Sunday 18 March 2018

Paul Kimmage: There just might be a better way to win

Robbie Fowler: ‘I don’t really know what was going through my head, although I have never been a cheat, never thrown myself to the floor at any time’. Photo: Andy Hooper/Daily Mail/REX/Shutt
Robbie Fowler: ‘I don’t really know what was going through my head, although I have never been a cheat, never thrown myself to the floor at any time’. Photo: Andy Hooper/Daily Mail/REX/Shutt
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Cheat: v. 1 act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage. > deprive of something by deceitful or unfair means 2 avoid (something undesirable) by luck or skill n. 1 a person who cheats. 2 an act of cheating

Cynical: adj. 1 believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest > sceptical > contemptuous; mocking. 2 (of behaviour or actions) proceeding from a concern only with one's own interests, regardless of accepted standards: a cynical foul

Concise Oxford English Dictionary

Thirty-five years ago, during my heady days as an apprentice plumber at Dublin Airport, the shortest straw in the maintenance department was to be sent into the cavern under the terminal building. As septic tanks go, this was the Titanic - the innards of every man, woman and child caught short in the airport drained into this thing - and we were tasked with the job of breaking-up the crud.

The stench was so bad it would singe the hair of your nostrils, and here's what I know:

There's a notable difference between shovelling shit and writing it.

And here's what I'd like to know:

What is the difference between cheating and cynical play?

There's an extraordinary clip on YouTube of a game between Arsenal and Liverpool at Highbury. The month is March 1997, the teams are head-to-head for the Premier League title, and the visitors lead 1-0 early in the second half. "Seven years remember, since Liverpool won the title," the commentator, Alan Parry, announces, as a ball is pumped over the top for Robbie Fowler to chase.

David Seaman, the Arsenal goalkeeper, rushes from his line. Fowler jinks and tries to skip around him but tumbles in the box. "That's got to be a penalty," Parry shouts. "It is!" And you can feel the rage of the Arsenal fans as the stadium erupts:

"You f**king ***t Fowler!

"You cheating Scouse bastard!"

Then something remarkable happens. Fowler gets to his feet and gestures with his arm to the referee: "No, No." He looks at Seaman and apologises: "Sorry, Dave." He's trying to be honest. He's insisting the goalkeeper hasn't touched him, and the world that formed him cannot believe it.

His team-mates are shouting at him: "Robbie! Shut the fuck up!" His coach, Ronnie Moran, is screaming on the touchline: "What's he doing? Ian Wright wouldn't have fucking done that!" Trevor Francis, the co-commentator, can't believe it: "That's amazing! Robbie Fowler is saying 'No.'" And two days later, he is still making headlines: 'Football hero in honesty shock'.

David Lister, the Arts Correspondent and a founder member of The Independent, captured the moment brilliantly: "I was reminded of Tom Stoppard's comedy Professional Foul, which mixes football and philosophy. A philosopher asks a professional footballer why players from opposing teams always appeal for a throw-in when 'every bloody time' the player who actually kicked it out of play knows that he did. What are the moral and philosophical boundaries between loutishness, dishonesty and simply wanting to gain an advantage for your team?

"With penalties, soccer etiquette - or lack of it - has been even clearer. You always contest a penalty award against you. You never dispute a penalty award in your favour. Cricketers may walk but footballers never, never talk. Yet Fowler did, or tried to. And then the action became real enough to give philosophers an entire seminar. So unprecedented was Fowler's honesty that no one knew how to handle it.

"The ref who had blown his whistle and pointed to the spot was expecting the usual clamour of protests from the Arsenal players. But a protest from the player about to take the penalty? He hadn't been taught about that at referee school. The next day he said simply that he hadn't heard Fowler say anything. 'He obviously didn't hear him waving then,' noted one commentator."

Okay, so call me an arts correspondent, but two weeks ago I sat in the press box in Croke Park watching something that made no sense to me. A thrilling All-Ireland final - the most exciting sport I've watched this year - was ticking towards conclusion. Dean Rock had just converted a brilliant pressure kick and the game had reached its final act.

David Clarke has the ball but he can't put it into play. Cormac Costello is messing with his kicking tee; almost every Mayo shirt is being pulled by a Dublin arm or has been wrestled to the ground. Clarke has no options. He can't get the ball away. It's like watching American football as the quarterback retreats.

Costello gets a yellow card; Ciaran Kilkenny is sent to the sideline with a black card but the punishment does not fit the crime and when the final whistle sounds it's the ugliness that lingers. Dublin are champions but it's no way to win an All-Ireland. But then, it's true, I have never understood the game.

I don't understand the dragging and the wrestling and how winning became the only thing:

Paul Geaney: "It is part and parcel of the game. It is the nature of the sport and I would not have expected anything less from the Dubs in that situation. And they got their just reward for it, if you want to put it that way, in that they slowed the game down."

Ciaran Kilkenny: "Any man is willing to do what he can for his county. If you were there in the last minute of an All-Ireland final, what would you do? That's every player's thought process."

Philly McMahon: "I am going to do what I can to win. Now, if it affects the team negatively and the result negatively, then it's the wrong decision. But that's what you're planning to do. There's always the opportunity to be negative. And that's why the lads probably did it in the last 10 minutes because they saw the opportunity in something negative they were doing."

Alan Brogan: "It is not the most sporting thing we have ever seen on the field, but at that stage of the biggest game of your life, winning is all that matters."

I don't understand the concessions afforded to Lee Keegan for his conduct at the end of the game:

Alan Brogan: "If I thought I could give Dublin a chance to win an All-Ireland by throwing a GPS unit at the feet of a free-taker I would have done it."

Philly McMahon: "You're never going to get rid of cynical play. A player is going to do absolutely whatever they can - I would have taken off my jersey and thrown it at Dean Rock, to put him off."

Colm O'Rourke: "Lee Keegan does not get any sportsmanship award after throwing his GPS at Dean Rock but I could think of plenty of players who would throw a cement block at Rock if it meant putting him off in the same circumstances."

I'm curious about some of the headlines these past two weeks:

The 'The GAA cynicism storm means soccer no longer stands alone on the moral low ground'

The Examiner: 'There's no acceptable cynicism. Let's blackball the offenders'

Irish Independent: 'McMahon insists cynical play is here to stay in GAA'

But what's the difference between cynical play and cheating?

In his autobiography, this is how Robbie Fowler reflects on his decision not to cheat against Arsenal in '97.

"I don't really know what was going through my head, although I have never been a cheat, never thrown myself to the floor at any time, and I have never agreed with this idea in the game now that if you can commit a defender and get him to touch you, then you go down. I've always had a different idea, that if you can commit a defender, then shoot, even if it is a little old-fashioned."

What about selling that to our kids?


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