Tuesday 24 October 2017

Only sport can do this to you

On Sunday evening, I looked across at my mother and saw that she was shaking. Really shaking, as though an electric current were being run through her.

This is not a woman who is easily shook. She survived a couple of decades of marriage to one of the wildest men who ever drew breath, the adventures of three sons who, shall we say, have had their moments, many years of hard work for low pay as a home help and, in the last couple of years, a serious battle with cancer.

Yet I have never seen her as worried as she was at around 6.0 this day last week.

After an epic battle between Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers, the destination of the FAI Cup was about to be decided on a penalty shoot-out. And me? I was shaking like Shakin' Stevens doing a Shake 'n' Vac ad in front of an audience of oil sheikhs in the Shakespeare Bar.

Only sport can do this.

The intellectual side of me derived enormous enjoyment last weekend from The Moderns exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern art, a massive feast of great painting, film, photography, music and sculpture which is probably the finest thing I've ever seen in an Irish gallery (and which includes, sports fans, a great photo from 1968 of a young Mick O'Dwyer working in a garage and a 1976 film which features legendary Raidio Na Gaeltachta anchor Seán Bán Breathnach as a swashbuckling anti-imperial sex symbol).

The political side of me spent last week wondering why we weren't all protesting on the streets as government incompetence effectively brought an end to 80-odd years of national independence.

Yet those feelings were swamped by what happened on Sunday in the Aviva Stadium. Because the cup final touched me in a way that neither art nor politics ever could have. It had a visceral effect on me, one that went way beyond the rational. There are people out there, I'm sure, who react to a great painting or a political struggle in the same way. Fair play to them. But I realised something important about myself as Eoin Doyle strode up to take the first penalty for our Rovers on Sunday. When it comes down to it, I'm not an intellectual or a political animal. Above anything else, I am a sports fan.

When you spend your life writing about sport it's easy to forget what it's like to be a fan. Because the fan operates in a realm of pure emotion. Writing about something, by definition, involves analysing it. But at moments of high drama for our teams analysis goes out the window. We have no more distance from the events unfolding in front of us than we do when watching a child being born or having particularly great sex. There is only the moment.

All of us have one team which produces this reaction. We may support other teams but there will always be one which is particularly special, the one which figures when we make a deal with God that we won't mind if our other favoured sides lose so long as this one wins. (Sorry about this Trap, Declan and Kevin but I bartered away your success for the next while with the man above last Sunday. Desperate times, desperate measures.)

For me, that team is and always has been Sligo Rovers. My parents were at a game in the Showgrounds on a Sunday, I was born on the following Wednesday. When my father died, there was a minute's silence for him at the next home game. When my first daughter was born, a former Rovers great gave me a tiny club jersey for her. There are connections between life and death and me and the club. We are a scattered clan these days, my mother, my brothers, my sister and myself but we were all together on Sunday because the experience of following Sligo Rovers is one of the things which defines us as a family.

That is how sport works for the fan. You know this because there is a team, a club perhaps or a county, which fills the same role in your life and the lives of those you love. And that is why sport is more than just a game. Much, much more. Today's column will be a failure because it is impossible to capture in mere words all that a day like Sunday means to those involved.

We prevailed in the shoot-out thanks to Ciarán Kelly. The Mayoman from Hollymount did something I've never seen before, he saved four penalties in a row. All of these were good saves, a couple of them were terrific, he dived low to push away the first two shots, stood tall to touch a rocket over the crossbar and finished off by kicking the last penalty away with a trailing leg. It was an illustration of how sometimes sportsmen can find themselves in the mythical zone and do things even they might not have suspected were possible.

This time last year no one would have thought Ciarán Kelly would be a cup final hero. He had made a couple of mistakes in last year's decider and they had cost Rovers victory against Sporting Fingal. But, in fairness to the man, he was only on the pitch because the brilliant Richard Brush was injured. The expectation was that Brush would recover and Kelly would return to reserve football and obscurity.

Brush did return, and then he got injured again. Rovers signed a replacement, John Gibson, who promptly lost form. It was all on Ciarán Kelly again. He rose to the occasion in quite remarkable fashion.

Then again, it was a remarkable season. Because Sligo Rovers played football the like of which had not only never been seen at The Showgrounds before but which quite possibly was unprecedented for the League of Ireland. This is not bias on my part. Week after week, the pundits praised the spectacular, fluid attacking football Sligo were playing. Roddy Collins compared us to Brazil, Con Murphy wondered if we were turning into Barcelona.

Okay, there may have been some slight exaggeration there. But the fact is that all season Sligo passed the ball out from the back, passed it through midfield, kept it on the ground to an extraordinary degree, made most games into small miracles of creativity and self-expression. It provided as much unalloyed aesthetic pleasure as you're ever likely to find in the league (though, in fairness, Damien Richardson's Shelbourne team of the mid-'90s were in the same vein).

This owed a great deal to manager Paul Cook. Yet, one third of the way through the season, a series of narrow defeats meant Sligo looked likely to end up in a relegation battle. Cook seemed puzzled, the team were playing well yet the results weren't coming. In one post-match interview he seemed to waver momentarily, wondering aloud if his philosophy of football was at fault, if a more pragmatic approach might have been a better bet.

Yet we continued to play this complex and pleasing brand of football. We did this because our manager is a remarkable character. It is probably not exaggerating to say that, to an extraordinary degree in a league often notable for high levels of internecine strife, everyone likes and respects Paul Cook.

They do so because he is honest and sportsmanlike almost to a fault. He rarely complains about refereeing decisions, and if he does it is usually about the ones which have benefited his own team, he will admit straight away when we have been lucky to win or draw, he admitted in previous seasons when we weren't good enough. It is typical of the man that one of his first thoughts on Sunday when the shoot-out had been won was to dispatch the team down the other end to applaud the Shamrock Rovers fans. That is the kind of man he is. I expect him to follow former League of Ireland bosses like Sam Allardyce, Lawrie Sanchez and Steve Cotterill into management across the water and surpass them all.

Sligo went into Sunday's final having already won the League Cup, the club's first trophy in 12 years, and qualified for Europe by finishing in third place in the league, a stunning late-season run putting them just four points out of first. They did so despite selling star striker Pádraig Amond, a shoo-in to be league top scorer at the time, to Portuguese club Pacos de Ferreira at a crucial stage because, the financial situation being what it is, Irish clubs are in no position to turn down money.

And they won the FAI Cup final despite being without midfielder Richie Ryan, the League of Ireland Player of the Year, and striker Matthew Blinkhorn. Ryan is the player who all season had been the fulcrum around which our passing game turned, the straw that stirred the drink, the conductor of the orchestra. And, after the departure of Amond, Blinkhorn was our sole remaining orthodox centre-forward. The loss of both seemed too great a blow for the team to bear.

Yet Sligo were still good enough to dominate the final, the slack being taken up by the gifted Joseph Ndo in midfield, the warrior duo of Alan Keane and Gavin Peers in defence and the makeshift front two of John Russell and Eoin Doyle, two hugely skilful players prospering at a job for which they are unsuited. A combination of poor finishing and that defensive obduracy of the Hoops which Juventus found so difficult to deal with propelled us into a shoot-out where justice was belatedly done.

It was a great day for Sligo Rovers. And it was also a great day for the League of Ireland. Nobody expected the 36,000 crowd which was the best for a final since the 1968 decider between Shamrock Rovers and Waterford United. The FAI deserve plaudits for their imaginative decision in pegging admission at €10, a gesture which won them much goodwill from fans. Many of those supporters will be back. There is affection for the league out there, it's just a question of tapping it.

This was an ideal final pairing. Sligo has punched above its weight as a small town and county for so many years it's easy to forget how remarkable a stronghold it has been in comparison to much larger urban centres. And the Hoops are the team that everyone else loves to hate. They should take this as a compliment because you don't hate nobodies. They are our league's Manchester United, a win over them is sweeter than a win over anyone else. In Michael O'Neill they too have a manager of promise and integrity, they deserved their league title and took their defeat with consummate grace. Long may they prosper in Tallaght.

And if Sunday was a triumph for a manager and players it was also one for the fans, people who have struggled on through much thin and little thick, people who are often condescendingly congratulated for staying loyal to Sligo Rovers rather than some 'glamour team'.

Yet the reality is that if the League of Ireland bug has bitten you, Sligo Rovers or Shamrock Rovers or Drogheda United or Bohemians, are glamour teams. That's how it is for the gang I met in Jurys on Sunday night, for Steven C and his brother, Buddha and his buddies, Tommy the golfer, Eamonn the solicitor, Eilish D, Liam the wedding singer, Thomas from Owenmore Gaels and his beautiful wife, Noel S, the rock singer who came back from San Francisco, the guy who came back from Melbourne, the doctor who saved someone's life at the match, the whole glorious ramshackle crew who greeted the arrival of the team and the cup into the hotel as though they were members of a millenarian sect witnessing the second coming.

May all this column's readers have days like this, days with that one special team in your life, wherever the county or club, whatever the sport. Because there is nothing like it. And may you all know the pleasure of hearing those kindest of words that Irish people say, and that I heard many times over the next few days, 'I'm delighted for you.'

As Ciarán Kelly made that final save, myself, my mother, my two brothers and my sister hugged each other, huddling together in the warmth of victory, remembering the days when we had sheltered similarly from the chill winds of defeat. And I was thinking of my father, the man who passed on the gift of Sligo Rovers to me when we went to our first game together. I was five and we were playing Shamrock Rovers then too. If you can hear me dad, thanks.

That'll do.


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