Friday, June 29, 2007

Jack and the Green Talk

The threat to his life might not be as serious, and it may not have caused quite such a global incident, but in the context of the past week it has seemed that Keys to the Kingdom, Jack O'Connor's account of his Kerry football managership was the GAA's very own Satanic Verses.

While the prophets of the county's glory years under Mick O'Dwyer got the sacrilegious treatment from a bitter O'Connor, it was the Ayatollahs of Croke Park who cried "fatwa" when the manager's claims in Keys to the Kingdom to have been "reimbursed" for lost earnings during the 2006 season were publicised.

The irony of this most sizzling of GAA hot potatoes - the illicit payment of managers - re-emerging in relation to Kerry is that the Kingdom are generally noted for not being involved in such naughtiness. The honour of managing football's premier franchise has always been considered reward enough, and the issue of payment to managers is more often associated with clubs and counties whose deep hunger for success, and even deeper pockets, lead them to seek the services of managerial mercenaries outwith their own borders.

O'Connor and Sean Walsh, the county board chairman, presented a united front on local Kerry radio yesterday, both pointing out that the reimbursement O'Connor received in return for taking half days from his teaching job came in the form of a family holiday offered at the end of the season. If so, and the honour of Kingdom football has been impugned unfairly, then it was at least a strange choice of words by O'Connor, and peculiar not to refer directly to the holiday being the compensation.

The county board's indignant response to any innuendo over illegal payments can, according to Walsh, be backed up by the detail of their accounts. Cynics will remember that the GAA's last effort to turn up hard evidence on such payments foundered, there being few county boards including the line "Manager's Bumper Salary" in their profit and loss accounts. These payments are instead often classified as travel, accomodation and food expenses, which GAA boards are allowed to pay.

The word 'hypocrisy' is dusted down whenever this issues arises, and yesterday Dessie Farrell, chief executive of the GPA, was the one calling for the discrepancy between the association's saintly stance and the clandestine reality to be redressed. "We all know that many managers at the top level, and even at club level, are being paid. So let's eradicate the hypocrisy, make allowances for what's happening and try and control it in an acceptable way. Managers have to devote so much time, effort and dedication that it has now gone to a professional level," said Farrell.

The preservation of the 'amateur ethos' is such a cornerstone of the GAA philosophy that the tendency of Croke Park to put its fingers in its ears and go "la-la-la" whenever whispers of the existence of such payments become audible is understandable. Denial is an easier option than initiating change that would fundamentally redefine what the organisation reprensents, and how it likes to perceive itself.

By establishing the principal that a person should get financial reward for participating in the association's activities, the GAA would undoubtedly provide the pathway to formal professionalism not just in the managerial ranks, but soon too amongst the elite players (who are, by the way, subject to plenty rumours of "reimbursement" themselves currently).

However, by persisting with the pretence of the GAA's amateur purity, the association are beginning to resemble the propagandists of a failing communist state, broadcasting images of rosy-cheeked youths building the socialist utopia, and ignoring the black market reality on the ground.

Initially, when news of O'Connor's statement about "reimbursement" emerged, it seemed as if the former Kerry boss was about to become a high profile agent of a campaign to take the practice of payments to managers above ground. Despite backing down on the issue, the suggestion that even the Kerry manager, probably the most prestigious job in Gaelic football, might be a part of this secret economy will surely shake the GAA's steadfastness on the matter.

Salman Rushdie might yet have to advise O'Connor of some suitable hiding places.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Blair Generation

With Gordon Brown having tea and a Swiss Roll with the Queen, having finally escorted Tony Blair from the Downing Street premises, let's pay tribute to the longevity of the nicest war-mongering liar there ever was by looking at the fate of his contemporaries in sport's biggest jobs on that "glad confident morning", May 2, 1997.

Mick McCarthy, Republic of Ireland manager
McCarthy had his own Iraq quagmire in Saipan in 2002, when he attempted regime change in the Ireland dressing room by way of a pre-emptive strike on Roy Keane. Like Saddam with the UN resolutions, McCarthy was convinced that Keane was flaunting the authority of his stewardship with his behaviour, in particular in a newspaper interview with The Irish Times.

Unlike Saddam, McCarthy soon discovered that Keane did, in fact, possess weapons of mass destruction, mainly in the shape of his intercontinental ballistic potty-mouth.
Still in office? Removed by mob revolt following the home loss to Switzerland in the Euro qualifiers of October 2002.

Glenn Hoddle, England manager
When Blair was asked in an interview for Vanity Fair to what extent he and George Bush were bonded by a shared strong belief in Christianity, Alistair Campbell (the PM's media attack-dog, or Director of Communications and Strategy as he was also known) made the interception: "Is he on God?" said the hovering Campbell, "We don't do God."

Oh that Glenn Hoddle had the benefit of Campbell's secular life-jacket when his peculiar blend of faith and new-age mumbo jumbo plunged him into the soup in February 1999. While having faith healer Eileen Drewery laying hands on England's finest was considered an acceptable eccentricity, suggesting that disabled people were being punished for sins committed in their past lives proved a quirky foible too far for the FA.

Still in office? Hoddle's managerial assassination was complete when, ironically, his equivalent in the Downing Street dugout added his disapproval to the resulting uproar - Blair stated that it "would be very difficult for him (Hoddle) to stay."

Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager
If there is one figure in public life whose survival skills exceed Blair's, it is Alex Ferguson. Not only has Ferguson survived into pensionable age at the helm of one of the world's biggest football clubs (Tony having only made it to age 54), but he has also bettered him in another sense: being able to survive even his own pre-ordained resignation date.

While many suspected that Blair's decision to announce his departure several months in advance of today's final farewell was forced on him through incessant pressure to do so from his heir apparent, Gordon Brown, Ferguson's pre-announcement of his retirement (to occur at the end of the 2001-02 season) was originally ended to allow the manager to leave in a dignified manner, and presumably with an eighth Premiership title to boot.

However, Ferguson's supposed final season was a disappointing one, the club finishing third in the Premiership (their worst finish since 1991) and it was suspected that his impending departure had affected his authority and ability to exert discipline within the club.

But Fergie had no power-hungry Gordon Brown ready to usurp him in his moment of weakness; he renéged on his original decision, signed a new three-year contract in February 2002, and took his eighth title the following year.

Still in office? You betcha, and this particular premier seems to personify the sentiment once expressed by one of Blair's predecessors, Margaret Thatcher: "I intend to go on, and on, and on".

Ger Loughnane, Clare hurling manager
Like Blair in 1997, in 1995 Ger Loughnane's messianic zeal had achieved the seemingly impossible; winning the All-Ireland with Clare was as great a feat as getting the previously unelectable British Labour Party back into office with a landslide majority.

In 1997, when he steered Clare to another All-Ireland, he was still in the full pomp of his powers, much like Blair was when his hand of history helped push the squabbling parties of the North towards the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

But just as Blair's zealousness and stubborn convictions allowed him to lead his country into an unwinnable war, Loughnane's maddening pursuit of various grievances in the 1998 season marked the point when one of his greatest strengths began to weaken the cause he was supposed to champion.

Still in office? After a prolonged detour on the sporting equivalent of the lecture circuit, Loughnane is currently attempting to to return to high office with Galway.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Correct Definition of Hurling

TSA is currently engaged in the shameful business of trying to get a ticket for the Munster hurling final, despite being from neither Waterford nor Limerick, nor Munster, and being from a part of the country where usage of the verb 'to hurl' is only necessary at 4am on a Sunday morning following the consumption of twelve pints of lager, six Fat Frogs and a curried chip.

Fortunately, however, TSA's better half, as well as being an infinitely patient and tolerant soul, hails from Limerick, so, should a ticket come my way, by pretending to have been "dragged along" I can offset the guilt of prising a brief from the hands of some doe-eyed 7-year-old in Newcastlewest.

So why the big interest in going to the Munster hurling final, the unschooled in sliothar-related matters may ask, from one who, if handed a hurley in his youth, might have used it to mix a tin of paint with?

Well, maybe some of it is the fact that no Irish sporting competition receives quite as much mythological-sounding prose as the Munster hurling championship (Vincent Hogan in the Indo on Limerick's victory over Tipp on Sunday: "In the end, it became a battle against gravity almost. Limerick and Tipperary just slugging it out on a dark, impostor of a summer's day. Biblical rain."). It's almost as if Irish sportswriters enter their own temporary Celtic Twilight period after stepping off the train in Thurles.

But even those who prefer their daily newspaper to be less Naom Chomsky and more "Naomi, 21, from Leeds" can appreciate the perennially epic nature of Munster hurling matches, and, by extension, the special status of the final in and of itself.

If this year's final channels half the eye-rubbing astonishment of the matches that preceded it then it won't be far off that classic status of many of its forebears. Only Cork v Clare disappointed, especially by providing several weeks-worth of the tiresome Semplegate saga (that -gate suffix shows no sign of well-earned obsolescene, by the way; is it Woodward and Bernstein's most enduring legacy?).

Limerick are the cult heroes of this year's Championship as a whole so far, their improbable comebacks and the passion of their play deserving of a Hollywood treatment of some sort. By virtue of the exposure provided by three gripping matches, names like Andrew O'Shaughnessy, Ollie and Niall Moran and Mark Foley have reached the household status usually reserved for the stars of the traditional powers.

Despite starting Sunday's match brilliantly, and playing some genuinely sweet hurling in the first twenty minutes, Limerick seemed to have become so addicted to coronary-inducing drama that they weren't happy to win it without drawing another hefty measure from the thrill tank. But their superior physical strength was eventually replicated by their will, and from the moment that Mark Foley howled like a prairie dog after flattening an unfortunate opponent, you sensed they wouldn't be denied.

I took in this game in a central Dublin hostelry noted as a watering place on the tourist trail between Temple Bar and Grafton Street. The elderly American couple nearby cooed their appreciation at the action on the telly, each "gahlly" or "jiminy" followed by a "they'd love this in the States". It was easy to see the attraction. Aside from the obvious authenticity of watching two teams with such quintessentially Irish names as 'Limerick' and 'Tipperary' playing this indigenous game, the nature of the play sold itself, making it one of the few games to do that without requiring a prior knowledge of the rules or a 'feel' for its nuances.

For all that, a Waterford fan (voicing his opinion in the toilets at half time) was sanguine about the threat posed by either side come that final a week on Sunday. "Wouldn't be worried about whichever one gets through," said he, the demeanour of the complacent unmistakeable.

Let's hope the fantastic series of games just past gets a better elegy than that, and either or both of the teams can figure later on in the Championship.

Oh yeah, and Up Limerick! (Can I have a ticket now please?)

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Silly Billys

It's full of giddy, Pimms-sipping sloanes. The pervading mood is of plucky,"remember the war" good cheer, despite interminable rain delays. It has a royal box in which actual royals occasionally sit. Cliff Richard singing 'Bachelor Boy' acapella is considered a memorable highlight, and not a gruesome method of torture. It's full of people for whom a jumper is not a jumper unless it is draped around the shoulders. The enthusiasm with which its patrons support British players is the biggest case of misplaced faith since a few lost souls decided that David Koresh made some worthwhile points.

Yes indeed, Wimbledon is the silliest sporting event of all.

The aforementioned items are just a select few symptoms of the silliness that grips SW19 at this time of year. 'SW19', for instance: a tournament that refers to itself as a postcode? Haven't we learned anything from the demise of East 17? Making Roger Federer wear those ludicrous outfits - how apt that, when in Wimbledon, the greatest player of them all must also look like the silliest.

Federer's Edwardian-chic look is instructive. Those that preserve what are usually called the 'traditions' of the tournament have long been engaged in a pitched battle against the forces of sense, although they have portrayed their struggle as being an effort to the preserve timeless values in the face of the heartless juggernaut of modernity.

In reality, however, it is a campaign to reinstate the use of the word "frightfully" in place of the functional, utilitarian "very". It expresses a desire for the middle months of the year not to referred to as the politically correct "summer" but rather, altogether more agreeably, as "the Season". It is the wish to revert to a time when one did not "leave Uni and get a job", but rather "came down from Oxford and took a position".

In attempting to rewind the clock back to the time when Britain was, apparently, Great, they have revealed that, actually, Brittania was just plain silly.

Have no doubt that, in foisting on the unsuspecting but eager-to-please World Number One such a monstrously silly garment as a "sleeveless monogrammed sweater", the forces of Wimbledonism believe they have struck a blow against the lycra-clad, carbon fibre racket-wielding stormtroopers of the 21st century.

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, when field marshals could conduct war via the gentlemanly convention of sending several thousand eager lower-class sorts over the top, whistling on their way as they dodged Bosch bullets; when one's idiotic, philanderer son could be dispatched off out of harm's way to some distant imperial outpost, in which he could pursue all the native flesh he wished; when tea came with cucumber sandwiches, not Penguin biscuits.

Yes, silly times indeed. And for two weeks every end of June and beginning of July, the world can be silly again.

Silliest of all, of course, is the fact that Britain has a tennis tournament of this magnitude at all. What a contortion of reason it is that a country that hasn't produced a tennis player capable of winning its own most significant professional competition since dearest Ginny Wade in 1977 (and in the men's - sorry, Gentlemen's Championship - Fred Perry in 1936) is anointed the centre of the tennis world for a fortnight every year.

Not that the good people of Wimbledon accept their heroes' inadequacies. In the silliest sporting event of all, the silliness quotient reaches its most dangerously high levels when a Brit plays. The amount of silliness being deployed during those few hours is such a drain on the national silliness reserves that one year Ken Dodd was booed off stage at Blackpool pier while Jeremy Bates was playing on Centre Court.

Those were the good old days of course, when Bates carried British hopes. A chap called Jeremy, wearing a sleeveless monogrammed sweater, deploying his flimsy serve and volley game against the Lendls and Edbergs like Greeks laying siege to Troy with pea-shooters.

Then Tim Henman came along. They could just about handle him, mend him into shape for the silliness. He was a good player, nearly too good, but not quite. He competed well on the ATP Tour, attained respectability in the world rankings, reached six Grand Slam semi-finals, deployed a much less flimsy serve and volley game and, at his best, might actually have won the blasted thing.

But his name was Tim. He had a wife called Lucy. He did the angry-clenchy-fist thing when he won a point. And there was no place that more symbolised the arch-silliness of Wimbledon than Henman Hill, and nothing that sounded quite as silly as a lone Centre Court voice crying "come on Tim!"

But then came Andy Murray. A Scot for one thing. And a product of a clay court tennis hot-house in Barcelona, rather than the barley water and flannel trouser approach of the Lawn Tennis Association. And a surly, precocious brat. Not an ounce of silliness there at all. Thankfully he injured a wrist while hitting a ball too dashed hard and won't be there to spoil the fun this year.

So there it is, two weeks of silliness. And there's no harm in that really, I suppose, if kept under control. But we must be vigilant: what if there was a confluence, say, of a "People's Sunday", a Cliff singalong and a Henman revival?

Dear God. That would be frightfully silly.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Historic Sosa Yet To Be Judged

'Slammin'' Sammy Sosa hit his 600th career home run the other day, becoming only the fifth person in the history of baseball to do so, after Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. The milestone came in the 62nd came of his comeback stint at the Texas Rangers, and, fittingly, was against the Chicago Cubs, with whom he spent 13 seasons and for whom he hit 545 of those home runs.

I saw him hit his 248th of that total, during my first ever visit to a major league baseball game, in which the Cubs defeated the Montreal Expos 9-5 at Wrigley Field. Henceforth the burly Dominican Republican remained a favourite of mine, having indoctrinated me in that most American of pastimes, whooping drunkenly at a home run.

Furthermore, he proceeded to conduct a thrilling chase for the all-time single season home run record with St.Louis' Mark McGwire, and his exploits helped drag the Cubs into a rare appearance at that season's play-offs.

But, unbeknownst to me, however, Sosa's achievements were already being tainted with the suspicion which has hung over baseball's big hitters for a decade. Sosa turned up for spring training prior to that 1998 season having put on noticeable muscle, and that season's 66 home runs had been preceded in 1997 by a mere 36. Sudden bulk and drastic improvement: the cynic's mandate.

Unlike Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger whose record-breaking home run hitting has been marred by his implication in the BALCO doping scandal, Sosa's name has not been directly linked with any organised illegal steroid use. He has also never tested positive for taking banned substances.

Sosa testified before the congressional House committee into the matter of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport and stated that he had never used "illegal performance-enhancing drugs," had never "injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything," and had not "broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic." This statement may have been a tacit acknowledgement that his physical improvement was as a result of a substance like androstenedione, which was also allegedly used by McGwire, but which was not banned by the the baseball authorities at the time.

The stains on Sosa's reputation stretched to his perception within the Cubs themselves. He was reportedly an exceptionally arrogant figure, and one story from the end of his Cubs career illustrates that his popularity with the fans might not have been shared by his team mates.

After being dropped for the last fixture of the 2004 season (his last with the club) Sosa turned up at Wrigley Field only an hour before the game, then left after only 15 minutes. Having used his star player status to monopolise the music played in the dressing room at the Cubs (a privilege usually given to the days' starting pitcher), generally playing pop or salsa music extremely loud, Sosa's teammates used his absence as an opportunity to smash his boombox, an action which brought a symbolic end to his association with the Cubs.

Like McGwire, whose candidacy for the baseball Hall of Fame was rejected earlier this year, Sosa's legacy remains clouded. Many expected that he too would be denied the sport's greatest honour when he becomes eligible, five years after retirement.

However, a thawing in the attitude to Sosa was evident upon the achievement of his 600th home run on Wednesday. After leaving the Cubs, Sosa endured a poor season at Baltimore, before announcing his retirement. After taking a year out of the game in 2006, he has received praise for working his way back into shape, and into the major leagues, with Texas. He has reportedly been a model teammate, and has been commended for the example he has provided to the Rangers' younger players.

Many of those asked their opinion on whether he should be admitted to the Hall of Fame have veered towards a positive answer since Wednesday, citing the fact that he has never failed any drugs test during his career and that the scale of his achievement in joining such an elite band must be noted.

Sosa's rehabilitation in the public's minds is far from certain, however. It seems likely that he will always be associated, along with McGwire and Bonds, with an era in which the game's precious records and milestones were devalued wholesale by the influence of performance-enhancing substances.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

They Were A Bit Good

It's thirty-seven years to the day since football's high watermark. Brazil's World Cup win in 1970 has long been seen as the game's Sistine Chapel, its Ulysses, its Sergeant Pepper (or Revolver. Or Take That and Party. Whatever you're having yourself). Of course, the filter of nostalgia and the immortal splash of colour film in which their feats have been preserved have burnished their living memory, but the clip below reminds us that, in the simple matter of playing ball, the 1970 Brazil team were the best you will ever see.

And Carlos Alberto recalls that fourth goal.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Thaksin Attempts Blue Moon Party

"Typical City", they'll no doubt be saying in the bars and clubs where Manchester City supporters gather to ponder the latest tragi-comic twists in the affairs of their beloved club. For the club that are the only First Division champions ever to be relegated in the very next season (in 1938) the prospective takeover by the deposed former Thai premier and rumoured recruitment as manager of a certain randy Swede are, indeed, typical.

With the recent flood of overseas capital washing away the old guard of self-made men from the boardrooms of English football, City fans might have been entitled to expect their own American sports capitalist or acceptably shady Russian billionaire to reignite a club whose spirits have dipped after several drab, underachieving seasons.

Indeed, they might have looked on in envy as a member of their own official Hall of Fame, Niall Quinn, chose to harness Irish euros to breathe new life into another of his former clubs, Sunderland, whose self-esteem had plummetted even lower than City's.

Instead, City supporters await the outcome of Thaksin Sinawatra's proposed bid for the club, a takeover which, if successful, according to reports today, would lead to Sven Goran Eriksson becoming the club's 39th manager.

The underlying theme of xenophobia has never been far away during due diligence in any of the recent foreign takeovers of English clubs. It's a common enough response even in non-football takeovers, whether it be in banking, aviation or heavy industry for example, for the loss of indigenous ownership to be the subject of knee-jerk jingoism and doomsaying.

In an industry in which the emotional investment of its 'customers' is as significant as the financial commitment in the boardroom, the idea of the club's 'soul' being casually exported is a predictable cause of supporter outrage.

But English football has subsequently learned to live with its new foreign overlords. Messrs Abramovich, Gaydamak, Glazer, Lerner, Gillett and Hicks arrived, and the clubs they have bought have generally prospered. So any fears City fans might have about the current flirtation with Thaksin are unlikely to be based simply in narrow minded fear of Johnny Foreigner.

On the other hand, Thaksin's eventful recent past is well worthy of furrowed brows down Eastlands way. A controversial, populist figure as Thai Prime Minister, he first came to prominence on these shores during a takeover bid for Liverpool in 2004, which was reportedly to be funded via the proceeds of a Thai state lottery.

He is thought to have precipitated his own downfall by selling off his family's shares in the Thai telecoms group Shin Corp to Singaporean investors. As well as the avoidance of taxes, ironically enough, one of the charges levelled against him was of selling off a national asset into foreign hands.

Street protests and a bungled snap election followed, before last September's military coup in which Thaksin was deposed while he was in New York visiting the United Nations. Just this week, the current military government has frozen $1.6 billion of his assets as part of a investigation into corruption during his rule, and ordered him to return to Bangkok to face corruption charges.

Aside from the accusations concerning his finances, he has also been criticised for operating a draconian anti-crime policy, reputedly including a brutal crackdown on drugs in Thailand which led to the deaths of 2,500 people.

Judging by that C.V., the appointment of Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager might be the least of City's worries, despite the former England coach's established knack for earning vast salaries in return for negligible results. Despite the latest developments in Bangkok, talk from Thaksin's camp has remained bullish. Spokespersons have accused the military junta of attempting to tarnish the former premier and scupper his bid to take over at City.

Worried City fans might note in consolation that the optimistic tone of Thaksin's camp is currently remarkably similar to that expressed in the dying days of his Liverpool bid. But if he does take over, it remains to be seen whether City will be the latest club to benefit from foreign ownership, or if their fans will end up nostalgic for the days of Peter Swales notorious chairmanship.


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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Honourable Mentions

"Arise Sir Beefy" acclaimed the tabloids as English cricket's erstwhile swashbuckling hero and charity walker was revealed as the latest sportsperson to receive a knighthood. The Queen's birthday honours list also rewarded Ryan Giggs with an OBE, for "services to sport" and granted an MBE to Teddy Sheringham, though merely for "services to football".

Quite how Sheringham was allowed the honour after his disgraceful recent behaviour is a mystery. The integrity of the institution of Miss Great Britain was heinously compromised by his clandestine voting for girlfriend Danielle Lloyd while judging last year's prize. And there was the speeding thing too.

Aside from high profile gongees like the aforementioned, Mrs Windsor also confers recognition on the 'little people' among her sporting subjects. 'Mighty' Madge Morgan of Carterton, Oxfordshire, got the MBE for services to lawn bowls for visually impaired people.

And what services! Madge took up lawn bowls in 1967, as she began to lose her sight. Blind bowls players use the help of a sighted assistant, who describes where the bowls should go using the numbers on a clock. With husband Max as her trusty aide, Madge proceeded to storm the blind bowls world, representing England on countless occasions, sweeping all before her in disabled World Championships and making the final round of the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.

She marked her retirement in 2000 at the age of 75 by engaging in a Bobby Riggs v Billie Jean King-style battle with fully sighted England international Les Gillett, which, according to the Oxford Mail, Gillett only came through after a 'stern' test.

Also honoured with an MBE was Mitsusuke Harada, or Sensei as he is known to thousands of British karate enthusiasts. Born in Manchuria in 1928, he grew up in Tokyo, where he attended the famous Shotokan dojo. Shotokan was one of the original forms of karate, developed by Master Gichin Funakoshi and his son, Yoshitaka, the former of whom is credited with bringing karate to Japan from Okinawa.

Harada studied under these masters in Tokyo, even engaging the elderly Gichin to teach him personally after the Shotokan dojo burned down during an American bombing raid in 1945, and is effectively a living link to the martial art's progenitors. After studying commerce at university, he entered banking, and was eventually posted to Brazil. He is credited with introducing karate to South America, founding the Karate-do Shotokan Brazileo with the blessing of Master Funakoshi.

Subsequently he travelled to Europe, first to Paris and then to Britain, where he established the Karate-Do Shotokai in 1966 to develop and teach the new martial art in Britain.

In 1998 he was invited back to Japan to demonstrate with his students at the joint celebration of the 130th anniversary of Funakoshi's birth and the 60th anniversary of the creation of Shotokan Karate. The KDS demonstration proved to be an enormous success and Harada gained acceptance in his own country as a master of Shotokan, almost 60 years after his karate life had begun in Funakoshi's original Shotokan dojo.

With Harada Sensei and 'Mighty' Madge being joined by the likes of Margaret Borley, coach of Tonbridge Bobcats youth baseball team, Eric Hardwick (services to the Hastings Half Marathon), Terry Griffiths, Sir Beefy and the rest, what a fine tapestry of sporting subjects you have, ma'am.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

They're Back!

Quite clearly, they haven't gone away, you know.

The biennial spectacle of Tyrone's footballers in full, voracious flow continues. Whatever it is that they do during those even years when they virtually disappear, they should market it to burned-out executives as the perfect rejuvenation therapy. Maybe they signed some sort of pact with the devil, which, along with having to give the Dark Lord's son a regular game at right corner-back, means their particular brand of footballing devastation can only be deployed every second year.

Whatever, they're back now and that's that. Deal with it.
Mickey Harte's responses to post-match questions used that formula that the Tyrone manager swears by: for howsoever fantastic my team are, I will be proportionally humble. "We have to be very careful here, because we weren't a great team coming into this game so we're no world beaters now," Harte protested, codding no-one.

Now, in the all-time list of abject Donegal performances in the Ulster Championship, yesterday's effort will jostle its way among the many other contenders near the top. All the same, this particular Clones cyclone blew Tír Conaill away to such an extent that the county's supporters' scornful words should have stopped in their throats, to be replaced with acknowledgements of the their opponents' incontestable class.

That Donegal are a team who are operating to some arcane alternative calendar which fooled them into thinking that you must play your best football in February is only a side-issue.
Tyrone's relentless support running, intelligent movement and fierce competition for possession were the matters that should have engaged football's chattering classes in the aftermath of yesterday's game. The performance of Brian Dooher alone will send shudders around the nation.
That they threw in a scatter of horrendous wides is of little consolation to prospective victims, given that one Stephen O'Neill joined in for the final twenty-odd minutes, blowing off the cobwebs with two points.


Events in Clones and the return of the Red Hand will engage the GAA's great minds and strategists, but Thurles was the place to be for less sober-minded pursuits. The residents of the Tipperary town can't have seen a weekend like it since the days of Féile. Even the Stunning and the Saw Doctors put together couldn't have generated the decibel levels and general high-octane excitement of two games that provided yet another reminder of the unique magic of Munster Championship hurling.

Quite what to expect when Limerick and Tipperary do it all over again on Saturday is impossible to know. On the face of it Limerick have simply trailed Tipp like a particularly enthusiastic puppy: every time Tipp have tried to shoo them away, Limerick have scampered happily back to their heel. Will Tipp finally rid themselves of the troublesome mutt, or will Limerick eventually bite them on the bum?

If that metaphor is too fluffy to fit the slash and gurn of Munster hurling, then happily Cork and Waterford's canine likenesses tend more towards brawling pit-bulls. Waterford got their third win over Cork this year, and will be hoping that the habit remains unbreakable.

But the loss of the suspended Cusack, ó hAilpín and O'Sullivan for such a game would have felt for Cork like one of those anxiety dreams where you go into a job interview with no trousers on. Add in a sense of grievance over the suspensions that the Rebels can place neatly on their shoulders alongside the chips that reside there already, and Waterford's mood this morning will be a cautious sort of elation.


Cautious elation is rarely the prevailing mood of Dublin supporters when they are cheering their team home to victory against Meath. But most will be aware that pulling away from a doughty Meath side late on is not quite the push-start for the Dubs summer juggernaut. However, the amount of criticism that Dublin get when things go poorly dictates that, in the interests of fairness, if not human decency, they should get some credit for the win.

They did manage - just about - to avert another backslide from a winning position, which they'll hope represents the end of that particular pesky foible.

And there were a few more of those long-sought answers to longer-extant questions. Ross McConnell has improved exponentially in the full-back role for one thing. Mark Vaughan is a very Dublin type of darling, but he kicked frees satisfactorily, and, more importantly, showed a lot of character in that period where Dublin's familiar fade began to reappear. Importantly, he never provided any other message to his team-mates than "give me the ball", an enthusiasm which eventually lit the touchpaper for the Dubs win.

An Offaly team at leisure while Dublin have been at war await on Sunday, so caution is justified - not that it will last that long, mind you.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Definitely Not 'Grand Slam Weekend' Ok?

One of the most familiar complaints of we compliant, huddled masses as we are force-fed our Premiership staple is not so much the content, but rather the packaging. Does the world's most exciting league need to be wrapped in so many sparkly labels telling us so? This weekend's instalment of the GAA Championships provides an interesting case study in the value of the organic, wholefood approach to sports marketing.

Essentially, had the sharp-suited gents in the Sky Sports marketing department got hold of the Championship weekend ahead, there would not be an event short of the Second Coming itself (no, not Price Naseem's return to the ring, the actual one) subject to so much drooling anticipation.

As it is, the mouthwatering program on Saturday and Sunday stands by itself and, soberly noted in the GAA fixture list and the RTE television schedules, looks none the less exciting for not being called 'Weekend of the Titans' or somesuch.

Hell, the GAA even languidly muttered "bovvered?" at the prospect of the Dublin v Meath replay not being on the telly, until the unsatisfactory fudge was reached of having it run against the just as eagerly anticipated Cork v Waterford battle on either side of RTE's channel portfolio. It's an unfortunate circumstance, as one imagines the neutral public will veer towards the low-brow entertainment at Croke Park rather than the high art on display in Thurles (and with my purist kudos now secured, I will secretly don my Beer Helmet and join them).

The weekend's main features divide into two distinct categories: on one hand, both codes see proven recent champions (Cork, Tyrone) take on hungry and in-form contenders (Waterford, Donegal); on the other, two stonking drawn games throw up replays between teams whose bitter local rivalries guarantees zest, but whose ultimate All-Ireland credentials are questionable at best (Limerick v Tipperary, Dublin v Meath).

There's no harm in expending a little hot air at this time of the year on the timeless battle of Leinster's big two, there being space in the early Championship rounds for a bit of hype. The press have passed the time between the drawn game and the announcement of the teams with the traditional tireless deployment of the word "bonanza" in relation to the ringing of the GAA's tills ahead of Sunday's replay. I saw the word so many times I thought Lorne Greene and Michael Landon had been called in to shore up Dublin's troublesome full-back line.

Meath won a lot of friends in that first game, which is an unusual thing to say about teams from that county. Their brand of old-fashioned, give-it-long football was so refreshingly retro that I half expected The Sunday Game to be followed by an episode of Murphy's Micro Quizm. They have firepower as well, which will be augmented by the return of their NFL top scorer Brian Farrell. If they eliminate their poor starts to each half they could spell the demise of another sad, sullen Dublin team.

Cork and Waterford's duels in recent years have been some of the most transfixing in GAA, from the 2003 Munster final, through the classic 2004 version to the damp but thrilling denouement to last year's All-Ireland semi. There has been little between them in that time, and as much epic heroism as any Norse saga. The momentum is with Waterford and a look of steel that won them the league final tips the edge in their direction.

Conversely with Limerick and Tipperary, although the Shannonsiders finished in bravura fashion last weekend, Tipp retain a smidgeon of extra class, evident in the fact that their scores seemed easier crafted than Limerick's, whose effort expended in getting the draw could leave them flat tomorrow evening.

Finally (apologies to Sligo, Roscommon, Louth and Wexford, but you know how it is, pressures of space etc.) to the second test of Donegal's credentials, Tyrone. Armagh were negotiated in a manner about as unconvincing as a performance could be and still be a victory.

Which, for Donegal, could turn out to be a very good thing. Had they breezed past the Orchard county in rip-roaring style, they would have already been subconsciously booking Dublin hotel rooms for September. Now, with a very grave reminder of their own fallibility fresh in their minds, they can apply themselves studiously to a weary-looking Tyrone, a team that, for all their greater achievements, do not petrify Donegal like Armagh do.

And there you have it: a weekend heaving with the promise of pulsating drama, and not a hairy-handed host nor a gravelly-voiced Scotsman in sight.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Viva La Boca

Last August during TSA's perambulations around South America, we stopped in on La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, home, of course, of Boca Juniors. Unfortunately the visit was as well timed as a Paul Scholes tackle, given that the new season was over a week away, so we didn't get to see the ground in its full matchday pomp, when, it is said, the crumbly old stands shake with the force of the supporters enthusiasm.

The season that followed was a successful one for Boca, winning the 2006 'Clausura' title, which is the half of the domestic league played in the latter part of the year and which determines progression to the Copa Libertadores. Boca have reached the final of that tournament (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) and look in a good position to win it for a sixth time, having defeated Gremio of Brazil 3-0 in last night's first leg at La Bombonera.

As you can see, one Juan Roman Riquelme is proving as influential as ever in his on-loan return to his former club.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What Chance a European US Open Winner or: Don't Bet on Padraig

Number of 'Majors' held since the first Open Championship in 1860: 400

Ratio of US, European and Rest of World winners of Major championships: 252:105:43

Ratio of US, European and Rest of World winners of Major championships since World War One: 245:35:43

Ratio of US, European and Rest of World winners of Major championships since 1960, when the notion of modern golf's 'Grand Slam' of tournaments is thought to have been defined by Arnold Palmer: 135:21:33

Number of that 21 won by Nick Faldo or Seve Ballesteros: 11

Ratio of US, European and Rest of World winners of Major championships, excluding pre-World War One winners and winners from European golf's 'golden years' of the 1980s and 1990s: 195:17:31

Number of Irish winners of Majors: 1 (Fred Daly from Portrush, 1947 Open at Hoylake)

Number of Republic of Ireland winners of Majors: 0

Ratio of US, European and Rest of World winners of the US Open: 78:27:8

Ratio of US, European and Rest of World winners of the US Open since 1911, when John McDermott became the first American winner, in the tournament's 17th running: 78:11:8

Number of European winners of 7 previous US Opens held at Oakmont Country Club: 0 (although 1927 winner Tommy Armour - the first at Oakmont - was a Scot who had become an American citizen only a few years prior)

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New Misery for Lansdowne Residents

The latest update from the Lansdowne Road Stadium Development Company on Monday last attempted to lay to rest the grave concerns of vigilant residents about the most recent sinister threat to their very existence.

1. Poplar Trees: There were a number of phone calls during the week in relation to airborne white fluffy material which was being blown into people’s gardens. A number of people asked whether this might be in any way related to asbestos or polyurethane. This is definitely not the case. What is being blown are in fact seeds from the poplar tree. They are blowing in off the Dodder Walk.

What new hell are these poor wretches being asked to endure?! A blitzkrieg of "white fluffy material" - the inhumanity!

It is often claimed the Nazis discounted the use of white fluffy material as part of the Final Solution, due it being "a bit much, even for us". Now the gentle, peace-loving souls of the Lansdowne Road area must face the ravages of this pestilence.

Seeds, indeed. Seeds of Doom more like!


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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Latest Suggested World Cup Squad That Eddie O'Sullivan Will Totally Ignore

Two whole months till the announcement of Rugby World Cup squads then, but sure, with the dismal round of summer tour internationals over, what else is there to talk about?

There is the distant, mystical wonder of the Tri-nations getting under way this weekend, but we're blinkered, parochial types around here, so we'll just agree that they all look very big and scary down there and get back to speculating if Big Mal will get crocked again.

Ostensibly there is only one game left for Ireland's supporting cast to snare positions on the World Cup bench before the day of reckoning on August 14th. That comes against Scotland on August 11th, although there has been some speculation that the IRB will push the date back to allow the internationals scheduled for later in the month to be included as final auditions.

Ireland's last game before the titanic opening tussle with Namibia on 9th September is on 24th August, but one imagines that, even if the IRB does extend the deadline for squad announcements, Eddie O'Sullivan's mind will be well made up by then, if it isn't already.

Presumably there won't be many takers for the access all areas DVD about the tour to Argentina. However, like a Big Brother race row, it was at least useful in shaving a few contestants out of the running for the big prize.

So binning their French phrasebooks are Tony Buckley, Peter Bracken, Kieran Lewis, Barry Murphy, Tomas O'Leary and Jeremy Staunton. Also praying for an outbreak of some deadly virus or other in the camp are Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen, neither of whom were able to demonstrate enough to leapfrog ahead of those untainted by sinister English club ways. Luke Fitzgerald's lack of game time has not ruled him out in the eyes of some of his advocates, but it's a gamble I can't see O'Sullivan taking.

There's an old joke about sculpture, it goes something like "how do you do a sculpture of an elephant? Take a block and remove all the bits that don't look like an elephant". Not really a joke, as such, more of pithy aphorism. Anyhow, with a few bits removed that don't look like a World Cup squad, we can focus on the fine detail.

Stuff That Will Not Cause Eddie To Drift Off In Contemplation When His Wife Tries To Engage Him In Discussion About The Banjaxed Washing Machine Or Whatever Wives Of International Managers Yammer On About

Namely that the four props will be Horan, Hayes, Best (S), Young; that the three hookers will be Best (R), Flannery and Sheahan; that three of the locks will be O'Connell, O'Callaghan and O'Kelly; that three of the back rowers will be Easterby, Wallace (D) and Leamy; that the scrum-halves will be Stringer, Boss and Reddan; that the outhalves will be O'Gara and Wallace (P); that two of the centres will be O'Driscoll and D'Arcy; that two of the wingers will be Horgan and Hickie; and that the full-backs will be Dempsey and Murphy.

Stuff That Will Cause Eddie To Say "Woman Will You Stop Yammering On About Banjaxed Washing Machines, I'm Trying To Think Here!!"

Wow it looks like an elephant! But not quite. Six places left, and like the hard-hitting internet news organ we aren't, let's start a heated debate.

I contended before that Mick O'Driscoll would go to the World Cup, and while I have wobbled on my stated position like an atheist at the gates of hell, I will stick to it. That's based on nothing more solid than a hunch on O'Sullivan's mindset, mind you, and indeed would consider Trevor Hogan exceedingly unlucky to miss out, given that, aside from O'Kelly, he alone showed well in Argentina of the locks.

Perhaps it's just the suspicion that the boss would like a man who knows the workings of his Munster mates in the event of a need for action, or maybe those couple of lineouts stolen in Argentina, I don't know. As I said it's flimsy stuff.

The back row, though, sheeeesh! This is Ireland's strongest area, has been for a while. As I expect O'Sullivan to go with 17 forwards (leveraging his backs' versatility a little - ooh don't I sound all Wall Street?) it follows that back-up will be like-for-like in the back row.

Neil Best will definitely get to deploy his brand of mayhem at no.6 in France. His physicality over a long tournament and potential impact off the bench make him a cert for the match-day 22. I'll plump for Keith Gleeson to make the cut as David Wallace's understudy, delighting purists of the open-side role. And with the Wise Head department well covered, Jamie Heaslip should get the reward his outstanding season deserves at number 8.

Just two official blazers going in the backs then. Andrew Trimble has been ensconced in the scene for long enough, and has done enough in an Ireland shirt, to make it as centre and wing cover. Then comes the question: Gavin Duffy's decent tour and adaptability in a number of positions? Or Brian Carney's explosive potential and element of mystery?

In the normal run of things, Eddie would smile at Duffy and say "You had me at 'decent' and 'adaptable'". But maybe the excitement will get to him, maybe the anticipation will be too much, or maybe the washing machine will finally pack up and he'll just say "Feck it!" and decide to throw one Carney-shaped curveball at the plate.

Let's see shall we.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Messi and the Son of the Hand of God

Lionel Messi's second act of homage of the season. Now all he needs is the cocaine habit, the spiralling descent into obesity and self-destruction, the renaissance, the glitzy TV show etc. And a World Cup too maybe.

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Limerick's Survival A Victory

Possibly the only thing that generates as much sweat and effort on a Munster hurling championship day as the action on the field is the construction of teetering towers of lofty prose about it in the press box.

Vincent Hogan, in this morning's Irish Independent, topped and tailed his piece like so: "It was a game from the old liturgy of Munster hurling, a bullfight in parts, a rolling symphony in spoke of an unbreakable truth about Munster and the old game. In the business of epoch and fury, all else is imitation." Crikey!

Tom Humphries was more circumspect in the Irish Times, but did feel that the replay would be an occsion for those "with an interest in hurling and romance". I think I need to lie down!

In fairness to the palpitating scribes, it's easy to see why a certain type of Munster hurling afternoon will send quills a-quiver. For all that, in advance, yesterday's meeting of Limerick and Tipperary looked the plain, bespectacled sister semi-final of next week's ravishing beauty between Cork and Waterford, God bless her, she went like the clappers nonetheless.

A sunny day, the Gaelic Grounds looking well for the big crowd and the weather, and two teams skelping the arses off each other. Hand me my thesaurus!

Despite the heroism of their performance yesterday, for Limerick the six year wait for a Munster Championship victory goes on, an extraordinary fact considering that in 2001, the occasion of their last victory (over Waterford in the provincial semi-final), the county was also in the midst of its three-in-a-row of All-Ireland Under-21 titles. Waiting forlornly for that group to fulfil their potential is par for the disappointing course for Limerick hurling.

The 1990s are now viewed as a golden age for the game in general, a time of revolution and egalitarianism. It might also be looked, less romantically, as a hiatus, in which normal service was halted, and all the decent hurling folk in Ireland got at least one close up fling with the Liam McCarthy Cup, before the clouds rolled back and it was snatched away towards the Nore and the Lee.

All the decent hurling folk except Limerick, of course, whose losses to Offaly (heartbreakingly) in 1994 and to Wexford in 1996 mark them down as the game's Miss Havishams, left at the altar, seemingly doomed to a lifetime of trophyless spinsterhood.

Indeed, the thought of an All-Ireland now is laughable, and after those six grim years the annual traipse out to the various Championship venues must have been getting all the more despairing. Yesterday's match seemed to be going the way of so many of their previous losses: they toiled bravely and manfully but looked like being those handful of points shy once again.

Only in 2002, when Tipp beat them by seven, did they lose by more than four points on any of those previous occasions. Coming down the home stretch, when their opponents held off each of their advances with a couple of businesslike of points of their own, a familiar sinking feeling might have gathered in Limerick hearts, that they were destined to always be that bit short.

The celebrations on the final whistle were those of a victory, which is a little worrying given that they are still no closer to that first win since 2001 than they were yesterday morning. But the delight was relief as much as anything, that, by pulling out a goal at the death, they had deservedly cheated their seemingly preordained fate for another week.

That's a victory in itself; for the the counties with no chance of winning the All-Ireland, each week that you are still in the running, each week that the flags still fly outside houses and pubs and local radio stations buzz with big match chatter, each of those is as good as a win.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

L Stands for Loser

TSA has been preoccupied over the last few days by the business of preparing, taking and failing a driving test. Second time as well. I rationalised it to myself somewhat by using what I have termed the Fine Gael Analogy: to wit, that my first failure was so heinous as to be comparable to the Blueshirt 'meltdown' of 2002, and yesterday's performance, while fundamentally still a balls-up, was at least a restoration of self-respect.

The Enda Kenny of the highways, that's me.

I actually thought I'd done fine, though. Obviously the tester disagreed, given that he failed me. I'm not saying he thought I was a dangerous driver, but I'm sure I heard the rattle of rosary beads at one point. I'm not saying he feared for his safety, but I think I saw him tearily looking at a photo of his kids as I careened off one particular roundabout. I'm not saying he thought I shouldn't be let near a car again, but he handed me a brochure entitled "Walking Holidays in Ireland" on my way out of the test centre.

Of course, the glorious anomaly of the Irish driving testing system is familiar to all. Namely, that the state hands the empirically-proven failed driver a certificate which is actually entitled "Statement of Failure to Pass a Test of Competency to Drive", and then, like Pontius Pilates with clipboards, send them back to their car to drive, incompetently, homeward.

But it wasn't this fact that I mused on as I motored away, clattering bus-stops and mounting kerbstones as I went. Instead, I couldn't help but think of Jimmy White, Monty, Mayo footballers, the Buffalo Bills, Greg Norman, Gareth Southgate, Stuart Pearce and the rest. The bottlers. The people who, on the big day, when the hand of destiny was extended in their direction, rather than grasp it confidently, chose to thumb their nose instead.

Was I like Jimmy White, destined to fall foul of the Stephen Hendrys of the world, doomed to falter in the face of opportunity, running out of position on the black balls of modern living? Was I like the footballers of Mayo, hepped-up for the big day, talking confidently of (forty quid a pop) lessons learned and how it would be different this time, then going and cocking it up royally anyway?

It's one of these little insights that those of us unblessed with athleticism or skill get every now and again into what it might be like to be a proper sportsman. Not that there were 20,000 spectators lining the road as I performed a three-point turn, rather in the sense of being required to perform under duress, to produce a result when the pressure was on. I, alas, blazed the crucial penalty high over the bar and into the Turin night sky.

Of course, sport often offers the chance of redemption. Someone like Phil Mickelson has demonstrated how the L-plates of sport can finally be disposed of just when it seemed that taking public transport might be the better option. And two of baseball's three great loser clubs (Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox) have in recent years earned American sport's equivalent of the HGV licence, the World Series.

But I can't help but come back to dear old Jimmy White again, whose wait for a World title Samuel Beckett might have written a play about. Am I destined to turn up at the test centre every year, claiming to be in the form of my life and that I have been practising harder than ever, and that I even went to a psychologist to get me 'ead right? And then, much like Jimmy exiting in the first round at the hands of Marco Fu, will I run the first stop sign to dash all my fans' hopes again?

Perhaps I will learn to be philosophical about it, and will become much-admired for my good humour in the face of constant failure. They might come to call me 'the People's Learner Driver', and I will become a living emblem of the motto that it is not the winning that counts, but the taking part.

Or I could just learn the Rules of the Road, I suppose.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Lou Piniella and the Art of Expressing Your Displeasure

Graham Poll revealed that one of his last encounters with Jose Mourinho as a referee resulted in the Chelsea manager "an unrepeatable and disgraceful personal comment" about him and Sir Alex Ferguson. One wonders if Ferguson's famously squeaky bum was referred to in this particular remark.

In support of Poll, TSA feels that, rather than unleashing torrents of abuse, football managers should take the example of their baseball counterparts, in particular Chicago Cubs notoriously short-tempered manager Lou Piniella, in expressing their discontent. There can be no insult quite as effective as the simple act of kicking dirt on the third base umpire's shoes.

(Caught on video by a sharp Cubs fan after MLB took the original ESPN footage off YouTube - bah, spoilsport rights-holders!)

Also, the kicking of the cap: is this a deeply symbolic way of saying "you suck!"? Yank types please advise.

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Get That Man a Dub-ble

Alcoholic narcolepsy, that's my diagnosis.

Classic case, judging by the symptoms of Dublin's football team on Sunday. You know the type: the fellow slumped unconscious at the bar, the drool on his chin dangling perilously over the dregs in his glass, who suddenly, as if someone had inserted a coin into a slot in his back, wakes up and begins a tour de force of bar-room bonhomie.

Barmaids are reluctantly waltzed around the premises, outrageous stories involving stowing away in a merchant ship bound for the Barbary Coast are breathlessly told, a stirring rebel ballad is crooned, then........slump, back to boozy slumber. And the barkeep doesn't mind so much because, "sure he's nowhere else to go".

Yes alcoholic narcolepsy, clearly. The ball is thrown in at Croke Park and Dublin are all tall tales and ripping yarns, devastating wit and blustery banter. Five points up and the craic is ninety. Shane Ryan punches the air as if to give us a blast of Sean South from Garryowen, then.....slump...zzzzzzzzz...

Meanwhile, with Dublin dreaming of the time they and Brendan Behan robbed barrels of porter from Guinness's yard, Meath quietly went about the business of cleaning up the mess - righting upturned barstools, placating the irate barmaid ("I'm telling ya, I've had enough of him"), wiping down the counter. Then the Dubs are up again, full of the joys, lucid and engaging; the goal comes, a few more points...slump....snorrrrrre...
And so on and so forth.

It often happens in Gaelic football that - even in the most well-matched contests - matches are broken into chapters of domination, rather than having a simple, metronomic or 'end-to-end' flow. It is difficult to pin-point why this happens. Is it because, having gotten a score, the attacking side have an advantage with the ensuing kickout, due to their ball-winners being able to 'run onto' the arriving clearance, whereas the defending team must change direction in order to launch a retaliatory attack?

Or is it purely a psychological domino effect? Does the effect of getting a score release endorphins in the attacking side that inspire them to outperform their opponents over the next several sequences of play, until the momentum eventually dwindles and the initiative swings the other way?

Perhaps it is just the nature of the sport: that a game which demands such wholehearted collective commitment requires a breather every now and then.

Whatever causes it, there is no team that exemplify this phenomenon quite like Dublin. When they're good, they're very, very good, and when they're bad, they're horrid. The psychological explanation is quite persuasive in the case of the Dubs in Croke Park, given that, when they are on top, the force of positivity from the majority of the massive crowd is like a massive shot of adrenalin.

Conversely, when that force is inverted, and the team are struggling, it must seem an oppressive burden.

We could go on about the lack of leadership, the problems at full-back and with free-taking, the flaws that remain stubbornly with this Dublin team like ill-advised tattoos, and mean that they seem destined for another year of frustration. That still doesn't explain the explosions of virtuosity they can produce, then follow up with the flattest bum notes.

Alcoholic narcolepsy, it has to be.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I won the All-Ireland.....a nayshun onnnnnce again!.....Hic!....zzzzzzzzzzzzz"

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Friday, June 01, 2007

A Rivalry That Transcends Patio Decking

Surely the rivalry between Dublin and Meath ain't what it used to be? I mean, don't most Dubs now actually live in Meath, and most Meath folk work in Dublin? And with Leinster's current status as a second rate football province, surely the meetings of the two counties aren't the do-or-die affairs of old?


Woo-hoo indeed. Okay, maybe the classic lines have been blurred a little of late, the Urban v Rural conflict being diluted by commuter belt sprawl into a rather less timeless Suburban v Suburban duel. And yes, where once the winners of Leinster wiped the blood from their fists, spat out a loosened tooth or two and headed forth toward a likely All-Ireland final, this era hasn't seen a national finalist from the province since Meath's dismal appearance in the 2001 decider.

Still, it's Dublin v Meath isn't it? It is a Classic Sporting Rivalry. It remains compelling, despite the devaluation of mediocrity and cultural homogenisation, for the following reasons:

1. 1991 and all that
The four game Leinster Championship series between the counties was of such seismic importance that it caused the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Not really, but, according to those who like to throw a bit of historical revisionism into their match-reports, it did save the GAA.

Apparently, so the story goes, back in the summer of 1991 the whole lot of us had cast away all that was good and proper about our sporting heritage and taken up with this new "soccer" craze. The pubs and clubs resounded to the strains of "Olé Olé" and dyed-in-the-wool Gah-men liked nothing better than to sport a pair of Gazza-style fake boobs. All over the country juvenile Gaelic football coaches were driven demented urging kids to "pick it up".

Then came that Dublin-Meath series and suddenly the nation turned back toward the path of righteousness, remembering that epic tales of tumultuous struggle were not solely the preserve of foreign fields, and we all lived happily ever after.

But if that lot's a bit rich for your blood, suffice it to say that as far as the Dublin-Meath rivalry goes, those matches will resonate for as long as the two counties play the game.

2. Here Comes the Summer
Like the last meeting of the sides two years ago, this year's version comes early in the summer - and on the June bank holiday weekend at that. For all that the opening weeks of the Championship have seen some intriguing encounters, a few surprises and much to talk about, there really is nothing like the earth-shaking energy of a full Croke Park to signal the proper commencement of hostilities.

Dublin v Meath is one of the few fixtures that can provide the Big Event this early in the summer, and as such, fuelled by the boozy bank holiday buzz, Croker will be ablaze come Sunday.

3. It Just Is!
Sometimes, the look of a match gives it extra appeal. A huge baying crowd, for example. Burly, aggressive protagonists. Or the colours of the jerseys. It's a brilliant contrast, the sky-blue and navy against the green and gold. It just works.

We're simple enough creatures at the end of it all, for all our compooters and personal stereo machines. We're susceptible to suggestion. Subconsciously, when we watch Dublin-Meath (or Dublin-Kerry, or Celtic-Rangers, or Barcelona-Real), the little kid inside goes "oooh, they must really not like each other, they're dressed TOTALLY differently!"

It helps to keep a good rivalry bubbling when differences are underlined. Thankfully, despite the flow from tenement grime on one hand, and cattle husbandry on the other, towards a patio-decked middle ground, the Sky-blue and Navy and the Green and Gold will always provide a healthy reminder of that county border.

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