So what has it been like for you? This past year of night slipping into day and Saturday and Sunday and Monday being very similar. A year when many have some work or no work and others are marooned at home staring at a screen waiting for the call to ‘beam me up Scottie’. And people spouting all sorts of verbal garbage online without any fear of retribution.
There is living, and there is living, and sport without crowds is becoming increasingly dull and tasteless. Even Cheltenham was not the same, maybe for the winners it was still great but part of the attraction is the roar of the crowd, which helps make every occasion.
It has been a hard year on some of my childhood heroes. As a Leeds United supporter in the 1970s, I thought Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton would last forever, but they went over the river. Paul Madeley had gone just before them, a man who moved over the grass with effortless grace. And just yesterday, we heard of the passing of Peter Lorimer, a true giant of the game. So too Nobby Stiles, who was a tough little bugger.
Then Gordon Banks paid his visit to the pearly gates, and I’m sure Peter questioned him about that save from Pele at Mexico’s 1970 World Cup when he pulled the ball one-handed back from what looked like a certain goal. Perhaps the best and most modest of the departed from that era was Colin Bell of Manchester City, the prince of midfielders for a decade. He could do everything — run, tackle, head the ball, dribble, shoot and he had a Ferrari engine.
That was a time when the great players lived in the same streets as the fans and earned only a little more. Maybe they were taken advantage of, but the pendulum has certainly swung too far in the other direction. When Peter Bonetti, the former Chelsea goalkeeper who also died recently, was finished, he drove a taxi for a while. He had to make a living in the real world. Hard to see Messi or Ronaldo having to ferry passengers around when their time is up.
Closer to home, Cork’s Christy Ryan passed on. He played against Meath in the 1987 final. He was a big strong man — it could hardly have been his time to go. He was a great club man with St Finbarr’s who excelled at both football and hurling. I was reading recently that he played in 20 county finals and won 11 across both codes. Surely not, I was thinking, but I am assured that it is correct. It is some service to give to your club.
It brings home what Phil Brady of Cavan said to me some years ago when another GAA man was on the one way ticket. “Hey lad, they are beginning to pull from our pen.” His brother Gerry passed away recently too. They sold cars like nobody else could. You would nearly thank them for selling you a car because you got an education in their company, about sport and politics and business and everything else in between. The Cavan pen took a heavy hit when Gerry handed in his gun.
On the boxing front, two big names went down for the long count. Leon Spinks and Marvellous Marvin Hagler. Hagler’s first round against Thomas Hearns must be the best three minutes of boxing ever. Spinks died in poor circumstances and it always seems that the good guys in boxing end up with nothing. After that era of great fights for one belt in the 1970s and ’80s I became disenchanted with the game as it always appeared corrupt.
Perhaps it was always so. It was refreshing last week to watch a documentary on Irish-Canadian boxer Jimmy McLarnin who fought in the late 1920s and early ’30s. I had never heard of him but he was welterweight champion of the world. His most famous title fights were against Barney Ross. They met three times within 12 months with Ross winning the first and last.
McLarnin’s retirement was a happy one, unlike many boxers. He finished his career a wealthy man and just to show that not all managers are crooked, Charles ‘Pop’ Foster who looked after the interests of the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ for his entire career, left him everything in his will. There are good guys in every sport.
Age brings perspective to life and the role of sport. It brings joy, sadness and many other emotions and brings the best and worst out of people. If you ever get involved with a team as player, manager, selector or in any other role, the best way to get a read on the qualities of any individual is after a big loss.
Winning is easy and loyalty is not an issue then. Better to judge a person on the worst day and their reaction to it. Plenty want to distance themselves from defeat but immerse themselves in victory. It is easier to for me to say it now, but you are better off with those who don’t go overboard with victory, which is transient, and defeat.
A big loss is not a disaster, even if I have often found it hard to eat, drink, sleep or talk after some big games which went wrong. Club championship finals, Leinster and All-Ireland finals, big matches with my school, St Pat’s — they have all tested my theory about games not being that important.
Yet it is the matches that I miss most now, young people losing the opportunity to get and give pleasure by testing their abilities against each other. Not being able to play or train is illogical to me as the benefits completely outweigh the risks. These young people are losing an important part of their sporting lives, but again it is not a tragedy.
That term applies more accurately to older people in nursing homes who have been sentenced to a life of prison with the added torture of no visitors for months and months.
There is some partial relief now, but for many their final days are ones of abject loneliness and desolation. Some do not know what is going on, they are the lucky ones. The feelings of guilt felt by families shut out from visits is acute. I don’t know the answer to this, but if I ever ended up in this situation I would prefer to take my chances with visitors than waste away safely on my own.
So I miss training and games and banter and laughs and every thing that goes with it. The smart comments to bring someone back to earth; the lack of ego in almost everyone involved and the games. Club league matches on a pleasant evening with a couple of farmers lying across the fence discussing the price of cattle, the young players on a Saturday morning with big dreams and senior club championship matches with everyone on edge.
And when I think of county football I miss seeing league matches where the sides are of similar standard and the competition is intense. Standing on a terrace and hoping that Meath will produce new heroes. Always optimistic. And strangely enough, I miss watching Dublin. They play football as it should be played with a premium on the basic skills. Another short sharp campaign this year will suit them more than all others.
For the masses in the GAA though, I have a simple morning prayer, every morning. Please let us return. But it is not being heard in heaven or in Leinster House.