Top selection of victories against run of play
Non-fiction: On The Seventh Day: Thirty Years of Great Sports Writing from the 'Sunday Independent'
Edited by John Greene
Mercier Press, out now in paperback, €16.99
At certain points in this collection, perhaps during Anthony Cronin's magisterial lines on the Epsom Derby, or Tommy Conlon's note perfect piece on Alex Higgins, or during Paul Kimmage's several meisterworks or in recalling the greatest hits of Eamon Dunphy, it would cross my mind that the sports pages of newspapers were known to some as "the toy department".
Many things in this world, of course, are upside down but this particular error has always struck me as being among the most grievous. When the Sunday Independent's sports editor John Greene took on the responsibility of making this selection from 30 years of sportswriting in the paper, it was a really difficult proposition - he would have to leave out so much that deserved to be in there, by some of the best writers in the country.
And I don't mean sportswriters, I just mean writers, because again in our erroneous way, the "sports" bit tends to qualify it somewhat, or even diminish it - as if this work is not quite as serious as the real writing that is usually to be found in anthologies.
It is indeed extraordinary that obviously first-rate writers such as Dion Fanning are not routinely mentioned alongside our most admired novelists and essayists - his piece "In Search of the real Giovanni Trapattoni", is a beautiful thing.
Eamonn Sweeney is putting out prose of exceptional quality most weeks of the year, and yet because it might be about the magic of the All-Ireland club championships, rather than "a meditation on memory and loss", he would not be featured in any celebration of the new wave of Irish writing, or even one of the old waves.
Then again in this as in other areas, journalism is partly responsible for its own devaluation, imposing its own upside-down standards in which hackery is still somehow seen as the real thing, while these superior contributions are viewed as some kind of an optional extra. A luxury that the business can't really afford.
Indeed the old hackery is as powerful a force in sports as in political journalism, and this was one of the fronts on which Dunphy in particular waged war. Arriving into this closed culture in which journalists actually gloried in calling themselves "hacks", with no ideas above their station, or indeed no ideas of any kind, he called them the "fans with typewriters" and insisted that there had to be better ways of doing this job.
Indeed he saw it as part of the job to point this out, to let the reader know that the humble hacks weren't necessarily doing the people's work, and of course none of them were doing the sort of work that you can still be reading 25 years later - Dunphy's piece on Big Jack just before the 1994 World Cup is still monumental.
He was not just "allowed" to do this by the then editor of the paper Aengus Fanning, he was encouraged, against that prevailing wisdom which deemed him some sort of a traitor to the grand traditions of our inky trade.
Paul Kimmage too will write about the writing itself, perhaps because he also came a bit late to the game, and was probably a bit baffled that the people doing the easy stuff didn't really rate the ones who were doing the hard stuff, or at least trying to do it.
Kimmage is incapable of writing anything without some serious investment on his part, he doesn't see the point of articles that don't engage with the fact that, as John Betjeman put it, "people's backyards are much more interesting than their front gardens".
The old salts of the press box were a bit disdainful of anything of a "personal" nature too, again demonstrating their determination to impose the whip of hackery on these creative types, coming in here, telling them what to do.
And we are deep into the upside-down nature of things here, because as we know, wherever somebody starts by saying "I don't usually do personal stuff but this is an exception", what follows is invariably the best thing they've ever written.
Almost everything in this collection is profoundly personal, even if doesn't explicitly come with that attitude. Indeed there has hardly ever been any kind of good writing which is not profoundly personal, and signs on it, there is a dearth of "objectivity" in the book - "objectivity" being a code for lazymindedness and ultimately just boredom.
Be it Joe Brolly or Dermot Crowe on the GAA or Richie Sadlier on football or Brendan Fanning or Neil Francis on rugby, there is an awareness that the writer needs to be bringing some part of himself to the proceedings, because often he will be entering a place where he is not wanted, where the players have actually gone to classes in which they have been instructed how to say as little as possible to the accursed media, and in the least interesting style.
So there is always a struggle going on, to write something that is better than it needs to be. In sports it has been harder still for women such as Marie Crowe and Aisling Crowe and Claire McCormack and Cliona Foley to come through, because of what can generally be called the state of the world.
But anything that has made its way into this collection, has done it the hard way.
Dermot Gilleece brings a lifetime of storytelling into a piece about Irish golf, written after Darren Clarke won the British Open in 2011.
Being so readable after so long, these articles are at one level a credit to all who wrote them, but also to this industry of ours which often seems unaware of the things it does best - and which as a result may not even exist in any recognisable form in 30 years time.
Still, when these journalists embarked on these articles, who knew that so many of them (the articles) would turn out so well?
Always it was against the run of play.
Sunday Indo Living