Monday 9 December 2019

McGuigan could teach McIlroy about 'being in a difficult place'

Rory McIlroy needs to stop talking about the Olympics like Wile E Coyote needs to stop chasing trouble down a cactus mine.

Maybe he's just too young to understand that three-and-a-half years from now is a small lifetime, but Rory's beginning to remind me of the late Jim Murray's description of Joe Frazier as "a guy who lit a match to see if his gas tank was empty".

Why's he even talking about Rio and, as he puts it, "the difficulties" of being from Northern Ireland? Hasn't anybody in his entourage considered introducing him to the word 'hypothetical'?

Or, maybe, telling him the story of Barry McGuigan?

McIlroy was both charming and interesting in TV interviews with Greg Allen of RTE and Stephen Watson of the BBC over the last week or so, reaffirming the sense that a remarkably grounded young man now stands at the summit of world golf. He is a palpable credit to his family and his community (whatever that might be).

But Rory keeps stirring a pot on a hob that's not yet even plumbed into the electricity.

Come Rio, for all we know, birds could be tumbling from the sky, the oceans bubbling up like jacuzzis. That Mayan prophecy might have come rattling out of some mellow, breezeless morning, like a bus late out of its terminus. Actually, come Rio, Rory's golf game could be putrid.

Yet, they've barely finished blow-torching Olympic road-markings off the gritty streets of Newham and he finds himself talking Samba.

His manager Conor Ridge needs to tell Rory this self-crucifixion is unnecessary. People like him for who he is just now. All talk about flags and anthems keeps dragging him to an awkward place where there is no need for him to be. Call Barney Eastwood if you need a heads-up.

And remember this.

McGuigan grew up in a rather more challenging Ireland. A Catholic living just a few hundred yards inside the North on what was then called an "unapproved border road". Grandson of an old IRA man, he married a Protestant whose cousin had been killed by a nationalist bomb.

Belfast was in the middle of a hunger strike when Barry found the revival of professional boxing in the city being hung around his neck. To fight for a British title, he had to first apply to become a British citizen. McGuigan boxed in neutral colours, but every step he took equated to walking on eggshells.

The North back then was a vat of hatred and incoherent noise, barricaded roads, destroyed bridges, country towns bleached of business by sectarian fear.

McGuigan trained at the Immaculata club in Belfast. To get there, he had to go through the staunchly Republican Divis flats, the British army stationed on the roof. At one point, he admits he was even issued with a gun for his safety.

When he made his first defence of the European featherweight crown at the Albert Hall in London, co-promoter Mickey Duff wanted him to carry a Union Jack into the ring as his opponent Esteban Equia would be carrying a Spanish flag.

Having refused to alienate the Protestants of Belfast by ever publicly carrying a tricolour, McGuigan was not now ready to upset Catholics. His people scoured London for that famous white symbol with a dove. "We'll carry a peace flag," they told Duff.

The night he won his world title at Loftus Road, his father Pat got in the ring immediately after the national anthems to sing that gentle ballad, 'Danny Boy'. In a powder-keg world, the McGuigan camp simply refused to let identity become the debate around them.

Eastwood recalls seeing a group of men from the Shankill that night in London, two of them just out of Long Kesh, crying "big, baby tears" as his Catholic boxer's hand was raised.

The point we make is that McGuigan's entire professional career unspooled against the backdrop of the Troubles, yet he never once spoke – as McIlroy does now – of being "placed in a very difficult position".

It isn't difficult, Rory. The world is still trying to get the soundtrack of London from its ears, so Rio might as well be Mars. Next time somebody asks you, tell them that's how you feel. It isn't your job to be anybody's representative or, God help us, politician.

Your God-given gift is all the expression you need right now. You make us all proud and, frankly, nobody's going to burn cars in the streets, whatever you might or might not decide come 2016. Life isn't some complicated tea dance.

Don't make it one.

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