Paul Kimmage: 'We're not in the business of ruining people's lives'
Kieren Fallon has left The Westbury and has almost reached Grafton Street when I spot him coming towards me. He pauses and looks at me curiously, his mind working overtime.
This guy knows me.
"I hope you're going back," I smile, nodding towards the hotel. "I'm supposed to be interviewing you in five minutes."
"Yeah, yeah. I just popped out to get some cash," he replies.
He turns around and leads me back to the hotel and a table in the dining room that would be fine for old friends catching-up for a chat. But we're not old friends, and this isn't a chat.
Should I ask about the room? (I'd been assured a room had been booked for the interview.) Perhaps not, he seems fidgety and unsure.
A waiter arrives and we order coffee (me) and sparkling water (him). Two couples are gabbing loudly in the corner and together with the piped music it's a struggle to fix his voice.
I place a copy of Form, his just-published autobiography, on the table and tap the photograph on the cover: "They've added a bit of blue to your eyes?"
"Yeah, I hate having my picture taken," he replies. "I hate the camera. I hate interviews."
This is a story about some of the people that made my year, and the ones that got away.
1 Rory Redux
Then there's the story of the lunch, which spread throughout the Naval Special Welfare community. Guys still tell it, almost a decade later: Tiger and a group of five or six went to dinner in La Posta. The waitress brought the check and the table went silent, according to two people there that day. Nobody said anything and neither did Tiger, and the other guys sort of looked at one another.
Finally one of the SEALs said, "Separate checks, please."
The waitress walked away.
"We were all baffled," says one SEAL, a veteran of numerous combat deployments. "We are sitting there with Tiger f-ing Woods, who probably makes more than all of us combined in a day. He's shooting our ammo, taking our time. He's a weird f-ing guy. That's weird s-. Something's wrong with you."
'The Secret History of Tiger Woods'
When a friend invites you to dinner with Rory McIlroy, and there are wives and girlfriends involved, work is off the menu. So there was no talking about golf that night or the state of Rory's game. The venue was a fish restaurant in the Algarve in August 2016, and after five years of watching in wonder from afar, I was in a holding pattern above Planet Rory hoping for permission to land.
Then the phone rang.
"No golf talk."
"He's on holiday."
The first thing that struck me was how comfortable he was conversing about stuff — current affairs, education, tourism, politics — my wife loves ("He's not at all like I expected"). And I spent the evening mostly observing until he mentioned a piece that had just been published about Tiger Woods.
"The Wright Thompson piece?"
"Yeah," he replied.
"You read that?"
Now that was impressive.
Four months later, on an icy December morning a week before Christmas, everything was on the menu when he agreed to an interview during a brief visit to Dublin. 'The Essential Rory' ran for two weeks in January and was more than 15,000 words. But there was some stuff that got left out.
PK: Tell me about Conor McGregor. You've met him, obviously, and been to a couple of fights. A lot of people say: 'It's not a proper sport.'
RM: I've always been a fight fan. I've always been a boxing fan. MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) probably took me a while to get into and it's not nice to watch people taking knees to the head. But the more you watch it, the more you become desensitised, I guess. And they work hard — Jesus! I mean, imagine putting yourself through that stuff. You're in a cage and not getting out until you've either knocked the other guy out, or been knocked out. So it's brutal. I mean five five-minute rounds! Do you know how tough that is?
RM: So I've a lot of respect for them, and as brash as Conor is in his public persona, he's a great lad when you actually sit down with him. And we got on really well. It's a great story — this is a young guy from Crumlin who was a trainee plumber four years ago. And he has definitely captured the imagination. I mean, who would watch UFC, especially in this country, if it wasn't for him?
PK: We wouldn't know anything about it.
RM: No, and that's why when he talks about wanting a slice of the company . . . yes, it's all a bit of a show but at the same time you're like: 'He's on to something there.'
PK: When did you first meet him?
RM: After his second fight against Diaz in Vegas — I sat and had a chat with him at the after-party and he couldn't have been nicer. And (his partner) Dee couldn't have been nicer. I wouldn't be comfortable doing what he does in terms of his persona but that's an act of sorts. He's got another three or four years at this and has to make the most of it while he can, and I think that's a thing that people need to understand.
Five months later, as Rory wrestled with a back injury that would compromise his year, Wright Thompson was making plans to travel to Dublin for a piece on McGregor. 'Crossing Crumlin Road', published in August, would be one of the most talked-about features of the year.
2 'That's a promise'
Nobody is forced to give an interview: I don't doorstep anyone or pester them; I put in a request and accept the answer, yes or no. Moreover, the people I interview are not novices. They know the media game and have usually benefited from it for most of their careers. They don't give interviews out of the kindness of their hearts — they are usually trying to plug whatever new film or book or record they are launching. The wisest among them count the column inches and recognise that four pages in a national newspaper is certainly big publicity, whether favourable or not.
Three decades ago, before the internet and smartphones, when newspapers were king, whenever you told someone you worked for a Sunday paper the response was invariably: "What do you do the other six days of the week?" But there's more to this business than meets the eye.
A national icon and veteran of the media game, he was a great subject for 'The Big Interview' so I called him a year ago, and sent a text when he didn't pick up: "Hi X, have just left a message. Was hoping you might sit down with me to talk about your life." I called again an hour later and eventually managed to track him down. "I'll do it," he said, "but not now. Come back to me in the summer."
Six months later, on May 6 to be precise, I spent three days reading his autobiography and making notes before phoning and sending a text: 'X, "come back to me in the summer", you said. It's the summer. And I know you're a man of your word. Would Wednesday or Thursday work?'
He replied two hours later: "Paul, apologies for the delay. Yes, I will do the interview but I'm tied-up until July. I'll have plenty of time to sit down with you then if that's okay?"
"That's fine, X," I said. "See you in July."
"Perfect," he said. "That's a promise."
July was two months later. I phoned and left a message, then sent a text. "X, have tried calling several times. Could you give me a suitable time/place/date please? Or if you don't want to do it at least let me know."
He did not respond.
3 The best of Jayo
Canavan scored a class goal on the stroke of half-time from a Mulligan knock-down, then Harte took him off for a breather before sending him on again to close the deal. More evidence of how they were rethinking the game. Improvising. Setting different standards. We ended up chasing the game, and in the dying seconds Canavan pulled me down with a virtual rugby tackle as I sprinted to take a return pass. Their best player doing whatever it took. Not giving a shit what anyone might say on that evening's 'Sunday Game'. He'd been blackguarded himself enough across the years, so could you really blame him?
The biggest interview I've ever done was with Floyd Landis, the disgraced former Tour de France winner, in November 2011. It took a week to transcribe, 10 days to write and five years of being chased through a Swiss court. No two interviews are ever the same but the big hits these days are a bit more manageable — three days to transcribe, five days to write and (hopefully) no summons from the 'wigs'.
John Kavanagh was a big hit.
We spent a morning together in October 2016 and covered every aspect of his life from childhood bullies, his affection for tarantulas and wrestling with Kieran McGeeney, to his nurturing of Conor McGregor and life in the fast lane with Ronaldo and J-Lo.
It was one of my favourite interviews of the year but you can't please everyone and within an hour of it going online I was getting abuse from a guy on Twitter who clearly wasn't a fan.
"You didn't ask Kavanagh about doping in MMA?"
"I did ask him."
"You didn't. I've read the piece again."
"I asked him. I chose to leave it out."
And so it was with Jason Sherlock.
His autobiography, Jayo, was about to hit the shelves but our shot at securing an interview had been complicated by a column ('Is winning all that matters?') I'd written about Jim Gavin and his post-All-Ireland press conference. Sherlock was an integral part of the Dublin coaching team. Jim was his friend.
I sent him a note expecting the worst: "If you're under pressure I'll understand."
He sent a reply reflecting his best: "I'd be happy to do it."
We met a week later at a Dublin hotel — private room, no noise — and spent a fascinating afternoon reflecting on his complicated childhood and remarkable life. But that wasn't enough for the assholes on Twitter:
"Can't believe Jayo gave that wanker an interview!"
"Why didn't he challenge him on his views?"
But what if he did?
PK: I asked Jim at the press conference: 'Is winning the only thing?'
JS: Well, I wasn't at the press conference.
PK: I know that.
JS: So are you asking what I think?
PK: I'm interested.
JS: I think there are examples of winning at all cost in other sports but I don't think you could associate that with Dublin in terms of what they've done over the last three years.
PK: There's a line you use about Jim in the book: 'He holds true to our values and culture.' What about the last minute of the All-Ireland this year? Where does that fit with winning the right way?
JS: Well, we don't talk about winning, so that's not something that's part of our values or culture.
PK: So the culture is what?
JS: We empower the players to perform and to be the best that they can be.
PK: So throwing (David Clarke's) kicking tee away is okay? The grabbing of the Mayo shirts is okay? If winning isn't the only thing, how is it acceptable for a player to take out a GPS unit and throw it at a free-taker? How is that acceptable? And you're going to say: 'It's not acceptable.' But it is acceptable because any Dublin player who was asked about it said they'd have done the same thing.
JS: Listen, things happen in games, and there are loads of examples of games that finished ugly. The two most talented players of my era were (Peter) Canavan and the Gooch, and Canavan rugby-tackled the Gooch to win an All-Ireland. So what's changed?
JS: What's the deterrent? How do we ensure it doesn't happen? That's the challenge because I think, to a man, if the roles were reversed Mayo would have done the same. They wouldn't give a shite. And we wouldn't have an issue with it. And whether that's right or wrong. . .
PK: Don't tell me that Ciarán Kilkenny will have a photo on his mantelpiece in 20 years' time of him walking to the sideline with a black card pointing at him. That's not going to happen.
JS: Yeah, probably (not).
PK: I understand doing-what-you-have-to-do has become part of the game. I get all that. But it was still ugly to me. Is there no part of it that was ugly to you?
JS: Well, at the time we were consumed by the game, so it wasn't something I was focused on: We had a black card. We were a man down. I know where you're coming from but I think the bigger picture is: How can we protect the game so we can have better endings? Because ultimately we want the game to bring out the best in our players, and to show their best qualities. So I don't agree that it's winning at all costs but I think the administrators have a responsibility to ensure that doesn't happen. And that's where the debate has been lost.
4 Things that go bump in the night
People's backyards are much more interesting than their front gardens.
The month is November, 1999. I'm sitting in the lobby of the Kervansaray Termal Hotel — no crowds, low music — in Bursa with Tony Cascarino, before the second leg of a European Championship play-off with Turkey. We've been drinking coffee and shooting the breeze and I'm just about to leave when the conversation turns.
"This may seem an odd question, but what do you know about me?" he asks.
"I know you're a good player but not a great player," I laugh.
"No, I'm serious. What do you know about me?"
"You're right, it is an odd question," I replied. "What do I know about you? I know you're 37 years old and Ireland's most-capped player. I know you're a goal shy of the all-time scoring record. I know you've played in two World Cups and for Aston Villa, Celtic and Marseilles. I know you named your first son Michael after your Irish grandfather and your other son Teddy after Teddy Sheringham. I think you're possibly divorced but I'm not sure, and that you may have remarried a French girl, but I'm not sure about that either. I know you're well liked by your peers and by the media. A typical streetwise cockney, I'd say; one of the nice guys."
He looked at me and smiled.
That's my front garden.
The month is May 2016. I'm sitting in a car with another man I've been writing about for 20 years. It's a cool, bright evening in Dublin and we're stuck in a line of slow-moving traffic on James's Street.
"Have you been?" he asks, nodding towards the Guinness Storehouse.
"Once, with a friend," I reply. "You?"
"Yeah with my father, not long before he died."
I nod and pretend the words have washed over me but it's a job to suppress my alarm.
The guy in his autobiography?
We meet again the following morning. I cite some passages from the book and read from some notes I've made about things that appear odd to me; the references to his father, holes in the narrative, the curious inconsistencies, the almost perfect graph of his career.
But the penny has already dropped.
This is his front garden.
The interview is scheduled to run a week later but the holes are bothering me and I decide to put it on hold. A month later, he sends me a message: "I hope you're keeping well. What's the story on the piece we did? I've had a good think about it and feel that I wasn't being totally open. If you want to do it properly then I think we could do better."
"Let's do better," I reply.
We meet a week later.
"You've been doing some thinking?" I say.
"Yeah, it's lack of sleep," he replies. "I'm a terrible sleeper."
"I have spells where I'm alright, and spells when I'm up thinking all sorts of things."
"I didn't read about this in the book?"
"I didn't talk about it in the book."
"So what is it that keeps you awake at night?"
"Christ!" he says. "I'm in a sweat just thinking about it."
This was his backyard.
A few days later, still fretting over the interview, he asks to meet again.
"A few things haven't sat right with me," he says.
"Trust me," I reply. "I'll take great care."
But now we're both tossing and turning.
"It's not a problem for me to drop it if you're not happy?" I suggest.
"I'm sorry for wasting your time," he says, "but I don't want to be defined by what we've spoken about. I just feel uneasy about it all."
The interview does not appear.
Betjeman was right: backyards are much more interesting than front gardens. And there's no greater thrill for a writer than going deep. But we're not in the business of ruining people's lives.
5 How do you measure that?
Everyone always tells me off for
interviewing stars — why don't I
interview 'real' people? They always know a fishmonger in Kensal Rise who is a million times more interesting than Rupert Everett. Well, fine — but who would read it?
Ed Joyce has never sold fish in Kensal Rise but he's rarely been described as a star, which is odd and pretty unfair given that he's considered by many to be one of the greatest sportsmen Ireland has ever produced. The problem, of course, is cricket, a sport where you have to play for England to make your name.
But that's probably what makes him so interesting.
Consider the facts of his breakthrough season in the summer of 2006. He scores a hundred playing for Middlesex in a four-day game against Yorkshire and is informed that night that he's been selected for England. The month? June. The opposition? Ireland. The venue? Belfast. 'Their' opening batsman? His brother, Dominick.
"It was crap," he says. "I hated that game. I absolutely hated it. It was a great day for Irish cricket — the first ODI (One Day International) between England and Ireland. There was a big crowd and it was on TV but it was the worst possible game for me to play in. It was just a weird experience."
Joyce was a great story, and a cracking interview, but like Kavanagh, and Sherlock, there was some stuff that was left out. And like Kavanagh and Sherlock there was a reason. Kavanagh's life was much more interesting than his views on doping; Sherlock's life was much more interesting than his views on Gavin; and there was a lot more to Joyce than whether CJ Stander or Bundee Aki should be playing rugby for Ireland.
Which is not to say his views on the subject weren't interesting. . .
PK: We've had this fierce debate here about CJ Stander and Bundee Aki playing for Ireland and I've been wondering if it's just an Irish trait to get excited about it? I don't remember the French getting excited when they picked Scott Spedding, or much debate when it happens in England.
EJ: The Tuilagis and all that?
PK: Yeah, although I think Manu went there quite young.
PK: And it's obviously interesting with cricket and the path you've taken.
EJ: I think (in cricket) we've generally welcomed people.
PK: I'm against it.
EJ: Are you? Okay.
PK: I'm not sure it's the same as cricket — and you can tell me otherwise — but we've got kids who've grown up playing rugby here and what we're saying to them is: 'We want these better guys. It doesn't matter that they're Samoan or South African — we just want a better team.' Because it's a pro game and a better team generates money.
EJ: Do you really think that will affect kids growing up?
PK: I do.
EJ: Do you?
PK: And I think 99.9 per cent of Irish rugby internationals agree with me and are just terrified to say it.
EJ: You'd say they're against it?
PK: I'd say they're totally against it. Luke Fitzgerald said it (first) and got so much abuse that he ran for cover. He lost caps because of the New Zealander. . .
EJ: Jared Payne?
PK: Yeah. So is it not natural in that scenario that you would resent that?
EJ: Well, obviously it's difficult for me to debate this because I'm on the other side in terms of cricket and that. But I've never seen any effect on . . . the England cricket team is a good example. There's always a South African or an Aussie (on the team) — Dawid Malan at the moment, Geraint Jones and KP (Kevin Pietersen) in the past — and I've never seen it do anything other than attract people to the game if the team is doing well.
EJ: CJ Stander has come here to live. Clearly he is South African, not Irish, but he is making our team a better one and that's going to benefit everyone. Because I've seen it in cricket — if the team is doing better, it will benefit the sport in the long run; kids will want to play it; people will want to go and see it; sponsors will want to put money into it. And if a few people like Luke Fitzgerald fall by the wayside . . . well, I'm sorry for them, but they have to get better to get ahead of the other guy. That's my opinion, and it's harsh, but that's professional sport. The fault is with the rule not the player.
EJ: This three-year thing is an absolute farce. The four-year thing for me (he qualified for England after spending four years at Middlesex) was an absolute farce as well — I didn't have to do anything to achieve that. But if it's a long-term commitment like seven years which it is now in England, that's a tough decision. And that's the way it should be.
PK: I totally agree.
EJ: Maybe make it six for rugby because it's such a short career. But that would be a proper commitment.
PK: And it would take the mercenary aspect out of it.
EJ: Yeah. Because Bundee Aki had no intention of coming here and playing for Ireland, he came here to play for Connacht and it's certainly not his fault. He's come out and said: 'I'm not Irish. I'm not from here.' But he has been convinced by people from within the game. But I'd be surprised if 99 per cent (of his fellow internationals) were against it because that's not the way it is in cricket. No one in cricket begrudges the lads coming over — well, maybe one per cent of players — because it's just a fact of life.
EJ: If someone is better than me, they're better than me. No one can argue that CJ Stander and Bundee Aki aren't good rugby players.
PK: I'm not arguing that. And I don't have a problem with them playing for Munster and Connacht, but I do have a problem with them playing for Ireland. I mean, what are we? Who are we? Ireland or the fucking Barbarians? Because that's what it can become. We could have five on the team for the next World Cup!
EJ: And would you have a huge problem with that?
PK: I would have a problem with it.
EJ: Is the football team not the same?
PK: Because there's a connection — a parent or grandparent who was born here.
EJ: Not all of them.
PK: All of them.
PK: Well, I understand why you would say that but what's his mother's maiden name?
EJ: I don't know.
PK: Theresa O'Malley.
EJ: (laughs) Really?
PK: He grew up with an Irish grandfather and a sense of his Westport roots. So there was a connection there.
EJ: Do you think that matters?
PK: I think it does matter.
EJ: I just think it's so . . . tenuous. Okay, so you grow up in an Irish household but how do you measure that? It's impossible. I think you just have to accept that people travel and play but I don't like it. I'd prefer it was an (all) Ireland team.
PK: That's what I'm saying.
EJ: I'd prefer, I'm not against it.
PK: It's a good debate.
EJ: Yes, it is a good debate.
6 "Hey! Your money!"
Disaster is a dirty word in the sporting context but Ciara Mageean uses it herself, and with some justification. Everything about her race, her result, and the immediate aftermath clearly left her badly shaken and understandably so. It certainly wasn't pretty, or even close. Last to finish in her 1,500m heat killed all of Mageean's qualification hopes, and made for a worrying start for the Irish team at these World Athletics Championships.
The Irish Times
Twenty-one years have passed since my first interview with Pádraig Harrington. I've spent more time watching him, listening to him, and transcribing him than any other sport star, but every time I go back to him a sobering reality bites: 'I haven't even scratched this guy!'
In February, a week after following him to California for the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, I had this crazy idea to sit him down with Shane Lowry to talk about fame, money, and life on Sunset Boulevard . . . crazy because poor Shane hardly got a word in, and because the discussion inevitably turned to the usual suspect.
"Is the Harrington we see on the golf course the same person as the Harrington we meet off it?" I asked.
"I couldn't tell you the difference," Harrington replied.
"What would you say, Shane?"
Lowry paused and thought about it.
"Do I need to leave the room?" Harrington asked.
"No, I think he's pretty similar," Lowry said. "He's obviously. . ."
He paused again.
"I obviously do need to leave the room," Harrington laughed.
I spent a lot of time with golfers and golfing people this year: Rory at the Merrion — private room, no music — in January; Harrington and Lowry at a JW Marriott — private room, no music — in Santa Monica in February; Dermot Gilleece, Graeme McDowell, Dermot Byrne, Colin Byrne, Ronan Flood, JP Fitzgerald, Jude Reilly and Roddy Carr, for a two-part feature on the Irish at The Masters in April. And Paul McGinley — another all-time favourite — at the Irish Open in July.
The British Open was looming but it was time to take stock. How about going back to the Tour de France? What about the hurling championship? And the football? There's a great piece to be written about Stephen Cluxton? Or Cathal McCarron and Tyrone? And when is the last time you interviewed a woman?
I wasn't sure about Ciara Mageean. She was five years too young (I avoid people under 30), insisted that I clear the interview with her 'agent' and suggested we meet at a God-awful coffee shop — piped music, much noise — in Rathfarnham. She was also, horror of horrors, a runner, and I'd never met a runner who wasn't in denial about their dope-riven sport.
But this one was different.
"What can I do about it?" she said. "If I'm told I'm running against a girl that I strongly suspect is doped, what can I do about that? Absolutely nothing. So what I say to myself is this: 'I'm going to walk off this track knowing that I gave it everything out there'."
"Is that enough?" I asked.
"It has to be," she said. "I put a lot of trust in anti-doping. I believe they are going to catch the cheats — I have to. Okay, so the reality is that's not happening but I can't get bogged down with that. I can't do anything to change that. And I'm never going to cheat."
"There was this fella in Rathgar who cycled past me once and 20 quid fell out of his pocket. I picked it up and ran after him: 'Hey! Your money!' But he kept going — he must have thought I was insane. So I gave it to Jerry (her then coach, Jerry Kiernan) that night, and told him to give it to the Guide Dogs for the Blind."
You're laughing, right? I mean, you couldn't make it up. A 20 quid note! She tries to give it back! The fucking Guide Dogs for the Blind!
I had found a new hero.
Two weeks later, as she was lining up in the heats of the 1,500m at the World Athletic Championships in London, I was walking down Oxford Street after spending the day with Dan Martin. And though I'd rather scratch Newtownmountkennedy on my scrotum with a rusty nail than watch athletics on the BBC, I ducked into Selfridges (electrical department) to watch her race.
The performance didn't matter to me but it was tough to watch her upset. I reached for my phone and sent her a message: "To my hero from Samuel Beckett: 'Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'"