Thursday 22 August 2019

Paul Kimmage: We've lots of men in green but no team means as much to us

‘There are a lot of imitations but there’s only one World Cup. And we’ve lots of men in green but no team means as much to us.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘There are a lot of imitations but there’s only one World Cup. And we’ve lots of men in green but no team means as much to us.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Ireland's Greatest Sporting Moment has almost run its course when Ruby Walsh reaches for his whip. The 12-time champion jockey knows a dead horse when he sees one and from the opening credits the programme - a monument to cheap TV - has been out on its feet.

Ronan O'Gara, sitting alongside, is almost comatose with boredom. Derval O'Rourke, their fellow panellist, is droning on incessantly about Sonia O'Sullivan.





Even Des Cahill looks worried: 'We're dying here folks. I've steered some camels in my time but this one really stinks!' So Ruby does what comes naturally and goes for his whip: "I don't think it should be in it, I don't think it should be there," he says, thrashing the Ray Houghton goal against Italy at the '94 World Cup.


Then he goes for the team: "We won the first game in our group - it's like winning a heat. That's all we did," he says. "We then went to the next match and Mexico beat us, we then drew and went to Orlando and the Netherlands hockeyed us and we came home with our tail between our legs."


He gives them another smack: "This is hyping up mediocrity," he says. "We got kicked out of the competition. We are talking about a world champion with Sonia O'Sullivan, an Olympic champion with Michael Carruth; Clare at least won the All-Ireland. Ireland won one match and came home."


He rattles them again: "I wouldn't have it there," he repeats. "That's what we do in Ireland. Jump up and down and roar about mediocrity."

A brief volley of applause is followed by boos from the audience. O'Gara has woken up. O'Rourke looks stunned. One of the world's great jockeys is beating the shite out of the Boys in Green. He has confused a great moment with great achievement. He has not read the brief. But he has also saved the day because now, at least, we're interested.

The Twitter machine is in meltdown.

'Ruby Walsh clearly failed to comprehend the meaning of Ireland's Greatest Sporting Moments.'

'Ruby Walsh being very dismissive of what was a great moment. I could dismiss all his victories as the horse does all the work!'

'Ruby Walsh is talking bollox.'

And the producers are ecstatic.

Because isn't that the point of everything these days?

I remember the 'other' Ray Houghton goal. It was June of '88, my third season as a pro cyclist, and I spent the month fighting to make the team for the Tour de France. Like many with 'small sport syndrome' I didn't get all the noise being generated by the football team and remember a story my brother told about the night of the defeat of England.

He had popped into our local - Kyles in Coolock - for a nice quiet pint and met an old boy at the urinals who was almost weeping: "This is the greatest day of my life."

The notion seemed preposterous. How could beating England be greater than the day of your wedding? Or the birth of your child? Or Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France? "The fucking eejit," we laughed.

We did not understand that when it comes to our regard, there is one sport, one team, that rules us all.

I was reminded of it on Tuesday at Lansdowne Road. I'd gone to the stadium early to pick up a ticket for my son and felt my stomach begin to tighten.

The tension around the ground was palpable. Had the stakes ever been higher for an Irish team? And so many potential great storylines: The magnificent mind of Martin O'Neill. The extraordinary passion of James McClean. The fidelity of that unsung hero Glenn Whelan. Roy Keane's return to the World Cup finals, 16 years after Saipan.

I thought of the players - Randolph and Meyler and Duffy and Ward - and how they would be feeling on the drive to the ground. And the walk from the dressing room. And standing for the anthem as they looked to their fathers and mothers and siblings in the crowd. Ruby would identify with that.

And the excitement in the stadium in those final minutes before kick-off. The roar as the anthem finished. The anticipation as the boys jogged to the sideline and abandoned extra layers. The eruption in the crowd as the stadium boomed unexpectedly with Put 'Em Under Pressure - perhaps, as Newstalk's Ger Gilroy observed, the best use of a tannoy in world sports history.

It was an extraordinary moment, a reminder of how it felt to be Irish during those never-to-be-forgotten summers of '88 and '90 and '94. Because there are a lot of imitations but there's only one World Cup. And we've lots of men in green but no team means as much to us. It almost happened. We were almost there. So spare us the whip, Ruby.

Because it really, really hurts.

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