Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Curse of De Burgh

Blogger appears to be a bit mental at the moment, as my latest post - the one on fat Spurs players - is followed by a post from September 29th on Argentina's rugby team. All posts in between seem to have vanished. I think this has happened before. I also think it has something to do with a photo of Chris De Burgh being on the Argentina post. Creepy, eh?

Apologies, presumably various Blogger geeks in San Francisco have sprung from their beanbags to sort it out.

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Spurs Player Busting A Gut

It was amusing to read in recent days of Spurs manager Juande Ramos' shock, upon meeting his new charges three months ago, at finding that he would be managing a male, twentysomething version of the Roly Polys. Apparently the players' fondness for previous manager Martin Jol extended to developing rotund physiques a lot like the Dutchman's.

It seems that a key part of Ramos' epic adventure to 11th place in the Premier League and a Carling Cup final place has involved putting the podgy Spurs players through a version of RTE's Operation Transformation, only with the consolation of having Gus Poyet manning the scales instead of Slobberin' Gerry Ryan.

Ramos' instigation of a strict new dietary regime saw the cream buns banned from the training ground canteen, with immediate benefits. Tom Huddlestone has been the most high profile Weight Watcher doing the Ramos Diet, but the overall effect of improved diet on the squad helped them to their five-goal thrashing of Wengers Waifs in last week's Carling semi-final.

All well and good, but did it really need a foreign manager with the customary battalion of sports scientists and nutrionary boffins to tell the burger-munching Spurs lads that laying off the lard might help their form?

As an amply upholstered, firmly ensconced member of the sedentary class, I always presumed that footballers, being, well, athletes, would have had the avoidance of snack boxes and suchlike as a veritable mantra.

Yes, I understood that previous generations of players refuelled after training sessions with a balanced meal of lager and crisps. But that was the past. We forgive our forebears their mistakes borne of ignorance: slavery, feeding porter to babies, boiling down homosexuals to make glue. But surely the footballers of today know fully and well that a Mars a day doesn't actually make you work, rest and play.
See, because I reckoned that footballers were denying themselves all manner of cream-laden, deep-fried, cheesey, beery pleasures in conscientious devotion to their profession, I turned a blind eye to many of their infamous extra-curricular trangressions.

It's hardly surprising, I reasoned, that these young men, rigourously adhering to a monastic aversion to most common vices, might, as a consolatory treat, find themselves occasionally in the midst of a logistically complex and barely consensual act of sexual depravity. With lifestyles, I contended, that required repeated refusal to yield to the sensual delights of the larder and the keg, how surprising was it that the poor souls might relent to the odd offer of a tri-partite episode of casual rumpy.

But, as Juande Ramos found out when he fetched up in North London, it seems that footballers have been having their cake and eating it.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Striking Similarites

Big Jim Larkin and William Martin Murphy. Arthur Scargill and Maggie Thatcher. And now Donal Og Cusack and Frank Murphy. Another fine pair of strikers.

You can't have a proper strike without 'em. Two intractably opposed, obdurately resolute foes; but, really, two peas in a pod. While they sit in their war rooms, plotting their next move, devising the next advance on the No Man's Land of public opinion, they dream of routing their enemy utterly.

But, really, their impulses must be the same. The stubborness, the sense of moral superiority, the ownership of a poker face, and, undoubtedly, the colossal ego required to carry it all, to lead men beyond where they're not sure they want to go.
Because of the similiarities, ultimately, there is mutual respect. Apparently, in squad trips and holidays since they first crossed swords in the 2002 strike, Cusack and Murphy have maintained the utmost civility - "morning Frank", "morning Donal, and a fine day it is too", "it is that Frank, no doubt about it."

The charismatic figurehead is a sine qua non of a strike. The ability to organise a group of disparate individuals into one, unified voice in any circumstance is difficult; to do so while also persuading them to withdraw their services from a hitherto rewarding position is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of great leadership.

Of course, the fact that GAA players are not waiving a salary means they cannot truly be compared with those who strike in the industrial realm. But to be a Cork player over recent months, when many - the majority, by all accounts - of the public do not agree with your stance must have been a frequently buffeted station, with only one's principles to provide shelter.

If there has been a slight veering of opinion towards the players' side in recent weeks, perhaps it has been in recognition of the resoluteness of their stance. No player has broken ranks, no off-the-record "sources" have told of splits within the panels, though I'm sure many have been solicited to do so.

As well as this, the media pincer movement orchestrated by Cusack last week was bold and risky. But if strikes are won in the realm of public opinion, you must make sure to take the high ground. Could any Cork board member be as articulate and heartfelt in his case as Seán Og O hAilpín? It was a masterstroke to put one of Irish sport's most loved personalities forward so.

Whether O hAilpín's call for Frank Murphy's head was indiscretion on his part, or a calculated gambit from the Cusack's masterplan, will all come out in the wash eventually. By then we'll know if Cusack has succeeded where Big Jim and Scargill failed.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heaven is a Place on Earth

Okay, okay. Look, I won't go on about it. I know everyone's a bit Munstered-out at this stage. Enough already, with the skyscraping prose, the sentences built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The Go-To Guy in these situations, Vincent Hogan in the Indo, marked his territory early doors: "The skeletal, white confection trellising the Limerick sky on Cratloe Road speaks almost of an infidelity to the past. Thomond's cadaverous old face is gone now. The new stadium, half-built and muddily chaotic on Saturday, already bears a discernible vanity." Good old Vince, all his geese are majestic, winged sentries of the grey-dappled skies.

No, fair's fair, we'll keep it simple this time: Munster woz great. It rained. O'Gara woz deadly.

Gosh, I feel strangely liberated.

It's easy, you see, to talk about great sporting phenomenon like Munster in the language of epic poetry, especially on days like Saturday, with their portentous skies and formidable foes.
Sometimes, though, in situations like this, I wonder why we aren't equally drawn to the minutiae of these occasions. The countless quotidian chores that, added up, make great victories generally only get mentioned, if at all, in the more considered pages of the cash-in book.

Clearly, had Munster not put masses of painstaking work into perfecting their own line-out and, in turn, plotting the utter decimation of Wasps', perhaps Saturday would be getting recorded now as another dark, dank evening of failure for Irish sport.

Had Ronan O'Gara not spent much of his waking life putting boot to ball, reaching the standard of expertise that allowed him his 'perfect game' on Saturday, we'd surely be talking of the fine, worthy champions that Wasps still were.

If Shaun Payne wasn't as safe as a Sherman tank at the dodgems under the high ball, would we not be pin-pointing Danny Cipriani's up-an-unders as a key factor in the Wasps victory?

Obviously there are countless other small, unsung tasks that are performed to perfection in a victory such as Munster's on Saturday, and the fact that most of us can't see them is what often makes a sporting victory seem so magical, as if the teams are the playthings of unseen gods.
But forget about Deus ex machina, on these occasions, God is in the detail.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Munster The Overdogs

Generally, in dear little old Erin - Ma bhrón! Ma bhrón! - we have been culturally habituated to the role of the underdog. Frankly, it's no surprise, given the rarity of occasions on which we can truly be the overdog.

That Eurovision spell in the 1990s perhaps - man, were we cocky then?! Or at the annual World Stout Brewing Championships - I bet the Irish team strut arrogantly about the place at those, laughing in the faces of their bland, watery porter-producing rivals.

But generally, in most sporting circumstances, we are the hapless minnows, the ill-equipped, technically gauche bottom-feeders. The newspaper report will usually read "while the Americans and the Chinese battled it out for dominance, it was a disappointing day for the Irish team of Seamus O'Mara and Cormac Prendergast. A poor performance in the artistic impression category left them in 17th."

In our silk-purse-from-a-pig's-ear way, we make the best of this, trumpeting the occasions on which we overturn the odds, inflating them to the size of a normal culture of sporting excellence, blotting out the vast, arid plains of underachievement.

Every now and then, however, Irish sports teams or individuals throw off the dowdy cardigans of low expectation, and zip up the rhinestone-studded, caped jumpsuit of superstardom: Ronnie Delaney, Roy Keane, Sonia, O'Driscoll, Harrington.

Making this leap is not merely a case of being good at running, or kicking stuff, or hitting things with sticks. These people grew up around the rest of us, yet never got infected by our belching pub tales of shooting at the Brits from behind bushes, or a little Scottish man heading the ball into an English net, or the odd, random Triple Crown amid years of brutal pummelings. Somehow, some crazy way, they went out into the world, and the world backed off.

Which brings us to Munster. Two tries down at half time, half-way to a result that would all but end their Heineken Cup campaign, even the most loyal son of Thomond would have viewed the second half fretfully. How difficult it is to halt the tide away from home, especially against an expensively-assembled, physically powerfully French team.

But that's what Munster did: not only denying Clermont a bonus point, but sneaking one themselves. What a precious thing that point is. Think of Indiana Jones, grabbing the gold idol at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark, legging it past poisoned darts and boulders, finally making it to the biplane as spears fly hither and thither. Indy lost the idol though - Munster held onto theirs.

What this has to do with underdogs and overdogs and looking the world in the eye is this: at some point, Clermont must have suffered a crisis of confidence; small imperceptible doubts in a number of individuals, perhaps, but fatal when multiplied throughout a team. Perhaps it caused them to yield to the pressure that ultimately cost them three yellow cards.

And behind this buckling of the hitherto unstoppable Clermont momentum, responsible for the flickering doubts in previously rampaging players, must surely have been the realisation that this was Munster. Twelve seasons of hard-won respect, numerous legendary feats of courage, countless battles, immeasurable hours of unyielding, sinew-straining effort, numberless last-ditch tackles, multitudinous strength-sapping mauls: all this adds up.

And when Munster go out into the world, the world, very often, backs off.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

That Time of Year Again

What with the Golden Globes being held in a Portakabin this year, and the Oscars likely to go the same way, 2008 is surely the year the Irish Blog Awards finally takes its rightful position as the most glittering event on the showbiz calendar. I mean, do they have goodie bags at the Oscars?

This year's Blog Awards are at the Iowa primary stage, with the first round of nominations underway. If you want to send TSA all the way to big house on the hill, click here.

This year's first round is being done by a judging panel as well, so there's no need to set up a You're A Star-style poster campaign. Just vote once, and with your hearts, in whatever category is most apt (Best Crafts blog please, I make lovely St.Brigid's crosses). But perhaps Best Sports and Recreation blog would be nice, and maybe TSA can make it two-in-a-row, and begin a Phil 'The Power' Taylor-style era of dominance.

And look, I know the last few months weren't ideal, but remember the good times! April - ahhh April, how happy we were then...before blasted November came along, with its.....distractions....

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Friday, January 11, 2008

We'll Go To Tel For This

God, hasn't this blog gone to hell recently.

It's like one of those jerry-built, Victorian-era football grounds (Swansea's Vetch Field, perhaps), which once-upon-a-time-once-a-fortnight lovingly housed tens of thousands of huddled working class sorts with all their hopes and dreams and flat caps, but is now a disused ruin, weeds strangling floodlight pylons, dry-rot attacking the directors box.

An elderly security man - once on the ground staff, he remembers the day Bobby Charlton played here - unlocks the padlocked gates once a week, to check that vagrants or squatters haven't taken root in the once-sacred terraces along with the weeds.

A bit like that, except a blog, if you know what I mean.

However, the cyberspace local council will have no hope in trying to sell this shambling old arena to a metaphorical supermarket chain (like Bolton's Burnden Park, now an Asda, for shame!). Nope, the TSA toilets might stink, the pitch might evidence a pronounced slope and the uncovered corner terrace may be crumbling - but no internet property developers shall turn us into another soulless social networking site.

That analogy stretched like poor old Mike Teavee on Willy Wonka's chewing gum stretching machine, let's move on to the Republic of Ireland manager's job!

What? You'd rather read another laborious, meandering metaphor designed to show off the writer's impeccable football luddite credentials, when really he's never drunk Bovril in his life? You people are weird! Well you do hang around sports blogs which are uncannily reminiscient of jerry-built, Victorian-era football grounds, which once-upon-a-time-once-a-.....

Big Sam, King Kenny, Gerry the Frenchman: they're all incidental, cameo characters in the epic costume drama that will come to be known as El Tel: The Oirish Years. Actually, if you've not grown weary of grandiloquent metaphors - it is Friday after all - the saga of the Irish manager's job is really a metaphor for life: a series of pointless meetings, tedious lies, forlorn hopes, and looming with crushing inevitability at the very end, when naught else remains, is death, or Terry Venables in this yarn.

And I leave you with the thought of Sir Edmund Hillary, having passed from a life of the most tumultuous achievement, being ferried to the afterlife by the aforementioned Venables, a cackling celestial cabbie, rabbiting about "that Benazir Bhutto what I had in the back a few weeks ago"....

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