Monday 19 March 2018

Comment: Fighting Irish? We're more like the cheating Irish

Let's be honest, sport mirrors society and ours is far from perfect

Cian O'Connor, Michael O'Reilly and Martin Fagan
Cian O'Connor, Michael O'Reilly and Martin Fagan

Eamonn Sweeney

Thirty or so years ago a youth soccer team managed by my father was playing a cup game in Sligo. It was a reasonably big deal because the winners got a trip to Galway for a Connacht semi-final. Early on we became aware that the other team had included a player who as far as we knew was overage.

The player's father was cheering him lustily on from the sideline so we went over and said, "We didn't know X was under 15." Your man stopped cheering. "That's not X," he said and walked out of the ground.

Anyway, we lost by a single goal, scored by X. The league told us we could do nothing as X's name wasn't actually on the referee's card. X went on to a long League of Ireland career and at the end of the season our club was wound up in disgust. What annoyed us most I think was that X's club had previously been awarded the league title after finishing second to a club who'd used an overage player, that subterfuge being detected when the lad was seen driving a tractor on the public road.

I think that was the same year I went to an under 12 county final where one guy stood head and shoulders above everyone else and got his team home by a couple of points. "That guy could play under 16," I said, which was perceptive of me because he also turned out to be overage. When that came to light and the losers on the day were awarded the cup, an irate letter from the cheating club to the Sligo Champion suggested it was very bad form of their rivals not to accept the result.

The point I'm making here is that, in this week of Michael O'Reilly's disgrace, it's worth remembering that cheating has always been part of Irish sport. How could things be otherwise? Sport mirrors society after all. And while there are many clichés about the Irish character, from the good (sociability, verbal dexterity) to the bad (a fondness for drink, a tendency towards sunburn) I don't think scrupulous honesty has ever been in there. This is a country where there are regular scandals involving charities. Charities, for God's sake.

Anyway. The overage player was a familiar figure in Irish sport. As was his adult counterpart, the Ringer, a man of high accomplishment brought in from outside to help a club to victory. So prevalent were these intruders at one stage in the GAA that any decent-sized club history is sure to include a few boardroom wrangles featuring objections, counter-objections, counter-objections to the counter-objections and so on. Sometimes you get the impression the clubs might have been knocking more fun out of the meetings than the matches.

You ended up with such anomalies as the fact that while Sligo have never played in an All-Ireland senior final, they have won an All-Ireland senior semi-final. Or the 1925 football championship which saw so many objections it's not entirely clear who won, or if there was even a final played. No-one was more treasured than the official who knew just how far the rules could be bent, something which survives to this day in the person of a well-known GAA figure who I shall not name on the grounds that libel is an expensive business. But you all know who I'm talking about.

This is not just a GAA problem of course. The League of Ireland has seen its share of sharp practice and perhaps pride of place here should go to Derry City whose policy of supplying the league with one set of contracts and their players with another seemed a dandy idea until they were caught and relegated a division a few years back.

In horse racing we had the Gay Future affair back in 1974 when the horse which won at Cartmel was a ringer, substituted for a poorly-performing doppelganger in a horse box on the side of a motorway. It earned a couple of the protagonists suspended prison sentences and the whole story was turned into a TV drama starring Pierce Brosnan and Niall Tóibín.

And just two years ago came the Yachvili scandal when owner Robert Martin and jockey Eddie O'Connell were suspended from racing after the horse was pulled up at Downpatrick following substantial bets on him to finish outside the places on Betfair. This produced the immortal line from one of the conspirators that she'd had a big bet because, "I used to know someone who lived in Yachvili." Yachvili, unfortunately for her, was a French rugby player.

The canine world has always been rife with rumours of doping and perhaps the signal case in this respect is the positive test returned by Kyle Calvin after his victory in the Irish Coursing Derby at Clonmel two years ago. The dog was trained by Michael Field who happens to be the former CEO of the Irish Greyhound Board.

O'Reilly's isn't the first Irish Olympic doping scandal either. Two games ago Denis Lynch was thrown out of the showjumping event before it even started when his horse Lantinus tested positive for an illegal substance. Three games ago Cian O'Connor lost the gold medal when he was found guilty of a similar offence.

In athletics there have been doping bans for Geraldine Hendricken, Cathal Lombard, Martin Fagan and Steven Colvert, whose defence was the magnificent, "science isn't infallible". And this isn't the first time an amateur boxer has been caught out either, another one of our most promising young boxers, Gary Sweeney, has already served a doping ban while a former national champion, Sean Turner, was suspended for a year for missing drugs tests.

Then there's one of the great legends of Irish sport, Sean Kelly whose career, though no-one wants to dwell on it, included positive drugs tests and a ban from the Olympics for riding under a false name in South Africa to circumvent an international ban. Accompanying him on his trip to the land of the Springbok was Pat McQuaid, later to become head of the UCI. It might come as cold comfort to O'Reilly but he's in good company.

I will leave with you with the immortal words of that moral paragon, the late Garret Fitzgerald. A few years back myself and the former Taoiseach were on Questions And Answers together. Some scandal, perhaps to do with planning, had blown up and I observed that there seemed to be quite a lot of it going on here. Afterwards Garret was furious. "There isn't any real corruption in Ireland," he said, for all the world like one of those journalists suggesting that doping is something which happens in other countries, "We're not Italians."

He was right you know. Italians have suntans and better suits.

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