Now this might seem strange given all which preceded it, but, the above was actually the sport which prompted production of this piece but delivery thereof was delayed by a certain other writing project. And we are not getting into the whole ‘Is it a sport?’ debate. All I’ll say is that Sky Sports broadcast it where they do not show chess or poker – as some of the other sports channels do.
Anyway, with the Premier League just shortly after commencement, I want to go back to the World Championships, or as much of them as can be recalled. There are two ways of summarising what transpired. One could either look at the implosion of the defending kingpin, Rob Cross, or marvel at the continuing coronation of Michael Van Gerwen.
To focus on the former may be a realistic but also decidedly cruel. Recalling the journey Cross travelled – culminating in his winning of the big one at the first attempt – necessitates the cutting of some slack in his direction. Being champion brings a whole pile of new pressures and obligations. Thus it really requires recruitment of a different mindset.
And from very early on in the season you got the sense that it was all getting to him. That said, having proven that he was capable of winning it in 2018 – and spectacularly so – it cannot be said that he has become a bad player overnight and I’d still expect him to be a leading contender for all the big ones this season.
As for Van Gerwen, while from a long way off, his claiming of the top gong appeared an inevitability, there have been times when the cloak of infallibility has at least slipped a little, if not totally fallen off. Against that, the sense that Gary Anderson may be playing as well as he ever has, coupled with an obvious resurgence in the form of Adrian Lewis could make matters very interesting in the year ahead.
However, what will do so even more is a bit of Irish interest. Whatever about ‘Jackpot’ being back to something like the level of performance of which he is capable, it was especially wonderful to see Fermanagh’s Brendan Dolan at least begin the climb back from the darting abyss.
As with Cross, he who hit a nine darter in the City West in 2011 couldn’t suddenly have regressed to Average Joe or Josephine in a pub on a midweek night. Hopefully he’ll have gained something from the decent run at the Ally Pally to give an extra bit of interest for viewers going forward. It may be there already anyway as Limerick’s Willie O’Connor and Steve Lennon from Carlow continue their ascent up the rankings.
What wouldn’t have been foreseen at the outset of this section, though, was Anderson succumbing – hopefully temporarily – to the back injury which has so plagued him in recent timesx and thus missing the three month extravaganza of arrowsmith action.
Which has led to the curious decision of having nine different players replace him – one for each of the nine weeks up to Judgement Night. However, even that’s not factually accurate as there will be two Contenders – as they have been dubbed – when the whistle-stop tour does an overnight stay in Germany.
Then again, Barry Hearn hasn’t made many bad business decisions in his time. And what his novel solution has done is afford Lennon – and several other talented newcomers – an opportunity to showcase their potential on one of the sport’s biggest stages.
At the outset here it must be admitted that not a lot off tee-to-green fare has been viewed from this seat of late. In fact, the least feast thereof devoured – besides the Ryder Cup – was whatever tournament Tiger Woods won last year. To my absolute shame and utter embarrassment, what it was cannot be recalled. And at the time of typing the electricity is off, so consulting Mr Google isn’t an option!
What is certain, though, is that, whatever anyone thinks of Tiger as a person, when he is on a golf course – and displaying all the old class and steel he did that weekend, he still makes for compelling viewing. And it seems at this point in time, his sport needs all the extra attractiveness it can generate.
One is not about to delve into the many nuances of the financial side of the game, but things like falling memberships and dwindling interest aren’t difficult to understand when you the almost constant devaluation of the European Tour – and no amount of dressing up will depict it any other way. How many events does a player have play in now to qualify for the biennial joust against the US?
Then you consider the constant tinkering with the rules. Not to mention the fact so many of the pros seem to flout them at every available opportunity – though surely none as blatantly as Phil Mickelson in one instance last season. All of which underlines why golf needs Tiger to give it a sheen again.
Just as it also needs Rory McIlroy. However, the more that passes, the more difficult it is to know what to make of him these days. His natural talent and latent ability are beyond question, but so is the fact that he has looked but a pale shadow of the player who burst onto the scene at Quail Hollow nearly a decade ago or the one who scorched the rest of a US Open field shortly thereafter.
I have my own theories as to what went wrong but they might be best left unpublished. However, there is an inescapable sense that this may be a crucial season for the Down man. It might be asking too much for himself and Tiger to strike up a rivalry at this stage – as a lot of the golfing world has passed them both out – but having them both on form would make the game a whole lot more watchable.
Mind you, from an Irish perspective, 2019 has been a good news story so far. Wasn’t Shane Lowry’s win in Dubai absolutely amazing? The Clara man, of course, had relatives on the Offaly team which pulled off one of the greatest acts of sporting escapology of all time in 1982 when a publican called Seamus Darby pushed his way to immortality by scoring the goal which deprived Kerry of a fifth All Ireland title in a row.
Sometimes the feeling that fate is at work is unavoidable. After all, Lowry’s emergence from the golfing doldrums came fairly quickly after the remarkable Players Of The Faithful documentary which retold the story of how Eugene McGee and his players masterminded the deprivation of Kerry’s attempted annexation of five All Irelands in a row. Ironically, in a strange way, their failure added another chapter to the annals of Kerry.
If one may veer off the fairway slightly, there’d be no hesitation in admitting that seeing Matt Connor’s contribution to an absolute televisual gem caused an indescribable maelstrom of emotions in this seat. Yes, all you could do was marvel at the wizardry of the great man from Walsh Island. Talk of such things as the greatest of all time is futile because every era has its own contenders and fans of every era will have their own favourites but what is certain is that he certainly deserves his place in such comparative conversations.
However, strip away the football and I’m sure many will realise why the Matt Connor story strikes a very poignant chord with yours truly. I’ve spent years trying to untangle the dilemma in my head as to whether my life circumstances would be better having been able bodied and then ending up thus or with the package deal I have. Truly, there’s no right or wrong answer but Matt – and what he did on a football field – has forever been my reference point.
Anyway, to return to where that diversion began, Lowry’s return to form couldn’t have arrived at a better time, for several reasons. Firstly as it was a great lift to the spirits so early in the sporting year, but, more importantly, a player of his undoubted talented had been out of the limelight for too long.
His return thence could scarcely have been better timed for another reason also, following on from the announcement of Padraig Harrington as the forthcoming Ryder Cup Captain. Now, the Ballyboden man remains one of the greatest enigmas in golf, or maybe any sport for that matter. Few have achieved as much in the sport as him however and his accession is an honour most deserved. Wouldn’t it be great if he had a couple more Irish along with him!
This may be the strangest inclusion and will turn out to be one of the shortest, but please stay with me here. Tennis is one of those sports which generate sporadic bouts of interest among all but anointed devotees. In other words, for most of us that meant getting the heavy wooden rackets (remember them?) out of the shed and making a ‘net’ from a length of rope between two sweeping brushes during the two weeks Wimbledon takes place.
Whilst recently taking part in a table quiz in the local RehabCare centre, the following question cropped up: “Name two former top tennis players with the initials BB?” Of course, the answer was Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg. Admittedly, I don’t remember the latter but the former was one of the first exponents of that craft I can recall. Along with Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg and my favourite of them all – John McEnroe.
After that, the rivalry between Pete Samprass and Andre Agassi was more than enough to keep those with normally only sporadic interest in affairs of the court tuned in. Good and all as that was, the triangle of brilliance which followed – and somehow gloriously still endures – involving Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has captured the minds of those who would be more liable to think of Vinny Jones, Joe Kinnear and the ‘Crazy Gang’ at mention of Wimbledon than SW19, Cliff Richard and strawberries!
It might seem a shade unfair to even try differentiating between the three but at least a little bit thereof has to be engaged in. To me, Djokovic has often seemed a bit robotic – as if it nearly came too easy to him. Nadal’s longevity is accentuated by the realisation that very few, if any, top sports persons have had careers so extensively ravaged by injury as the southpaw Spaniard.
Yet, of the three, inclination would be to align on the side of the sensational Swiss. Not only owing to his timelessness – it’d be a tiebreak between the three of them for that. However, what sets Federer apart – for me at least – is the alacrity with which he is still amassing titles in what – regrettably from the perspective of us viewers – must be considered the twilight of his career.
For all that, though, what brought about production of this portion of our story was the matter of Andy Murray’s retirement. I’ll admit that Conor Niland is the Irish player with whom I am most familiar – and even at that it’s very loosely – but, for whatever reason, Murray’s career has always been something of a fascination. Maybe there is more to the Celtic linkage stuff than myth.
Vivid recollections are held of – before my life was turned upside down – coming in after a few pints and watching him capture his first Grand Slam at the US Open. Special as that was, though, there was something even more so about seeing him be the first British player to win at Wimbledon in half a lifetime. Not to mention his Olympic exploits.
It appears the great Scot has exited the stage, let’s enjoy the three other superstars while they are still casting their collective spell.
I began this two-part ensemble being critical of a piece by Eamonn Sweeney but I must conclude by complimenting the Sligo man domiciled in Cork. In truth, Eamonn is one of my favourite current wordsmiths, simply for very personal reasons I was irked by the column referred to earlier. Against that, his ‘Hurling Man’ piece from a couple of years back will always be a favourite.
As will the piece which instigated these few lines. No secret has ever been made of the fact that Con Houlihan will forever be this corner’s favourite fellow hack – it’s humbling to even share the same craft as the great man from Castle Island. Even more so to have met him on a few occasions, usually in Croke Park or Parnell Park.
Coming in a short-head behind, though, in terms of admired scribes would be the great, and sadly recently deceased Hugh McIlvanney.
I never met the great Scot but the similarities between the two were unmistakable. In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine the two in a snug of the press box above, one with fine wine, the other brandy and milk. What drew me to both was (a) the breadth of their vocabulary and (b) the vast array of topics upon which they could both authoritatively opine. In concluding his wonderful tribute to Alex Ferguson’s favourite journalist, Eamonn said “Nobody did it better than McIlvanney”. I’d contend there was one who did it just as well, but what is certain is the sports pages above are even more of a must read now!