Monday 17 June 2019

Comment: Eamon Dunphy's formidable natural intelligence revolutionised football punditry

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

Pundit Eamon Dunphy waded in where his peers usually feared to tread.
Pundit Eamon Dunphy waded in where his peers usually feared to tread.

In 2013, the first volume of Eamon Dunphy's autobiography was published. Reading The Rocky Road was like re-discovering a man who had disappeared off the face of the earth many years earlier. Except he'd been a fixture in public life during those years. He hadn't disappeared at all. But a version of him had: the authentic, original voice that he'd first detonated into Irish living rooms during the early 1980s.

Somewhere down the line he ran out of righteous fury; he exhausted the creative contempt that had fuelled his electric output in newspapers and TV studios. Somewhere down the line he became his own karaoke singer. Somewhere down the line he took the money and turned his wrath into a performance. The organic outrage of his early years became a synthetic material that could be produced on demand and parlayed into repeating royalties, like a songwriter singing his classic hit long after he'd lost the emotion that inspired it.

This was not an instant development or a sudden binary dilemma, like a man facing a fork in the road and choosing one irrevocable path over another. For in that first incandescent phase there were already the contradictions and the burgeoning self-importance and the comical errors of judgement that would diminish his reputation. And in the later phase there were also spasms of pure clarity when he nailed the issue at hand and became compellingly relevant once more.

One wouldn't wish to judge him harshly for the direction he ultimately pursued. In the boxing game it is an eternal truth that every fighter only has a limited number of wars in him. Too many battering contests will take something away and it will never come back.

For 20 years and more, the bell rang and Dunphy got up off his stool. In the sportswriting line of work, any practitioner worth their salt will get blood on their jersey at some stage. They're not doing their job if they don't. We are surrounded by tribalism. Every team in every code has its rabid fanbase. If you say the hard word, the backlash will not be pleasant. In the perennial battle between the tribe and the truth, the tribe will devour the truth for breakfast, every single time. And in Ireland's claustrophobically parochial society, this very intimacy becomes itself censorious; it is just easier to say nothing and look the other way.

Dunphy waded in where his peers usually feared to tread. He took enough punishment for ten men. And in the end maybe he just had enough of it. If the flashpoints that punctuated his later years had the feel of exhibition bouts, he had the most tremendous courage when he was doing it for real.

And it was matched by a similar-sized talent in the English language. He'd left formal education at the age of 13. But Dunphy, man and boy, was an autodidact; books and newspapers were meat and drink to him. He read his way into writing, absorbing everyone from John Arlott, Henry Longhurst and Richie Benaud in the sports pages, to Bernard Levin, Kenneth Tynan, Norman Mailer, Hunter S Thompson and many more.

His diary of a season at Millwall FC, Only a Game?, was a dispatch from the underbelly of the professional game in England. The first revelatory account of a journeyman's career, it would become a classic of football literature. It was also the first unveiling of a persona that would become familiar to Irish citizens when he returned after 17 years in exile: the idealistic, sensitive, angry young man.

Sometimes sensitive people can be surpassingly vicious. At a time when Bob Geldof in his infamous 1977 appearance on The Late Late Show made it explosively clear that he couldn't wait to get the hell out of this shithole, Dunphy found himself mired back in it with a wife and two young kids, no money and no work. What he encountered was the same cronyism and gombeenism that in the 1950s had reduced his parents to penury, and to the verge of eviction from their one-room flat in Drumcondra. Journalism was a closed shop; the League of Ireland was pitiful; the FAI a two-bob farce; business squalid, politics loathsome. The financial insecurity that had hovered over his childhood, and that had followed him in the brutal football industry, was still haunting him as he sought to start a new life back at home in the freelance media game.

When he finally got his chance to cut loose in the pages of the Sunday Tribune and the Sunday Independent, there was a world of hurt to unload. This hurt perhaps was the atavistic source of a prose style that slashed and burned all round it. Friend and foe, the innocent and the venal, ended up scorched when he went on one of his rampages.

His verbal power on the page was converted into oratorical power in the much more lucrative world of television. If he revolutionised football punditry, it wasn't just because of his naïve, impulsive fearlessness. It was also because of a formidable natural intelligence, his free-ranging intellectual curiosity. The later incarnation of his persona did a disservice to this own brilliant mind. What had started out as a crusade ended up, as maybe all crusades do, in showbusiness.

Anyhow, it cannot be questioned that he did the state some service. In addition, he contributed mightily to the gaiety of the nation for a very long time. Last week, aged 72 and after 40 years, he packed in the RTÉ gig.

Once upon a time his mother looked at his budding TV career with a countrywoman's sceptical caution. She would scold him that there were "two Eamons", the private and the public. But everyone knows there was at least a baker's dozen.

When writing his book on U2, the publishers insisted on naming it after their 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. The Dunph had a fire that was fairly unforgettable too.

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