Sunday 25 February 2018

The greats aren't always that good

‘To contemplate his career was to be confronted with genius and darkness in equal measures. It did not make for comfortable viewing. It resisted easy analysis’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘To contemplate his career was to be confronted with genius and darkness in equal measures. It did not make for comfortable viewing. It resisted easy analysis’. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

There's a terrific short story by James Thurber entitled The Greatest Man In The World. A pilot named Jack Smurch becomes the biggest hero in the USA when he flies round the world in a tiny plane.

The only problem is that the authorities discover that young Smurch is an unsavoury character who has done time in a reformatory. Horrified to have such a role model for the youth of America, they solve the problem by pushing him out of a high window at the reception held in his honour.

Sports fans are a bit like that. They really want to believe that their heroes are good people. Perhaps Irish sports fans are particularly susceptible to this wish that top stars be as exemplary in their personal lives as they are on the pitch. That's why so many profiles include the information that their subject is not just an ordinary decent bloke but a kind of all-round paragon of honesty, niceness and modesty. Yet my own experience when conducting interviews seemed to show that among sportspeople, angels and assholes were distributed in the same proportion as they were among the general population. Some of them were very nice indeed. I'd put that in the piece. Some of them were far from it. I'd never mention that.

Of course you can't really judge someone on the evidence of a brief interview. To really know someone you'd probably need to live with them, or even be them. These are actual human beings we're talking about, not soap opera characters who can be easily judged because that's the way they've been scripted.

There's something a bit childish about our desire that a sports star be 'one of the good guys'. After all, possession of a special talent for a particular game is no guarantee of personal morality. Yet the delusion persists that to some extent every sporting contest is a tale with an edifying moral attached to the end of it.

Even when we come across a genuinely difficult and abrasive character such as, say, Roy Keane was in his heyday there's a tendency to try and pretend that, in the words of the old Wham song, "Sugar he don't mean the things he said." Hence the exaggerated focus these days on Keane's occasional forays into the world of comedy. We want to domesticate him, make him into a lovable guy you could have a chat with about DIY and barbecues over the garden wall.

Kieren Fallon could never be rendered either safe or lovable. Perhaps that's why we never really gave him his due. He certainly never got the kind of adulation you'd have expected to flow the way of one of the greatest ever exponents of one of the country's most popular sports. Look at the achievements. Six champion jockey titles, a total which only Lester Piggott and Pat Eddery have surpassed since the days of Gordon Richards. Four seasons with 200 or more winners, something which in the last 100 years has only been bettered by Richards. And there was quality to match quantity: 16 classic victories, a total not beaten since the retirement of Piggott.

The Fallon story is the stuff of fairytales. The son of a plasterer from a village in Clare, who never sat on a horse till he was a five stone 17-year-old, working his way up from obscurity and having to wait till the age of 32 for his first classic win (Eddery was 22 when he broke through, Lester was 18). And then, as if making up for lost time, utterly dominating his rivals, winning six out of seven titles between 1997 and 2003. Recovering from the serious arm injury which occurred half-way through the run and prevented him from making a clean sweep. Winning the Arlington Million, the Prix de L'Arc, the Irish Derby and the English 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas in 2005.

Yet, and there's no point pretending otherwise, he has never occupied the same kind of place in the public affections as Johnny Murtagh or Michael Kinane, undeniably great jockeys who all the same probably didn't achieve quite what Fallon did. He is not a name among the general public in the same way that AP and Ruby are. Sometimes he seems like the black sheep of the Irish sporting family, the equivalent of some character in a Tennessee Williams melodrama whose name must not be mentioned because of the memories it stirs up.

That's probably because while we talk sometimes about sportsmen 'flirting with the dark side', Fallon didn't do that. He preferred to go for a passionate embrace. Before making the big time he became notorious for the 1994 incident at Beverley when he pulled Stuart Webster off his horse. That cost him a six-month suspension. It wouldn't be his last.

Ahead of him were problems with drinking, a mysterious sacking from his dream job as stable jockey with Henry Cecil, the trial for race fixing which collapsed at the Old Bailey and the two bans for riding with cocaine in his system in France, which finally rang down the curtain on Fallon as a serious force in racing. Any one of these would have been enough to be going on with for one man, but the scrapes piled up with such alacrity it was hard to escape the impression that Fallon was at some level in love with trouble.

Talk of 'demons' and 'a self-destructive personality' can sometimes seem like a therapeutic cliché. But in Fallon's case they seemed to fit. To contemplate his career was to be confronted with genius and darkness in equal measures. It did not make for comfortable viewing. It resisted easy analysis.

Now that Fallon has called it a day, citing depression, there will perhaps be those who say, "Oh, that's what it was all about then." But that's far too simple. We're dealing with something a bit more knotty and difficult here. These days the airwaves are full of self-appointed experts on depression who take the sunny view that it's easily enough sorted out. A bit of public confession, a couple of months with a dubiously qualified life coach who tells you that "the songbird must learn to soar like the eagle", and Bob's your uncle. You'll be all the better for it and it'll give you something to talk about.

But there are people whose battle with depression goes on for decades and who have tried every remedy under the sun and find the problem intractable because depression is less a disease from which they suffer than a kind of darkness which is inextricably rooted in the very core of their person. It is not something that happens to them, it is something they are. As someone said to me, "When you hear someone saying they were glad they had depression, they must have got a fairly mild dose."

The great American poet Randall Jarrell, who had a harrowing time with depression, wrote that, "Pain comes from the darkness and we call it wisdom. It is pain." And I think it trivialises the story of Kieren Fallon to come up with the stock positive hot takes which usually attend the disclosure that a public figure is suffering from depression. If you really want to respect depression, its darkness and its difficulty must be respected too. It's not always, to use that awful American phrase, a 'teachable moment'.

The story of Kieren Fallon remains an uncomfortable one for many people. His National Hunt counterpart Tony McCoy has by this stage ascended to the status of secular saint. People look at AP, happy, hard working and conformist, and think that his represents the ideal life. But there are plenty of people who don't want that kind of life and Kieren Fallon is probably one of them. Hellraising and risk-taking can be a cry for help but they can also be very enjoyable as long as you're able for it and your luck doesn't run out. Whose biopic would you prefer to watch?

Fallon is one of the greatest Irish sportsmen of the past half-century and he is also one of the least likely to fill the role of model citizen. He resembles Miles Davis, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, and a man whose autobiography seems like one long blur of drugs, booze, womanising, grudges and arguments. Yet when Miles Davis played all you could hear was beauty. And when Kieren Fallon, another complex, flawed and difficult man, rode he too created something special, as if all that was good and steady in his soul was flowing out through his fingers and toes.

He might not have been good. But he was always great.

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