Thursday 27 October 2016

Paul Kimmage: Keep digging in back gardens and you'll find a reason for everything

Published 22/11/2015 | 17:00

Eye on the prize: 2006 was a year of top awards for Henry Shefflin
Eye on the prize: 2006 was a year of top awards for Henry Shefflin

When your boss asks, "Do you have a column this week?" and your response is a conclusive "Yes," you don't need a set of tarot cards to predict what's coming next:

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"What's it about?"

Because it's a fair and logical question, and he's a fair and logical man, and it's fair and logical to assume that you've worked the column out. But what if you start to prevaricate?

"Umm . . . well . . . it's . . ."

What if you're wrestling with different themes and really not sure?

"It's kind of about . . . umm . . ."

What if you're honest?

"I don't know."

What if he laughs?

"You don't know!"

What if his growing sense of bewilderment suddenly forces your hand?

"It's about manwatching."



Do you cut straight to Henry Shefflin or start with Diana Dors?

The month is October, 1977. Diana Dors (a famous actress) has just been introduced to Desmond Morris (a famous ethologist) on the latest edition of Parkinson (a famous chat show). She's wearing a flowing pink frock and crackles with playful banter.

"Hello Desmond, after all these years," she purrs.

"Yes," Morris replies, embracing her.

"The last time I saw him we were necking in the back of his car," she tells Parkinson.

"Is that right?" he asks.

"More or less. He wasn't manwatching in those days he was girl watching," she laughs.

Morris shifts in his chair, slightly uncomfortable. His latest book, Manwatching: A field guide to human behaviour, has just been published and Parkinson is keen to explore what it says about stars like Dors. "In doing this study did you go into the area of the sex symbol and the projection of sex?" he asks.

"Well, that's interesting," Morris replies. "What's the difference between an attractive actress and a sex bomb? What is it that people like you (looks at Dors) and Monroe have that gets you labelled in this way? Emm, it gets a little technical . . ."

"Well I'm sure we're very interested, I'd like to be technical," Dors says.

So he explains the nuts and bolts: "During sexual arousal the body undergoes a number of changes, and as sexual arousal increases, vasocongestion occurs in certain regions; that means to say the lips of the female, particularly, become engorged with blood and get larger and more swollen and more pouting."

"Mine are like that all the time!" Dors observes.

"Exactly," Morris chimes.

The interview is funny and interesting and informative and for a teenage boy watching in Dublin, a light has just gone on: 'Wow! There are reasons for everything!' And that's when it begins. He starts looking for the ticks and tacks that make people different. He spends hours on café terraces studying how they move. He becomes a 'manwatcher'. And later, as a sportswriter, it shapes his work.


He discusses porn with Tony Adams, paternity with Boris Becker, prayer with Bernard Langer and promiscuity with Flavio Briatore. He talks about death with Severiano Ballesteros, depression with Ronnie O'Sullivan and deception with Floyd Landis. He finds losers more interesting than winners but loves obsessives and books where the heroes are true and reveal their flaws. His favourite quote is a line from John Betjeman: 'People's backyards are much more interesting than their front gardens.'

He never follows the ball.

He is curious about Henry Shefflin. He got his book a couple of months ago and was interested in the tribute on the flap: "The greatest player of this, or perhaps any, generation." Did Shefflin subscribe to this view he wondered? Was he obsessive? Driven? Selfish? Mean? Had he ever wet his bed? Were there skidmarks in his shorts? Did he lie? Swear? Cheat?

How did his backyard look?

He started reading. He wanted to know. But the book was chapter after chapter of well-tended lawn until he finally found a story that intrigued.

The month is December 2006, awards season, and Shefflin has swept the boards: a sixth All Star, Player of the Year and the Texaco award. The RTé Sports Review of the Year is looming but he's had his fill of functions and not sure he wants to go. He's about to marry his sweetheart Deirdre and has lots to prepare but a phone call from Montrose persuades him to travel.


The O'Reilly Hall at UCD are hosting the awards. Derval O'Rourke, a gold medal winner at the World Indoor Athletics Championships and a silver medal winner at the Europeans, is favourite to become the Sports Personality of the Year. Shefflin, Katie Taylor, Paul O'Connell, Darren Clarke, Bernard Dunne and Kieran Donaghy are the others on the shortlist. He turns to Deirdre as they arrive: "Look, sure, let's just enjoy the night."

Six RTé pundits - Eamon Dunphy, George Hook, Pat Spillane, Jerry Kiernan, Cyril Farrell and Ted Walsh - will adjudicate on the award. They take their seats and watch as the various sports are reviewed. This is how he describes what happened next:

"Brian and Elsie Cody were at the table with us and I think it's fair to say we had kind of tuned out of things until the voting started. Then, suddenly, I realised it was a two-way battle between Derval and me. The first four votes cast left us tied at two apiece. Kiernan was visibly seething. I looked over at Cody as if to say, 'Is this really happening?'

"Derval had Hector ó hEochagáin and a camera crew following her every move. It was as if they were there to film her coronation. But a strange sensation went through my body now. A few hours earlier I'd been mixing cement in a Kilkenny field, and this kind of gathering felt a million miles removed from ordinary life. Now I was in contention for the biggest individual award in Irish sport. A GAA player in the middle of all these international stars. I turned to Deirdre. 'Jesus Christ, I couldn't, could I?'

"In the end the deciding vote was Hook's. I doubt he knew a great deal about me but, suddenly, the camera zoomed in on his face and I heard him call out my name. I was incredulous. Next thing, hands were reaching out towards me, offering congratulations.

"ó hEochagáin came over too and I remember him being less than gracious. More or less told me the judges had got it wrong. I suppose I'd messed up his programme. To this day, I'm still inclined to pinch myself when I look at the award at home. It stands out above all others.

"Years later, I met Hook at a function and he told me that, off air, the panel just couldn't decide on a winner and - literally - made the call live on television. You could see there was real tension there and I doubt Kiernan has ever quite forgiven the decision. But I was euphoric. Winning it had been beyond my wildest dreams."

The manwatcher smiles and shakes his head. Is that what's it all about? Validation from George Hook! Do kids really dream about the RTé Sports awards? Or are they playing at Wembley, Twickenham or Croke Park? There's a column in this for sure. But what does it say about Shefflin? And what is the bottom line?

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