Sunday 26 May 2019

Ewan MacKenna's alternative 2017 sports awards - Dud of the Year, most overrated athlete and lifetime achievement

Conor McGregor (left), Katie Taylor (centre) and John Delaney (right).
Conor McGregor (left), Katie Taylor (centre) and John Delaney (right).
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Recently on Sky Sports' Soccer Saturday, an interesting stat flashed up as they analysed the poor performances of West Brom.

It surrounded James McClean and his 15 Premier League appearances so far this season as, in all of them, he'd yet to score and has yet to so much as muster an assist. But if the panel wanted to delve deeper into his skill-set and slight slump, more damning numbers were out there. Shots on target? Two. Shooting accuracy? Seventeen per cent. Cross accuracy? Twenty-three per cent. Accurate long balls? Three. Passes per game? Less than 10.

It's a sport where stats are used more and more to paint a convenient picture rather than the real one, but this is merely telling the truth. And while McClean didn't win the RTE Sportsperson of the Year for his club efforts, it still jarred with a social media post made during the week. “So Paul Kimmage (some journalist) is upset the critter about me winning RTE Sportsperson of Year, as voted by the Irish public I may add. Paul and whoever else is upset about it, as I go shine my award, I apologise sincerely for not giving a toss.”

It made you wonder when did we get so sensitive? And why the public are voting on such things as they regularly cheapen prestige via brazen populism?

McClean to be fair is regularly admirable for his honesty and beliefs in soccer's sanitised world – and him winning here is a hell of a lot easier to swallow than Mo Farah continuing to be carried away from all the important questions across the sea by a cheering mob that struggle to distinguish between dreams and reality – but if he's as good as we had these past 12 months then our sport is a lot poorer than we ever thought. Thankfully he's not as good as we've had though, it's just that too often at this time of year these awards sell an easy lie. So it's about time we told a few truths with our own more brutal and slightly less celebratory version of sport in 2017...


What must he have thought as he witnessed McClean getting that award having himself made a shortlist that yet again went regularly for the obvious rather than the best (Micheal McKillop – really?). We rightly talk about ourselves as a great boxing nation on the back of a true pro star coming along once every other generation but right now there's a whole batch of title-threats in the paid ranks and he'd the best year of any of them. Became champion of the world mid-year, then unified it by the end of the year, but how often have you heard his name in conversations in all that time?

In a sense, the masses looking beyond him demonstrated the marketing and the sell of modern soccer and particularly the Premier League. It's Nandos, it's Starbucks, it's on every street corner and it's washing over everything else. But boxing isn't a niche sport and to do what Burnett did is rare. Him not being more lauded by public votes says a lot about the public and our grasp of him.


Is he even a sportsman anymore and, if not, what is it he does these days?

By now Kardashian-esque in that he's famous for being famous, looking back on his freak-show with Floyd Mayweather will in time become as embarrassing for Irish sport as a Prime Time conversation calling for a national referendum on Roy Keane's early 2000s return. People actually believed a guy that used to get beaten up in the Irish intermediate championships could return to the sport after years away and trouble one of the greatest of all time. Instead he was out of breath after three rounds and since then if we're to compare him to The Three Elvises scene in Father Ted, he's definitely entered the Father Jack phase of that life. Gut out, burger in hand.

On a serious note, those around him need to get hold of a guy slip-sliding down a dangerous path we've seen many in the fight game go down before him, only to never come back; the problem is too many of that entourage made their money because of him and don't want to bite the hand that feeds them. Comedy now perhaps, tragedy threatens without intervention bringing structure.


Yes, she is a world champion. And yes, she can only beat what's put in front of her. But praising her with the same trite and cheesy lines has become a reflex of the national psyche to the point that reading through the comment sections under articles about her is done through our fingers as the fawning kicks any context out of sight. It's not her fault that her sport is shallow nor is it her fault that most of those she's being asked to beat up aren't very good. But if we are to treat Taylor as the very good sportsperson she is, then she needs to be judged by the same standards as the rest and be asked the same questions as the rest. Not to do so is condescending, and she deserves better.


There was just no separating them as they went toe to toe in this awful box-ticking exercise. Learnt the anthem? Check. Looked moved during the anthem? Check. Had hands on hearts across the anthem? Check. Have had a Guinness? Check. But hang on a minute. We are a nation that rightly and regularly hit out when, for instance, Fionnuala McCormack is run off podiums at continental level by Kenyans dressed as Turks. This is no different as playing internationally shouldn't be about who offers up the most cash and as long as Ireland continue down that route, only fools and hypocrites should and will buy into any glory. “We won.” “Really, did we?” The world in union.


"Just Tony Keady, I'd such time for the man. At half-time, looking at the piece on him there, it's so heart-breaking for him and his family. Just, look, whether it's Waterford or Galway, what it means to both those counties, looking over there at John Mullane, he's heartbroken. And I'm heartbroken for the people of Waterford. And I'm delighted for the people of Galway and that's the way it was always going to be today. What an occasion. What an emotional day." Honest. Decent. Beautiful. The GAA at its very best.


At the Dublin County Convention earlier this week, one figure jumped out. The champions only managed to garner €54,997 in fundraising, making us think their pre-All Ireland final breakfast where table tickets were flogged at €2,500 didn't go so well. We can but feel for them.

Sure enough those that simply cannot buy into their remarkable success will predictably and bitterly point to the €1.6m in sponsorship, the €5m handed to them and them alone between 2005 and 2009 by the taxpayer, to the fact that per registered player between 2010 and 2014 they received €274.70 from the GAA versus €22.30 in Mayo, €21 in Tyrone and €19 in Kerry, to the fact they've a population greater than any province, to the fact they play pretty much all their games at home, to the fact all their players live and work locally, and to their long list of official partners making a lot of those players semi-pro given the long list of handouts. But damn the begrudgers.

Gavin took a rag-tag band of Davids and brought them through a gauntlet of Goliaths. His emotional press conference after the final minutes of a decider played out in the right spirit told you all you need to know. Honest. Decent. Beautiful. The GAA at its very best.

Oh wait.


Across these past few months, he picked up a Leinster senior football title, an All Ireland under-21 football title, an All Ireland senior football title, a Dublin club hurling title, a Leinster club hurling title, and an All Ireland club hurling title. Indeed when McClean picked up his Sportsperson of the Year award, O'Callaghan was sleeping out as part of the Gaelic Voices For Change homelessness awareness campaign having not even been nominated. And he won't be 22 until April.

Makes you feel good about yourself and your own efforts, doesn't he?


Another gong to add to a growing collection as just this month he won Irish Athlete of the Year on the back of his eighth-place finish at the summer's World Championships. That says a lot about the year of track and field we just had and the structures within the sport. However it's not even that which troubles most, rather our ability to brush past his personal and professional relationships and buy into his impressive results. There's still the fear of muttering Paco Fernandez.

The Spanish race-walker and coach was caught up in a 2008 investigation surrounding the shipment of packages by Walter Viru, once a cycling doctor. The Guardia Civil raided his home, finding EPO and other performance enhancing drugs. After co-operating with the police, he was adamant he never took any of it, but was banned for two years for possession while his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport became about the start date of the ban rather than any denial. And still Heffernan keeps him close as a friend and such actions keep Fernandez close to the sport, muddying already dirty waters still more.

Of all people, Heffernan has no excuse for that. Glance back across his own gutsy career. At the 2002 Europeans, Fernandez won, well clear of Heffernan in eighth; in Athens in 2004 he was disqualified trying to keep an unsustainable pace partly set by Fernandez who took silver; Fernandez took a podium at the 2007 worlds when Heffernan had to be happy with sixth; he came in a place behind Fernandez when eighth in Beijing. Loyalty isn't always admirable.


The most clear-cut victor of any here. The Irish bid was the great rouse, a pup sold to the masses by those looking to transfer public money to the best placed private hands and tell us it would be good for some immeasurable nonsense like national pride. How much would we have lost? €200m? €500m? €1bn? Who knows as the so-called facts were created by those with vested interests and the figures were guarded by what was described as commercial confidentiality by government.

But this had the most Irish of endings, as those behind the politics tripped up their own efforts with a dire bid that included one stadium that isn't even built and doesn't even have planning permission, and brushed past small obstacles like infrastructure and Brexit with a nod and a wink while telling the world we are great lads who can offer up the craic. Then when that lot got called out for what it was, we called sabotage. Shane Ross said it was bulletproof. Now he wants an Olympics.


He brings to mind the opening quote from The Big Lebowski. “Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude.” That's it. Chris Froome. The Dude.

His recent run-in with Salbutamol for his asthma was hilarious as if you gave his dosage to a fish you could watch billions of years of evolution happen over a cup of coffee as it would leave the sea, suddenly breathing on land, before grabbing a bike and making a shot at a grand tour. But if sport is a microcosm of real life, then this sums up the crap we're told and sold across the board. Like so many in the game nowadays, what's more remarkable than any of Froome's sporting achievements are the excuses for his dodgy dealings as he keeps a straight face and thinks we'll just accept it. The Dude abides. Well, maybe not.


A dozen years in the job and has shown no sign of slowing down. Or of changing much. You might laugh but think of how dull our sport would have been without so many golden moments from singing Republican songs in public places while in a role that requires great diplomacy to being carried around in his socks and shoulder high after several drinks in a role that requires great diplomacy. Who says our sport isn't in a good place.

Thanks for the memories. May there be plenty more.

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