Tuesday 22 August 2017

Poll: Vote for Ireland's greatest sports star between 1975-1984

Paddy Cullen makes a save against Kerry during the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final, still acknowledged as the greatest Gaelic football match of all time
Paddy Cullen makes a save against Kerry during the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final, still acknowledged as the greatest Gaelic football match of all time

Eamonn Sweeney

The few thousand people who arrived late to Dalymount Park on Sunday, August 21, 1977 and began chanting, 'Dublin, Dublin' as Thin Lizzy played may well have been having the most enjoyable day possible in the Irish 1970s.

They had, after all, walked up the North Circular Road to Dalymount from Croke Park where they had watched Dublin defeat Kerry in what remains by common consent the greatest Gaelic football match of all time. And now they were at one of the great occasions of Irish rock music as Lizzy, at the very height of their powers, were supported by the Boomtown Rats, who within a year would be just as big and The Radiators who, though they never enjoyed the same kind of mainstream success as the other pair, would two years later record Ghostown, one of the best Irish albums ever. Beat that for a day out.

There was a time when the GAA and Thin Lizzy would have been seen as representing two entirely antithetical world views. But, while it's unlikely many of the members of Central Council would have been rocking out to 'Jailbreak', the Dubs attracted a large following who saw no contradiction between following Philo and hailing Heffo.

This wasn't merely a metropolitan phenomenon. Cursory examination of rural GAA team photos from the time usually reveals at least a few players chiming in with the big-haired and Zapata-moustached styles of the day. The 1975 All-Ireland Football Final between Kerry and Dublin at times resembled a duel between two feuding Glam Rock bands. Few contemporary inter-county managers would tolerate the high levels of grooviness on show.

After decades of regimentation, youth was having its fling in Ireland. The great political cliche of the day was that 'our young people are the country's greatest asset', and while the TDs who intoned this ad nauseam probably didn't believe it, a lot of the young people themselves did. There was a reaction against the old anti-authoritarianism and a confidence born out of an economic boom in 1977 and 1978. These were the years of the big open air festivals, Lisdoonvarna, Macroom Castle, the Boys of Ballisodare, of the pirate radio explosion, of the protests which prevented the opening of a nuclear power station at Carnsore Point and failed to save Wood Quay, of Magill, Hot Press and In Dublin helping to create what John Waters called "an Irish counter-culture".

That unbuttoned spirit spilled over into sport. Alex Higgins seemed like a cross between a villain in The Sweeney and the protagonist in one of the Confessions movies, the multi-coloured boards on which Eamonn Coghlan triumphed and the American twang when he spoke oozed Stateside glamour, while Pat Jennings' musketeer hairdo, tendency to play further off his line than any other goalkeeper and penchant for the one-handed catch suggested a desire to bring a certain panache to the job which was very 70s.

Michael Robinson celebrates scoring Ireland’s third goal in a 3-2 World Cup qualifier victory over France in 1981
Michael Robinson celebrates scoring Ireland’s third goal in a 3-2 World Cup qualifier victory over France in 1981

But the exuberance of the times was most perfectly epitomised by the prodigious teenage trio at Highbury. Liam Brady and David O'Leary were in the Arsenal first team at 17, where they were joined by 19-year-old Frank Stapleton. When they linked up at international level with the likes of Gerry Daly, an FA Cup winner with Manchester United in 1976, a day after his 22nd birthday, Mark Lawrenson, a first team regular for Brighton in the top flight at the age of 22 and Chris Hughton, in the Spurs first team at the age of 20, the future looked unconscionably bright. Ireland, it seemed, would finally make the finals of the major tournaments.

It didn't go according to plan. Bad luck and bad refereeing saw the team edged out on goal difference by a French team which would go on to finish fourth at the 1982 World Cup. And by 1986, the team was finishing fourth out of five in the qualifying group, finishing up with a humiliating defeat to Denmark at a quarter full Lansdowne Road. The brave new world had failed to materialise.

Alex Higgins memorial
Alex Higgins memorial

But then a lot of dreams had failed to come true. As the 1970s turned into the 80s, the boom had turned into a recession and the optimism began to seep out of those young people who'd believed that tomorrow belonged to them as the reality of unemployment and emigration began to sink in. The Pro-Life Amendment campaign ended in victory for the old forces of religious conservatism. The 1960s political pin-up, Charlie Haughey, put in a couple of squalid terms as Taoiseach which seemed almost expressly designed to sap national morale. And even Phil Lynott, who had seemed such an indestructible force of nature that day in Dalymount, came to grief four days after the beginning of 1986 as years of drug abuse took their toll. George Best and Alex Higgins were enduring similar personal hells.

We were in dire need of new heroes.

Sunday Independent

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