ON MONDAY morning, as the Derry County Board were deciding whether to withdraw from all senior inter-county competitions for the foreseeable future, I ran into an eminent QC from County Down.
“Its all got so dull and serious,” he ranted. “Derry players being interviewed before the game saying that it wasn’t about entertainment but about results! We have lost the run of ourselves.”
His point was that the ‘win at all costs’ mentality is the default position of professional sport. It should not be the guiding principle of the GAA. In that vein, I was interested to hear Offaly manager, Tom Coffey’s remarks after the Kildare machine rolled over them at the weekend. “I don’t think we could afford to get to Kildare’s level,” he told the assembled Press pack. Kildare, like the other elite teams, are approaching Gaelic football in the way that the South Africans or Munster approach rugby. As a result, they are now destroying teams that once competed against them. So, while Donegal were flattening Derry with a frankly awesome performance of power, confidence, concentration and attention to fine detail, Kildare were doing the same to Offaly.
Which poses a crucial philosophical question about sport and how we should approach it. The Irish soccer team’s European campaign has been a perfect illustration of the dilemma. With five minutes to go in Gdansk against Spain, trailing 4-0, the noise in the stadium suddenly went off the charts. Only it wasn’t the Spanish supporters. It was ours. As the ground shook to a deafening rendition of “The Fields of Athenry,” Peter Drury, the ITV commentator, was momentarily bewildered. “The Spanish are . . . it’s the Irish, they’re singing . . . and the Spanish are clapping along.” It was a culture shock for the Englishman. In his country, their soccer team and manager spend their professional lives walking the plank, their supporters waiting for them to fall in. The English have savaged one manager after another: Graham “Turnip head” Taylor, Steve “wally with the brolly” McClaren, Mystic Glen, Sven the philanderer. The list is endless. Keegan was an emotional clown, Capello an overpaid foreigner who didn’t bother to learn English. Is it any wonder England’s players have expressions of dread on their faces when they take the field, when louder than the first whistle is the sound of their fellow countrymen’s knives being drawn. It is the same story for all the others. “Blamage” (Disgrace) was the headline in the main Dutch daily newspaper the morning after the Germany defeat. Football for them is joyless. Either you win, or you are nothing. Like McGeeney’s Kildare.
The Irish supporters showed us all the other way. At the final whistle against Italy on Monday, our motley group of players received a thrilling standing ovation. The fans chanted “You’ll never beat the Irish”, till they were hoarse.
Everyone knew that Spain would make our heads dizzy. This was, after all, Leitrim versus Dublin in an All-Ireland quarter final at Croke Park. How could the Leitrim fans complain? At one point in the first half I counted 37 unbroken Spanish passes. As the ball pinged back and forwards with radar accuracy from one red jersey to another, you could only feel sorry for the boys. “The Irish need to play like Chelsea against Barcelona” remarked Drury. True Peter, most of the Barcelona team plays for Spain. But it’s also true that none of the Irish could dream of making the Chelsea squad. Safe to say Roman Abramovich will not be sitting on his yacht on balmy evenings this summer, stroking his pet tiger and mulling over whether to buy Sean St Ledger or Simon Cox.
In the second half, Spain took off Torres and replaced him with Fabregas, the premiership’s best player in the 2010/11 season before he joined Barca. Meanwhile, we were bringing off Glen Whelan and replacing him with Paul Green. I had to look Paul up in Wikipedia. Turns out he joined non-league Doncaster Rovers when he was 19, spending seven seasons there as they rose through the divisions. He then moved to Derby, who released him at the end of last season. Currently unemployed, his only senior honour to date is a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy medal. Iniesta eat your heart out!
Roy Keane, over on ITV, embodied the win at all costs approach with his withering attacks on both Ireland’s players and supporters. “They all have to change their mentality. It’s nonsense, players speaking after the game about how great the supporters are. I’m not happy with that nonsense. To praise the supporters for the sake of it. Lets change that attitude towards Irish supporters. Lets not just go along for the sing-song every now and again.” Unable to conceal his utter contempt, he concluded with the spiteful remark that this was “a reality check for a lot of the Irish team, a lot of them think they are top players. It goes to show how far they are behind.”
Roy was a brilliant player and is a fascinating analyst, but his credentials as a patriot are dubious. He was and is all about Roy. Loyalty is a foreign concept. When he was Ireland’s “top player” (to coin a phrase) he contemptuously abandoned his team-mates, preferring to walk his dogs through the suburbs of Manchester while what Roy wouldn’t refer to as his team-mates went on a glorious adventure in the Far East. Manchester Utd were great as long as they were winning and Roy was doing well. When his end neared however, Roy did what he always does and attacked his old team mates, forcing Alex Ferguson to banish his once favourite son. He brought the same cold focus and lack of loyalty to his short-lived managerial career. A perfectionist and sociopath, Roy will never understand the Irish people. To him, they are losers.
For me, those 40,000 travelling fans epitomise all that is good about the Irish. Savouring their conduct in Poland and Ukraine, it is hard to believe we made such fools of ourselves over the last 20 years. Community life was forsaken as individual greed took over. We had to have a bigger house and more money and foreign property. We forgot the sheer joy of joining the party, singing, having a few pints and taking the piss out of ourselves. We had to win at all costs. Far from their behaviour in Poland being “nonsense”, their joy, camaraderie, pride, devilment and loyalty has been the very essence of sport. Derry’s and Offaly’s footballers got decapitated on Saturday, but GAA folk know there is a far bigger picture. Altogether now, “By a lonely prison wall....”