Thursday 20 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'How a potential sporting weekend for the ages ended up being a massive disappointment'

‘The initial reaction of the Irish media was to pretend there was no controversy at all, sprinkling around words like “epic” and “war” while hardly mentioning the dubious nature of the decision’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘The initial reaction of the Irish media was to pretend there was no controversy at all, sprinkling around words like “epic” and “war” while hardly mentioning the dubious nature of the decision’. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The best thing about sport is its ability to surprise. At the end of every year I compile a list of potential highlights for the year to come. They never tally with the actual highlights. Something unexpected always blindsides us.

As 2018 began nobody predicted that the forthcoming women's hockey world cup would be one of the Irish sports stories of the year. Yet as our underdog national team made its surprising way to the knock-out stages and then earned nerve-shredding victories in the quarter- and semi-finals, we found ourselves utterly enraptured by Ayeisha McFerran, Anna O'Flanagan, Gillian Pinder and co.

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This year, no-one expected an awful lot from the Champions League semi-final second leg which Liverpool entered trailing 3-0 to Barcelona. The second half of Spurs' meeting with Ajax, with the visitors 2-0 down on aggregate and being outplayed, looked pretty unpromising too. Yet we ended up witnessing two of the greatest games in the competition's history.

These surprises can come at any time. Ireland's opening match against England in the World Rugby U20 Championship on Tuesday promised to be interesting. But as Ireland came from behind and scored six tries in a 42-26 victory it turned out to be one of the most exhilarating rugby games of the year.

You can never dismiss the possibility that a sporting event will exceed your expectations. But the opposite is also true, which is why a particular song kept coming into my head last weekend.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote Is That All There Is in 1967 and Peggy Lee had a hit with it two years later. The narrator remembers seeing a house on fire, going to the circus and falling in love and being so underwhelmed by each experience that the titular words spring to mind. It's a classic expression of disenchantment which seemed peculiarly appropriate last weekend.

Nelvin Appiah of Moyne Community School. Photo: Sportsfile
Nelvin Appiah of Moyne Community School. Photo: Sportsfile

Before the action began this seemed like one of the great sporting weekends. There was a Champions League final! Katie Taylor's fight for the undisputed world lightweight title! Two big Munster hurling matches!

But it didn't pan out that way.

They might not have won the Premier League but Liverpool seemed like the team of the season in England. The Champions League final gave them the chance to finish the season on a high.

I am very partial to Liverpool. It feels like I kicked every ball with them on that Premier League run-in. So it seemed impossible to me that a Champions League victory for Jurgen Klopp's side would be anything other than emotionally satisfying. And if they didn't win, there would still be something romantic about a Spurs triumph.

Instead everything fell flat. The game was not just dull, but attended by a sense of lingering injustice proceeding from the penalty awarded to Liverpool after just 24 seconds. You can make a case for that penalty being technically justifiable, but it went against everyone's notion of what is fair on a football field.

The penalty overshadowed a game in which Liverpool played perhaps their poorest football of the season and Spurs dominated possession. A combination of brilliant defending by Virgil Van Dijk, saves by Alisson and poor finishing by Spurs prevented an equaliser before Divock Origi's late goal prevented the controversial penalty from being the sole topic of post-match conversation.

It was all a bit of an anti-climax. The claims that some kind of redemption for the ghosts of Hillsborough had been achieved seemed forced. Hadn't Liverpool won this same competition back in 2005 when the tragedy was even fresher in the memory?

What they haven't won since Hillsborough is the league title they still held on that fatal day in 1989. That's one reason why the competition which really mattered for Liverpool was the one they ultimately lost to Manchester City. A European win is not to be sneezed at but the shadow of the something greater which might have been won hung over it.

Is That All There Is to a Champions League victory?

Not to worry. The Katie Taylor fight just a few hours later seemed guaranteed to raise the spirits. And we did see a great fight at Madison Square Garden. It was probably the best fight Katie Taylor has been involved in.

But she lost it. They gave Taylor the decision but Delfine Persoon lost that fight in the same way that Michael Conlan lost his at the Olympics three years ago. You can make a (bad faith) case for the decision being technically justifiable but it goes against everyone's notion of what is fair in a boxing ring.

When it comes to sport even the most blindly partisan supporter knows the truth deep down. I am completely biased when it comes to Sligo Rovers, but of the four trophies - one league title and three FAI Cups - the club won from 2010 to 2013, one gave me much less joy than the others.

That was the 2011 final which we won against a Shelbourne team who had to play 54 minutes of normal time and 30 minutes of extra time with ten men after Barry Clancy had been unfairly sent off. They were just a First Division team but played the better football and when we won on penalties, it felt like we were receiving stolen goods. There was something muted about our celebrations because we knew the truth.

You cannot not know what you do know. The initial reaction of the Irish media to the Taylor fight was to pretend there was no controversy at all, sprinkling around words like 'epic' and 'war' while hardly mentioning the dubious nature of the decision. But our audience is not stupid and there seemed something forced and false about the attempt to pretend that the fight in Madison Square Garden was an immortal Irish sporting moment.

So as the week wore on the talk was less of the 'victory' than of a rematch as attempts were made to try and portray Katie Taylor's willingness to countenance a second fight as a tribute to her character.

The funny thing is that the ferocity of Persoon's challenge disproved the criticism levelled at Taylor over the perceived weakness of her opponents. Losing the fight might actually have enhanced the reputation of the Irish fighter in the long run. She could have bounced back like Leonard against Duran, Ali against Frazier and Louis against Schmeling.

Instead the real heroine of the hour was the 34-year-old policewoman who took part of her holidays from work to defend her half of the world title. Katie Taylor just looked like the winner of a rigged game.

Is That All There Is to women's boxing?

Perhaps the Munster Championship double bill on Sunday would wash away the bad taste. A Waterford team fighting for their lives at home would surely provide a stern test for a Limerick side reeling from their defeat by Cork.

Not a bit of it. Limerick walked over a Waterford team who threw in the towel a long way before the finish, their 20-point defeat proving there's no no-show like a Deise no-show. A shellshocked Ken McGrath's description of it as "embarrassing" and "not acceptable," erred on the side of generosity.

Still, there was Clare's home tie against Tipperary to come and when the sides went toe-to-toe in the first quarter it reminded you of the time when this was the greatest rivalry in hurling. You could sense that the crowd in Cusack Park were remembering the Loughnane days. Tipp had opened up a six-point gap by the break but Clare would have a strong wind behind them in the second half and a thrilling finale looked on the cards.

It never happened. Tipperary completely controlled the second half as Clare fell to bits in the same way Waterford had done. Their big guns, Kelly, Conlon, Duggan and O'Donnell, fired blanks and the game was over as a contest with 20 minutes left on the clock. You'd have got some odds on Clare footballers giving Kerry a better game than their hurlers gave Tipp, but that's what happened.

Last year's Munster Hurling Championship was the most thrilling sporting spectacle of the summer. It seemed like we were guaranteed a repeat this year. So far that hasn't been the case.

At this stage last year we'd had three draws out of six and an average winning margin of just over three points. This year the average winning margin is 11 points a game and Tipperary, Limerick and Cork already look nailed on for the qualifying places.

Is That All There Is to the Munster hurling championship?

What a bummer of a weekend it turned out to be. You can never tell with sport. The best scripts don't always turn out to be the best movies. And the only thing we can be certain of for the rest of the summer is uncertainty.

For better and for worse.

Let's celebrate the joy sport brings to our kids and leave white supremacists in the slurry pit

Isn't there something beautiful and joyous about a photo of kids on a winning team? Everyone loves those. So I'm sure that when the Longford Leader published a photo of the class from St John's National School in Longford who'd qualified for the final of the Bord Na Mona Eco Rangers competition it was a joyful moment for everyone involved.

The photo would have become even more precious when they went on to win the competition. A photo of national school kids who've done their school proud, can you think of a more innocent and inspiring artefact?

Yet it was this very photo which someone called Gemma O'Doherty used recently to try and create racial disharmony. Having noticed that some of the children in the photo were not white, O'Doherty retweeted it without permission as evidence that, "Irish people are becoming an ethnic minority in Ireland."

The American hard-right element, who were probably the target audience, gleefully pounced on the tweet. Among those retweeting was Richard Spencer, perhaps the leading figure in the US white supremacist movement. It seems a poor day's work to put a decent town like Longford on the radar of American neo-nazism.

Since then O'Doherty has been telling her followers to, "Open your eyes. Watch the skies. Why the Irish need to learn the truth about geo engineering, climate manufacturing and the global warming hoax," describing Fintan O'Toole as a "degenerate" for criticising Morrissey, worrying that "Irish women are voting Muslims into power," and decrying the "ethnic and cultural genocide of the people of Ireland."

She's also used the term, "The Great Replacement" to describe the number of immigrants in Longford. This is a well-known term in racist circles. Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 Muslims in New Zealand back in March, used it as the title of his 'manifesto.' These people may be ludicrous but they're not harmless.

But enough about them. Why stick your head in a slurry pit? There are better things to do. And few things in sport are better than the Irish Schools Athletics Championships which took place last weekend. The innate purity of athletics, the fact that those who run fastest, jump highest and throw furthest can't be denied victory, has not yet been sullied by the dubious compromises of the adult world. The sheer talent of the best young athletes and the amount of work they put in is inspirational.

Longford Athletic Club had two winners at the championships. Funmi Talabi of árdscoil Pádraig Granard won the minor girls 100m and Nelvin Appiah of Moyne Community School won the senior boys high jump. Those victories somehow seem an eloquent rebuttal of Gemma O'Doherty's nonsense. In bringing All-Ireland titles to their native county, these fine athletes have done a lot more for Longford than she ever will.

Athletes of African descent figured prominently at the championships, among them Rhasidat Adeleke, who won the intermediate 100m and 200m titles and Patience Jumbo-Gula who won the senior 100m. You may remember Adeleke winning the European under 18 200m title last year and Jumbo-Gula being part of the Irish 4x100m relay team whose silver medal at the world under 18 championships was one of 2018's great surprise achievements.

There's a photo of that team too. The smiling quartet of Jumbo-Gula, Gina Apke-Moses, Molly Scott and Ciara Neville, the Irish flag draped over their shoulders, is like the best portrait of the possibilities of a changing Ireland. It is a picture of joy rather than fear, of unity rather than division and of diversity as strength rather than weakness.

Immigrants, as they sing in the great musical Hamilton, get the job done. And so do their children. And sometimes sport, where you don't need connections or privilege or anything really but talent, is the most high-profile manifestation of this.

Sanita Puspure, Cork via Latvia, won European rowing gold this day last week. Aaron Oyiki, whose father ran for Nigeria in the 1996 Olympics, hit a couple of goals for the Roscommon minors against Leitrim, the Ireland under 21 team which beat China 4-1 in the Toulon tournament had two goals from Adam Idah and one from Zachary Elbouzedi. Idah and Elbouzedi are both the sons of Irish mothers and African fathers.

That's just one week in Irish sport. Chances are the next generation won't even notice stuff like this. My children have classmates from Lithuanian families, Polish families, English families, Latvian families, Malaysian and Bangladeshi families. The kids don't find that odd. It's just school.

It's just life. And if there's one Western country where people should remember what it's like to have to emigrate to make a living and to be subject to the prejudice of those who think you belong to a lesser order of civilisation, it's Ireland. White supremacy didn't do much for us.

If it's a choice between Richard Spencer or the pupils of St. Johns National School I know which team I'm on. May those kids win many more things for their school, their town and their country. This country.

The closest of close calls for Prendergast

They thundered down the stretch in the Derby like the four horses of the apocalypse. The quartet could not be separated by the naked eye, but when the dust settled we found out that Madhmoon had been a nose ahead of Japan who'd been a short head clear of Broome who'd had a short head to spare over Sir Dragonet.

Those were the second to fifth placings because as the four fought it out in the middle, Seamie Heffernan had switched Anthony Van Dyck to the rail and won by half a length. There have been few classic finishes like it with Sir Dragonet just three quarters of a length off the winner but only fifth.

It was a significant triumph for Heffernan, winning a first Derby at the age of 47 and for Aidan O'Brien who provided five of the first six finishers. But also for Kevin Prendergast, who at the age of 86 saddled the runner-up. Prendergast and his late father Paddy have been seeking a Derby win for well over half a century and this was the closest the family has come. Madhmoon, who was fourth in the 2000 Guineas, will win something big before the year is out.

* * * * *

The Cricket World Cup has provided an absorbing spectacle in its first week. There have been shock wins for the West Indies over Pakistan, Bangladesh over South Africa and Pakistan over England, but the results have only been part of it.

What's been even more impressive is the sense of how much this means to some of England's largest immigrant communities - 80 per cent of tournament tickets were bought in England, but less than 50 per cent by England supporters. For Pakistan, India, West Indies and Bangladesh fans living in England, the tournament provides an ideal opportunity to cheer on their team at the highest level in a country which seems ever less welcoming to foreigners.

Michael Manley, one-time prime minister of Jamaica and author of a great history of West Indies cricket, stressed the boost West Indian national confidence received when they beat England. It still feels like the former colonies relish a chance to overturn the old overlord. Sure don't we have it in our own house?

* * * * *

There's a stark contrast between the men's and women's singles competition at the French Open. The former saw the top 10 seeds qualify for the last 16, the first time this has happened in a Grand Slam event since 1970. So far so predictable. Yawn.

By contrast the women's event has once more witnessed glorious chaos. The 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova became the youngest semi-finalist in 13 years while another unseeded prodigy, 19-year-old Czech Marketa Vondrousova, reached the final.

With world number one Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams both beaten in the third round we had a first-time champion and a ninth different Grand Slam winner in four years. Women's tennis is just the best crack right now.

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