scouts in favour of the hard currency of statistics and percentages when it comes to picking players.

The result? The Oakland Athletics are a relatively successful team because they choose players whose career stats can more or less guarantee reliability. Beane is a great believer in players who can get on base, for instance, rather than those with huge home run totals; though the latter may draw applause, the former can get their teams into a position to win games.

Beane’s approach is appreciated by many top sports figures on this side of the world. The American addressed a football conference in England before Christmas attended by Alex Ferguson, Sam Allardyce, Martin O’Neill, Alan Curbishley and Howard Wilkinson.

The sharp-eyed will immediately see the weakness, however, when it comes to applying a statistic-based approach to fluid field games such as soccer.

Baseball is a series of recurring set pieces whose formality lends itself to minute comparative analysis. Every player has a prescribed role and the game is based on the accretion of detail and figure, while ascribing responsibility for individual plays is a serious issue when it comes to scoring.

By contrast, some of the best work done by a holding midfielder may not involve touching the ball at all. A
fearsome tackler sitting in front of the back four encourages opposition
players to try the wings rather than the centre, but post-game statistics won’t reveal that.

Beane’s approach comes under attack in other ways, too. The Oakland Athletics aren’t one of the richer baseball teams around, so success for them is relative: getting into the play-offs is the height of their ambition, but a World Series title is beyond them.

To win a trophy, you need money, for one thing, but you also need players who dare greatly rather than just accumulate healthy statistics: flair players. Stars. To put this in perspective, one of Beane’s biggest admirers in the soccer world is Aidy Boothroyd — a paragon of honest effort but not likely to have to buy much silver polish.

For our money, objections to the Moneyball model centre on its smudging of the romantic sense of identifying talent. Seeing ability in the raw and knowing that it will blossom is a rare skill in and of itself, and the men who can do it are an unusual breed.

Everyone knows the famous telegram sent by scout Bob Bishop to Matt Busby about the young George Best: “I have found a genius.”

Now, it’s easy to say that the man who identified George Best as a good footballer wasn’t exactly splitting the atom, but it isn’t always that easy.

In the 1940s, baseball scout Tom Greenwade pulled over at the side of a road in Oklahoma to watch some youngsters play a casual game. He was on his way to another town, and another prospect, but before he restarted his car he had spotted Mickey Mantle, one of baseball’s all-time greats.

That sensation, of discovering a star before he really begins to shine, isn’t something that can be determined by figures and averages; it’s dictated by instinct and evaluation, an appreciation built up over years of observation.

And that’s something that comes through in Moneyball, the conflict between the grizzled old-school scouts and the fresh-faced number-crunchers whose philosophies collide in debates over which players should start and which should stay on the bench.

Still, recognising talent has always been an unusual business. They say when Walter Scott’s son was growing up, he had no idea of his father’s fame, but when he was told Scott senior was a genius, he wasn’t surprised; he just thought that that genius applied to
another area altogether.

“Aye,” said young Scott. “When we’re hunting he’s commonly the first to see the hare.”

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie