Heroes with or without their boots

It’s doubtful if – even though it was Friday the 13th – on the evening the Covid-19 restrictions were introduced in Ireland that anybody thought the chaos would still be ongoing nearly seven months later. Now read on…

While this corner wouldn’t go anywhere near as blunt about it as a certain Mr Trump, I do believe some of the stipulations are unnecessary and excessive, and, like a lot of things in our society, neither laid out nor enforced fairly.

Tell me, for example, why pubs, ports and airports are open – with multitudes passing through them – yet only a paltry number of spectators are permitted to attend sporting events. Which makes absolutely no sense – especially given that most GAA grounds – certainly at inter-county level anyway – would have ample room to accommodate a fair, decent-sized attendance at events. rather than the almost insulting tokenism which has been trotted out to date. With horse racing, the ability to adequately distance a decent number of people should be even more glaringly obvious given the size of the vast majority of venues in question. What is currently in place – only allowing owners or a representative thereof in – smacks of elitist notions and will do untold damage to the sport.

In case you haven’t twigged by now, the preclusion of a decent number of spectators from attending sporting events has not gone done well in this seat. Mostly due to the reasons outlined above, but, equally, as, due to the incalculable healing and rescuing influence Susie has had on my life, there has been an opportunity to reclaim some of my ‘old’ life. By which I mean things the majority of society take for granted.

Going to bed at the time that suits me (and Susie, obviously) rather than at the behest of a care company and – perhaps, most especially, being able to tip down for a few pints whenever the mood rolls around. No, not for the drink. More so the company and the feeling of being in control of my life again. Or maybe for the first time ever.

The ability to head for a pint only adorns top spot in the list of benefits because that which was meant to be the highlight of our year was stifled before it got a chance to take off. Admittedly after some persistent persuasion on my behalf, herself did what had to be done to enable her to drive our van. The carrot at the end of the stick being the opportunity to be able to go off on trips together without depending on anybody else.

Most especially, ventures to GAA matches or race meetings, maybe the odd cattle mart or even a bit of wedding planning. But, the country has, for long stages this year, resembled a tumbleweed bouncing through the desert, so all plans and hopes and ambitions have had to be shelved accordingly. As have resolution ideas for a topic very close to my heart. All of which has decimated whatever semblance of confidence which had begun to germinate within.

Ratoath players wheel away after retaining the Keegan Cup in a near-empty Pairc Tailteann with most people reduced to watching on TV.

Anyway, before my blood pressure sky rockets over all the above dross, suffice to say swift and remedial action was required to ensure sane navigation through the dearth of sport in the initial stages of the doom and gloom. Hopefully at least some of you will have by now seen my second book, Rolling Down Memory Lane – covering some of the greatest sporting happenings and some other favourites spanning my near four decades around this place – for sale on our home page.

However, even with all of the above in tow, there was and is still a fair bit of a void that will need filling for as long as Covid-19 chaos continues constraining the world. Therefore, if no live sport was available for distraction purposes, the net needed to be cast a bit wider than which many might consider the norm in this seat.

Now, it might come as a surprise to some, but, outside of sport, interests are widely varied in terms of televisual interests – or YouTube as it tends to be a lot of the time – in this corner. From farming to true crime to documentaries and everything in between. So, programmes such as Inside The K and a few others relating to even more sinister nefarious activities proved to be great gap fillers.

Harry Redknapp is one of the good guys but didn’t always get a fair crack of the whip

In the end, though, the programme which has done most to help yours truly navigate these crazy times was a documentary – admittedly a few years old – encountered on the video website entitled Harry’s Heros – the premise of which was football man, racing man and all round decent bloke, Harry Redknapp, assembling a team of former English (and one Welsh) internationals and putting them through several weeks of preparation for what ended up being two friendly games against Germany. Inference being that it was a chance for the players involved involved to atone for previous misfortunes against said opposition.

Before some of the ‘home’ team could think about that, some of them had to limber up in order to merely stay alive. Which is where Harry really played a blinder. He’s one of the good guys who, in certain ways, never got a fair crack of the whip. Surely ranking as the finest English manager never to be given a go at the national time. Simply because his face didn’t fit.

Undoubtedly their loss. Past experience depicts his alacrity at man-managing what were, shall we say, unique characters. See Di Canio, Ruddock etc for references. Indeed, it was thinking of the latter named character which prompted production of what you are currently digesting.

My first memory of Ruddock as a player was actually his infliction of disappointment on Manchester United. I think it was the winter of 1994. United, incidently wearing black and amber, built up a 3-0 lead courtesy of Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs and Denis Irwin only for a brace from Nigel Clough and and a memorable header from the robust defender secured an unlikely draw for Roy Evans’s side.

‘Razor’ Ruddock was my kind of defender. No nonesense, to put it ridiculously mildly. Stop the man, and if you can get the ball, well that’s grand too! He wasn’t the first and sadly won’t be the last supposed hard man to be masking his own inner demons with the bravado facade.

‘Razor’ Ruddock has had his battles on and off the pitch.

Whether intentionally or not, the programme gave a unique, upsetting insight into Neil’s battles with alcohol and weight loss. Which culminated in the big centre half having to have a pacemaker fitted during the second series when the rest of the assembled motley crew were touring around Europe playing some interesting opposition, to say the least!

Two things were abundantly clear right from the off in the show – the genuine love Harry and all the other retired footballers have for Ruddock, and the former Southampton, Liverpool and West Ham colossus was far from alone in having demons to fight once the lights had gone out on what were splendid careers for all of them, albeit in different ways.

Comparing such cases to each other is futile and a shade disrespectful, but, it is fair to say that Paul Merson was one of the first and worst cases to emerge. The former Arsenal, Middlesborough, Portsmouth, Aston Villa and Walsall player seemed to be addicted to everything it was possible for a body to be. He is to be admired, though, for having the courage to open up about his difficulties. Trust me, all too well is it known how difficult it is to do that for anybody, let alone a person with the profile of Merson.

Merson’s goal celebration was sadly telling

Perhaps in one way it should be no surprise that ‘Razor’ and Merson are kindred spirits. In another angle to the harrowing tales of both men to which this corner can relate, Merson appeared to be more comfortable looking out for and after Ruddock than he was confronting the ghosts in his own closet. To the point where both men are reduced to tears after initially nearly coming to blows prior to that as the former tried to help the latter.

In fairness to both men, taking into account that Merson did eventually break down whilst coming clean in a press conference, I can relate to the stances taken by each during different stages of the show. Neil being fit drop Paul with a box when, as he saw it, the Sky Sports analyst was interfering in his life. And then the midfielder when things could build no more and eventually imploded around him.

These things are like Munster rugby when its at its best – going through plenty of phases before the killer punchline eventually comes. In place of Michael Corcoran’s eternal summation of a try by the men in red “After 140,000 phases” see: Denial to yourself, denial to anyone who asks, raging against the machine that is the black cloud engulfing mind but eventually caving in like ice-cream with chocolate sauce drenched over it.

For that reason, both Ruddock and Merson merit acknowledgement as heroes with or without boots on because, with the respective situations they were both facing, though they took contrasting routes on their healing journey, the first and hardest step is admitting to onesself that trip needs to be undertaken at all.

Indeed, whilst still constructing this piece, an episode of the hillarious – with the exception of Harry’s smug twat of a son, ironically – was encountered during which both Ruddock and Merson, in costume, singing well known songs. And, whether it was just because these wheels were parked under the black cloud and getting lashed cannot be substantiated, but, whatever the reason, ‘Razor’s rendition of Frank Sinatra’s beautiful heartbreaker My Way did, admittedly, cause the discharge of ocular fluid from yours truly.

Having said that, at this juncture it’s important to state that those around whom this offering has revolved thus far were far from the only ones to whom life after stardom wasn’t very kind. I think in particular of former Aston Villa star Lee Hendrie who actually ended up going bankrupt and attempted – on more than one occasion – to take his own life.

You know, earlier in this column I intimated that it was Ruddock and Merson in particular who prompted production of this piece. On mature recollection, mind you, it was actually Hendrie’s contribution which struck the greatest the chord.

Former Aston Villa midfielder Lee Hendrie

Specifically, the relief and release he so obviously felt having opened up to some of the other lads on the show. It’s not easy. I know it all too well, having attended a therapist myself until even that became too overwhelming. Do I regret not keeping it up? Yes. Would I go back at it? Yes, probably. Not now, though, not yet. I am simply not ‘there’ yet.

If you think of life is a journey, dealing with mental health struggles is an entirely different trek altogether. I once heard depression described as the ‘Black Dog’. But that simply can’t be. It’s the companionship and comfort of a certain ‘person’ that more than anything or anybody, kept these wheels turning before Susie blessedly entered my life.

My bodyguard Buddy!

The concept of being under a black cloud fits far better. Especially given that eventually the cloud bursts under the weight up what it’s holding in. Or at least that’s how it is for yours truly. But here’s the thing, some people literally cannot open up about it at all. Which, to put it as gently as is possible, is the top of a very slippery slope. On several occasions in the last year alone, I’ve seen cases that mercifully had the slide therein arrested – to some degree at least – before the runaway train went over the cliff edge.

Believe me, it is not easy to open up. To family and loved ones, perhaps even more difficult. Having said that, when I did go about talking to somebody professional help, that the therapist I did attend was actually an acquaintance from school probably wasn’t the wisest move on my part because – with the greatest of respect to the individual concerned – it was, in some ways at least, akin to facing back into what was the greatest driver of my inner trauma at that time.

However, for all that, it was beyond question that some form of release valve or point of re-assurance was required. It’ll scarely cause a ripple in terms of surprise that greatest relief in this instance came from documenting the travails in question via the keyboard in my case.

When I was doing Marketing as part of my college course, one of the core values hammered home was the effectiveness of short, sharp punchlines associated with a given brand. For example, “Just Do It” with Nike or “I’m Lovin’ It” in the case of McDonald’s or even, dare we say, “Life And Sport From An Armchair View” a little closer to home!

Turning thoughts towards mental health, whether by accident or design, “It’s OK Not To Be OK” has become the recognised phrase used as a means of encouraging people to come forward, open up and seek the assistance they require in coping with or even possibly preventing mental health difficulties.

While this corner choosing to use the keypad to at least begin undertaking a journey of healing would hardly cause tremors anywhere, however, learning what was at least partially responsible for the emotional distress which has intermittently flummoxed the situation may do. Though it shouldn’t really either.

Yes, there are what should be the obvious causes of upset outlined above. Some of which were at the very least unnecessarily stringent. If, that is, they were needed at all in certain contexts. There were, though, other and greater setbacks which have not been recovered from and at times one wonders will that process ever be completed.

Any of you that have seen my new book https://boylantalkssport.com/2020/09/22/5499/ will surely have noticed by the front cover how much the harvest and farming in general have not only been life’s second greatest passion for me after sport, or maybe sometimes in front of it, but also the greatest and simplest form of therapy in dealing with some of the physical and emotional constraints which inhibit navigation of the one way tour around this here planet.

If I could turn back time…

As much as it’s wished the following wasn’t the case, even if Covid-19 hadn’t wrecked things for half the world, it was probably still unlikely that the beef finishing operation at home was going to be maintained, for this year at least. That in itself would be – and was – heartbreaking enough for me to deal with in its own right at any time, but it was the manner in which the cessation was arrived at which really was the off-the-ball dig. Not a hint of either explanation or, I think, a proper understanding of just how upsetting the decision was for me.

However, being in and around farming means so much to me and was, is and forever will be so important to the upkeep of my mental health that, just because that particular avenue was closed – for now – didn’t mean my involvement in or love for farming was going or would be allowed to simply drift away.

Hence the beginning of the vegetable farming journey which has been very well covered within these pages since Covid-19 completed the job of blowing my world as it was apart. From there, several other avenues – business opportunities at best but at the very least an enjoyable hobby or three – have arisen. By way of navigating what have been and continue to be trying times from an emotional perspective.

At the time of typing, my emotions are precariously balanced, but, production of what have been reading is, for now at least, my way of steadying the ship. Beginning that journey is the toughest step but also the bravest.

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