The casual GAA fan’s manifesto

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I am the casual GAA fan and these are my rights, as laid out in the Treoir Oifiguil of the association. I have the right not to remain silent. I have the right to criticise players who’ve spent ten years of their lives preparing for any championship match I attend on summer Sundays when I’m not watching Formula One, tennis or golf. I have the right to call into question their commitment to training and the size of their hearts and testicles when under pressure. I’ve the right to ignore all the evidence that suggests they are the most hard-working generation of sportsmen the association has ever produced.

I have the right to wonder about the fitness of individuals who’ve been in the gym for the best part of a decade. I have the right to lambaste the stamina of men who’ve been running up hills for six months. I’ve the right to question the hunger of guys who’ve put their lives on hold to try to be good enough to play senior for the county. I’ve the right to speculate loudly in pub toilets about whether a player is too fond of the drink and the women and the publicity to be truly interested in the good of the county team. If the mood takes me, I’ve the right to bring this speculation to the message board Mujahideens to see what they think.

I have the right to question the ability of players whose names I didn’t even know until I read the dummy team named in the previous Thursday’s paper. I have the right to declare the manager is picking the wrong individuals even though I couldn’t name a single player who is better than those who are out there. I have the right to write off the manager as the puppet of the county board even though he hasn’t talked to the board secretary in years. I have the right to denounce the manager as somebody who knows nothing even if he’s been coaching teams to all sorts of success for the past decade. If he’s an outsider, I have the right to accuse the manager of only being in it for the money/expenses.

I have the right to wonder why somebody was picked for the championship on league form even though I was  too busy watching the Premier League all winter to ever get to a league game myself. I have the right to wonder why somebody was picked following good displays for their club because I haven’t seen a club match in donkey’s years and I’d struggle to name the last three county champions. I have the right to come up with all manner of ludicrous conspiracy theories about why the selectors are picking certain individuals and favouring certain clubs even though there is no actual evidence to support any of these views.

I have the right to make definitive pronouncements about controversial incidents that took place a hundred yards from where I was sitting or standing during the game. I have the right to indict players for making mistakes even though I watched the game after a few pints so my judgment and view might have been clouded a bit by the alcohol. No matter. I have the right to declare a player spineless or cowardly or vicious or all of the above because I half-saw something he was involved in down in the far corner, at least I think it was him.

I have the right to moan about the quality of my tickets for the match even though this is the first time I’ve seen the county play since last summer’s big day out. I have the right to declare I will not be going to the back-door qualifier matches because those games aren’t the real championship – sure they’re not even on the telly most of the time. I have the right to reserve the right to get back interested if the team emerges from those qualifiers and reaches an All-Ireland quarter-final or better. Indeed, I also have the right then to complain if I have to make more than one phone call to a corporate contact seeking out tickets for the final.

I have the right to leave the match early if my team is losing so we can get back to the pub to watch the golf/tennis on the television, or to beat the traffic. I have the right to spend the journey home complaining that the players of today don’t care as much about the shirt as the players of the past. I have the right to put all our troubles down to having too many city players on the team if I’m from the country. I have the right to put all our troubles down to having too many country players on the team if I’m from the city.

I have the right to loudly declare there’s nothing coming through from under-age even though I missed the minor match because I was sleeping off a hangover from last night. I have the right to ask what in God’s name they are teaching the young players even though I haven’t seen an under-age or a schools match since I played in one. I have the right to slam the “modern” training methods being used even though I haven’t attended a county training session since I was a kid.

I have the right to do all this while skulling pints and quaffing bags of chips before and after the game. I have the right to do all this while wondering why I stopped playing altogether at 16 when the training got a little tough and began to interfere with my studying/teenage drinking/socialising. I have the right to do all this while carrying around a pregnant beer belly that stretches every fibre of the O’Neill’s jersey as it struggles to cover the vast expanse of my flesh. I have the right to do all this because I am the casual GAA fan in high summer and these are my games.

Three lions on his shirt and his father’s heart just breaking

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A few weeks back, my ten year old son Abe was talking about his new obsession, a pair of Argentine footballers named Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez. Seizing on his interest in this pair, I mentioned that we might go and buy him the famous blue and white striped jersey they’ll be wearing at the World Cup. Like every other parent on the make, I figured I could use this as a carrot to dangle in front of him to get him to behave for a couple of weeks. How wrong I was.

“Why would I want an Argentina shirt?” he asked.

“To cheer for them at the World Cup.” I replied.

“I won’t be cheering for Argentina, I’m for England. That’s the shirt I want, an England shirt.’

I didn’t have a reply for that. I was too taken aback. The modern father is prepared for all eventualities when it comes to parenting but there was nothing in the manual about what to do if your kid wants to root for England at a major tournament.  At least not in the Irish edition.

“Eh, you can’t really, eh, cheer for them,” I stuttered.

“Why not?”

“Eh…eh,” I struggled to offer a coherent reason and he filled the silence by babbling.

“I love the Premier League. (Wayne) Rooney and (Steven) Gerrard are my favourite players. I like (Frank) Lampard too. Of course I’m going to cheer for them when they’re playing for England. What’s the big deal?”

Out of the mouths of babes. What is the big deal? With one question, the child had captured the quadrennial conundrum. Where is the rule that says he can’t support England at the World Cup? Why am I so shocked that he wants to? And how do I explain the way we as a nation lose all sense of propriety and perspective when it comes to a team with the instantly-recognisable crest of three lions over their hearts.

All across Ireland in the next couple of weeks, grown men who spend small fortunes every year flying to Old Trafford will spend hours baying at television screens and cursing the same Rooney they worship as a god at all other times. Supposedly mature adults who have lived and died with Liverpool for decades will laugh every time a Gerrard screamer goes flying over rather than under the bar. Children with Lampard posters on their bedroom walls and his name emblazoned across the back of their Chelsea shirts will be punching the air every time he fluffs a shooting chance.

I’ve participated in this age-old ritual myself of course. I watched England lose to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final in a flat in South London. By the time the penalty shoot-out had ended, my uncle Finny and I were dancing around the living room with a glee that probably surpassed any emotions we’ve ever felt watching Ireland. Fortified by beer and now of course spared the possibility of the English winning the tournament, we went to the pub down the street to savour the atmosphere of loss and to (secretly) enjoy the mourning of the locals.

Those would be the very same locals who’d cheered heartily for Ireland during the famous victory over Romania and noble defeat by Italy earlier in that same tournament. These Londoners were capable of wanting us to do well. We were capable only of learning the true meaning of the word schadenfreude. Is it too glib to say, as many do, there are 800 years of reasons why?

Well, there are plenty other justifications available too. Listen closely over the coming month and you’ll hear variations on the theme that the English are too full of themselves, hype up their players to a ridiculous extent, and over-react when things go wrong. All of this is true and all of it can be applied to Ireland in equal measure. We are the nation who called a row between a manager and a player the country’s “second civil war”, wanted the rules of the game rewritten because a referee didn’t see a handball, and constantly think our own stars are a whole lot more talented than they actually are.

We see this in the English but not in ourselves. We profess to dislike their team yet we absorb their football culture as our own and ape so much of it that some of our fans sing songs in mockney accents. There are few sounds as disturbing in the world game than a group of Irish supporters, fully paid-up members of Jackie’s/Giovanni’s Army, belting out terrace chants in perfect Mancunian tones. This is not an urban myth. I’ve witnessed it all over Europe and indeed it’s not unheard of at League of Ireland grounds either.

All of this is wonderfully schizophrenic. So much so that by this juncture, some academic should really have tried to write a thesis on post-colonial hangovers and sporting hatreds. We suspect nobody has because it’s too difficult to explain the way a nation goes from so lustily cheering to jeering the exact same footballers in a matter of weeks every four years. How could anyone figure out a people who measure out their lives in Premier League fixtures yet go rabid at the sight of a white Umbro shirt? For a long time, the antipathy was such that the England jersey itself was an item of contraband in Ireland.

In the late 1990s, an RTE magazine show ran an item in which the journalist Paul Howard (before he mutated into Ross O’Carroll Kelly) spent a day trawling the sports shops of Dublin in search of the chance to purchase this elusive garment. At a time when it was possible to source the most obscure jerseys from Africa and Eastern Europe, the distinctive white of our nearest neighbours was impossible to find. No outlet deigned to even carry them. Why would they stock something for which there was no apparent market? Well, nearly ten years later, I found a couple of places in Cork hanging the three lions with pride. Have we matured enough to be able to regard this as just another shirt? Or are they catering for the increasing number of English ex-pats working in Ireland?

These questions will only be really answered in the affirmative if individuals wearing these shirts are allowed to watch games in bars unmolested over the next couple of weeks. Judging by the number of articles written in Irish papers lately about how hoping England fail spectacularly is as much a part of the World Cup tradition as expecting Brazil to do well and Eamon Dunphy to exaggerate, I doubt that will be the case.

My poor son then comes to this strange business from his own peculiar angle. Apart from possessing the innocence of every ten year old, there is his upbringing. Abe was born in Holles Street Hospital, Dublin but moved to New York at four months old. He’s American enough to be able to recite the pledge of allegiance by heart and to have a stars and stripes flag pinned to the wall of his bedroom. He’s Irish enough that I fear one of these years he’s going to come home from college with an ugly “Fighting Irish” leprechaun tattoo on his arm like so many other misguided children of the diaspora.

Yet next Saturday, he will be sporting white and cheering for England over his own United States (the outfit I will, as a grateful immigrant and not at all, at all, ahem, as an anti-John Bull fan, be shouting for) in the opening game of Group C of the World Cup. “Because I prefer their players,” he answers coolly when I seek some sort of reasoning for this traitorous behaviour against his homeland. Meanwhile, I have a theory of my own for his desire to watch that game wearing the England rather than the American shirt.

In the sporting half of his wardrobe (which is the entire thing), aside from a raft of Cork county jerseys, there are the colours of Barcelona, the Green Bay Packers, Cork City, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Liverpool, France (a pre-Thierry Henry gift from his aunt in Paris), the New York Knicks, Manchester United, New Zealand, and of course, Ireland (rugby and soccer). This is a child of ecumenical tastes who thinks nothing of wearing Liverpool to school one day, and Manchester United the next. He supports whoever he wants whenever he wants. England contain more of the stars he watches every week and mimics on FIFA 10 each day than any of the other countries in South Africa so with perfect ten year old logic, he’s for the side boasting most of his heroes.

Maybe he’s better off unencumbered by the weight of history forced upon most Irish fans from an early age. Some kids aren’t that lucky. I have two friends who moved to England in the early nineties. They married local girls, and made good, prosperous lives for themselves there.  Both  have beautiful children who speak with the wonderful Received Pronounciation accent of the BBC World Service. Where these men differ though is in their approach to the national team of the country that has been so kind to them both. One cheers for England, along with his English son, and even has an England shirt he wears playing five-a-side games.

The other rabidly roots against them, revells in every defeat, and constantly explains to his boy that he’s not actually English, he’s a “Plastic Paddy”, the affectionate expatriate term for kids born to Irish parents in Britain. This may seem like odd behaviour but, in the context of our approach to the English team, it is par for the course. It is perhaps no more or less bizarre than the minority of England’s travelling hordes who still think singing “No Surrender to the IRA” is an integral part of supporting their squad.

A week or so after I broke the news to family in Ireland about my son’s, ahem, new allegiance, and his overwhelming desire to win his first cap for England at this World Cup, the child broke his elbow on a trampoline. When I emailed my brother in Cork the news of what had happened his nephew and godson, he replied rather succinctly: “Good enough of the Tan bastard.”

If you don’t know what he meant by that, you’ll never quite understand the whole Ireland-England thing.

 

 

 

 

 

(This piece first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in May, 2010)

What we talk about when we talk about losing

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It’s that time of year. The championship has begun and before it ends, almost every  county (even the eventual winners) may have tasted defeat at least once. These reversals will prompt post-mortems that are as much a part of summer’s ritual as Kilkenny lifting Liam McCarthy and the Dublin footballers being annoyingly overhyped. These sporting autopsies are conducted in a peculiar dialect, the completely irrational, often illogical, always entertaining language of defeat. Here then a list of things you’ll say and hear over the coming months.

I told you coming in we were useless. Back-door my arse. The forwards were cat. The backs were brutal. Number four was a complete scut. He was at it all day. What were the umpires doing? He no more played the ball there.  That fella is no good in around the square, never was. Did they do any shooting at all in training or was it all running up and down hills?  They’d want to stay out of the gym for a day and stand in front of a set of goalposts. Well, we know now what they were doing out in La Manga, bloody chancers.

We lost it on the line.  They were like deer trapped in the headlights. If he took off that baseball cap he might be able to see what was in front of him. The writing was on the wall after 10 minutes. Your man hasn’t a clue what to do. I don’t know how much they’re paying that manager but he’d want to give it back. I told you he’d take off a corner-forward first. I couldn’t believe he brought on that other joker from out the road.

The best players we have aren’t even in the squad. I heard there’s a centre-fielder down west better than any of that lot but he wouldn’t do the training. Didn’t I tell you the league was worthless?  He had him beat all ends up. He didn’t know whether he was coming or going. It was definitely a free. That was no more a free. How did he stay on the field? That’ll be one for the Sunday Game boys. That shower on the Sunday Game will be all over that tonight. 

That ref never gave us nothing. He was playing for the draw.. You could see he was looking to give a free. What would a ref from a football county know about hurling? He could have given your man the line in the first minute. He might as well have put a saddle on our backs and rode us around the field.

If I ever see that bowsie wearing the jersey again, it’ll be too soon. The jerseys are catmalojeon. That fella has a yellow streak that wide down his back. The puck-outs? Don’t talk to me about the puck-outs! When number 12 put the sideline ball over I knew that was it.  That cute hoor in the corner is still killing us after all these years. That other joker was brutal. All those endorsements turned his head, you know. Sure his picture is never out of the paper. We’re wasting our time with the likes of him. What about the other langer they brought on with the yellow boots? He shouldn’t be allowed near the team ever again.

That fella was a great minor I don’t know what happened to him. He was a great minor till he discovered the drink and the women. They’d want to be testing that number 7 for a touch of the ould Lances, he covered some ground. Did you see your man play a ball all day long? They’d want to abandon that ould short passing lark. That kind of football is like a cross between rugby league and basketball. Half of our lot can’t kick the ball straight.

What happened to that handy corner-forward from last year, you know your man? Do you mean the fella with both feet? There’s murder in the camp and you could see it too. No spirit at all. Did you ever see any carry-on like that warm-up? I knew we were bate when I saw the cones coming out. Our boys were knackered before a ball was pucked, they were panting during the parade.

He’s not even related to a hurler. That poor young fella had no business at all out there today. He couldn’t get out of his own way. They were first to every ball. They were hungrier. They were better. They were fitter.

Some of our lot didn’t try a leg. He hurled him up a stick. He couldn’t catch a cold. Twas waving at the ball he was not trying to catch it. We missed terrible scores. I’d have put over some of those frees myself. The drink ban did them no good at all. All that weightlifting and they couldn’t throw a shape in the last ten minutes. Why did your man go off? He didn’t fancy it did he? The first slap he got, he wanted out. I knew his father, he was the same.

We’ll be down for years. We’re going nowhere until they get rid of the manager. The selectors are only yes men. We’re going nowhere until they get rid of the board. They are only interested in football. They should put out the minors for the rest of the year. They’d be better. They couldn’t be worse.

I knew we were banjaxed when I heard he brought in a sports psychologist, always a bad sign.  In all my years coming up here, I’ve never seen worse. We’ll be down for years and years. There’s nothing coming through. If that’s the best we have, things are bad.  There’s no one in there in the middle breaking timber. There’s no one in there giving out a few slaps. That’s all we’re missing, well, that and a couple of scoring forwards, a full-back, a centre-back and two centre-fielders.

Is it too late to try Coppers’, some of the team might be in there?

The troubling case of Mike Ashley and the GAA

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More than three years have passed since the BBC broadcast an investigation into the work practices of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct company in the Far East. Amongst other things, the programme showed employees in a factory in Laos working in especially oppressive conditions, earning 1 pound (English) per day for a 12-hour shift. In sapping heat, the employees were often folding and bagging clothes in areas with no air-conditioning. There was one air-conditioner in the building but it was being used to cool down the sewing machine rather than the workers. A telling image.

Even if it’s all too typical to hear these types of stories in the clothing business (witness Penneys’ link to the building collapse in Bangladesh which killed hundreds earlier this week), the Sports Direct case was especially disturbing. Firstly, the owner of the factory openly admitted to reporters that the facility did not conform to the internationally-accepted SA8000 standard. That is a regulation which guarantees no child labour is used  on the premises, and that workers are paid properly and not exploited. In effect, it is an attempt to ensure that people sewing shirts and boots in third world countries for pittances are given something approaching their basic human rights.

Today, Sports Direct has a big blurb on its website proclaiming its interest in fair and ethical trade but back then its only response to the documentary was to declare it “inaccurate and misleading”. Perhaps Sports Direct changed their ways following the BBC’s embarrassing look into their affairs. Maybe they stopped using the factory involved, especially as the cameras caught workers putting on the “70 per cent off” stickers before the goods had even left the production line, proving that not all reductions in shops are what they seem to be.

Whatever happened, we do know that the investigation by “Inside Out: North East and Cumbria” made a lot of Newcastle fans uneasy about the fact their club owner was involved in such an unseemly and seedy business.

“Mike Ashley’s business methods outside of Newcastle United bring into question his ownership of the club,” wrote one irate Newcastle fan. “Sports Direct are believed to have employed labour that does not match international regulations or ethical standards. Whereas companies such as Nike list their suppliers publicly, Sports Direct do not. The reasons why are clear, those employed by Sports Direct have no respect for the international law that ensures minimum standards on labour, wages and conditions are met. He (Ashley) was able to personally make just short of £1 billion in one day when he floated Sports Direct, of which we are convinced none made its way back to his workers in Laos.”

All of this matters only because the GAA and GPA recently got into bed with Sports Direct via the launch of the website Gaelicboots.com.

 “I welcome this joint initiative which is a further indication of the ongoing co-operation between the GAA and the GPA,” said GAA President Liam Ó Néill. “In addition to establishing another joint venture between the two organisations gaelicboots.com will also provide players of all ages and grades with access to the best playing equipment. It will also see tangible benefits in the area of player welfare.”

Purporting to be a vehicle that will allow GAA players big and small to access cheaper footwear, the company is headquartered out of Waterford. That’s all well and good. Except, John Fogarty reported in The Examiner recently that “the directors named in company registration documents are David Forsey, chief executive of Sports Direct International PLC, and Barry Leach, head of brands division at the retailer.”

Most of the ensuing brouhaha surrounding the English company’s foray into Irish affairs has centred around its potential negative impact on shoe stores and sports shops. Jarlath Burns first raised this issue on Twitter and Mayo’s Donal Vaughan, who manages shoe shops in Ballinrobe, weighed in with some public comments of his own last week. Both mentioned how any perceived savings customers will make when they buy online are false economies. For example, where will Sports Direct be when the local club needs to tap somebody up for a bit of sponsorship, the kind local shops have always provided so generously?

If that’s a good question, there’s something else to consider too. Is this the type of corporation that the GAA and GPA want to be partnering up with? Just recently it emerged that a share issue was going to yield tens of thousands of pounds to many Sports Direct employees across Britain. A genuinely feel-good story in a tough economic climate, there was one minor problem. This windfall concerned a tiny minority of workers. Many of those who have worked for Ashley’s outfit testify that the conditions were rough (no toilet breaks during a five-hour shift, no training etc). Sports Direct is a big name and getting bigger but they aren’t known for how well they treat workers.

Sifting through the Sports Direct manifesto, they do make a point of mentioning their charitable donations to sport. Indeed, they list the contributions they have made to the different codes through the various brands they own. Slazenger gave equipment worth £250,000  to a programme designed to bring through the next generation of British cricketers. Dunlop gave (pounds)15000 to a similar golf scheme while Everlast donated $20,000 to the Golden Gloves in New York, and another $14,000 to trainer Teddy Atlas’s foundation. All worthy initiatives.

It may seem churlish to slam anybody who gives stuff for free with the intent of promoting kids playing sport then but there’s something else to ponder here. In the nine weeks up to March 31st, Sports Direct sales rose by 14.3pc to £317.4m while gross profits rose 22.7pc to £129m. Those are the type of astronomical numbers that put the company’s charitable impulses in a rather paltry perspective. Gaelicboots.com may save people money in the short run and may make a few bob for the association but ultimately, the GAA could be losing something far more important here.

 

 

 

 

(first published in the Evening Echo, May 3rd, 2013)



How Alex Ferguson learned his Irish

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On May 19, 1997, the Monday morning after Eric Cantona’s shock retirement from the game had been announced, Alex Ferguson flew into Belfast accompanied by a small media army. Although Old Trafford was still reeling from the departure of its French talisman, the Manchester United manager had more pressing business at hand. David Gillen, a member of the Carryduff branch of the United supporters’ club, needed a new motorised wheelchair buying, and Fergusonwas anxious to do his bit to help.

A few months earlier, Fergusonhad committed himself to attending a day of fund-raising events organised by the Carryduff faithful, and even the sudden exodus of his most influential player wasn’t going to impinge on that. During the day, he spoke at a sportsmen’s lunch, ferried the Premier League trophy along to a street party, and attended a dinner. If the media were shocked by Ferguson’ssense of duty, nobody at Carryduff would have expected any less. No Manchester United fan in Ireland would have either. More than anybody, Ferguson understood the country and its outsized and historic relationship with the club.

Who else but Ferguson could sit down to be interviewed about Denis Irwin and answer one question by delving into the traditional geographic rivalry between the northside and the southside of Cork city? “Denis says Roy is from the rough part of Cork, and Roy says Denis is from the rough part of Cork,” said Ferguson. “I don’t know exactly who to believe here, but there is obviously a little bit of competition in the parts of Cork they come from.”

Listening to him discuss the merits of Keane’s Mayfield and Irwin’s Togher, it was difficult to fathom there was once a time Irish fans worried about Ferguson. In the years after the departures in quick succession of Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside, before the arrival of the Cork duo, a bizarre legend grew up that Ferguson had something against the Irish. Ignoring the obvious fact that Whiteside was a Protestant from east Belfast, the ludicrous notion was predicated on Ferguson’s perceived anti-Catholicism.

In its way, this was as misguided and wrong-headed as the belief in a different time that Matt Busby’s faith caused him to discriminate in favour of the Catholics in his charge. The reality was Ferguson was interested in players who could help his club move forward and improve, regardless of nationality or creed. In this respect, Keane had been on his radar from September, 1990. Making his first appearance for Nottingham Forest against United, his first act was to go in hard on Bryan Robson. “He absolutely cemented him!” said Ferguson, relish in his voice as he recalled the moment he glimpsed his future captain..

Regardless of the bad blood that apparently exists between them now, it’s not an exaggeration to say that with Keane, Ferguson changed the course of Irish sporting history during that brief moment in the summer of 1993 when Keane had agreed to sign for Blackburn Rovers. Once news of this reached Old Trafford, however, Ferguson had the then hottest property in the English game round to his house for a game of snooker during which he persuaded him to change his mind and to sign for lesser money.

Would Keane have developed into the greatest Irish player in Premier League history under Kenny Dalglish at Ewood Park? Would United have been quite the same without him? All we know for sure is Ferguson was crucial to moulding and shaping this character on and off the field over the ensuing decade, Imagine how Ireland and United would have suffered if he hadn’t.

Then there was Irwin. One morning in April, 2001, shortly after the Premiership title had been secured, Ferguson sat down to talk about him. For close to half an hour, he waxed as lyrical as one would expect about the player and the man. When the cameras were finally turned off, Ferguson lingered in his chair.

“What exactly is this for again?” the Manchester United manager asked.

“It’s a documentary about Denis’s career for RTE,” I said.

“It’s about bloody time ye did one,” he replied.

There was a pause, and to fill the silence somebody in the crew asked whether the latest league medal made Irwin then the most decorated Irishman ever in English football. That was the only prompting Ferguson needed. A fuse had been lit. Using the fingers on both hands, he began counting out the trophies with the passion of a schoolboy leafing through a deck of old Top Trumps’ cards in search of comforting stats. Listening to him reel off all those league and cup victories he had enjoyed with Irwin was to glimpse the raw desire that fuelled so much of what he achieved.

Three times in four years, I was part of RTE productions asking Ferguson to be interviewed for documentaries we were making. Two of the requests centred on Keane and Irwin. Of course, he was up for those. Perhaps more impressive though was his response when we called, requesting him to go on camera for something we were making about Paul McGrath. Even though McGrath was one of the few who prospered after Ferguson deemed him past it, he was still generous enough to go on camera to explain why he got rid of him and to praise how well he’d done since.

If that was a gesture that spoke volumes, we kind of expected as much. Over four years at Old Trafford, Brian Carey, another Corkman, became captain of the reserves at a time when Fergie’s Fledglings were starting to cut their teeth. With the first team proving a bridge too far, Carey moved down a division to Leicester City in 1993, and a year later, he played centre-half on the team that defeated Derby County in the play-offs at Wembley to gain promotion to the Premier League. Not long after that triumph, Carey received a letter from Alex Ferguson, a missive in which the United manager told him how proud he was of his performance and how he would go on to have a fine career in the game.

Another small yet wonderful cameo. So many players have trundled in and out the doors at Old Trafford over the past 26 years, and Carey is a name probably only remembered by the anoraks who trek along to reserve fixtures to spot rising talents before they make it to the show. But Ferguson remembered his part in shepherding along some of the brightest stars of their generation, and he took time out to write that note of appreciation. Even now, years later when their paths cross in and around the game, Ferguson will put his arm around  Carey and introduce him to people as “one of my boys”. A story that says something about the man.

Goodnight Paul Scholes (again)

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In the spring of 2003, word supposedly reached the Real Madrid dressing-room that the rumours of a new signing from Manchester United were much more than just newspaper talk. Zinedine Zidane and the rest of them began to speculate about the identity of the player who would move from Old Traffod to the Bernabeau and immediately concluded it had to be Paul Scholes. Who else from United could possibly improve their team? Anyway, once they’d settled on the fact it was going to be Scholes, they were thrilled, imagining what an extra dimension he’d bring to their midfield and passing.

While there are no reports on how the Galaticos reacted upon finding out who was actually coming to join them, this tale meant it wasn’t surprising that at the final whistle in Wembley Stadium last Saturday night, no less than five Barcelona players made their way to Scholes in the hope of swapping shirts with him. Maybe two or three years past his prime, he still enjoyed a status that the very best from the very best team of our time sought out a little memento of his greatness. His retirement is overdue but still sad because it robs those of us with children of the opportunity to show them a player who played the right way on and off the field.

This was never the type you’d have to use the word super-injunction around. Perhaps nothing sums up the magic of Scholes more than the simple acknowledgement you could hate Manchester United yet still love the way he played. Yes, we know he never learned to tackle and often wondered why Ferguson didn’t just ban him from even trying. There were so many other gifts to admire though, the willingness to pass, the range of passing, and always, always, the sheer unselfishness of his game. The best part was that Scholes in the twilight of his career was still playing exactly as he’d been taught as a kid at United.

Eric Harrison, the youth team supremo who oversaw the emergence of Scholes and the rest of what will be acknowledged as United’s greatest generation, tells a story in Jim White’s fine book “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids” of a training routine he borrowed from a road safety television commercial. He got the young players to do a passing drill with one stipulation. Before the ball came to them, they had to glance left and glance right to see their options. Simple yet beautiful. A bit like Scholes’ style. Right to the end, this was how he approached his task, scanning the field before the ball arrived then moving it on with purpose. A perfect lesson for children involved in the sport.

The teaching opportunities don’t end there. Scholes lacked pace but compensated for this deficiency by simply thinking faster. You can’t teach pace to a kid who doesn’t have it. However, you can coach them in how to think faster and anticipate better. In this, as in so many other ways, Scholes can be held up as an example to every young player.

Many great players have worn the shirt of Manchester United,” said Bobby Charlton during the build-up to Scholes’ last league game a couple of weeks back. “Players I worshipped then lost with my youth in Munich. Players like Denis Law and George Best who I enjoyed so much as team-mates and now, finally, players I have watched closely in the Alex Ferguson era. And in so many ways Scholes is my favourite.”

You could see why somebody like Charlton found much to love in Scholes. In an era when so many of his peers became distracted by celebrity and obsessed with the material gains available to them as footballers, he remained grounded. Eschewing the movie premieres or the nightclubs or the commercial endorsements, he could be found instead bringing his son to Boundary Park to watch his beloved Oldham Athletic. Never mind that he’d amassed so much wealth playing for United that he could have bought the lower league club, his idea of a night out was a midweek game in a ground that looks exactly like it must have done when his father brought him there during his childhood.

That he’s retired to a behind the scenes coaching role at Carrington is exactly what we would have expected. Not for him travelling around the world trying to wring a last few bob out of his talent like Nicky Butt or David Beckham. It’s difficult to imagine Scholes telling any club he was missing a competitive match in order to attend a testimonial 6000 miles away as Beckham quite ridiculously informed the Los Angeles Galaxy the other week. Indeed, the only team Scholes ever refused to play for when they needed him was England and therein lies another indictment of the English game.

For years, Scholes was either picked out of position or not picked at all as successive England managers opted for media darlings in midfield ahead of him. Eventually growing tired of this and the time he was spending away from his family (this is one instance when that excuse rings true), he opted out of international football seven years ago. It was only when he was gone that it suddenly dawned on pundits how England could really do with a slick-passing midfielder who could hold onto the ball. By then, it was too late and they were stuck with athletic (which really means runs around a lot without achieving much) Gareth Barry and the like.

When they tried to coax him back for last summer’s World Cup, Fabio Capello finally, belatedly realising this sort of player was severely lacking in his side, Scholes couldn’t oblige. Why? He had previously committed to do so some coaching at a children’s soccer camp in Florida that is run by one of his friends. From anybody else that excuse would have been regarded as trite or treasonous. From Scholes, it was typical. He wouldn’t let a pal down just like he never let his team-mates or himself down. One for the ages.

 

(This first appeared after Scholes retired in 2011)

The day Noel Cantwell captained United to the FA Cup

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A famous photograph shows Noel Cantwell casually tossing the FA Cup above his head at Wembley in 1963. He had just led Manchester United to a 3-1 victory over Leicester City. His teammates Bobby Charlton, Tony Dunne, David Herd and Albert Quixall appear visibly stunned. They are staring wide-eyed at their captain flinging about what was then one of the most revered trophies in English football. Moments after the snap was taken, Cantwell got a tap on the shoulder from a stadium commissionaire reprimanding him for his cavalier treatment of the precious silverware.

“Don’t worry,” replied Cantwell. “I knew I would be able to catch it, I play cricket for Ireland.”

That sort of self-confidence was one reason Matt Busby appointed him captain almost as soon as he signed from West Ham United in 1960. The side he led out at Wembley fifty years ago included Charlton, Paddy Crerand, Johnny Giles, Denis Law, Dunne and Bill Foulkes. Nobody doubted he was equal to the task of leading them. At Upton Park, he’d practically been manager Ted Fenton’s first lieutenant for years, once famously advising him to give an untried 17-year-old called Bobby Moore his debut.

Cantwell was the first Cork soccer player to write an autobiography, United We Stand, the only manager to take Coventry City into Europe, and an Irish international batsman once bowled by Garfield Sobers. According to legend, he was in the nets at Cork County Cricket Club in The Mardyke when a messenger from Cork Athletic was dispatched to offer him his first professional break. Athletic, for whom his older brother Frank played, were a man short for a Shield game against Waterford United and Cantwell’s proximity earned him his debut.

Fenton later paid £750 to take him to London in 1952. How quickly he progressed in 12 months there was shown by his selection at centre-half for his international debut against Luxembourg in October 1953. With Ireland, whom he managed as interim boss for one game in 1968, his popularity arguably peaked on the occasion of his 30th cap at Dalymount Park on May 5, 1965.

Up to the 63rd minute of a World Cup qualifier against reigning European champions Spain, Cantwell had struggled to make an impact. Pressed into service from the outset as an emergency centre-forward -a tactic so successful he finished his international career with a stunning 14 goals in 36 appearances -he waited in the penalty box for Frank O’Neill to send in a free-kick from the right. O’Neill put the ball too close to the keeper, Jose-Angel Iribar, but Cantwell made a play for it anyway.

As was his style when in the opposing area, he had earlier charged into Iribar and got a mouthful of abuse back. This time he ran straight at the Spanish keeper, shouting insanely as he did so and causing the visitor to fumble the match winning goal into the net. The Spaniards were outraged at the manner of the defeat and the embarrassment caused to Iribar, a player reckoned at that time to be second only to the Soviet Union’s Lev Yashin in his position. They exacted sweet revenge later that year, beating Ireland 1-0 in a playoff in Paris, ending Cantwell’s last hope of reaching a major finals.

Ireland’s progress at that time never matched his own. From the day he set foot in England, he had been learning. After training, the West Ham players would repair to an eaterie near Upton Park. At various times, the members of what became fondly known as the West Ham Academy included Cantwell, John Bond, Dave Sexton, Malcolm Allison, fellow Corkonian Frank O’Farrell and Jimmy Andrews, all of whom would go on to manage, with different degrees of success. Using salt cellars and pepper shakers, they questioned every orthodoxy and changed prevailing attitudes in the English game.

“We were getting away from the big hobnailed, toe-capped, dubbined boot and soon we were playing in lightweight boots and the day had gone when we had big shin pads,” said Cantwell. “Teams didn’t warm up before games – they got stripped five minutes before they went out and embarrassingly kicked the ball around – but we would go into the gym at quarter past two and have a fairly good workout and come back out then and get prepared. The weight-training gave you tremendous confidence. You felt stronger and you felt good. How one looks and how one appears is always very important. I think it helped when we got away from the baggy shorts and got all the good gear.”

That holistic approach meant Cantwell took his own shorts to wear on Ireland duty because he reckoned the international kit was sub-standard. During his last season at Old Trafford, his leadership qualities were acknowledged in another forum when he was elected chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). He relinquished the union job in 1967 to succeed Jimmy Hill as manager of Coventry City. Essentially, his task was to keep a newly-promoted but very average City side in Division One. He promoted fellow Corkonian Pat Saward from coach to assistant manager, and, having avoided relegation in his first two seasons, Coventry finished sixth in 1970, their highest league position, which gave them a ticket to the Fairs Cup.

In 1972, he took over as manager of Peterborough, an outfit then rooted to the bottom of the old Fourth Division, the worst-placed club in England. Cantwell brought some brio even to that humble role. “There is only one way to go now,” he told the press, “and that’s up!” He was true to his word. At the end of his first full season in charge they won the Fourth Division championship. Newspaper reports tell of him celebrating afterwards with champagne in hand and a massive cigar in his mouth. No matter how far he strayed off-Broadway, he never lost the flair for the big stage.

An unsentimental character who auctioned most of his football medals in 1995, Cantwell had one constant in his peregrinations, his home town. He once turned down a contract to play county cricket for Essex because it would have deprived him of his restorative summers in Cork. Cantwell never forgot where he learnt the game. Despite Busby occasionally preventing him travelling to Ireland for internationals, he did once persuade the United manger to allow him home to play in a friendly match against a Jerry Lane XI at the schoolboy pitch in Togher. No better example of his silver-tongue and common touch.