Thursday 14 December 2017

Empty cliches do loughnane a disservice

You have to wonder what Ger Loughnane made of last week's media coverage of the news that he is battling leukaemia. I may be wrong, but the suspicion here is that few men would have less time for the feigned intimacy of 'celebrities' lined up, essentially, to issue battle cries for his recovery. Ger is in a difficult and frightening place right now, a place where cliche echoes like an empty drum.

His health is a story that interests us, of course, as he is arguably the single most charismatic figure hurling has located in the past half-century. If you were licenced by the heavens to pick a man you'd like to be next to in a fox-hole, no question Ger would top a lot of polls.

But last week was just media showbiz, a harvesting of banalities tackled with all the emotional intelligence of field workers picking grapes in a vineyard.

On Monday, a golf acquaintance of this column took four phone-calls during the course of 18 holes from a variety of newspapers looking for "a comment" on the Clare man's news. How well does he actually know Ger? Well, no better really than this column does.

Which probably isn't well at all.

That didn't matter. This wasn't a search for understanding or empathy, but a journey down a catwalk of names. So the story was treated as if the difficulties facing Loughnane today amount to no more than the inconvenience of a five-point deficit, turning into a stiff wind. Small wonder they didn't try the man himself for a quote.

Sport doesn't deal with illness well. Maybe it's because, to a large degree, we use it as a cartoon escape from the stuff that stresses and terrifies us. We cover it in language appropriate to war and famine and, it's just possible, this inures us to the real thing. We become desensitised.

I know of one of the greatest modern-day communicators in the GAA who, on hearing last year that a business colleague had been diagnosed with a serious illness, found himself incapable of responding with anything more than a short, albeit supportive, text message.

Why? Probably because the very intellect that makes him the man he is warned against blundering into a conversation that he couldn't be sure wouldn't turn clumsy and awkward and, ultimately, even into a source of remorse.

Ger Loughnane didn't need anyone beating a drum last week for his qualities as a fighter. He's never been the type to get a lump in his throat when old glories are recycled. If we know anything about him from his life in hurling it is that he is as sentimental as a wrecking ball.

The very qualities that make him different also demand that he be irrational sometimes and, on occasion, ludicrously unfair. Yet, even if the evidence looks overwhelmingly against him, it has never been Ger's way to take a backward step.

Which maybe is his greatness. This relationship with certainty.

He has fallen out with many good men and not been inclined to equivocate. Even some of those he guided to the mountaintop in '95 and '97 keep a certain distance now. A few were alienated at the time, others much later when his criticism of Anthony Daly's Clare team seemed to fly with too much venom.

But perhaps they miss the essential point of Loughnane. Because it strikes me that all the wild pulls are given on the implicit understanding that the equivalent will be happily accepted in return. You can go to war with him without, necessarily, falling out.

In '99, he led this writer on a wild goose chase to Ennis for an interview that was never going to happen. To him, this was just a balancing of books. He had issues with the Irish Independent's coverage of Colin Lynch's suspension during the '98 championship and believed that this precinct had become, as he put it, "part of the clique".

So a fruitless trip west was Ger's payback. It didn't amount to a big deal and I subsequently batted away a few enquiries when some fellow journalists sought confirmation of his little trick of vengeance.

Surprisingly, Ger chose to retrace the story himself two years later in his autobiography, 'Raising the Banner', recording how I eventually tracked down Clare's training session at St Flannan's after a number of fool's errands.

"As we finished," wrote Ger, "he asked where he could talk to me. I told him to meet me in the Sherwood because all the players would be going in afterwards. When he heard this, Tony Considine asked me privately: 'Are you going to talk to that c**t after what he wrote about Clare?'

"I replied, 'No danger, I won't be in the Sherwood!' I went straight home and he was hanging around all night in the Sherwood. No one he asked had a clue where I was. He drove back to Dublin without getting his interview."

You might imagine this would deposit tension into our next meeting. It didn't, because that's never been his way. Ger will go to war with you one day, greet you like a long lost brother the next. His personality shines brighter than the sun.

Even his most strident opponents accept that the Clare miracle of the '90s would have been impossible without that light, without the "we're going to do it" force of certainty. I've said it before, but I still can't imagine anyone better to be sat next to on a long-haul flight.

He's in a tough and, frankly, lonely place right now, but there isn't a hurling man (or woman) alive who won't be willing his recovery. And that's really all he needs to know.

The rest is as real as fancy-dress.

Pat Hickey contacted us on foot of last week's column to stress that the Olympic Council of Ireland has no issue with the number of boxers in any single weight division currently being funded through the High Performance programme on the South Circular Road.

"It's actually none of our business and at no point have we issued any statement to the contrary," said Pat. We are, of course, happy to carry his clarification.

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