Sunday 18 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Looking after the thankless tasks

Society owes people like John Corcoran, God rest him, an awful lot. It is a debt which can never be fully repaid Photo:Sportsfile
Society owes people like John Corcoran, God rest him, an awful lot. It is a debt which can never be fully repaid Photo:Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

There's a lot of sadness in Cork about the death last week of John Corcoran. He was one of the great characters in Cork GAA, a man who inspired a great deal of affection and possessed the invaluable and rare gift of being able to cheer people up and add life to any occasion.

I only met John Corcoran once; we were seated together at a dinner dance and I found him an engaging, funny and friendly man. But what struck me reading his obituaries was how much work he'd done on behalf of the GAA. He'd been chairman, vice-chairman and PRO of the Carbery Divisional Board, he'd been chairman, treasurer and secretary of his own club St Mary's, he'd been the chairman of the Munster third level GAA board and a member of the Munster Council, he was a county board delegate, had managed his division to a county senior title and been a selector on the county senior team and the UCC Sigerson Cup team. Just the week before he died, he'd been MC at the Canon Michael O'Brien Cup hurling game between Cork and Clare.

This was a man who gave and gave, and his death makes me think of all the other men, and women, like him and the enormous debt which is owed to them but seldom acknowledged. Because no matter what the sport is and no matter where it takes place, it is built on a foundation provided by the John Corcorans of the world, a foundation of administration and planning and organisation and meeting after meeting after meeting.

This work is indispensable yet it's also absolutely unglamorous. Most of us never even think about it taking place. Yet clubs and counties wouldn't be able to continue without the corps of people who keep an eye on the finances, pay the bills, plan the fixtures, devise methods of fundraising and then sell the tickets, recruit the refs, seek out and appoint the coaches and do the myriad nitty gritty tasks required to keep the show we see at the weekend on the road.

No doubt there are some people who are drawn to administration because they enjoy it or are good at it, but at the heart of all these volunteer acts is a deep and noble selflessness. As anyone who's ever been involved in any organisation knows, a lot of jobs get allocated on the "Does anyone want to do this? Is there no-one that wants to do this? Ah Jim, you'll do it, won't you? You'll do it for a while and then we'll get someone else" basis. Often they don't get someone else and that's Jim launched on his career in officialdom.

It will be by and large an unseen career because the only time club, county or national officers hit the headlines is when someone is giving out about them. When things are going well they're simply taken for granted, like the old style Irish Mammy. Efficiency and the odd miracle isn't just expected, it's demanded. But it's rarely praised.

And if you're a journalist there's no easier target than these workers behind the scenes. A cheap populist dig at 'the suits' or 'the blazers' always goes down a treat. I've done it myself. Too often. Yet sport could survive perfectly well without the media, whereas without the suits and the blazers it would grind to a halt. Witness the ferocity and alacrity of the attack on the IABA officials when Billy Walsh was cruelly exiled to a six-figure job in America. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that sorry saga, the fact remains that none of us who criticised the unpaid officers involved have contributed as much to Irish boxing as they have.

In any contretemps between officials and players it's the latter who'll always get the bulk of the media support. Who doesn't want to be mates with the players, celebrities who get to strut their stuff in the spotlight? There is, on the other hand, nothing sexy about officials. Sometimes their willingness to take on the necessary work is even portrayed as being in some way vaguely discreditable.

I remember during one of the Cork players' strikes a journalist pointing out that in Páirc Uí Chaoimh there were photos of officials on the walls but no photos of players. As the time this struck me as a desperate indictment of the board altogether. Imagine it! Photos of officials! But now it doesn't seem quite so terrible. Why not commemorate the efforts of administrators? It's not like there will ever be many photos of them anywhere else.

There's no denying that you will find an occasional bollocks of an administrator. But even then they are in general being a bollocks in an official capacity, out of what they perceive to be the best interests of the sport, rather than for the sheer joy of it.

And when we are relaxing at home in the evenings, they are heading out to some meeting to attend to the kind of matters which will never make the paper for the simple reason that they would be too boring for either reporter or reader to contemplate. The committee man is probably not all that thrilled by them either but he attends to them because he knows they must be done.

Perhaps that explains the resentment quite a few of us feel towards them. A lot of the time our attitude towards sport is an essentially juvenile one: we view it as something which enables us to recapture the innocent enjoyment of childhood. The official, on the other hand, takes a grown-up attitude to sport. He knows the work that has to be done and he knows that the big day doesn't happen on its own. He, or she, is the one you see fussing and fretting at the ground as you settle into your seat and prepare for an hour and a bit of uncomplicated enjoyment. For most spectators sport is a realm of dreams and fantasy; for the official it's a serious business. We let them do all the work and then we wonder if they have to be quite so grim-faced about things.

Yet they are indispensable. Lionel Messi is where he is today because once upon a time a bunch of people in Rosario got together, had a meeting and decided to form a football club and over the years had more meetings to keep the club going so that in the end there was an organised set-up where that kid could go and discover his genius. The same goes for Rory McIlroy, for Jessica Ennis-Hill, for Tom Brady and pretty much every great star you can name.

It also goes for those of us who didn't turn out to be geniuses but who had some of the most enjoyable experiences of our lives because of people who put in work for which we rarely thanked them. When I was involved in athletics as a teenager, I just took it for granted that there would be regular training and regular meetings and transport to those meetings, and that when we got there someone with a megaphone would be calling out the events so I didn't miss mine and someone would be lining us up at the start and someone firing a starting pistol as we sprinted in the lanes which someone had marked out beforehand, the day finishing with a relay for which we would be handed batons which someone had procured for the event and perhaps the presentation of medals which someone had the foresight to buy.

Today my eldest daughter also enjoys athletics thanks to people in Skibbereen who, on the worst of winter nights, are prepared to take the time to train other people's kids for no reward other than that of handing on the enjoyment of their sport to another generation. It's the same for children, and adults, all over the country and the world, a magnificent universe of effort kept spinning by the quotidian effort of the people who have to bother about all those fiddly details the rest of us have the luxury of ignoring. There will be never be a slow motion montage set to a Coldplay soundtrack on Sky Sports showing them collecting subs, booking mini-buses and texting the time of the next training session. But without them the whole thing falls apart.

Society owes people like John Corcoran, God rest him, an awful lot. It is a debt which can never be fully repaid. Then again, it is a debt for which payment is never sought.

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