Saturday 24 February 2018

Review: Memoir: Voices From My Past: A Memoir by Fred Cogley

Irish Sports Publishing €14.99
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Chasing pack: Star player
Tony Ward (centre) in action
Chasing pack: Star player Tony Ward (centre) in action

In 1970, seven years after he had last been capped for Ireland, Tony O'Reilly arrived at the team's London's training ground as a surprise last-minute choice to play against England. Fred Cogley was among a group of journalists who witnessed the tycoon's chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce as it swung through the gates.

"Who else but Tony could have made an entrance like that?" he writes and then recounts an incident during the game when the great winger, lying concussed on the pitch after a knock on the head, heard an Irish voice shout from the sideline: "Why didn't you kick his bloody driver as well while you were at it?"

This is one of many amusing anecdotes told in an amiable memoir that also finds space for a cricketing story which has gone into media folklore.

At a dinner to celebrate the West Indian team's visit to Ireland in 1976, an Irish Cricket Union official paid formal tribute to the local ground staff, who had "worked like blacks to get the pitch ready".

Replying to this, West Indian manager Clyde Walcott left it to the end of an urbane speech before he graciously assured the Irish official that everyone on his team would "play like blacks tomorrow".

A new generation of sports fans may not be familiar with Fred Cogley, but if Bill McLaren was the voice of BBC rugby for three and more decades, Cogley was his Irish counterpart -- less obsessive than the borderline-manic Scotsman and less addicted to arcane detail, too, but just as distinctive in the genial enthusiasm he brought to his commentaries.

Both broadcasters belong to a vanished, more gentlemanly, age of sports coverage and while Cogley's unpretentious memoir, written with the assistance of rugby correspondent Des Berry, can be read as a spirited account of an interesting life and career, it also serves as an elegy for a kinder media era -- one in which, as his journalist father Mitchel was fond of observing, "if you didn't play well you weren't mentioned".

That generosity of outlook would nowadays be seen as a dereliction of duty, but it's one that always marked the son's approach to sport, too. Indeed, it's difficult to recall from decades spent listening to his match commentaries any harsh verdicts on individual performances or management selections -- though he did incur the wrath of the Irish team touring Australia in 1967 when, in a piece written for the Evening Herald, he ascribed a poor Irish performance to the fact that they had celebrated the previous weekend's Test victory by celebrating "not wisely but too well".

In the book, though, he reserves his sharp remarks for administrators rather than players -- chronicling Micheal O'Hehir's problems with an RTÉ hierarchy that "didn't particularly enjoy employing a department head with a larger-than-life public personality"; noting the IRFU's "hostility" to such headline-attracting players from different eras as Tony O'Reilly and Tony Ward; or lamenting the fact that after Ronnie Delaney's 1956 triumph in Melbourne, "official Ireland didn't make any real use of his talents".

On the Ward-versus-Campbell debate that raged in the late 1970s, he wonders why both couldn't have been accommodated on the same team and dismisses as "utter balderdash" the argument that Ward was "getting too big for his boots" by appearing in tabloid newspapers.

"If you attracted attention, you were suspect" in the eyes of the IRFU -- unlike today when Brian O'Driscoll "has been marketed to spread the Gospel of Rugby in the country".

In narrative terms, the book is all over the place, constantly leaping back and forwards in time and repetitively so on occasion, but it's crammed with interesting reminiscences and amusing anecdotes -- mostly about rugby but about soccer, Gaelic games, golf and athletics, too.

It's also engrossing on the development of RTÉ sports broadcasting down through the decades.

On a personal note I was fascinated by his reminiscences of Rathmines and Rathgar, where I also grew up, and by his memories of schooldays in St Mary's College, which I attended in a later decade, though he offers a far more benign view of one of the priests there than I would have provided.

At the end he describes his 10 favourite Irish tries -- including Kevin Flynn's exhilarating dash between the posts against England in 1972 and Keith Crossan's burst of speed against Wales in 1985, though curiously none of Brian O'Driscoll's lethal blurs of genius.

However, O'Driscoll does make it into his all-time Ireland team (how could he not?), which includes such other obvious greats as Tom Kiernan, Mike Gibson, Tony O'Reilly, Jack Kyle, Willie John McBride, Paul O'Connell, Fergus Slattery and Ken Goodall.

No Alan Duggan, though, or Brendan Mullin or Kevin Flynn or Ronan O'Gara. Ah well.

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