Irish Examiner Sports Column, January 1 2009

January 12, 2009

John Riordan
Pádraig Harrington who says he plays better when he’s in good humour and Roy Keane who rarely smiled on the pitch.The changing faces of Irish sport

GIVEN the time of year, we’ve decided to put away, with massive self-restraint, the urge to come up with a list of new year’s resolutions for various sporting figures.

(Use it next week when you’re desperate — Ed).

Before casting 2008 on the scrapheap totally, however, something struck us about two of the most
famous Irish sportsmen and their
fortunes last year.

Pádraig Harrington had an
unforgettable year, with victories in the British Open and the USPGA, lending considerable weight to those arguing that the Dubliner is now
Ireland’s greatest sportsman.

Roy Keane had a slightly different year. His Sunderland team exceeded expectations in the Premier League last season, but following a bad run of results and plentiful rumours of unrest, he resigned as manager recently.

It’s fair to say Keane still divides opinion, six years after his departure from Saipan. You’ll find plenty of
passionate advocates of his cause and matching numbers of opponents. However, what’s always interested this column is the number of sportsmen who cite Keane as an influence, or a hero; it’s not for his skill, or his goal-scoring, but for his winning
attitude, that combative desire which meant no cause was lost on the field of play, and which was usually
articulated in his body language by a particular pose — trunk leaning forward, one arm flagging his displeasure, roaring at his teammates.

The evidence of that influence is everywhere. Plenty of GAA players name Keane in those match programmes as their sporting icon, for instance. This column had occasion to ring a current Irish rugby international on the day Keane left Manchester United, and the rugby star spent 10 minutes dissecting Keane’s attitude.

It’s hardly surprising: Keane’s ferocious will to win is shared by most top sportspeople. Some readers will have received sports biographies for Christmas, and one common feature is the subject’s confession that he or she has always been competitive, even if it’s a game of tiddly-winks/first onto the team bus/holding onto the television remote control as a small child.

(This column’s favourite in this genre is a yarn about Michael Jordan losing to a team-mate when playing an amusement arcade video game; Jordan installed an arcade-standard video game in his house, and practised until he could defeat the team-mate).

FEWER people cite Pádraig Harrington’s attitude, and yet the golfer’s record stands comparison with any sportsman’s. Perhaps the critical difference is the demeanour: clearly golf isn’t a game that lends itself to telling an opponent before teeing off that you’ll “see him out there”, as Roy Keane did with Patrick Vieira before a game. But Harrington is conscious of attitude, all the same. He is regarded with fondness by Irish sports fans for his easygoing image on the fairways, and generally revered as the world’s humblest mega-star.

In a recent interview with this column, he dealt with that point — how he’s regarded — by saying he plays better when he’s in good humour.

“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 — that’s when I’m starting to think about what I’m doing.

“I work hard to enjoy my rounds of golf. I work hard to smile on the golf course, because I know when I do I play better golf. If I thought I played better when I looked grumpy on the course then I’d look grumpy.”

Harrington’s last sentence is telling, and perhaps there’s a lesson there for sportspeople. Instead of opting for a default position of aggression and confrontation, going deeper into oneself to get the mental side correct may turn up an attitude to sport that’s truer to one’s own nature.

Harrington did, finding that a positive demeanour was more productive for him. Perhaps Keane did as well, but that doesn’t mean what works for him will work for every sportsperson. It’s interesting to read about athletes in various disciplines being empowered to think for themselves and to make their own decisions, yet many of them cite one particular individual’s attitude as one they aspire to, rather than thinking for themselves and arriving at their own ‘game face’.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re looking forward to 12 months of broad smiles and happy faces. But that approach might work for some; why isn’t it tried more?

Next week, those resolutions…



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