Friday 23 February 2018

A little love goes a long way to Sligo

Eamonn Sweeney

Shortly after half-five on Saturday afternoon of last week, as the Sligo Rovers faithful celebrated a first league title in 35 years by going collectively nuts, I walked away from The Showgrounds, got hold of a computer and did my best to write 800 reasonably objective words on the 3-2 victory over St Pat's for the next day's paper.

Then, the moment the piece was despatched through the ether to Talbot Street, I transformed myself from sportswriter to fan, a metamorphosis as fundamental as that which used to change Dr Bruce Banner, David if you were watching him on television, into The Incredible Hulk.

We all have one team which matters more to us than any other. For me that team is Sligo Rovers.

And we all have a fantasy about what would represent the ultimate achievement for that team. If you follow the Fermanagh or Wicklow football teams, it's a provincial title, if you follow Kerry it's probably four All-Irelands in a row or five in a row if you're a Kilkenny hurling supporter. People who follow Kilmacabea dream of a first ever West Cork junior football title, the most fervent partisans of Arsenal imagine finally breaking through in the Champions League.

My fantasy was to see Sligo Rovers win a League of Ireland title. And now that they've done it, the pressure is off to a certain extent. It's a bit like being a sceptically inclined religious believer to whom God appears and says, "Yes, I exist. Now get on with your life". The existence of paradise has been empirically proven.

If this sounds irrational, it's because something fundamentally irrational lies at the heart of every genuine sports fan. Which is why people who scoff at the idea that others should invest so much emotion and belief into men kicking a bag of wind around a field think right is on their side of the argument. But they're missing the point completely. Because we need more of the irrational. It's what gives life its spice, its kick.

The great thing about sport is that it provides moments which surprise us and cause us to react in ways which also surprise us. That's why being a fan is a bit like falling in love. When your team are playing and, especially, winning big matches, your emotions are heightened so that you experience the moment with an intensity you couldn't have predicted and can't control. You can see nothing wrong with the object of your desire, in fact you don't know why the whole world isn't besotted with them. The world shrinks to the relationship between you and them. You think constantly about the next time you're going to see them, you fret and exult in equal measures, you're obsessed. Sound familiar?

As you get a bit older, he writes ruefully, this kind of white hot infatuation is often replaced at a personal level by the love you feel for your kids. But the similarities with fandom are still there. It's as impossible for you to be detached about the achievements of your team as it is to be neutral about the achievements of your children. The most minor of their deeds, the most unremarkable of their quirks seem to you a thing of earth-shaking wonder.

I suspect that most readers of this column know what it's like to follow a team with this kind of passion. But if you've never felt that powerful surge of emotion you're missing out on perhaps the central point of sport. There are other compelling things about it to be sure, the element of aesthetic bliss, the cliffhanger suspense element, the lessons to be drawn from seeing triumph over adversity and grace under pressure. But the sense of individual and communal exaltation which comes from emotional involvement is perhaps the essence of the thing.

A famous classical conductor once said that listening to a recording of a symphony rather than hearing it live is like going to bed with a picture of a beautiful woman. Watching sport when you're not emotionally involved with one of the teams can be similar. Admiring Penelope Cruz on screen is an experience not to be sniffed at but waking up with a woman who, at that moment, you wouldn't swap for her is far better. So it goes with me vis-a-vis Barcelona and Sligo Rovers. You can, I'm sure, insert the name of your favourite team into that previous sentence.

Eamon Dunphy once poured scorn on journalists who he described as "fans with typewriters," the point being that their allegiance to the Irish soccer team damaged their objectivity. Fair enough, but I've always felt the phrase also contained a lordly curl of the lip at the notion of fandom itself. Perhaps there are journos out there who are able to observe everything with the same cold analytical eye. But unless you know what it's like to be a fan, to feel yourself emotionally bound up with the fortunes of one team, what comes out of your typewriter will ultimately be flawed because you're divorced from the experience at the heart of the matter.

One great thing about being a fan is that it teaches you the joys of enthusiasm. The man who fervently loves one team usually finds his affections overflowing in the direction of other sports too. It's like the way that when you're madly in love the world in general seems to be a better place. As we celebrated last Saturday, I chatted to people about old GAA matches, junior soccer games, Munster's narrow defeat earlier in the day.

Here was a lad talking about the Major League Baseball play-offs, there was a guy telling me about how he went to Wimbledon every year and queued up for Centre Court tickets. At our game in Turners Cross the previous week, a guy who mans the Showgrounds turnstiles told me what it was like to see Europe winning the Ryder Cup at first hand.

Only a handful of people think you show your love for one sport, or one league, by denigrating another. Most of us worship in a broader church. I'm never interested in someone telling me how much they hate golf or rugby or whatever. People are bores when they talk about what they hate but interesting when they talk about what they love. And the more you love, the more interesting you tend to be.

The great thing about being a passionate fan is that the experience is essentially benign. The few people who are assholes when it comes to sport are, I suspect, assholes about everything else too. Sport brings out the best in most of us. That's why one of the most enjoyable rituals of Irish life is the aftermatch chat, the gathering of enthusiasts I still find ceaselessly enjoyable. I'm always struck by the sheer natural decency of the people you meet on these occasions. And it's important to remember that decency because we're currently assailed by condescending commentators who think that 'Paddy' has something wrong with him.

'Paddy' is this, he's that, he's the laughing stock of Europe, he should cop on to himself going forward. But if you go by the people you meet at and after games, 'Paddy' is alright. Sport is a cure for cynicism. If commentators went to a few more matches and mingled with a few more fans they might leave 'Paddy' alone. They might stop calling him, or her, 'Paddy,' for starters. We're blessed with the supporters we have in this country. The supporters and the people.

While the last week has been wonderful for me, it isn't just Sligo that's suddenly felt like the centre of the universe. Right after the final whistle on Saturday, I got a message from a long-time reader of this column. He was delighted for me, he said, and on tenterhooks because the following day Ballybay were bidding to win their first Monaghan senior football title since 1987. I was delighted when Ballybay reached the promised land the next day. At the other end of the scale, the Detroit Tigers have reached the final of baseball's World Series where they'll bid for their first title since 1984 over the next fortnight. So their fans will be feeling like we were feeling in Sligo and Ballybay ten days ago. As will other fans in this country and elsewhere whose dreams are on the verge of being realised after they've followed their teams not just through thick and thin but, more often than not, thin and thin.

And if they do close the deal maybe they'll feel a bit like one 44-year-old who, despite the fact that he tells his 10-year-old daughter the autotuned R and B she's into is nothing like the good old pop music he loved back in the day, found himself at two in the morning hopping up and down to The Black Eyed Peas, insisting at the top of his voice that tonight was gonna be a good, good night. What can I say? I'm a fan.

It's the only way to be.

Sunday Indo Sport

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