Paul Kimmage: I am moved to tears when Dublin win - but how can I not cheer for Mayo next weekend?
I once cooked dinner for Hugh McIlvanney.
The meal - a starter of rocket salad with cherry tomatoes followed by Tesco's finest Penne Arrabiata - was probably the worst he had ever eaten, but beggars can't be choosers on Saturday night at St Andrews during the Open, and there were no complaints. We were sharing a house with four other writers from 'The Sunday Times' and as I set the table and uncorked the wine, a Gigondas, he sat in the conservatory with a fine Cuban cigar, mulling over a column he had filed on Tiger Woods. No one mulled like McIlvanney.
February 28, 2016
Okay, so I've written before about that week at the Open and the rented house at St Andrews and my observation of Hugh McIlvanney, perhaps the greatest British sportswriter of all time. His devotion to his craft; his brow furrowed as he pored over the column and measured every phrase:
The way he would call to the office to change a word:
And call them again to change another word:
The way he held court during the meal and regaled us with stories and then retired to the conservatory with his Cuban and the last of the wine, smiling like a king as we did the washing up. Because, well, how else would he smile?
One of the more interesting things about those summers with the King was the nature of his work, because while a lot of us were fixated by the great stories - David Duval at Lytham in 2001, Ben Curtis at St George's in 2003, Todd Hamilton at Troon in 2004 - McIlvanney was fixated only by greatness: Tiger Woods at St Andrews in 2000. Tiger Woods at Lytham in 2001. Tiger Woods at St George's in 2003. Tiger Woods at Troon in 2004. Tiger Woods at St Andrews in 2005.
When it came to the business of David versus Goliath, he had little time for the 'Davids' of this world - or the "rags" as he called them - and you would find him in the media centre as his deadline approached, festering at the leaderboard and the latest dropped shot:
It was always about Woods. It was always about Goliath.
Valerie Mulcahy, the 10-time All-Ireland-winning footballer, hasn't quite reached the heights of McIlvanney as a columnist yet, but he would have approved of her sentiments in the Irish Examiner on Friday: 'Why I always shout for champions, not underdogs.'
Six days after the surprise defeat to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final, Mulcahy reflected on the nature of success during her time playing for Cork and how the neutrals would have cheered last week as their bid for a seventh consecutive title was derailed.
"When Cork were at their all-conquering best, many from outside the county shouted for their opponents - the underdogs - on All-Ireland final day. It is often either envy of the favourite or perceived pity for the underdog that causes many to root for the latter on the big day.
"As a young player - and before Cork's period of dominance - I would have followed the crowd and shown my support to the team considered less likely to win. But over time I began to question that somewhat instinctive support.
"Perhaps it was due to the fact that we were so often the team facing the underdog, the overwhelming favourite to succeed. In carrying that title for many years, I and the team, learned of the many characteristics needed to overcome the mass of oppositional support and the loss of the neutral fans' encouragement and well wishes.
"On some occasions, even from within our own county, people unknowingly insulted us by confessing that they would like to see a new champion. Their logic? "It would be good for the game." I disagree. It is up to other counties to bridge a gap if there is a difference in standard. It is up to them to become the best."
She also explained how the experience had changed her:
"Given the lessons learned at the coalface of Cork football, I began to back champions in different sports for the very reason that players and teams probably weren't accustomed to vocal support from neutral fans and had to fight an added element of begrudgery through their careers.
"After all, it is an insult to the success of any dominant team or athlete to reason that their success is due, in part, to a lack of ability or competition from their opposition. This is also insulting to the opposition."
As a column it ticks all the boxes - well-argued, balanced and insightful - but it begs an interesting question: Who will you be shouting for next week, Valerie? Dublin or Mayo? Goliath or David? The champions or the underdogs?
I write these words from a small townland on the edge of the Meath border in north Co Dublin. It's a 21.7-mile drive to the GPO in O'Connell Street but the view from my office window is cows grazing and shorn wheat and fields and hedges and trees. I'm a Coolock boy, a northsider - the "blacks of Dublin" as they say in The Commitments - and 30 years ago, when I came here first, it felt like I'd woken up in Kiltimagh.
The locals were rednecks. They talked like rednecks and walked like rednecks and supped and prayed and cursed like rednecks but every year when the Championship came round, and the flags went up, the colour was sky-blue and navy. I thought: 'Well, that's geography, I guess' but the thing that really surprised was the passion. These rednecks weren't just Dublin fans, they were rabid Dublin fans.
I've been a passive Dublin supporter since the birth of Heffo's Army in 1974 and convince myself, whenever they reach a final, that I'm not really invested but there's no escaping the truth. I watch the games with a knot in my stomach, tormented by every ball, and am moved to tears when they win. And there's a chance, when the ball's thrown in next week, that I'll feel exactly the same.
I hope not.
I have huge admiration for Jim Gavin, probably the greatest Dublin manager of all time. And huge admiration for the skill and pace and flair of his Dublin team, possibly one of the greatest in the history of the game. But how can I not cheer for Mayo? The loyalty and commitment of their extraordinary fans; the courage and will of their extraordinary players and their extraordinary anthem:
'We get knocked down,
But we get up again,
You are never going to keep us down.
We get knocked down,
But we get up again,
You are never going to keep us down.'
If life is a journey, not a destination then the same must be true of sport. I hope Mayo finally do it next week. No team has travelled further or deserves it more.
Sunday Indo Sport