When it comes to the business of words and music, I’ve always been fascinated by how they are put together. Take the Dionne Warwick classic 'Walk on By'.
he song — a personal favourite and ranked 70 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time — starts with some brilliant percussion and an intoxicating beat before Warwick crushes us with those wonderful lyrics and that glorious voice:
If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by
But the genius, for me, is how the composer, Burt Bacharach, fills the pause after the comma:
Walk on by
Walk on by
Has a trumpet ever sounded as good?
"‘Walk on By' was the first time that I tried putting two grand pianos on a record in the studio," Bacharach explained to Record Collector Magazine. "I knew the song had something. It was a great date. I walked out of that studio and we had done two tunes in a three-hour session, ‘Walk on By' and 'Anyone Who Had A Heart'. I felt very good leaving knowing I had two monster hits on my hands. You never know for sure but you feel a great satisfaction."
Bacharach has never written a sports book, but if he did it might read like one of the titles on the shortlist for the eir Sport Sports Book of the Year.
Here's a glimpse of what's under the bonnet . . .
1 The Warrior's Code
Jackie Tyrrell with Christy O'Connor (Trinity Mirror)
The majority of the stuff that has been written about Kilkenny over the years is positive, but when Brian has no control, he gets edgy. His big fear is the insidious danger of complacency and softness creeping in and he always saw the media as a vehicle for creating those issues.
When Martin Fogarty was involved, he used to co-ordinate and organise all media requests but Brian always had the final decision. We were always told to say nothing. Sean Cummins, who was on the panel for a few years, came out with a comment once which encapsulated everything Brian thought, and wanted us to feel about the media. "Treat them like mushrooms: fill them with shit and keep them in the dark."
Christy O'Connor has always had a gift for the art of composition. His second book, The Club, was the Irish Sports Book of the Year in 2010, and the three others he has written have either finished runner-up (Last Man Standing in 2005, Out of Control in 2016) or made the podium (Dalo in 2014).
Two years ago, he had just started work on Out of Control — the extraordinary tale of the Tyrone footballer Cathal McCarron's battle with a gambling addiction — when he got a call from Jackie Tyrrell inquiring if they could meet. "It was January 2016," O'Connor recalls. "I was going up to meet McCarron the following day in Newbridge and we arranged to meet in Portlaoise."
O'Connor had plenty of time to think on the 90-minute drive from Ennis. He was sure Tyrrell would float the notion of an autobiography but was not sure how he would react. Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin — the behemoths of Kilkenny hurling — had both produced books that had failed to inspire, and while he liked and admired Tyrrell, he was not going to collaborate in a brand-building exercise or a vanity project. He was still unsure when he reached Portlaoise.
"Look it, Jackie," he announced. "If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right. So if you're not fully committed . . ."
"Just tell me what you need," Tyrrell replied.
"You're still playing?"
"So it's hardly for this year?"
"Okay, we'll aim for 2017. I want you to keep a diary and we'll see how you go."
It was late September before he heard from Tyrrell again. They arranged to meet a week later in Nenagh and Tyrrell handed him a package with seven months of diary. The first entry was dated January 25:
"I meet with Christy today in Midway in Portlaoise. I was nervous but excited about the possibility of my book but underestimated the workload of the book. Christy asked me to keep a diary which I decided to do. I was happy to be in Christy's company as I knew he was a hurling man. I spoke to Brother D after about minding me during the process. I decided not to think about the book too much but to let it flow through my mind. I didn't sleep great that night. It was windy but the book occupied my mind."
O'Connor could hardly believe his eyes.
"It was so honest," O'Connor says. "I knew straight away that we had something because you can't replicate that. So that was the start of it. I would cherry-pick the good stuff in the diary and ask him to take me back. There was one that really excited me — it was the week before they played Dublin (June 25, 2016) and he was handed a ‘B' team jersey in training:
'We meet in Nowlan Park at 8.45am and head off for training in Dr Cullen Park (Carlow). They hand out blue and green jerseys before we play an internal match and I'm on the blue team, the weaker team. I lose all my power, focus and what I am all about. My mind is only looking for the answer to one question. Why am I not on the A team? Rob Lennon is in ahead of me. Why the hell isn't Cody trusting me?'
"To me, that's the essence of it," O'Connor says. "Because that kind of shit goes on with every player in the game. So that's what I wanted to capture. Kilkenny have always been viewed as machines but the truth is that they have struggles and mental anxieties as much as everyone else. So that's what I wanted to capture. And that's what excited me. Okay, so he's breaking the Omerta a little bit, but at the end of the day he's being honest."
A brilliant read.
2 The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Cycling's Golden Generation
Barry Ryan (Gill Books)
The impact on Kelly and Roche's reputations in Ireland is perhaps more nuanced. Unlike Michelle Smith, their careers were already over before the legitimacy of their performances was questioned, which limited the damage. Damning as the revelations from Voet and Ferrari were, there was sufficient wriggle room for Kelly and Roche to cling to protestations of innocence, however unconvincing.
Nowadays, a Kelly or Roche appearance on a mainstream radio show will typically elicit at least one doping question from the host, but the issue does not define their public profiles. Nostalgia, too, lends a soft focus.
Five months have passed since the world was served notice with what many cycling fans have known for years: Barry Ryan is one hell of a journalist. It happened during a press conference at the Tour de France in July when the 34-year-old Corkman was refused entry to an audience with Chris Froome by the Team Sky principal, Sir Dave Brailsford.
"You're not invited," Brailsford said. "We have invited the people we want to speak to. You've been writing shit about me."
The turd in question was a column Ryan had written about Bradley Wiggins and the unfortunate bother of his use of TUEs (therapeutic use exemptions). Ryan challenged Brailsford on his views but the knight was not for turning and gifted the journalist an Oscar of our trade:
"Stick it up your arse," he said.
Ryan has always been cut from the right stuff. A native of Glanworth, he succeeded Ewan McKenna as the winner of the Peter Ball Memorial Sportswriting Award in 2002 and spent a summer at The Sunday Tribune watching Malachy Clerkin, Kieran Shannon and Paul Howard. "It was a great grounding," he says. "And a really good experience to see a professional newsroom in action."
He did a PhD in Italian at UCC, spent a year working in the Italian department at NUI Galway and has been employed by Cyclingnews, the world's leading cycle sport website, for the last seven years. The Ascent, his first book, was born of an idea that germinated in childhood when his late father, Ollie, a cycling fan, booked a summer holiday in France.
"One of my earliest memories is going to see Kelly in the TTT (Team Time Trial) of the 1988 Tour — I was four — so I would have caught the tail end of the Kelly-Roche era without fully understanding its significance at the time," he says. "I'd had an offer to write a biography of Stephen Roche but I'd been carrying this idea around with me for years and pitched that to the agent instead.
"It came about, in a way, from reading stuff like Jeff Pearlman's book (The Bad Guys Won!) on the New York Mets and that approach in American sportswriting where they go back and look at a particular team in a particular era. I went through the archives, read all of the (Kelly-Roche) biographies, and drew up a list of (31) interviews. The book had a lot of moving parts, but the structure was chronological."
Being interviewed by Ryan is an interesting experience. He sits, quiet as a mouse looking vaguely engaged, and lulls you into a warm sense of brotherhood and then splatters your guts on his page.
"Kimmage is a difficult read for eavesdroppers. He swears and blinds when he's enthusiastic, and he swears and blinds when he's annoyed. After a morning of turning the air blue, he shakes his head at the very public second acts of so many figures from Irish cycling's golden generation. Perhaps there is an explanation of sorts there. For better or worse, the men were driven. They never stopped climbing."
He will, of course, be hearing from my solicitor.
3 The Choice
Philly McMahon with Niall Kelly (Gill Books)
Drugs were sold all around us — in front of the flats, outside the shops, inside the shops, on the way home from school. When the 36 bus pulled up on the main road, we could spot the addicts as they got off, coming from all over the city to get their fix. Young children knew to look out for dirty needles where they played and knew not to touch them. The stairwells of the blocks were like a revolving door, addicts going to or coming from their dealer's flat, or worse, using right there in front of you, slumped with a syringe in their arm, so consumed that they didn't care who noticed.
There was an interesting moment at the recent Bord Gais Book Awards. Philly McMahon and Niall Kelly had just received the plaudits for the Sports Book of the Year and were heading backstage for a televised interview with Evelyn O'Rourke when she noticed something that was patently absurd. "You've only the one trophy," she observed, as McMahon arrived cradling it in his arms.
So she reached out — "You've enough trophies" — and shoved it across the table towards his ghostwriter.
Clever girl, Evelyn. She knows how it works.
Don't get me wrong, McMahon is a remarkable sportsman and has a great story to tell, but like a great Bacharach song, the genius of The Choice is all about the arrangement, because nine writers out of 10 would have fucked this up.
Consider for a moment the hand Kelly is dealt. McMahon is still chasing All-Irelands so there's not a lot he can say about Dublin or Jim Gavin. And there are some delicate issues with McMahon's family he must almost tip-toe around. The meat of the story is two brothers from Ballymun and the choices they face in the most socially deprived suburb of Dublin. Philly turns right and becomes a football star. John turns left and becomes addicted to heroin.
But what's the moral of the story? How does Kelly play the cards?
There's no foreword, index or acknowledgements. The structure is five chapters: 'Prologue' (6 pages), 'The First Half' (114 pages), 'Half Time' (36 pages), 'The Second Half' (94 pages), 'Epilogue' (3 pages) — and the tone is set from the dramatic opening line.
"I want to stop."
Okay, so the pudding is over-egged at times and there are some pretty obvious holes but Kelly keeps us guessing: "Before I was Philly McMahon, I was Philip Caffrey but we can come back to that later." So we keep guessing, cheering for Philly who keeps getting it right, and sneering at his idiot brother who keeps getting it wrong.
Even when John dies we don't feel much sorrow because that's what happens to guys who get hooked on this shit. We've no empathy for him. We don't understand him. 'The fuckin' eejit! Why can't he be like Philly?' And then, just as we're ready to close, Kelly plays the ace.
We've known, since midway through the book, that the boys have different fathers: "My mam and dad aren't married. Mam is a Caffrey, and we were all raised as Caffreys, but I was so ashamed of John, so ashamed to have a heroin addict in my family, as my brother, that I changed my name to McMahon, Dad's surname."
What we don't know, until a story right at the end, is how it affected John: "Years into his addiction, John's nanny died — his biological dad's mam. John really wanted to be there at the funeral that day, felt it was important. On the way out to the graveyard, John walked to the funeral car to get in with the rest of the family. 'There's no room in the limo, John,' he was told, and he had to sit in one of the cars behind.
"That has stuck in my head to this day. Tormented by his addiction, John still wanted to do something nice to try to support that side of the family, even if he didn't have much of a relationship with them. The same loving, caring John had never gone away."
And now we want to cry.