My father once broke his ankle in a West Cork caravan park, following an abortive attempt to show his kids how to perform the Johan Cruyff drag-back. He loved that great Dutch team and for Christmas one year, he gifted my older brother and I an orange football, a Johan Cruyff football. He swore to us that Wim Van Hanegem was one of our distant Dutch cousins, that Germans couldn’t be trusted after the great injustice of 1974 (never mind the wars), and that Shoot! was better for our sporting education than Roy of the Rovers. He was that kind of Dad.
Every Saturday night so long ago, he’d carefully lift us from our sleeping beds and place us sitting in front of the embers of the fire just in time for Match of the Day. A few judiciously-located lumps of coal later, the flames would re-ignite and the familiar theme tune, the soundtrack to so many of our childish dreams, kicked into gear. Then he’d slip into the kitchen, and make us sandwiches by cutting delicious slivers from the Sunday roast in the oven. No meat ever tasted quite as good as the contraband cuts consumed on those late-night vigils together. No televised football ever seemed so magical.
On Wednesday evenings in winter, he played darts with us in the small bedroom with the battered PYE radio tuned to the crackling signal of the European Cup soccer being broadcast on what he still quaintly called “the BBC Light Programme”. Between trips to the oche, he’d sit on the bottom bunk and regale us with a recurring tale of how his own promising arrows career had been stymied by an afternoon spent road bowling before a crucial fixture. Apparently, a few hours throwing the heavy iron ball along the winding back roads out by Cork airport wasn’t conducive to a man retaining his crucial feel for lightweight tungsten.
In summer, he hurled with us on the hard, wet sand of every beach we ever visited, beseeching his kids in vain to try to hit off our weaker sides, and always refusing my blasphemous request to substitute a tennis ball for the sliotar. Although there was no evidence he’d ever meaningfully held a hurley himself, a lack of experience never diminished his enthusiasm for any game and didn’t stop him serving as a hurling and football selector on several under-age county championship-winning teams with Bishopstown.
According to all available records, he’d never swung a golf club in anger either but, during the brief, annual spell around the British Open when we’d embrace that sport, he’d play putting games with us in the back garden for hours. Whether he played or whatever he played mattered not a jot because he evinced a love of every sport and evangelised about nearly all of them. Over the years, there was nothing funnier than his repeated and forlorn attempts to explain to my American wife the rules and the joys of English cricket, a game for which he’d developed a passion sometime after multi-channel television arrived in our house in the late 1980s.
The comfort of that armchair from where he sat sentry on the sporting universe never diminished his capacity for joining in with his kids though. His participation in our every sporting misadventure was never measured by the clock because he always seemed to have time to give. He was never too busy to attempt to coach or, just in passing, to communicate an enduring love of all things Cork.
Blessed with the native’s traditional mixture of confidence, expectation and parochialism, his loyalty to the place so trumped everything that in the early nineties, he broke the habit of a lifetime and began rooting for Manchester United. He’d worked as a security guard with Denis Irwin’s father Justin back when the peerless full-back was still in the youth team at Leeds United, and had religiously tracked his progress through the years. He could hardly cheer against him.
Some years back, after my father had just started the depressing journey deep into the fog of Alzheimer’s, I wrote a book about the history of Cork sport. I dedicated it to him because, through words and deeds, he’d spent all his life giving me access to that heritage. His version of the local gospel extended far beyond the holy trinity of Ringy, Jack Lynch and JBM, and like every man of his generation, there was a special affection for the famine-ending Cork hurlers of 1966 and the nearly mythical footballers of 1973.
Anyway, a couple of days after the book’s launch at which he had been an esteemed guest, he sat in his armchair in the front room with his own copy in hand. From time to time, he’d let out a little chuckle or a murmur of approval about some paragraph. Eventually, he caught me looking at him and said: “There’s some very good stories in this book. You can read it when I’m done.” One more horrible instance of a cruel disease at its most darkly humorous.
He finally passed away on the Monday morning before Christmas. During the dreaded flight home for the funeral, all those hours over the Atlantic darkness spent trying to remember everything we shared over the past 37 years, I realised how much sport courses through that personal highlight reel. It is everywhere.
From handing an impressionable young boy sports books like Mick O’Connell’s A Kerry Footballer and Val Dorgan’s Christy Ring to clipping my first Sunday Tribune bylines from the paper and laughing at the incongruity of his son covering All-Ireland League rugby matches. From dewy Sunday mornings before street league matches trying to teach an awkward 9 year old to put his toe under the ball before picking it off the ground to nights two decades later that I’d call him from some European city to chat about the international we’d both just watched. Like so many men and boys in Irish households, the sporting world was our enduring bond.
One May evening in 1998, I phoned home from the Amsterdam Arena shortly before kick-off in the Champions’ League final between Juventus and Real Madrid. I was standing in the press room just yards away from where Johan Cruyff was holding forth to a group of journalists. When I told him about my proximity to his hero, he sighed contentedly and said: “Oh, he was the best, the best of all time. None better.”
No, Dad, that was you.
(First published January 2009, two weeks after my father’s death.)