Sunday 25 September 2016

Paul Kimmage: How a betrayal of trust has caused a massive divide between Ireland players and media

Published 05/06/2016 | 15:50

The Irish media watch a training session during the week
The Irish media watch a training session during the week

Paul Kimmage takes us back in time to when the Irish media enjoyed a healthy relationship with the Irish soccer team.

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Bingham insisted on the highest professional standards from each of his players, and they were personified by O’Neill’s attitude, but alongside the celebrations there was also a relaxed atmosphere around the camp, a friendliness that is missing from the modern game. Before that Hamburg match, Clive White, then football correspondent for The Times, sat next to O’Neill on the team coach on the way to the stadium. White, who has covered many great football occasions, recalled, ‘It is remarkable when you look back and remember just how welcoming they were. There we were, Martin and myself, chatting away before he went out to face one of the world’s great teams. Extraordinary.’ 

— Alex Montgomery,

Martin O’Neill: The Biography

 

I was in France recently with some friends on a cycling trip to Mont Ventoux, the legendary ‘Giant of Provence’ where Tom Simpson lost his life in 1967. The weather was unseasonably cool on our first day on the mountain and I assumed the role of the Mother Hen, taking the lead and setting a pace, as we rolled through the lavender fields and tackled the early slopes.

There’s a telltale sign when the gradient steepens and the going gets tough: the laughter drops, the talking ends and the only sound is coughing and wheezing. Fergie McDonnell was doing a lot of wheezing. A latecomer to the sport, he had prepared with a couple of trips to Sally Gap but the Ventoux — 20 kilometres long with passages of 10 per cent — is an absolute monster, and he was facing a huge challenge.

Up through the forest we weaved to the small ski station at Chalet Reynard and our first glimpse of the summit, still six kilometres above. A freezing wind was howling across the mountain and I glanced over my shoulder and wondered about turning back.

“You okay Fergie?”

“Still shakin’ it boss,” he replied.

“Huh?”

“Still shakin’ it.”

‘Jesus Christ!’ I thought. ‘He’s delirious.’

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A scene from Cool Hand Luke

But later, when we had reached the summit and had returned to our hotel, he explained that it was a line from Cool Hand Luke, the classic Hollywood movie about a prisoner (Paul Newman) on a chain gang who refuses to submit to the system. “He goes into the bushes for a toilet break and to prove he’s there, he repeatedly calls out while shaking the branches: ‘I’m shakin’ it boss, still shakin’ it’.”

Fota Island is not a prison camp but it felt like that on Wednesday as we stood behind the wire watching Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane on the morning after the defeat to Belarus.

Our instructions for the week were clear: the team hotel was ‘strictly out of bounds’ to the media and we would be delivered to the training site in a shuttle bus as there was ‘strictly no access’ for cars.

So we caught the shuttle to Fota Island, and were shepherded to some pens with a view of the players, and wondered how it had come to this as our strictly allotted time, 15 minutes, expired. And then I thought of Fergie. A security guard was eyeing me intently. I was dragging a bin I’d been using as a seat and was about to cross the boundary.

“What are you doing?” he bristled.

“Just shakin’ it boss,” I smiled.

“Sorry?”

(He wasn’t.)

“I’m just replacing the bin where I found it,” I said. “That okay?”

It never used to be like this.

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Twenty-six years have passed since my first taste of life on the other side. The month was September 1990, a 1-0 defeat of Morocco at Dalymount Park, and I sat with Mick McCarthy, watching as Cascarino and Staunton and Townsend and Houghton and Bonner and Quinn — the heroes of Italia ’90 — traipsed in and out of the showers.

A light went on in my head — these guys were real people! They laughed and cried and argued and cussed and worried and farted and picked their nose, just like us. So that’s how I portrayed them. A month later, I watched McCarthy’s son, Michael, empty a full box of Rice Krispies onto their kitchen floor.  

(Mick did not take it well.)

A year after that, I was getting guitar lessons from Andy Townsend at his home in Birmingham. And three years later, when the ’94 World Cup came around, I was on first-name terms with most of the players’ wives and had taken my first bollocking from Roy in a Manchester hotel.

“Hi, Roy I’m . . .”

“I don’t care who you are.”

“Yeah, sorry, I just . . .”

“What are you doing here?”

“Yeah, no, sorry, I . . .”

“Show some respect.”

We had full access to every training session in Orlando, and one of the best nights of the tournament — marginally eclipsed by the defeat of Italy — was an evening with Eamon Dunphy at the team hotel.

“Will you have a drink, Paul?”

“Thanks Eamon, a glass of chardonnay.”

“Red or white?”

We travelled on the same flights and slept in the same hotels — God bless you Ray Treacy! — and made friendships that will endure for life. And we did our jobs. We were journalists. There were places, of course, we could not go, and there was stuff we could not write, but we respected the boundaries and where to draw the lines.

The new kids were always a challenge. In 1998, a few years after I’d knocked the first hurdle with Roy, Damien Duff joined the team. We were on a flight out of Dublin for a qualifying game and for some reason — probably an administrative error — I was given a seat amongst the players in row 8. 

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I boarded early, hoping for Cas or Andy or Roy, but it was Damien who was walking towards me. He looked at me and checked his boarding pass and began to turn green. He checked the pass again and I felt compelled to apologise. “Sorry, Damien, I think you’ve drawn the short straw.” But he just mumbled something, and dived into a seat beside Robbie Keane.

(‘Duffer’ has always been a fine judge of character.)

Three years later, after the epic defeat of Holland at Lansdowne Road, I sat down with both of them for ‘Inside The Team That Mick Built’, a 15,000-word feature starring Jason McAteer and Gary Kelly and Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane and Ian Harte and Niall Quinn and Richard Dunne. And with a cameo from Roy: “Admired by all, known by none.”  

We were seven months from Saipan.

I’m not sure I have ever been as happy as I was that summer, travelling to that island in the Pacific. And if someone had told me I’d soon be writing for a different newspaper, and would not return to the Boys in Green until 2016, I’d have been grateful for the 14 years. And told them they were insane.

So it felt kind of odd watching the survivors from ’02 — Roy and Robbie and Shay and the physio, Ciaran Murray — from beyond the barriers on Wednesday. And it felt kind of odd watching Duffer being unveiled as a pundit for RTE. And it felt very strange indeed, to spend five days in Cork and so little time with the team.

Yesterday, over coffee with Martin O’Neill, I reminded him of Hamburg in ’82 and Northern Ireland’s famous home win over Germany that same year and the coach-ride he had shared with the journalist: “What happened?” I asked. “How did things get so bad?”

“What do you think?” he replied.

“I think it was poisoned by a betrayal of trust.” 

“I think you’re right,” he says. “Life has changed, and journalists are under pressure to get stories. And there’s no trust there. There’s a training ground incident and it’s being tweeted within seconds. And it’s all round — it’s trust with the players, trust with the managers, trust with the media.”

“And we’ve paid the price,” I concur, “and lost. But you’ve lost as well. The team has lost.”

“There’s no question about that,” he says, “and I think that’s quite sad, you know, those days when you could sit down and speak to people and not feel, once you had left the room, that what you had said was going to be twisted. It’s a genuine shame there’s not that trust anymore.”

IN NEXT WEEK'S SUNDAY INDEPENDENT: DON'T MISS PAUL KIMMAGE'S EXCLUSIVE BIG INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN O'NEILL

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