Friday 15 December 2017

Tommy Conlon: Healing release somehow makes pain feel worthwhile

The Couch

Tommy Conlon

Even in a summer heatwave, nothing quite warms the cockles like the sight of history being made on one field of play or another.

Because if a result is being hailed as historic then inevitably there will be currents of emotion and romance forming their own happy microclimate around that particular green sward.

It is one of the pleasures of this sporting life, however vicarious, and events last Sunday served up an unusually bountiful harvest. Dan Martin's stage win in the Tour de France obviously didn't happen in a field. It was won on a hard road, as it always is in a race that demands inordinate levels of physical suffering from its riders.

Martin's toughness and nerve were hugely impressive. His mother is the sister of Stephen Roche. He grew up in England but his declared nationality is Irish. The country can hardly claim to have made him the man he is today, but we decided to share in his golden moment anyway. It was a first stage win for Ireland since his uncle's in 1992.

Meanwhile, in a corner of London that will be forever England, a Scot was putting an end to 77 years of longing for a Wimbledon men's champion. Observing Andy Murray's triumph from this side of the Irish Sea, the pleasure was to be found in watching other people revel in a tidal wave of joy.

This was a genuinely landmark moment and the party atmosphere travelled far and wide from its epicentre in the city's south-west. One could, if one wished, be pleasantly warmed by the glow.

But for those of us with more localised priorities at the moment, Dublin's win in the Leinster hurling final overflowed with good vibrations. For starters it had been 52 years in the making. And those who made it had paid their dues.

Anthony Daly is one of the great figures of modern hurling, first as a player now as a manager. He generally comes across as a decent, likeable sort. This is his fifth season in charge of Dublin. It has sent him to a few dark rooms. He made a passing reference in his post-match press conference to "driving around Fanore" after Antrim beat them by a point in the 2010 championship.

One wonders what hour of the night he was driving at. Then there was the disastrous 2012 season when expectations had never been as high. The Burren in winter wouldn't have been bleak enough after that.

But he came again, presumably for one last throw of the dice. And he came perilously close to another black night of the soul in Wexford Park five weeks ago. They could've blown it all that evening. The profound fulfilment they experienced last Sunday would never have materialised.

There is a chasm, emotionally, between defeat and victory. And yet, on the field of play, the margins between the two are often less than an inch. It was as tight as that in Wexford: the toss of a coin between another lonesome night in Fanore or a night on the tiles in Coppers with a silver cup for company.

At one level it's only sport; they're all only playing a game. At another level they're playing with fire; psychic wounds are suffered; they can take a long time to heal. And for those with the scars, it's nice to see them reach the other end of the spectrum where, for a few days at least, there is nothing but pure narcotic bliss.

Stephen Hiney was on the right wing of a formidable Dublin half-back line on Sunday. He made his senior county debut in 2001. The light at the end of the tunnel in those days was the proverbial light of an oncoming train. It took a long time and some ferocious beatings to get from there to here. It wasn't just Kilkenny, they lost championship matches to Laois and Westmeath too.

A bad blow to the head early in his career left him with damaged retinas in both eyes. The medical advice was to pack in hurling altogether. In 2011, with the team making serious progress, Hiney's knee ligaments were mangled. He missed out on the National League title, Dublin's first since 1939, and spent a year in rehab. Was he a happy man on Sunday? Listen, did Gandhi wear flip-flops? They

say that in sport "deserve" has nothing to do with it; but some guys deserve the good days a lot more than others.

In 2011, Conal Keaney was involved in a traffic accident that left him needing surgery on a broken ankle and a torn cruciate. Last Sunday, he made a series of spectacular plays. Some of his catches were thrilling to behold.

Keaney played like a Kilkenny hurler. The whole team in fact was proof of the adage that the more often you play your perennial conquerors, the more you morph into a mirror image of them.

In order to beat them, you become them. It doesn't always last. Tipperary became like Kilkenny for a couple of seasons before reverting back to bad habits and weak mindsets. Last Saturday, this Tipperary team was broken by its arch-rivals, permanently.

The Dubs the next day opened a new page as Tipp's was closing. A warm day was made warmer, not so much by the way they did it, but by the fact that they did it at all.

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