ROY KEANE’S recent departure from Sunderland led to the usual ham-fisted comparisons with Cork people in general, and the current Cork hurling stand-off in particular.

The constituent parts of the rant can be assembled like a Lego castle: what is it in the water down there, always arguing, Rebels by name, look at the carry-on of Stephen Ireland, and so on.

In some ways the lazy arguments have a grain of truth: there’s often trouble in Cork. In GAA terms that trouble goes back a long way.

Anyone who picks up the Christy Ring/Peil DVD reissued by Gael Linn for Christmas will enjoy the plentiful extras on the disc, such as newsreel action from games in the ’50s and ‘60s, as well as a brief documentary on Ring himself, which begins with crowds swarming down the Marina to a Cork-Tipp NHL clash circa 1960. Beyond the choice details such as overloaded rowing boats bringing spectators across the river Lee, not to mention the players’ healthy approach to physical confrontation on the field of play, one aspect of the approach road to the then-Athletic Grounds ground caught our eye.

It is no exaggeration to say that the little dip in the road down from the Marina itself to the Athletic Grounds was in far better nick almost half a century ago, smoothly paved and devoid of potholes, than the cracked and pockmarked road that now leads down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Plenty of people have seized on the condition of Cork’s riverside stadium as an apt symbol for the GAA on Leeside at present: outwardly imposing yet riven with cracks, cutting-edge in its long-ago heyday, but now trailing behind; lumbering and forbidding, remote and uncomfortable.

That kind of personification may appear first to be more relevant to the offbeat psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and Will Self, writers who chronicle the emotional effect of different environments on the people who live in them, but you can tease out the parallels by visiting some significant places on the Cork sporting map.

A journey from the grey hulk of Páirc Uí Chaoimh into the city centre takes you along the Marina and up to Maylor Street, where Munster Rugby maintains an impressive commercial presence in the heart of the city. There’s plenty of branded merchandise for sale in the official Munster shop, as well as posters announcing, far in advance, the team’s next game.

Another snappy stroll takes one along the South Mall and over Parliament Bridge to the official Cork City FC shop.

Cork City has suffered plenty of financial troubles this year, including the ignominy of examinership, but it still maintains a highly visible outlet in the city centre to keep its brand and identity alive. There are plenty of City-branded goods on offer and nobody passing within 50 yards of the shop would be in any doubt about the details of the club’s next outing. The venture is supported by the top administrators in the domestic game: FAI chief executive John Delaney carried out the formal opening.

There is no corresponding GAA commercial outlet in Cork city, the second-biggest urban area in the Republic and a long-standing Gaelic games stronghold. There are plenty of sports shops selling jerseys and tracksuits, but nothing dedicated to the sale of Cork county or club clothing, tickets or other merchandise in the city centre.

Some weeks ago Páirc Uí Chaoimh hosted the county senior hurling and football finals, but you would not have been aware of it upon landing into the city that day. Nothing extra was done to draw people out of their homes and down the Marina for the game. Perhaps a simple billboard or poster on one of the city’s main thoroughfares to alert thousands of passers-by to the line-up, time and venue? As if.

That outlook bespeaks laziness when it comes to consumers, a dangerous attitude to have as recession gnaws at people’s disposable income, and taking your clients for granted can turn them off. Then again, consider the Cork County Board’s history with its own players.

IF YOU head back from the Cork City FC shop on the quay and back into the city centre, a turn or two will bring you to Cook Street, for many years the location for administrative meetings of the Cork County Board.

There is a long and inglorious litany of tense exchanges between players and administrators in Cork, and contrary to what propagandists would have us believe, the two sides have clashed for at least a century. Most people casting their minds back for examples cite the great dash for the train when the Cork footballers headed for Heuston Station rather than play extra time against Dublin in Croke Park in a national league back in the ’80s, or the tangled ‘three stripes affair’ of the ’70s, when Cork footballers faced suspension for wearing Adidas gear.

But the acrimony goes back much further. In the early years of the last century Jamesie Kelleher of Dungourney and Cork, one of the greatest hurlers of his time, sent a letter to local media filled with stinging criticism of GAA administrators within the county. The issues raised are wearyingly familiar even in the 21st century, with the poor treatment of players preparing for games top of his hit-list.

In 1931 the great Cork star Eudie Coughlan retired at the relatively early age of 31. His reason should ring a bell with anyone who followed last season’s stand-off closely; Coughlan took issue with the county board’s decision to remove from his club, Blackrock, the right to pick the Cork team in favour of a selection committee and stepped behind the line as a consequence.

Just over ten years after Coughlan’s retirement, another All-Ireland captain landed into Cook Street to question the conditions under which the Cork hurlers were preparing for an All-Ireland final. Jack Lynch would say later that he got “short shrift” from the board when he suggested that it was unsatisfactory for the Cork players to have their clothing soaked by a leaky dressing-room ceiling as they trained in the Athletic Grounds.

The dual star’s clear-eyed view of what was right and wrong showed up elsewhere. Readers of the new biography of Lynch, written by UCC Professor Dermot Keogh, will find the story of the player travelling to games to play for Cork in a taxi paid for by the county board. Their rules dictated, however, that only players could travel in said taxi, and Lynch recognised the ridiculousness of the situation, travelling alone in the cab as it passed his friends and acquaintances cycling or walking to the very same match. Cork succeeded in spite of those obstacles. Coughlan captained Cork to an epic win over Kilkenny in 1931, and Lynch collected the Liam McCarthy Cup 11 years later as well.

Even the greatest of them all had a withering view of Rebel administrators. Val Dorgan’s biography of Christy Ring includes the story of the maestro being stopped by a jobsworth on the turnstiles in Pairc Uí Chaoimh.

“Leave that man in,” said a county board official who happened upon the scene, “That’s Christy Ring, he won eight All-Irelands with Cork.”

Ring’s riposte was immortal: “And if I wasn’t carrying fellas like you I’d have won another eight.”

The obvious point to make is that the current officers of the Cork County Board are not the same men who tangled with Jamesie Kelleher and Eudie Coughlan. It is exactly 100 years since Kelleher wrote to ‘The Cork Sportsman’ and referred to the board with the words: “It’s time to wake up, take the bags from these gentlemen and show them the outside of the gates.”

While it sometimes appears that the rate of change is glacial at county board level, it’s not that glacial.

However, a particular culture can be perpetuated from generation to generation within any organisation. The reluctance of the Cork County Board to market its own greatest asset — the games it oversees — is an effect of that culture, a symptom that’s easily remedied: it just requires action.

However, the county board’s long history of conflict with its own players is different, and lies at the root of the divisions within the GAA in Cork. It proves that a toxic legacy of disrespect has become the prevailing culture within the organisation, that lessons have not been learned from the past, and that confrontation with prominent hurlers goes back to the beginning of the last century.

Those who blame the Cork senior hurlers for the current stand-off might bear that in mind.

Michael Moynihan is author of Blood Brothers: The Inside Story of the Cork Hurlers 1986-2008 (Gill and MacMillan, 16.99).

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THE first question came to grief in the kitchen. All primed to ask Pádraig Harrington where in his house he keeps the Claret Jug and the USPGA trophy, your correspondent was a little disappointed to see them perched above the sink, in between the potted plants.

“Ah, it’s just nice to have them there,” says the Dubliner. “If anyone wants to hold them, there they are.”

The second question relates to a Harrington interview in that morning’s Guardian, where the double Open champion said —

He interrupts: “I haven’t read anything about myself since I was 18, when I read an interview I gave and it put me off — I lost a match.”

From anyone else this could be translated as don’t bang the door as you leave. Not Harrington, who offers a reasoned explanation. “I know what I’ve said in an interview. I don’t need to be built up or taken down, if you know what I mean. I know you guys have to write the story, and make it exciting, but if you read the good stuff, you start to believe it.”

The irony, of course, is that Harrington is the most media-friendly megastar you’re likely to meet.

“The reason I talk is that I don’t judge. I’m freer when I’m giving interviews because I don’t feel I’m going to be judged.

“Unfortunately, all sports people are conditioned as soon as they come into sport, by mentors, managers and coaches that the press are the enemy. But if you don’t read it, it can’t harm you.

Harrington is a dedicated reader, as long as the subject isn’t himself. A copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is on a shelf in his office, but he hasn’t tackled that yet, having just finished The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. With his attention to mental preparation, it’s no surprise Harrington reads a lot of self-help books. Does that mean over-analysis is a danger? Not quite. “I never analyse at all. Part of having a good mental game is not analysing things while you’re in an event, though that’s very difficult to do. I’ve jumped down the throat of a journalist or two — politely — for telling me my stats in the middle of a tournament, because I only care about the score I’m shooting. It doesn’t matter to me how many greens I’ve hit in regulation or not; the score is what’s important.

“So I don’t analyse, but that’s difficult. That’s why I play better when I’m smiling, because I’m not thinking. When I’m brooding, with the arms folded and looking down at my shoes — as I am now — that’s when I’m starting to think about what I’m doing. That’s what I have to avoid.”

It’s a fair contrast to the general perception of Harrington as an approachable exception to the glowering norm among elite sportsmen, but he’s pragmatic about that benign image.

“I work hard to enjoy my rounds of golf. That’s a fact. I work hard to smile on the golf course because I know when I do, I play better golf. But if I thought I played better when I looked grumpy on the course then I’d look grumpy.

“The goal is to be as confident as possible without arrogance. An ego without arrogance is difficult.

“I’m conscious — sometimes to my detriment — of wanting to be liked. I think we all have that issue, but I’d be conscious of being brought up that way. My father would have insisted on the etiquette of the game, more so than winning or playing good golf.

“That comes naturally to me. I don’t have to think about not throwing my clubs around the course: I just don’t. It’s in my make-up not to walk over a piece of paper on the golf course, I’d pick it up, and I’m diligent about fixing my pitch-marks. I’d have to fix them properly. That’s how my dad would have brought us up, but it wouldn’t have been something he lectured us on. It was just the way he was.”

The way Padraig Harrington lives now looks idyllic. And yet he points out many people “wouldn’t want to do what I do”.

“Much as people might think ‘I’d love to be a top pro golfer’, a lot of them would struggle,” he says. “A big part of being a successful sports person is accepting what goes along with that. If you fight that, you’re going to have a miserable time and you’ll find a way to sabotage your own career. The more you accept all that goes with your career, the more your subconscious will say ‘this is good, I want more of it’.

“It’s like a lot of guys who don’t realise they don’t like winning, because they don’t want the focus or the attention or the pressure — which is why many guys sabotage their game early, so they’ll be in the middle of the field.”

Harrington has been through the mill often enough himself to appreciate the importance of responsibility, a key term for him.

“The point is taking responsibility: you’ll miss the odd shot, but you’ll also hit the odd shot, and the glory and positives of scoring those shots outweigh the misses.

“Any top sportsman — and I’m being critical here in terms of my own career — understands that in order to win you must put your head on the line, and it’ll be chopped off a lot of days. And nothing is worse. It’s horrible. Nothing is worse than when you know you’ve messed up. Sometimes it’s totally outside your control but you still feel terrible — but the highs are worth it.”

Life has become even busier for Harrington following this year’s majors double (‘People are great in Ireland, I can go anywhere I like, but there’s a genuine feeling sometimes — would I be happier sitting at home?’) but the iron discipline needed to make it to the top is often visible in our conversation.

Take a casual question about sports events that get marked in red on the Harrington calendar.

“I don’t clear my schedule for anything, no. The only thing I look for in advance — as in putting it into my schedule — is Cheltenham. I went there a couple of years ago and had a great week. Nothing to do with me, it was all about horses — which I know nothing about — and everybody was getting excited, it was fantastic.

“I’ll go to rugby games and so on when it’s convenient — but only when it’s convenient. There probably isn’t a sporting event now that I couldn’t get to, yet I don’t change my schedule. Not for anything.

“I followed Sunderland’s results keenly – and I use that term deliberately — for the last couple of years. I know Niall Quinn and I’ll continue to support them, but there’s no doubt that there’ll be a lack of excitement, because the reason we follow Roy Keane is we don’t know what’s going to happen.

“That’s his star quality, whether you love him or hate him. It’s compelling, no matter what. Things like that interest me, because there’s such a high and a low in it, and there’s so much passion in it.”

He’s 37 now. A good age for a golfer, but a tricky signpost for most men on the road to middle-age spread.

“I’m not very careful of diet, but I’m aware of what I take in at all times. My problem is I put on weight, and if I start with the treats I’m in trouble.

“I certainly went five years without eating a burger. When I won the European Order of Merit a few years ago I was in Malaga airport, late for my flight, really hungry, and I wouldn’t touch them normally, but . . .”

So it wasn’t a Kobe burger or anything swish? “Not at all. A fast food place next to the Aer Lingus stand, I was in a rush and grabbed a burger . . . and it was the nicest food ever. I’ve eaten burgers since, probably two each of the nights I’ve won majors, but that’s it. I’d never order burgers, never order chips in a restaurant, because I put on weight. Ten pounds since the summer, and my body fat’s gone from 12.5% to 17.5%.

“My first year on tour I was 15 stone, and I went down to 11¾ stone through exercise. I’ve stayed at 13 stone for the last four years but now I’m creeping up to 14 stone, so I’ve to work on that.”

True to form, Harrington recognises benefits from exercise that go beyond the weighing scales.

“A huge number of sports people benefit more from the belief they’re doing something right than from the actual exercise.

“You’ll hear soccer players say ‘I’m doing a new weight programme and playing really well’, but they’re probably gaining more from the psychological benefit that they’re doing something to help them in their sport.

“Some sports people work out for vanity reasons — but that benefits them when it comes to their sport. Feeling good about yourself is a big part of success; if one player in a team sport isn’t fitting in then a lot of guys can be put out because of that.

“In golf, you see a player doing unbelievably well one week and missing the cut next week. Maybe they just liked the hotel they were in the first week, or they found a nice restaurant – some small thing that helps them.”

Harrington tries to take that element of chance out of the equation.

“Of the last 12 majors, I’ve won three and contended in others. But in 10 of them I turned up and played pretty well, which is really pleasing. My goal is to perform in three out of four majors. I’ll give one away, for whatever reason, but in three out of four I believe I’ll perform. If I can get in contention in two, then that’s four majors in two years, and I’d hope to win one. That’s the basis and it’s worked out, getting three wins out of 12 majors.”

So what are the realistic prospects for 2009?

“I don’t state my goals but I set them for myself — some are easy, some are tough. Players can get lost by setting a limiting goal; they reach the peak and feel there’s nowhere else to go. I’m not going to set a goal that might set me on the slippery slope to retirement.

“I try to improve every single department of my game. I’m sensible enough to believe that no matter how much I improve, my results won’t change enormously. They can’t get any better than my good results, but I’m enthusiastic enough to believe that every part of my game can be improved substantially between now and next year.”

He isn’t slow to offer examples.

“If you went through my game — I’ll tell you, I’ve had the yips in the bunker for about two years. Big trouble. If you asked my fellow pros, there’s probably not one who wouldn’t say, ‘No way, I’ve seen you’, but it’s me feeling it.

“Because I’m a professional golfer I’ll still try to get the ball up and down anyway, but I’ve really struggled.

“Even on my chipping, my bunker play, I’m fighting it, and that might be a better way of putting it. If I can improve that — and I believe it should be a lot better — I will, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get it up and down every time.

“Anyone looking at my game would rate my pitching as one of my stronger aspects, but I think I’ve a terrible flaw in my pitching. I know I can putt well but I can putt better. I certainly believe I can hit the ball better — straighter, longer.

“I’ve just gone through my whole game and that gets me out to practice. If I didn’t think I’d get better, I wouldn’t do it; if I even thought I was just keeping it the same, I wouldn’t do it. Any player trying to maintain what they have is scraping a last year or two out of his career. You must try to get better and better.”

Honest enough for you?

The self-examination continues.

” A lot of people wouldn’t get involved in this discussion, but I’ve changed everything. I totally changed my swing — if I was told I could get better, I’d go and do it, but I spent my first 10 years on the Tour getting better for the following week, not for the current week.

“I’ve led many tournaments going into the Sunday but I’d go to the practice range that morning and try to improve something for the following week. Crazy stuff. I’d never do that again. It was a flaw at the time.

” Even if I led tournaments I couldn’t let it go, but it was part of who I am. The reason I’ve performed better in the last couple of years is I understand who I am, I know what makes me play.”

It’s relentless, and he has the parable to suit the occasion.

He proceeds to tell the tale about Yehudi Menuhin, who was approached by a fan after a concert once.

“A woman said to him, ‘I’d give my life to play the violin like that’. Menuhin’s reply was to the point. ‘Madam, I already have’.

“In many ways that’s a lot like sport. You’ve got to love it, you’ve got to want it, but you also have to find a balance. Because if it’s the only priority in your life, it’ll probably kill you.”

A nice example of that balance will present itself next year, the pre-Masters Par 3 tournament. “Yeah, Paddy, my five-year-old is coming to caddy for me at the Par 3; I’ve won that a couple of times.” No pressure then, Harrington junior. Hope his terms of employment are watertight.

“Well, many sons have caddied for their dads. And many of them have been fired, of course.”

Delivered with a straight face. Almost.

Twenty questions (and one for luck)

1. What gives between the Olympic Council of Ireland and the Irish Sports Council? Remember that this summer?

2. If Darren Sutherland is the Dazzler, is Kenny Egan the Kezzler? Would Paddy Barnes be the Paddler? Would Roy Keane be the Rozzler? (Stop that now — Ed)

3. Having spent an hour in the man’s company during the week,
is Pádraig Harrington the nicest human being in Irish sport?

4. Then again, does he have much serious competition?

5. Now that Roy Keane has shaved off his beard, can we expect the hairy cornflakes of the Tyrone football team to do the same? And is that a good or a bad thing?

6. If Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, then why can’t he tie his laces? Or put another way, is he the fastest man in the world because he doesn’t tie his laces?

7. Has anybody now or ever given a good reason for the continuing ties with the AFL or the International Rules apart from a) those involved getting a nice freebie to Australia or b) taking free-kicks from the hand instead of off the ground?

8. The Gaelic Players Association
is offering associate membership — is it worth joining up?

9. Has Jamie Carragher done the unthinkable and created something even rarer than writing the Great American Novel and written the
Actually Interesting In Certain Parts, Amazingly Enough, For A Footballer’s Autobiography?

10. Is the Munster version of the Haka the Muka or the Maka?

More seriously, if there are New Zealanders playing for Munster, why don’t they do that dance before every game?

11. If someone else in the pub says “I’ll tell you something, there’s going to be big changes in sport because of the recession, mark my words,” are you going to stop rolling your eyes and leave immediately (by way of the off-licence)?

12. Eduardo’s leg against Birmingham: you winced, didn’t you? But then you had to have another look, didn’t you?

13. You don’t really know what to make of Declan Kidney yet either, do you?

14. If, as some people are predicting, the Cork hurling team is beaten into the second division of the NHL next year… and if the team suffers accordingly in the championship itself… are we likely to see them demoted to the Christy Ring Cup, with attendant irony?

15. Admit it — deep down you secretly admire the jerseys of Stade Francais, complete with those freaky-looking queen faces (the 13th-century heroine Blanche de Castille, the wife of Louis VIII and heroine of all of Paris, fact fans): you’d love to have the guts to wear one, wouldn’t you. Or, to be strictly accurate, you wish you didn’t have the gut to wear one?

16. Michael Phelps. The food. Remember? (http://www.youtube.com/
watch?v>WouDOVWjfdo if you don’t).

He eats 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day; why is it that he looks like a Michelangelo statue on that diet and your columnist looks like Orson Welles? (And don’t say the training)

17. Exactly how big is Lewis Hamilton? He’s young, rich, talented, cool, famous: can I at least console myself with being taller than him?

18. What is it with Ger Loughnane and priests? Was he a Cromwellian soldier in some past life? Or — slightly more plausible — Martin Luther (“I’ve got 95 Theses, but I’ll only
tell you what they are just before the throw-in”)?

19. Does anyone else think that the build-up to the Lions tour in South Africa next year seems to have been going on since the mid-seventies?

20. Finally, having written a sports book this year, why was this column not forewarned about the irrational hatred suddenly felt towards anybody else who has a book out at this time of the year?

The antipathy towards colleagues who are in direct competition on the sporting front we could have guessed at, but the psychotic bubbling of rage towards the likes of Julie Walters and Dawn French — even if we’re not all appealing to the same constituency — came as a surprise.

Is that normal?

21. Or is it just me?

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

14-12-2008
Colm O’Connor

The gloom show

THE chill was beginning to bite as Cork County Board’s annual Convention came to order last Saturday night. Expectations of fire and brimstone in the main hall of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, however, weren’t fulfilled.

Given the reams of criticism that administrators in Cork GAA have
attracted in recent years, it’s worth
remembering that those who turned up for the convention weren’t draped in the freshly skinned pelts of GPA members. Nor were they carrying torches like the mob in a horror film, ready to advance on the creature’s lair.

Those in Páirc Uí Chaoimh were indistinguishable from their counterparts in other counties and other sports. Middle-aged men for the most part, taking few chances with their wardrobe, sitting in a large hall with photographs of past teams on the walls: the picture is replicated from Malin to Mizen at this time of year.

Their concerns in the meeting were no different to those in other counties also: fixture congestion and clubs
trying to field teams, the search for administrators and player eligibility.

The sharpest exchange early on centred on the knotty issue of players choosing between lining out for UCC and Cork IT, while on sports bursaries at those colleges, or playing for their division: exactly the kind of local issue that a county convention is made for.

Unfortunately, another issue, which long ago ceased being local, was also destined to be raised. The impasse between the Cork senior hurlers, the Cork hurling manager and the Cork County Board was always likely to dominate discussions, and so it did.

In the course of a debate which lasted the better part of 90 minutes, club representatives aired their views of the stand-off as soon as board officers Bob Ryan and Jerry O’Sullivan finished outlining their efforts to restart negotiations with the players.

There were speakers who said the county board had made its decision regarding the senior hurling manager, that it was time to get on with the job and with the players who were willing to play for Cork. The county was a laughing stock, damage was being done to clubs, and so on.

No surprise in that.

What was surprising was that other speakers told the officers of the board at the top table in the hall that they were responsible for the mess.

Others expected more action from the board to deal with the situation.

And some offered solutions. One club delegate noted plans were being made for a new hurling academy and suggested that Cork manager Gerald McCarthy be moved upstairs to run that academy, giving everyone the
opportunity to save face, as he put it; that contribution drew applause.

Another club representative asked if the board was satisfied that the appropriate process had been followed in appointing McCarthy, warning there could be serious consequences if that was not the case, but secretary Frank Murphy assured the convention not alone was decision reached in binding arbitration followed, the spirit of that decision had also been followed.

Murphy expanded his answer to give an overview of the five meetings of the seven-man appointment committee, which had been made up of five board members and two players. When one of the delegates wondered if the interview process could be
revisited — as that appeared to be the point where the appointment
committee had come to grief — the county secretary replied that that was past tense, and not something that could be returned to.

Other points followed from the floor: that a resolution could not be reached at the cost of Gerald McCarthy; that the board was being stonewalled in its attempts to contact the players; why was a player representative not invited to speak at the convention, and so on.

Eventually it was decided that incoming board President Derry Gowen would appoint a person to try to set up a committee involving representatives of the players, the board and the senior hurling management committee. Then President-elect Christy Cooney made some remarks and it was back to the uncomfortable seating in the uncovered stand, the knock-on effects of the proposed cuts in education funding for GAA clubs…

The ordinary problems and challenges facing the organisation were
almost embraced, they were so
humdrum.

Saturday night proved that a resolution is as far away as ever, which is hardly news; neither is the fact that the Cork County Board is satisfied it has acted properly. The hurt and distress displayed by the club representatives, a fair representative sample of GAA people, was no surprise either. The truly depressing aspects of the evening were the fact that they’ve been there before, the fact that they’re there again, and the likelihood that there’ll be more pain before the end.

Outside afterwards the frost was all over the cars.

Roy: what
it’s all about

ON the basis that any newspaper article
benefits from an
infusion of sub-Saharan creation myth, we thought we’d give the place a bit of a shake-up this morning.

Any of you familiar with the work of Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s magazine, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, etc) will know where the title of his latest novel comes from. What Is The What? tells the story of Sudanese teenagers who,
displaced by the civil war in their own country, travel to the United States, bringing their creation myth with them.

According to Sudanese tribes, mankind was originally offered a choice of two gifts by God — the Cow or the What. The Cow was a practical and useful gift, while the What was mysterious and unknown. A gamble.

Man chose the Cow, but ever since he has been tortured by the obvious question: what is the What, and if he’d left the cow behind and chosen that instead, then what would have happened?

This morning the good people of Sunderland are in a position to answer that question. When the club was foundering in the Championship back in August 2006 they had two options — to cast around for one of the
identikit second-tier British managers (the Cow, for our purposes) or to step outside the box — well outside the box, let’s be honest — and make an imaginative appointment. The What, if you like.

That they did. When the Deal They Said Couldn’t Be Done was brokered, we had the extraordinary sight of Roy Keane and Niall Quinn joining forces to try to save Sunderland. It was successful at first — Keane turned the team around that season and drove them from the possibility of relegation to Division One all the way to the Premier League itself.

Sunderland survived the Premier League last year, but this term has been difficult from the start. Second-
season syndrome isn’t uncommon among clubs promoted to the top flight — Reading’s second-year slump is the classic example — but Sunderland’s 4-1 thumping by Bolton
Wanderers last weekend appears to have been the last straw.

Eggers’ novel features a scene with two of those Sudanese orphans hiding as they watch their village being destroyed by enemy troops: one of them points at the carnage and asks the other: “Do you think that is the What?”

A fair question, because that’s the risk you take with the What: nobody knows where it’ll take you.

Reasonable questions remain about Keane the manager. Purchases like El Hadji Diouf and Anthony Stokes don’t appear to have worked out, while a much-trumpeted keenness on off-field time-keeping didn’t translate into efficiency during games. The sheer bewildering variety of line-ups in red-and-white stripes suggested there was no first-choice XI either.

In addition, Keane’s readiness to deal with different topics at his weekly press conferences, while hugely entertaining, has also been instanced as evidence that his focus on management has been blurred. His longtime supporter, Eamon Dunphy, said the Black Cats boss was “pontificating on everything” and was “beginning to believe the Roy Keane mythology”. (Of course, given Dunphy’s role as mythologiser-in-chief… well, it’s fair to say a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a simple mind).

The immediate consequence of Keane’s departure for most observers will be a tidal wave of speculation, among the media and public, centring on the Cork man’s state of mind. Stand by for reams of opinion on Keane’s motivation, his thought process, his reasons for acting the way he has, his deep-seated hopes and fears — with 99% of that speculation based on foolproof clinical conditions.

Namely, observing Keane on Match of the Day, chewing his beard on the sideline of the Stadium of Light.

For nigh on 15 years, it’s been the most popular parlour game in Ireland, with everybody feeling a spurious entitlement to state their five cents’ worth on the Keane mentality. Those views range from boozy opinion to pseudo-academic justification, with stops at every intermediate station.

Now, with Keane gone from the public eye for the foreseeable future, armchair psychologists will be bereft. Even as the economy plummets and we face a future of brown-outs and busted pensions, it looks like the last free entertainment has gone west.

A bleak outlook, but they were still right to go for the What.

contact:
michael.moynihan@examiner.ie