Saturday 18 November 2017

Weekend dizzy spell should have carried health warning

Eamonn Sweeney

Putting the final touches to last week's column at around five o'clock that Friday, I wondered if there was much sport coming up at the weekend.

Was there much sport going on last weekend? Only in the same way that there's an odd flake of ash over Iceland. There are months when less happens than happened in those three days. Last weekend had sport the way Seán Quinn has debts.

To use an old English phrase, it was all going off. So much so that I'm writing this week's column from a desporturisation chamber, a version of those contraptions they use to prevent divers getting the bends. They clapped me away after they found me roaming the streets in the early morning, asking passers-by if they knew where I could get another fix of sport.

The doctors have me on an intensive drip of Nationwide, The Front Line and Oireachtas Report which they think should bring down the excitement levels considerably. As part of my therapy, they've asked me to try and reconstruct my Lost Weekend. Friday, I tell them, it all started on Friday, Friday . . . (dissolves into hazy dream sequence which ends with Brian O'Driscoll looming up out of the mist.)

RDS, Friday

We've been down this road before. A pack remorselessly grinding forward, the opposition powerless to stop them as they manoeuvre their way into the perfect position to set up the winning drop goal.

England did it for Jonny Wilkinson in the 2003 World Cup final, Ireland for Ronan O'Gara in last year's Grand Slam clincher against Wales. And Clermont Auvergne were doing it for Brock James in the dying minutes at the RDS.

The only problem was that James was behaving like a teenage boy who's seen his grandmother approaching on Christmas Day bearing a pair of socks and an Old Spice gift pack. This was a present he didn't want; in fact, as the French pack went through the gears, the Aussie out-half looked as unwilling to get into the pocket as a snooker ball with claustrophobia.

Eventually, he shuffled into position with all the reluctance of Brian Cowen entering a health farm and struck the ball well wide. The most amazing thing about all this was that a couple of minutes later the visiting pack did exactly the same thing and recidivist Brock behaved like George Davis, the English robber whose reaction to being freed after a miscarriage of justice in 1976 was to knock over a bank the following year. For all the brilliance of O'Driscoll, McLaughlin, Heaslip and Kearney, Leinster were entirely at the mercy of Clermont at that moment. The visitors missed eight kicks in the match.

Sometimes, to quote another famous son of Leinster, you can't make it on your own.

Thomond Park, Saturday

There seemed to be some suggestion that Jonathan Sexton's late winning penalty against Clermont put him back ahead in the Great Irish Out-half Race. And that Munster are a massively diminished force without Paul O'Connell. Also, that they would be vulnerable against Northampton, English rugby's form team at the moment. And that the balance of power in Irish provincial rugby has swung towards Leinster.

Lads, please. The economy may have shrunk to the size of Mary Coughlan's IQ, the price of your house may be the same as if it was made out of lego and your grandchildren will probably be called Bruce, Hank and Wlodizimierz but Munster abide. Above all, O'Gara abides. In a country where people have discovered you can't trust any of the former pillars of society, you can still trust Munster.

By the end, with a 33-19 victory achieved pulling up, Munster's quarter-final performance had been as impressive as Leinster's was dodgy. This is obviously hugely significant as the same thing hasn't happened since all the way back in 2009.

Hampden Park, Saturday

The year 1967 was a very significant one for Scottish football. It was the year when Ross County won the Highland Football League for the first time, seeing off the likes of Elgin City, Buckie Thistle and Nairn County as well as some clubs who didn't sound like budding glam rock stars.

Ross's record of being the ninth most successful team in the history of the aforementioned HFL is not to be sneezed at. And their ascent into Scottish Football League Division One two years ago was a famous achievement for the club. County's ground has seating for 2,800 people. Celtic, on the other hand, probably have buses that hold more than that.

The year 1967 was also the one when Celtic became the first team from these islands to win the European Cup. It would be nice to think that on that great night for Scottish football some man from the town of Dingwall, population 5,026, home of Ross County, the Highland Theological College and the shortest canal in Britain, would have confidently predicted that a day would come when his local side would beat the giants from Glasgow.

It would be even nicer to think that he might have been released in time to take advantage of the 12/1 offered against Ross last weekend before they won 2-0 to make the Scottish Cup final and prove that John Reid is doing for Celtic what his fellow countryman and old ministerial colleague Gordon Brown is doing for the British Labour Party.

Bernabeu, Saturday

Half an hour into El Clasico, the commentators were contrasting the danger posed on the break by Cristiano Ronaldo for Real Madrid with the relative anonymity of Lionel Messi for Barcelona. Bad move.

The one-two Messi played with Xavi, perhaps the best midfielder in the world at the moment, was simple enough but it completely unlocked the home defence. All Messi had to do now was sidestep Raul Albiol and beat Iker Casillas as casually as though he was knocking in the last goal of the night in a five-a-side at a sports complex.

It was a moment which said it all about Messi. And what said it all about Barcelona was that Real Madrid, with 15 home wins out of 15, this season opted to play defensively and try to hit their rivals on the break. Even this show of respect wasn't enough and Barcelona finished the game off with a second-half goal from Pedro, an extravagantly gifted wide player who cost Barcelona the same fee they forked out for Xavi and Messi. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Turns out that building a team is a better bet than buying one after all.

Wembley, Saturday

If there was ever a team who had an excuse to lie down it was Portsmouth on Saturday. Already relegated after points deductions merely put the tin hat on a chaotic season which saw the club placed in administration and the players unsure if their wages would be paid or even if Portsmouth would survive, most of the team knew they wouldn't be at Fratton Park next season. Given that the modern footballer is regarded as a uniquely mercenary individual, Pompey seemed likely to roll over and play dead against Spurs.

But it's not all about money with even the most highly paid sportsmen. Pride comes into the equation too. The kind of pride which surfaced as Kevin Prince Boateng played his first game in two months after injury and Aruna Dindane played his first in a month after a lay-off prompted by Portsmouth's inability to pay loan money to Lens.

The two front men played crucial roles, Boateng soldiering on into extra-time to get the second goal as Portsmouth won 2-0. That this victory came against a side managed by Harry Redknapp, a man whose cavalier spending had helped put the club in trouble in the first place, must have made it even sweeter for the Pompey fans.

It was also a tribute to the motivational and tactical skills of Avram Grant, the man who would have been a hero had John Terry not slipped as he took his penalty in the Champions League final shoot-out of 2008, but who has been ridiculed all season. In many ways, Portsmouth are a team for our times, savaged by economic reality but still trying to make the best of it. They are Roy of the Rovers crossed with Boys from the Blackstuff.

Aintree, Saturday

That memory key on the computer which types in the phrase, 'Tony McCoy's Grand National Jinx', will have to be decommissioned now.

If McCoy's victory at the 15th attempt was the National Hunt equivalent of Stanley Matthews coming good in the 1953 FA Cup final, then owner JP McManus's part in the triumph was a bit like Gordon Richards' Derby victory on Pinza in the Derby of the same year.

McManus had sent 33 runners to the National without success, his closest shave coming two years ago when King Johns Castle was runner-up. And when King Johns Castle decided to do a kind of surrealistic performance art number by standing stock still at the start like the horse in the old Hamlet cigar ad, the Limerick man must have had that old familiar sinking feeling.

Instead Don't Push It came through and for good measure landed a huge gamble by punters which maybe went some way towards redressing the balance after the most bookie-friendly Cheltenham of all time.

Galway, Saturday

Connemara. Creggs. Corinthians. Galwegians. Ballina, Sligo. Monivea. Okay, they may not be the most glamorous names in Irish rugby but there is a wealth of tradition in these little clubs. Connacht rugby has its own proud history, its own distinctive identity and that's why when, seven years ago, the IRFU decided to abolish the province, the Friends of Connacht Rugby got out and marched.

For once in this country, marching changed something and while the years since have largely involved the familiar old pattern of following the province through thin and thin, there have been rewards for the hardcore supporters who took the team off death row. The 23-20 Challenge Cup quarter-final win over Bourgoin was the latest of them, the least celebrated but in many ways the most commendable of Irish rugby's weekend triple crown.

That the semi-final against Toulon, Wilkinson, Contepomi et al, will be played in the Galway Sportsground is another notable triumph for the little province that could. Toulon have six times the budget of Connacht, are riding high in the French Top 14 and will be hot favourites. Remember Ross County?

Ewood Park, Sunday

In Samuel Beckett's great play Waiting For Godot, there is a character named Pozzo who controls his servant Lucky by means of a leash around his neck, beats him with a whip and refers to him as 'pig.' A somewhat similar relationship pertains between Alex Ferguson and the majority of the British sporting media.

So, after humouring the Manchester United boss's bigoted tirade about the wiles of such crafty krauts as Franck Ribery and Ivica Olic, you could sense the eagerness of his apologists to employ the words 'backlash', 'mind games', and 'answered his critics', as United faced a mediocre Blackburn Rovers team with little to play for. Surely there would be an opportunity to point out the myriad qualities of Dimitar Berbatov as he did what he does best, sticking the knife into inferior opposition?

'Fraid not. United were awful, Berbatov was worse and the 0-0 draw was notable for the amount of times the visiting players threw themselves down in the box in a manner that made Didier Drogba look like Nat Lofthouse. United looked like a team experiencing a collective nervous breakdown. That mirror Carlo Ancelotti is using to deflect Ferguson's deadly mind rays back on himself continues to work wonders.

Dungarvan, Sunday

Six or seven years back, Waterford were unquestionably the worst football team in Ireland, now that Kilkenny had thrown in the towel altogether. They hadn't won a championship match in almost two decades, they were expected to lose almost every time they went out and they stayed at or near the bottom of Division 4. There seemed to be no more obvious example of a hopeless case.

Then John Kiely began to give the county back some pride and a little respectability. He did so well that many people were surprised when the county board handed the management job to former Tipperary footballer John Owens at the end of last season. Owens, however, did well enough for Waterford to be facing a promotion showdown against Clare at Fraher Field last weekend.

And the Déise came through in style, winning by 0-20 to 2-5, five of those points being scored from play by Gary Hurney, a forward emblematic of the kind of player who shines year in, year out on teams destined never to grace the big stage. The triumph of Waterford, and that of Antrim and Sligo, two other former whipping boys who were promoted from Division 3 at the weekend, shows just what can be achieved with hard work and belief.

They weren't the most famous team in action at the weekend but few teams have come as far as Waterford.

Augusta, Sunday

In the end, he didn't need to win it. Having played no competitive golf in months and with unbearable pressure being loaded upon him by the media, Tiger Woods still played well enough to be in contention all through the Masters. In the context of what had gone before, that fourth place was one of his finest achievements.

Phil Mickelson's win gave everyone the chance to do a little bit of moralising at Tiger's expense, Lee Westwood looked like doing a Harrington before he settled for doing a Garcia and the press waxed lyrical about the magnificent traditions of a place that excluded blacks as long as it possibly could and still blackballs women before they gave Phil that jacket that looks like something worn by an American who gets off a tour bus and asks where he can buy an Aran sweater. The crowd looked like the Republican party at play, the members like they'd sent their hoods out for dry-cleaning.

And after that, doc, it all went blank.

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