They are struggling for space on the Good Wall, but it won’t really improve the situation much if they decide to take down those pictures of JFK and the Sacred Heart.
For starters, the average Irish parlour of yore would have been positively naked without both of these icons presiding over everyone; and in fact the current incarnation, on RTE’s Second Captains, is scandalously incomplete without a picture of the Pope up there, too.
Of course, the miscreants involved might argue that they’ve gone one better than the Pope because they have BOD on the wall, a figure who in name and in deed is only a few steps removed from the supreme being himself — God bless the mark.
Brian O’Driscoll is currently number one in the top-10 names that constitute Irish sport’s roll of honour on that impeccably naff Good Wall. The rest in descending order currently are: Shefflin, O’Connell, Katie Taylor, McCoy, Best, McGrath, McIlroy, O’Gara, Frampton.
It was the turn of last week’s special guest, Andy Lee, to make his contribution to a feature that has become a popular staple of the show. So Lee removed Maurice Fitzgerald to make space for Carl Frampton, and bumped Paul O’Connell up to number three, with Ronan O’Gara dropping down to nine.
No harm done, it is literally just a parlour game anyway. But the anorak in every sports fan can’t help but think he would improve it if he was given half a chance to show off his prodigious memory and superior appreciation of sporting greatness.
And as of now, there is plenty of room for said improvement. This is a Good Wall that has gone bad. It has no Harrington; no Keane, Giles, Brady, McGuigan, Ron Delany, Michael Carruth, Jack Kyle, Stephen Roche or Keith Wood. We are almost certainly omitting a few other names here, too.
Athletics is in the doghouse altogether: Sonia O’Sullivan, John Treacy and the almost entirely neglected Catherina McKiernan had world-class careers in long-distance running. They competed in this brutal discipline not just against the best Europeans, Asians and Americans, but a never-ending production line of phenomenal Africans, too. McKiernan, lest it be forgotten, won four consecutive silver medals in the World Cross Country Championships between 1992 and ’95. She won the Berlin Marathon, the London Marathon, the Amsterdam Marathon.
But the Good Wall can only accommodate 10, and obviously 20 into 10 won’t go. So some serious rigour is now required. A baseline criterion is that all contenders should have competed in international arenas. The more global the sport, the more credible the candidate.
Which clearly means that the GAA players have to go. Henry Shefflin is the only one currently in the top 10. Colm Cooper, Páidí ó Sé and the aforementioned Maurice ‘Zinedine’ Fitzgerald have also made brief appearances in the past. Which surely opens the door for a player still considered by many to be the greatest hurler of all time, one Christy Ring; ditto Seán Purcell and Jack O’Shea in Gaelic football.
But the bottom line is that these players became giants in two sports that have tiny talent pyramids by comparison to the many other codes with international affiliations.
Great sportsmen and women generally have transferable talents. The best schoolboys in one discipline are frequently the best in others, too. So a Shefflin or a DJ Carey could have reached international standards in, say, cricket or golf had they specialised in these sports from a young age.
Let’s take Páidí’s three nephews for another handy comparison. Darragh, Tomás and Marc ó Sé had every single quality one would look for in a top-class sportsman. Had they been steeped in soccer as they were in Gaelic football, they’d have been professionals in England. They’d have played for Ireland many times. Likewise, a Seamus Moynihan. Fitzgerald and Cooper would have been Champions League-level skill merchants.
Peter Canavan? The greatest rugby scrum-half that Ireland never had. His passing off left or right hand would’ve been technically immaculate; that vicious sidestep and electric speed would’ve found space in the most formidable defensive lines; and his pure competitive bottle would’ve done the rest.
As a conservative estimate, one could safely venture that the top five per cent in Gaelic games would have made it as professional sportsmen in a variety of other codes. One need only look at the talents common to all top sportsmen and apply those same criteria to the best GAA players. They are there for all to see.
Perhaps the other requirement needed to recognise their ability is to suspend the traditional mistrust of native talent; that habitual lack of confidence which will only acknowledge Irish achievement when it is first commended abroad.
But this leads to a contradiction at the heart of my argument: that any list of the best in Irish sport should exclude GAA players.
The fact, however, is that sportsmen like Shefflin and Cooper, genuinely great performers by any standard, could only showcase their international class in a strictly indigenous environment.
The sports they chose could only pit them against a tiny sample size of equivalent peers. Everyone else on the Good Wall, and plenty more who haven’t got near it, had to compete in a much broader and deeper pool.
The Sacred Heart, despite His venerable compassion for all men and women, would surely give them his blessing first.