Friday 24 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: The true fan goes on, not in the hope of better days to come, but because he has no choice

'Perhaps it’s the supporters of those under-achievers in every sport who are the truest fans of all'
'Perhaps it’s the supporters of those under-achievers in every sport who are the truest fans of all'

Eamonn Sweeney

Poor old Dennis Doyle. When the 32-year-old from the New York borough of Queens lost his job as a lawyer last year he had a brainwave. Why not use his savings to go to every game played by the New York Knicks, the basketball club he’d loved since he was a kid? After all, he reckoned, they had a good team which might make the play-offs.

Doyle’s odyssey concluded last Wednesday night as the Knicks lost 112-90 to the Detroit Pistons at Madison Square Garden. For five months he traversed the USA, spent $26,000 doing so and watched the Knicks put together the worst season in their history. They won 17 games out of 82, losing the other 65. Only three teams have managed to do worse since 2000, and the Knicks’ 2015 campaign ranks in the all-time bottom 16.

It’s the kind of season which can do things to a man. Dennis managed to get in some sightseeing along the way but even that provided little respite. When he visited the Grand Canyon, “Staring into the abyss it was hard not to think of the Knicks.” And when a fan at a match in Miami asked if he was ‘the guy’, our hero pretended not to know what your man was on about. “There’s a little bit of shame in admitting what I’m doing,” said Dennis, “If I had better health coverage, I’d consider therapy.”

Yet in many ways the story of Dennis Doyle says more about sports fandom than a million of those ads which show face-painted supporters leaping around in jubilation or doing wacky things to sheep to show just how crazy they are about their team.

We’ve just finished another National Football League campaign. At the bottom of Division 4 Waterford, Wicklow and London each won one game out of seven. Just above them, Carlow won two games out of seven. Last year Carlow, Waterford and London won four games between them. Yet you can be sure that there are supporters in all of those counties who attended every match in those doleful campaigns in the knowledge that they would seldom be in danger of pulling a muscle from punching the air at the final whistle.

In English soccer you have the likes of Rochdale and Hartlepool United who haven’t won a single thing in a combined 215 years of existence. Yet around 3,500 fans go to watch Rochdale and Hartlepool every second week, long-suffering souls who would probably react to the tale of Dennis Doyle like the Yorkshiremen in the old Monty Python sketch convinced that nobody else knows about hardship.

But even they’ve had it easy compared to one of my local GAA clubs in West Cork. Kilmacabea, based in the small village of Leap and environs, have been on the go since the 19th century yet in all that time they’ve never managed to secure the holy grail of the local junior teams, the Carbery Junior A football title. I’m not sure if any team anywhere can beat that kind of wait. Yet Kilmacabea will have their own faithful cohort of fans when they open this year’s campaign against Argideen Rangers in a few weeks. They are a great club.

Some fans have it easy. The ones who are born in Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny and Dublin, for example, know that following their inter-county teams will result in quite a bit of celebrating over the years. And then you have those fans of English soccer clubs who picked those teams precisely because they are successful, a bit like Roger Nouveau, the middle-class football fan from The Fast Show who declares proudly that he stopped supporting one team because they were weren’t scoring enough goals and switched to another instead.

My lamentable lack of patience for this breed of supporter perhaps derives from my suspicion that they have things too easy. Which in turn probably comes from a childhood supporting Sligo Rovers and the Sligo Gaelic football team. A Connacht championship for the latter when I was seven and a League of Ireland title for the former when I was nine left me with unrealistic expectations. Then again, having any expectations at all for either team was usually unrealistic. Until Sligo Rovers’ recent orgy of success, the club had won two league titles and two FAI Cups in 80 years. The football team’s three Connacht titles in over 100 years even more graphically illustrates the need for patience.

That haul is a mighty bounty compared to what has been made available to the fans of Wicklow and Fermanagh, who have never seen their teams win a provincial senior title. And a Sligo Rovers fan is a blessed soul compared to a supporter of Finn Harps, who must go back to the 1974 FAI Cup victory for his club’s last major senior triumph, or of Athlone Town, whose last big one was the 1983 League of Ireland title. In fact Athlone’s fate last season seems to perfectly sum up the plight of all those teams who toil in the shadows. Having spent 16 seasons trying to get out of the First Division, they were relegated back into it at the first attempt. Even Sisyphus might have found that a bit harsh.

Yet perhaps it’s the supporters of those under-achievers in every sport who are the truest fans of all. They have been tested and tried and found willing. The torments of a Manchester United fan watching the club slip out of the top four or a Kerryman who still shivers to think of the period between 1987 and 1996 when they didn’t win a single All-Ireland hardly compare.

Samuel Beckett quotes often get misconstrued by people who’ve never seen a play or read a book of his. “Try again. Fail better,” is not the same thing as ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’. If you fail better, you still fail. It doesn’t mean you’ll eventually succeed. Anyone who thinks Beckett was some kind of positive thinking guru should actually read his writing. A few pages of How It Is will do the job.

Another Beckett line appropriated by the life coaching community is, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” This comes at the very end of The Unnamable, as bleak and difficult a novel as was ever written, and in the context it doesn’t mean, “mustn’t grumble, better crack on with the work at hand in an inspirational manner,” but, “There’s no end to this shit.” But while ‘Fail better’ and ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on,’ have nothing to do with success, they do encapsulate the situation of the fan of the congenitally unsuccessful team. He knows that most of the time he’ll be just witnessing different varieties of failure and he goes on, not in the hope of better days to come, but because he has no choice.

There probably will be a good day somewhere down the line but, on a pragmatic level, hardly enough to console you for the heartbreak and waste of time. That’s not what keeps you going. Like one of the last speakers of a dying language or an adherent to a religious sect whose predicted salvation date has come and gone, the fan of the bad team stays to bear witness. In the words of Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, the only thing he knows how to do is to keep on keeping on.

He is a fan in the true sense of the word, a fanatic. It’s easy to look fanatical watching a big game in a packed stadium. But there is perhaps less fanaticism in shouting your head off for Barcelona than in going year after year to watch the Waterford footballers or Athlone Town or Hartlepool United. After all, a fanatic is usually considered to be crazy on some level. And nothing seems crazier in a world obsessed by success than supporting a team who lose more often than they win.

The funniest thing ever written about the predicament is ‘A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request’, by the great Chicago songwriter Steve Goodman about his home baseball club (last World Series title 1908) which includes the lines, “He said, ‘I’ve got tickets to watch the Angels now/So that’s just what I’m going to do/He said, ‘But you the living, you’re stuck here with the Cubs/So it’s me that feels sorry for you.”

You see it does have its humorous side. And perhaps following a team which usually fails is the perfect training for life. After all, none of us are going to win this particular game in the end, are we?

Cricketer and commentator Richie Benaud died at the age of 84

Good effort by the Aussie all-rounder

Richie Benaud, who died last Friday week, had the unique distinction of being both a great player and a great commentator.

In neither field could his greatness be disputed. He was a great bowler, the 248 test wickets he took for Australia put him near the top of the international pile when he retired in 1964. Many bowlers have passed him since but only Lance Gibbs of the West Indies has been more economical in runs conceded per over. He was a great all-rounder, the first man to reach a combined 2,000 runs and 200 wickets in test cricket, Benaud scored what remains the third fastest test century of all-time, taking just 78 minutes against the West Indies in 1955.

And, above all, he was a great captain. A surprise choice in the role for the 1958-59 Ashes series he presided over one of the great upsets in the history of the game. England travelled to Australia seeking a fourth Ashes win on the trot, their team loaded with legends. Unnerved by Benaud’s adventurous captaincy they came away with a 4-0 loss and would not win back the Ashes until 1971. It was a major turning point and Benaud contributed with a haul of 31 wickets in five tests at an average of less than 19 runs.

His deeds on the pitch would have been enough to earn him legendary status but on retirement Benaud proceeded to build another distinguished career as a broadcaster, both in Australia and with the BBC. It was an era of great commentators, erudite, good humoured and authoritative gents who were more interested in educating you about the game than becoming your buddy. It was the time of Bill McLaren, of Cliff Morgan, of Harry Carpenter, Peter O’Sullevan, John Arlott and, the last of his tribe, Peter Alliss.

Benaud was as good as any of them. He was intelligent and urbane and had the knack of summing up the salient points of a match with wit and brevity, an invaluable quality. He didn’t pander to the audience but credited you, as all that generation did, with a bit of intelligence. And Benaud always conveyed the impression that there was nowhere else he’d rather have been that day.

The affection with which he was held in Australia can best be imagined by thinking of a Micheal O’Muircheartaigh with the playing career of a Brian O’Driscoll. Yet he was never partisan. When, in 1981, Australian captain Greg Chappell instructed his brother Trevor to bowl under-arm with the last delivery of the game so New Zealand had no chance to score a match-winning boundary, Benaud called it “one of the worst things I have ever seen on a cricket field.” It can’t have been an easy thing to say for Benaud who was close to another Chappell brother, Ian, so much so that Ian and Shane Warne were among the mourners at a small family funeral last week.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had offered the Benaud family a state funeral but they declined it. It wouldn’t have been Richie’s style, you felt, and he was a man with plenty of style.

RIP Richie Benaud. Good effort by the Australian all-rounder I thought.

Women on verge of something big

Something big is happening in Irish women’s football. Last week’s qualification for the European under 17 championships was a magnificent feat in its own right but when you add the achievements of last year’s under 19 team in making the Euro semi-finals and the 2010 under 17 side who reached the World Cup quarters, it’s clear the foundation is being laid for Ireland to become a serious force at senior level.

Despite being drawn in the same group as two European powerhouses, Holland and England, the under 17s went unbeaten and kept a clean sheet for the full 270 minutes. The highlight of the whole thing was the 2-0 win over England, graced by goals from Saoirse Noonan of Douglas Hall and Eleanor Ryan Doyle of Peamount which wouldn’t have looked out of place in far more high-profile fixtures, while the Dutch game saw outstanding performances from the commanding centre-back pair of captain Jamie Finn from Raheny United and Chloe Maloney of Clare side Connolly Celtic.

The hope must be that Noonan, Ryan Doyle, Finn and Maloney will eventually be linking up at senior level with the likes of under 19 stars Savannah McCarthy (Listowel Celtic), Megan Connolly (College Corinthians) and Clare Shine (Raheny United), players who’ve broken through from the 2010 under 17 team such as Megan Campbell and Denise O’Sullivan and established internationals who’ve still got plenty to offer such as Julie Ann Russell, Louise Quinn, Aine O’Gorman and everyone’s favourite volley specialist, Stephanie Roche.

Roche and Co will be on tenterhooks tomorrow when the draw for the European senior women’s qualifying campaign is made. Ireland have never qualified before but this time have a fighting chance to make it to the finals in Holland. They’ll be hoping to avoid Germany and France in pot A and Russia and Denmark in pot B. Conversely, ending up in a group with Spain or Iceland as top seeds or Belgium or Ukraine as second seeds would make things look that bit more manageable.

The under 17s have just shown that even a hellish draw can be overcome. The signs are there that Irish women’s football may be ready to make their biggest breakthrough yet.

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