Friday 23 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Time to put a sock in it, Pat

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16 June 2013; Martin Dunne, Cavan, in action against John Woods, Fermanagh. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Cavan v Fermanagh, Brewster Park, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
16 June 2013; Martin Dunne, Cavan, in action against John Woods, Fermanagh. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Cavan v Fermanagh, Brewster Park, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Eamonn Sweeney

Pat Spillane should quit The Sunday Game. I don't have anything against the man personally. In fact, he'll always be one of my favourite footballers because he was among the most skilful forwards of all-time.

It's not even that I disagree with what he says. It's that these days he doesn't really say anything because his disdain for Gaelic football as it is currently played renders him unable to make any useful judgement on the game in front of him. In fact, 21st-century football actually seems to cause Pat Spillane pain. So the sensible thing for him to do is stop watching it and spare himself, and the rest of us, further suffering.

We all have our blind spots and prejudices. I have a terrible aversion to those middle-aged stand-up comedians in work suits whose routines go along the lines of, "Y'know when you're walking down the street, right, and suddenly wah-wah-wah kaboom-boosh woah woah woah." Which means there wouldn't be any point in me taking a job reviewing stand-up comedy where I'd slag off Michael McIntyre one week, Dara O'Briain the next and Des Bishop the week after that. If you simply don't get something, what's the point of banging on about your disdain week in, week out?

There isn't one and that's the problem with Spillane. Modern Gaelic football presents such an appalling vista to him that he doesn't engage with the actual game he's watching. The game is, in fact, merely a vehicle which enables him to do a stand-up routine of his own on the debased nature of modern football.

This day last week saw a typical example as the Kerryman used the Fermanagh-Cavan match as an opportunity to splutter on about football "being infiltrated by a load of bluffers and spoofers". It was an exercise in utter pointlessness. Because even if Spillane is right about modern football he has come out with statements like this again and again. And again. And again. And again. We know what he thinks so repeating it Sunday after Sunday adds nothing to anyone's understanding or enjoyment of the game.

Now nobody was ever going to mistake the match in Enniskillen for a classic. But over on BBC Oisín McConville and Paddy Bradley were analysing the game in a far superior manner to Pat Spillane. They dealt with the game they were watching, and took it on its merits.

Spillane's been performing this prophet of doom number ever since people made the mistake of passing heed on his "puke football" comments after the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, comments which I would respectfully suggest had more to do with pique following Tyrone's trouncing of Kerry than a disinterested fear for the future of the game. It got old a long time ago. A decade harping on the same subject should be enough for any man.

The problem with people who regard themselves as lone voices of truth crying in the wilderness is that they can get boring. And the problem with Pat Spillane is that we know the gist of his one-note jeremiads before he even opens his mouth. Five minutes into the Fermanagh-Cavan game, we knew what was coming at half-time.

Now the tender-hearted among you may be saying, 'Why kick poor Pat Spillane, sure isn't he a harmless oul' divil?' Which is true, up to a point. But the problem with Spillane's little routines is that they insult the guys playing whichever game serves as a launch pad for the latest diatribe. Fermanagh-Cavan wasn't great, particularly in the first half when the home team couldn't settle at all. But when they stormed back into contention in the second half, things got exciting and the last ten minutes were edge-of-the-seat stuff. You had a close finish, some excellent football from the likes of Cavan's Martin Dunne, Eugene Keating and Cian Mackey and Fermanagh's Eoin Donnelly and Thomas Corrigan and a lot of courage, pride and honest effort.

These are not small things. For example, Donnelly, who had a towering match at midfield, broke his leg in March and must have put in a ferocious amount of hard work to make the championship. In fact, all of the players who turned out at Brewster Park will have worked hard all year to be in peak condition. It takes character to be an inter-county footballer.

Most spectators would not have left Enniskillen cursing the state of the modern game. Cavan fans will have been delighted with a win which puts them one victory away from a first provincial final in 16 years, the Fermanagh faithful will at least know that they got an honest attempt to make the best of the bad hand dealt them by demographics.

Above all, I'd presume that as genuine GAA people they appreciated the efforts put in on their behalf by the men in the county jerseys. Those young men deserve more than to be made the butt of Pat Spillane's jokes. They certainly deserve better than the snigger with which Michael Lyster announced that the second half of the game would follow the ad break.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that teams or players should be immune from criticism. That would make for very dull punditry indeed. But that criticism should at least have a bit more thought put into it. That 'bluffers and spoofers' line for example. Who did he mean? Cavan manager Terry Hyland, who's already presided over a terrific renaissance at underage level which suggests football's great sleeping giant may soon awaken? Or Fermanagh boss Peter Canavan who, like Spillane, is one of the greatest forwards in the history of the game?

There are times when I think that Spillane's entire crusade is based on soreness about Tyrone's three victories over Kerry in the noughties. And his arrogation to himself of the role as keeper of the sacred flame of true football betrays an almost comical lack of self-awareness. Because while Spillane bemoans the demise of the good old honest flowing catch-and-kick football of simpler times, the fact is that the great Kingdom team on which he played were in their day derided by self-appointed purists in the same way that Donegal, Tyrone and Cork are now.

That Kerry side was a wonderful outfit but at its peak, as players threw the ball merrily from one man to the next, they were constantly assailed by cries of 'basketball'. And their 1980 All-Ireland final clash with Roscommon was as negative a game as anything which could be conjured up from the deepest recesses of Jim McGuinness's psyche. Kerry gave as good as they got that day in a creeling contest which yielded 17 scores and 60 odd frees in 70 minutes and was universally derided as, well, "puke football."

I'm sure Spillane and his team-mates were impatient with those who wondered why they couldn't play football as it had been played in the heyday of Paddy Kennedy, Dan O'Keeffe and Joe Keohane. They'd have known that the game moves on and that the fact you think it was better when you were young probably has more to do with the passing of time than the decline of football. That's why you should always bear in mind the possibility that the latest generation might actually not be vandals and ruffians determined to drag the great tradition of the game through the mud.

Pat Spillane will hardly jack it in. A job in RTE tends to be regarded in the same way as a job in Irish politics, a cushy number worth hanging on to even if you stopped believing a long time ago. But I would like to see him talking about the game that is being played instead of about the game he wishes was being played.

Because right now he's making an eejit out of the viewers, he's making an eejit out of the players and he's making an eejit out of the managers. But worst of all he's making an eejit out of Pat Spillane.


LeBron genius dominates all in classic finale

The big advantage of the American system whereby the finals of major league baseball, basketball and ice hockey are decided over the best of seven games is that it can produce truly epic confrontations.

When two great and equally matched sides go head to head what transpires has an ebb and flow about it unlike that of any other contest. And when those contests go the full distance there's nothing quite like them in any sport.

Yet, even by the standards of previous major final seven-game showdowns, there was something out of the ordinary about this year's NBA decider between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs which came to an end in the early hours of Friday morning. Everything was still up for grabs as the game moved into the last minute with the Heat clinging on to a two-point lead. Then Tim Duncan, marvellous throughout the series, missed a lay-up shot for the Spurs, LeBron James, even better, nailed a jump shot for the Heat and the reigning champs got a bit of daylight which they stretched out to a 95-88 victory. It was all over, it was probably the finest NBA final series ever played and it confirmed James, whose 37-point haul tied the all-time finals seventh-game record, as a star to rival Michael Jordan.

Yet two nights earlier it had looked all up for the Heat. With just 20 seconds remaining in game six, the Spurs, up 3-2 in the series, led by two points and their brilliant Small Forward Kawhi Leonard found himself at the free-throw line knowing that if he sank his two shots, Miami were dead and buried. He made one of them which still left the Heat in need of a desperate last-gasp three-pointer to force the game into overtime. James went for it and missed it but the rebound fell to 37-year-old veteran Ray Allen, the greatest three-point shooter in history. The right man had it, as they say in our native games. Allen made the shot and the Heat went on to scrape a 103-100 overtime victory. That's how close it was.

Watching James give one of the great finals performances it was hard not to think of his first finals seven years ago for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the San Antonio Spurs. Back then, at the age of 21, he was already the most talked about player in basketball. But the Spurs knew he wasn't the finished article. They backed off James and defied him to use his inconsistent outside shot. James failed big and the Spurs swept the finals 4-0. On Friday night, they defied him again and he sank five three-pointers which were like a dagger to the heart of the Texan team. LeBron is a different man these days.

He may, in fact, be the world's greatest sportsman.

He's certainly up there with Messi and Bolt. And this finals victory was more dramatically compelling than anything the other pair have achieved lately. Barcelona have come up short in the last two Champions Leagues after all, while Bolt's stuff is just over too damn quickly. Whereas the 2013 NBA finals will stand forever as a kind of sporting Iliad. It was that good.

James' achievement was all the more notable because with his usual right-hand man, the sublimely talented Dwyane Wade, relatively subdued by injury, he at times gave the impression of having to hoist the team up on his shoulders and get it home single-handed.

He was also forced to the very limits of his ability by the Spurs. Seldom has a team lost less caste in defeat. Largely written off going into the series, the ageing challengers were driven on by Tim Duncan, a 37-year-old veteran who, despite his status as one of the game's all-time greats, had seemed to suffer inexorable and inevitable decline over the past five years. That he, and his fellow thirtysomethings Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, went so close to upsetting the odds was extraordinary. That they failed by such a narrow margin having had victory in their grasp suffused the whole series in a pathos which was almost Shakespearean.

And there was something immensely moving too about the contribution of Miami's Shane Battier, the NBA's archetypal honest journeyman, who sank six crucial three-pointers in game seven and put in the vital challenge which made Duncan miss that last late lay-up.

Yet in the end the series belonged to one of the most aesthetically pleasing and athletically exciting sportsmen ever seen, a man whose triumph over childhood poverty says important things about the resilience of the human spirit. He is the American Dream writ large just as this year's finals were the embodiment of America in all its lurid, optimistic, exciting, contradictory, wondrous glory.

That's why, personally speaking, I'm proud to prostitute this column to President Obama's favourite game. Because there's nowhere like America.

And nothing quite like American basketball.

Irish Independent

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