In July 2003, during the final round of the British Open at Royal St Georges, I was walking the fairways with a friend, Alan English, when he made an observation. "I've just noticed something about you," he said. "You never follow the ball."
"What do you mean?" I replied.
"Well, we've been following Nick Faldo for three holes now and every time he hits a shot your eyes never leave him; you don't turn your head; you don't follow the ball."
"Really? Hadn't thought about it."
But it was true. When it comes to the business of writing and sport I have always been more interested in the dancer than the dance.
I've discussed porn with Tony Adams, paternity with Boris Becker, prayer with Bernhard Langer and promiscuity with Flavio Briatore. I've talked about death with Severiano Ballesteros, depression with Ronnie O'Sullivan and doping with almost everybody.
What do Joe Namath, Geoff Hurst, Jackie Stewart, Pete Sampras, Usain Bolt, Nick Faldo, Roger Federer, Pádraig Harrington, John McEnroe, Shane Warne, Maria Sharapova, Ian Botham, Gareth Edwards, Greg Norman, Andre Agassi, Ernie Els, Brian O'Driscoll, Patrick Vieira, Novak Djokovic, Roy Keane, Rafael Nadal, Dan Carter, Jimmy Connors, Greg LeMond, Haile Gebrselassie, Bobby Robson, Floyd Landis and Richie McCaw have in common?
They have all had 'the treatment'. Most enjoyed it, a couple threatened to sue, and one declined to talk to me at all.
"You are not worth the chair you are sitting on."
Shrewd guy that Lance Armstrong.
What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that I never trained to be a journalist and have always tried to set my own rules:
Do not hunt with the pack.
Do not go with the flow.
Don't ask 'When?' Ask 'Why?'
Don't say yes, say no.
Do not follow the ball.
And that's a good thing, right? To strive to do things differently than everyone else?
Yeah, that's what I thought.
Ten years in London had brought six Sportswriter of the Year nominations, five Sports Interviewer of the Year awards and a pay rise and letter from my editor every year commending me on a job well done. And that's a good thing, right? Because if you weren't performing and your job was at risk, they would not be sending you flowers, right?
Yeah, that's what I thought.
The bullet came on October 26, 2011. I never saw the gun. First, a surprise phone call from a person I had never spoken to before and then a hastily dispatched email.
I am writing to confirm that as part of the proposed changes for the Sunday Times there is no longer a need for your role of Sports Writer. This is because there is no longer a business need for a sports writer to specialise in writing review stories, interviews etc, which is essentially what your role involves. Unfortunately we have had to reduce our sports coverage due to the Sports section having significant pagination reductions as a result of the increased newsprint costs the Sunday Times is having to sustain. We have reviewed the duties and responsibilities which form your role and, having compared this across the department, we have determined that your role is unique. Therefore I unfortunately have to confirm that your role is at risk of redundancy.
Some dark thoughts peppered my head during the sleepless nights that followed.
Why me? Why have they done this to me?
If my life ends before this notice runs out, these wankers will have to pay my wife and kids, all of the benefits they're trying to screw us for.
Do these f**king idiots have any idea how good I am? Wait until the other newspapers hear about this! They'll be knocking down the door to hire me!
But three months later, I was signing on for the jobseeker's allowance at my local social welfare office. Now that's a kick in the head but I had plenty of company: architects, plumbers, accountants, carpenters, plasterers.
Why not me?
Six months passed before I returned to print -- a commission from the Daily Mail in July to write a feature on Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour de France. It was different to anything that was printed about Wiggins that summer and at first the editor baulked. "This is going to cause an absolute shitstorm."
But he ran with it, and I was hopeful a few weeks later when a meeting was arranged in London. "We've always liked your writing," he said. "You're unique."
Because unique is good, right? Unique is what readers covet. But I never heard from him again.
A month later, Lance Armstrong was busted by the United States Anti Doping Agency and I was praised for my journalism in several editorials but it was bittersweet. There was no offer of a job. It was a story that kept on giving and nobody trumpeted louder than the Sunday Times. They had used the money they had saved by firing me ("so sorry, the recession etcetera") to hire another ex-footballer as a columnist. But now it was all about 'journalism' again.
"Hey folks! We told you so! Look how wonderful we are."
Anger and bitterness consumed me. The love of family and friends kept me on the rails and the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel that I might return to the Sunday Independent.
I was 32-years-old when I joined this newspaper in 1994 and still learning my trade. I was hungry and ambitious; I wanted to be Dunphy and Humphries and Kerrigan and Walsh but was fortunate to inherit an editor, Aengus Fanning, and a sports editor, Adhamhnan O'Sullivan, who gave me the confidence to be myself.
For eight years, it was the perfect job and I knew there was a risk it would never be the same when I got the offer to work in London. It wasn't, but there are no regrets. I loved my time there and worked with some really great people but I am glad to be back because we are different. Irish people are different.
We don't follow the ball.
* * * * *
Sixteen years ago, on the night before they buried Lady Di, I sat in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Reykjavik drinking tea with Brian Kerr. It was a Friday evening -- the eve of a World Cup qualifier with Iceland -- and I was sounding him out about a column I was writing on the pitifully small attendance (2,000) for Eoin Hand's testimonial that week and what it said about the so called "best supporters in the world."
Kerr didn't agree. "I don't think it was an insult to Eoin," he said, "but that whole testimonial scene is a very odd business. There was a time when it was considered as a sort of loyalty bonus but I'm not sure it has a place in the modern game where players are generally disloyal and don't give a f*** about anything but themselves."
I scribbled a few notes and was about to change tack when a not-too-distant memory drew him back: "You know," he said, "the last time I spoke to Eoin was at Charlie Tierney's funeral."
"Who's Charlie Tierney?" I asked.
That summer of '97 -- my seventh as a sportswriter -- was possibly the busiest I had known. Sonia O'Sullivan had suffered a second career meltdown at the World Athletics Championships in Athens; Michelle de Bruin was making tidal waves at the European Championships in Seville and I had washed-up in Reykjavik after a month on the road feeling jaded and cynical.
Charlie Tierney changed everything. I raced back to my room, ditched the column on the fans and tried to recreate what I had just been told. The new column opened with a scene from a pub -- McDowells in Inchicore -- and a fund-raising quiz between some St Patrick's Athletic fans.
What's the largest country in the world?
What's the population of China?
How many Englishmen have won the US Open?
Noel O'Reilly, a club stalwart, had set the questions and was really licking his lips about Question 4.
Who does Charlie Tierney sell programmes for?
Because he knew what they'd say, "He sells programmes for Pat's and Shels and at the internationals" and knew there would be uproar when he announced they had all got it wrong.
"What the f** are you playing at Noel!"
But he stood his ground. "No, there is only one answer to the question about Charlie Tierney and none of yis got it right. The answer is 'Anyone who asks'."
"And he was right," Kerr recalled. "Because while we all liked to think we had exclusive rights to Charlie's services, there was only football in his life and he would have sold programmes or coupons or anything to do with any club for anyone who asked.
"He was a great fellow, a harmless, simple soul who used to sell milk for the dairy and bring a few bottles to training, just to be involved. You might be sitting in the dressing room with your head in your hands for three hours after a game and Charlie would still be waiting when you came out.
"'Don't worry about it Brian,' he'd say, 'we can still win the league.' And you'd look at him, and his poor innocent way would just melt your heart: 'Ahh I don't know Charlie, we're 15 points off.' Or you might see him on a cold, wet night at Tolka Park and he'd come over to you with his milk-bottle-ends for spectacles and a bundle of programmes under his arm. 'There y'are Brian, take a programme.' And you'd offer him a pound but he'd say 'No, no, here it's all right.'
Tierney's health was never great. He suffered with diabetes and bad circulation and developed gangrene in his toes. One morning, after surgery in the Mater, he received a surprise visit from the Huddersfield manager, Eoin Hand. Tierney had followed Hand since his playing days and was thrilled when he announced that he had brought Huddersfield over to play Drogheda that afternoon.
They spoke for a while about the old days and after Hand had wished him well, and was heading down the stairs, he noticed Charlie hobbling after him with a coat pulled over his pyjamas.
"Would it be alright if I went to the match in Drogheda with you, Eoin?"
"I . . . I 'm sorry Charlie but we can't take you out of the hospital."
"It'll be all right Eoin, they won't mind -- sure we'll be back early, won't we?"
"Look Charlie, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll come back this evening after the game and tell you exactly how it went."
"Fair enough, Eoin."
A few hours later, the Huddersfield team bus was half-way to Drogheda when it was flagged down by a taxi. To the amazement of all present, a short little man with thick glasses, jumped out and started banging on the door of the bus: "Eoin! Eoin! Is it all right if I go to the game with you?" They brought him to the game and delivered him back to the hospital.
In 1997, on the night before he died, Kerr went to visit him in Beaumont Hospital. "In the end, the sickness went through him and he looked very tired and weak. 'How are you doing Charlie?' I said. 'Has anyone been into you?' And he opened his eyes and managed a bit of a smile. 'Yeah,' he said, 'Eoin was in yesterday.'"
I can still hear the warmth in Brian's voice when he told me that story. And I can still feel the tingle in my spine when I typed the bottom line. I was doing what I loved and loving what I was doing and as I sit here contemplating the next sporting year, it feels great to be back in the ball game.
I hope I feel that buzz again.