Tuesday 18 June 2019

Ewan MacKenna's alternative 2018 sports awards: The real team of the year, the no place for perspective trophy, and a public relations gong

Shane Ross and Conor McGregor
Shane Ross and Conor McGregor
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

There's a problem with being a self-approved grouch and a self-justified cynic. You can't win.

If things go well in the world - which isn't bloody likely as a look around will show those still somehow in denial - you are proven wrong and let know about it via those go-to words of idiocy, begrudger and negative. More often than not though in this era of sport, and society far beyond it, you'll be shown up as completely correct and then all you get is to say I told you so while staring down the mundane misery of it all. Either way, it's not a great outcome.

But this is an era of people deceiving themselves as it's easier that way, at least in the short term. It's a time of whitened teeth and forced smiles pretending it's all wonderful without any digging below the surface.

Take this year's RTE Sports Awards as a great example.

On the one hand, it was an exceptional year for Irish sport to the point even the long-list made James McClean's victory in the 2017 edition look like we'd crawled from the gutter and hit the jackpot. Only then came the interviews, and the joyless tick-the-box answers.

Remember Joan Burton in Aprés Match. It was a bit like that. Only instead of "on the ground" and "change" it was "head's down" and "looking forward". The sanitisation of achievement by many who've had those achievements marketed to a sufficient degree.

But how about looking at those we admire in a different light? How about finally looking at those we ought to admire but that we weren't told to? And how about going a little bit deeper, beneath the sales pitch, as we look at sport in a more questioning shade?

If only...

THE UNHERALDED SPORTSPERSON OF THE YEAR - TJ DOHENY

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Ireland’s TJ Doheny
 

If you go to that bible of boxing statistics and results, Boxrec, it has the Portlaoise native down as an Australian. It's oddly more fitting than frustrating. Forced from these shores in the bust around 2012, his new land gave him a chance that our greed took from so many.

It was there he went pro, fighting in what essentially amounted to make-shift restaurants on dinner shows, working away on scaffolding so he could pay for good opponents, winning the Pan-Asian title in 2013, defending it, always climbing the ladder and always learning. Then came a controversial title win in Japan over the local Ryosuke Iwasa in August as he become IBF super-bantamweight champion of the world. Having spat him out, as a nation many suddenly wanted to claim him again, and more importantly his achievement and his glory.

It was a telling time, as so often economic migrants are chalked down as traitors when it was they who were wronged. Gone. Resented. Forgotten. And then reclaimed. TJ Doheny - a sportsperson that turned the mirror back on Irish society and showed an ugliness

THE REAL TEAM OF THE YEAR - UNDER-20 100m IRISH WOMEN'S RELAY TEAM

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Ireland's silver medal winners, from left, Rhasidat Adeleke, Sommer Lecky, Gina Akpe-Moses, Patience Jumbo-Gula, Ciara Neville and Molly Scott
 

We've said it before, at intervals across the year, in the hope that a sufficient quantity of mentions would result in a wider and deserved recognition. More fools us.

It wasn't even the level despite a silver at a world athletics championship being phenomenal. It wasn't even the idea that it was Ireland as a sprint force. No, this was the who and not so much the what.

Patience Jumbo-Gula, Rhasidat Adeleke and Gina Akpe-Moses were three of the squad, with two born here to Nigerian parents, and the other making the trip when she was just an infant. We like to think they are lucky to have us; let's flip that though for we should realise we are damn lucky to have them. That's beyond the capabilities of some though.

Time should mature people, and still you've to endure Christmas bar stool mutters about scroungers, as some idiot saw a black family on their estate give a new bike to their child.

The horror.

Those women could tell you about such racism, as in recent years Athletics Ireland have had a task deleting online comments that questioned if they were from here, asked where their Nigerian flag was as they celebrated with their tricolour, and went as far as the Cote d'Ivoire attacks after a 16-year-old in Jumbo-Gula hurriedly slapped a sticker of the Irish flag on backwards in a mirror. And still they ran like the wind and achieved. For us.

A new generation of Irish giving us a very new and exciting reason to be proud to be Irish. There's something wonderful about that, even if many cannot see it, let alone accept it.

THE SIGN OF THE TIMES GONG  - 2018 GOVERNMENT SPORTS GRANTS

It's not who you are, it's not even what you do. Instead it's now about where you come from. In August, when an extra €1.5m was announced in sports funding, it was of course a PR stunt. However when any money makes its way down to what too many see as a play-thing, it's to be welcomed. The breakdown though was as interesting as it was telling.

That same month having taken a medal from the European Athletics Championships, and having had an amateur boxing system that churned out the aforementioned Doheny and Carl Frampton who were both involved in massive professional fights, those two sports received a combined €100,000. You see there were others that really needed the rest of it.

Like the Olympic Council of Ireland who've been really bad at a job that essentially involves little, as well as those working-class realms around horses, hockey, golf and cricket getting €930,000. If the end of your sentence doesn't come with an inflection, you're not worthy.

Let the good times roll. We will all party.

NO PLACE FOR PERSPECTIVE TROPHY - IRISH WOMEN'S HOCKEY TEAM

See this isn't to take away from the achievement, it's to appreciate it for what it was. Few will get that, instead rejecting and berating what they've failed to so much as comprehend.

A World Cup final is a remarkable thing, especially one in a sport that isn't exactly globally niche and especially one where we entered the 16-team finals as the second-lowest ranked team of the lot. But hang on just a minute for remember how England got to a World Cup semi-final in soccer that blew their minds when they actually didn't beat anyone that good?

So let's look at the route the Irish women took back in the summer. In the group they beat number seven USA and number 10 India. And in the knockouts they beat number 10 India again and number 11 Spain, both on penalties. Finally running into an actual top team in the decider, they lost 6-0 to the Netherlands. Doesn't sound as impressive that way, does it?

Maybe you do make your own luck. But don't pretend we didn't have a lot of it.

NO PLACE FOR PATIENCE TROPHY - IRISH MEN'S RUGBY TEAM

The goys were the favourites in this category and romped home without a finger laid on them. In the end they were backed by a surge of marketing as their status makes them valuable to advertisers, which in turn has seen a nation make up titles like "best team of this year". Are we for real?

Much like the hockey team, facts don't seem to matter. The Six Nations win was very good, the New Zealand win was very good, but now comes a World Cup year that is always a true test of genuine greatness and a true destroyer of hyperbole. We've had supposedly great teams before of course, and premature proclamations by Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll in 2011, and via Ian Madigan's tears in 2015 after no more than a win in a pool game.

So how about we cool the jets and stall the digger this time and wait to see if this golden generation can get past the last-eight in what amounts to a nine-team tournament?

Then we can say they huffed and puffed and actually did blow the house down.

THE PROPER PRAT AWARD SPONSORED BY PROPER 12 - CONOR MCGREGOR

It's been some year for the former sportsman as he continued his trip into new pastures.

A driving ban via court dates here, community service via court dates in New York after what was obviously a WWE-style stunt gone wrong when he attacked a bus, any and all public comments involving him trying to sell his new whiskey, and a brief reminder at the end that his best days in the octagon are gone and now there's nothing behind the bluster.

Empty vessels and all of that.

SPORTS ADMINISTRATION AWARD - THE GAA

Perhaps the most hotly contest of all categories, and an outcome that will no doubt leave many others distraught.

Over in Croke Park though they had a spectacular year. Club fixtures still a mess. Football attendances down. The Super 8s not working. Growing fury at Dublin's funding that shows no sign of real redistribution. What put them over the top though was the Newbridge or Nowhere debacle where they tried to deny a team a home game in order to cash in.

Just recall the week leading up to that Kildare-Mayo qualifier. Remember Fergal McGill, the director of games administration, saying that "the game has been fixed for 7pm in Croke Park, and that is not going to change under any circumstances". Remember Ned Quinn, head of the Central Competitions Control Committee, insulting fans by hinting at potential violence due to limited capacity. Remember former president Nickey Brennan being wheeled out to admit he didn't know the rules but the GAA are correct, before telling Kildare they made their point, "now get on with it". Sometimes cluelessness is hidden. Other times though it stares straight at you.

COACH OF THE YEAR (NOT SPONSORED BY THE GAA, HONESTLY) - JIM GAVIN

Have you ever seen money kick a point over the bar? Thought not.

You see not only has the Dublin boss taken a rag-tag band of hopeless underdogs who have been denied a home game for years to a four-in-a-row of All Irelands, he has actually revolutionised global sport. We aren't kidding, so stay with us.

Before he came along, teams across the planet were diverting massive amounts of cash into coaching methods, coaching structures and coaching experts. The flawed thinking at that time was that it could take an individual and improve them in areas from fitness to technique to mentality to speed to shooting to tackling to decision making. You get the drift.

Of course we now know better as it was all a scam. Duped for so long, Gavin showed us the error of our ways as money makes no difference. Thus they are set to give it all back.

Now for the five-in-a-row, an achievement that will remind Leitrim they just have to put their heads down, want it that bit more, and work that bit harder. Easy.

OVERSEAS AWARD - COLIN KAEPERNICK

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American footballer Colin Kaepernick
 

Another year down, the surge to the right continues.

Brazil was the most recent to fall in their end-of-year elections, joining the likes of Hungary, Italy, Sweden, the USA, Poland and the Philippines in voting for various elements and various degrees of actual fascism. It makes you wonder where have all the heroes gone?

Back in October, the 50th anniversary of the Tommie Smith and John Carlos black-power salute came and went, without so much as a hat-tip from the White House. Instead, that very day Donald Trump was on social media calling the porn star he cheated on his wife with "horse face". But in an era where we often mistakenly look to celebrity for guidance, sports celebrities have kept their heads down and their mouths shut for the most part.

We know it's not part of the remit to get involved and if they don't then we can't hold that against them. But some are brave enough to step forward and it should be remembered.

Kaepernick has led the few in this sense, taking haymakers to the chin but refusing to take a backward step as some fights are that important. As the bar drops lower and lower all around him, so few understand him and his campaign around black lives in a country slipping back towards a form of racial slavery. The NFL is a part of that. A dance-for-me boy league, but having given so much up by refusing to dance, some still call his efforts a stunt.

They aren't stunts though. They are stands. And they are as needed as they are inspiring.

THE TONYA HARDING WIN AT ALL COSTS AWARD - MANCHESTER CITY AND GIRO D'ITALIA

A tie for as much as we hate to sit on the fence, both achievements have been so astounding that to overlook either will make it feel like the year wasn't properly covered.

One the one hand you had those over in Eastlands, using a football club to wash their reputation and to do business in the west but with links to Yemen which is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation.  If you don't believe the extent of the links, City's PR man Simon Pearce is actually in leaked emails talking with US defence secretary Jim Mattis about PR around their Yemen war as well.

On the other hand, one of cycling's grand tours made it's way to Israel for its opening, taking the money so that we could see helicopter shots of beauty at a time Israel were blowing up Palestinians as if fish in a barrel. You couldn't make it up as the route announcement was on the United Nations' International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, but their government via sports minister Miri Regev also claimed the race was in breach of their agreement and demanded organisers remove a referral to “west Jerusalem” due to competing claims over the city, and refer to just “Jerusalem”. Devils and detail.

Who said Arabs and Israelis couldn't find common ground.

In evil and in sport it seems understanding can be found.

PUBLIC RELATIONS AWARD - MTK GLOBAL

Step forward Sandra Vaughan, for this one is all yours.

It's a little over a year since she took over the boxing management company that was co-founded and whose foundations were laid by Daniel Kinahan and his money. Rather than address this though, Vaughan decided to focus on other areas.

It takes quite a skill to take a sport that has been such a uniting factor on this island, and use it to split this island. With Republic of Ireland media reporting the facts, she banned boxers from talking to them -  and got them to throw up social media posts about "fair news". As for those north of the border, they still have access.

In the end almost everyone lost out - from fighters missing promotion to the public missing out on good stories about great people. Vaughan won though as she collects this trophy.

THE HALL OF FAME AWARD - SHANE ROSS

Oh there are those who will snarl and spit. For shame.

After all, no one is perfect and anyone can get a few names wrong. Dominant Puspure and Sanita Puspure are peas in a pod. Dave Kearney and Rob Kearney look similar. Thomas Barr no doubt has often been called Thomas Barry. Shay Given surely dreamt of scoring against Germany. And Shane Kenny versus Stephen Kenny is just people looking to be offended.

But let's glance at actions and not words.

For instance, how about getting up and taking a trip to Wesley College or Loreto High School, two private institutions given €300,000 to resurface their hockey pitches. Can you imagine what those poor children would've had to endure without his generosity.

With an election in the near future, we can only hope it sparks more kindness from this modern-day Mother Theresa. Maybe humanitarian aid for a sailing club in his constituency, or food parcels for a dressage centre in Stillorgan. The boom may be back but this man understands there are those left behind. Dominant Ross, we salute you.

Online Editors

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