LARRY RYAN: Reprieve for the dark artist

It now looks like a great betrayal will be averted today.

A sport was set to turn its back on the resourceful band of men and women who have held it together for so long. Like Blofeld ordering his smugglers’ execution as soon as he had enough diamonds for a laser satellite.

Just as ruthlessly, Gaelic football was keen to hang its greatest servants out to dry. Rather than honour them quietly for their cooperation to date, Gaelic wants to show foulers the black card.

Thankfully, it seems people will cry foul and Congress will not vote to dissolve the glue that binds the sport.

To picture where a game would be without its princes of pulling and doyens of dragging, you only have to imagine a rugby match played under basketball rules. No longer would only our rivers run free.

The choice has always been available; apply the law and watch bands of sprinters gambolling cheerfully unimpeded up and down Croke Park en route to punched points or allow our vigilantes do what they do — trade their art form in the game’s grey market.

Marge d’appreciation — the European Court of Human Rights would call it. The range of discretion.

And so a craft has evolved — a grand tapestry of tugs, dunts, slaps, skelps and checks. An acceptable level of lawlessness to turn runners back, persuading them to part company with the ball.

Thus, the foulers perform an invaluable double function — keeping Gaelic football vaguely watchable while, at the same time, stimulating a thriving spin-off industry in complaining about it.

We hear much about selfless play in sport; the selfless runner is amongst the most over-praised, a low-risk hero often lionised for simply setting off in the wrong direction. But the lad who leaves his hand in might be among the most selfless of them all. Not quite an outlaw, but widely regarded as fondly as an in-law.

Official attitudes to his thankless work have always been schizophrenic. This is, traditionally, a stressful time of year — a time when the fouler is at his most vulnerable. His most disposable.

The national leagues have always been a testing ground for figary. A wild season of experimentation when, just for the sheer, devil-may-care, heck of it, referees try out some of the disciplinary sanctions already at their disposal. Like dabbing a bit of that aftershave the aunt got them 10 Christmases ago.

And so the fouler may encounter yellow cards, and second yellow cards. And he may question his very existence. Might he be better off steer wrestling in Idaho, where his skillset would be appreciated? But invariably summer finds him better understood and keeping the whole show on the road once more.

Then there was the time he was almost ushered in out of the cold like Father Damien’s lepers. The tentative hand of friendship was extended in the shape of the black book. The Ah-Shure-You’re-Grand era. Salad days of some respite, tacit acknowledgement of the service provided .

Long gone, now that they are calling him a cynic. And insulting him by threatening to send him packing for his deliberate fouls, as if any of his fouls aren’t.

“Scratch a cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist,” reasoned George Carlin, who would have seen the black humour in black cards.

Scratch a fouler and he’ll probably deck you, but I’m sure he also regrets there isn’t a better way.

Just as the blunt tools of his rogue trade have evolved, so too have the tricks of his victims. Notably, when he pulls his man’s arm, just as he did in 2006, when a black book was waved his way, his tormenter now tends to rely temporarily on collapsible limbs. Now, if his man tumbles, they want to put him off, first minute or last.

After his rugby tackle on Michael Murphy last Saturday, Eoin Cadogan might be a poster boy for the black card campaign. But then, if anyone was truly worried about last-ditch transgressions, they would, by now, have drafted a penalty area bigger than a boom-time apartment.

Devising a workable tackle would be an option. Instead they target the tackler. After all he has done for them.

Snooker’s finest go out in a baize of glory

Last Monday morning, men representing Saints Brigid and Thomas jostled with our women’s rugby team for top billing.

But there was little love for the sporting event that drew rather more eyeballs west on Sunday night than a couple of buses coming back over the Shannon. Did nobody care about the snooker, save the 100 million looking in from the East?

A pity. Honour of the parish and pride in the jersey are nourishing reasons to cherish big days, but is there anything quite as romantic as the colour of money?

Snooker’s new PTC scene has critics — it forces the game’s stars into dingy cubicles for small money. But it has also democratised the sport and wrote a lot of cheques for players who appreciated them.

And where there are cheques, we get real human drama, true pressure.

Last Sunday in NUI Galway, one man collected his biggest cheque yet — for €23,500. Kurt Maflin appeared on Junior Big Break, Stars of the Future when he was 14. But 15 years and many big breaks on, he is no star and has an uncertain future, combing the fringes of the pro tour.

After his quarter-final win, Kurt admitted the money meant a lot because he was getting married in the summer. He looked jittery on Sunday, losing 4-0 to Ding Junhui with another 20 grand up for grabs. He might have to look at the invite list again.

As Vincent Lauria put it, mid-hustle: “I think maybe the money’s what’s throwing you off here today.”

For the other beaten semi-finalist, Tom Ford, this was his second-biggest payday. A deposit on a house, Tom reckoned, but his girlfriend would have the final say.

Love of the game or the love of a good woman — which stakes promise the highest drama?

Owen: Too many twangs, not enough tweaks

Goodbye little Michael Owen. Who knows what might have been if Paul Robinson hadn’t landed on your foot – a fate none of us would have relished during Robbo’s chubbier years.

The conventional wisdom has it that Owen’s career was always destined to be hamstrung – that his need for speed could never have survived those early twangs.

But the exploits and durability of the once-fragile Robin van Persie in his autumn years suggests it could have been possible for Owen to grow into his body and perhaps tweak his game.

But really that metatarsal injury against Tottenham in early 2006 propelled him unstoppably downhill, into a World Cup he wasn’t ready for where his knee buckled.

He was always a country before club man, a recipe that won him the hearts of his nation’s media but never the love of its people.

It’s hard to imagine he has trucked on for seven more years, always one goal away from a clamour for an England recall, invariably taking one more seat on a bench listening to jibes.

He probably deserves one more goal. But then he always has that goal.

Heroes & Villains

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Shane Curran: St Brigid’s All-Ireland win dolloped sweet icing on Cake’s long, colourful career.

HELL IN A HANDCART

Rio Ferdinand:
Who would blame Roy Hodgson now if he told every tube passenger who will listen about his future plans for Rio?

Calum McMananan: Nobbling someone in the Premier League is the nearest thing to getting to witness the eulogies at your own funeral. Cue Dave Whelan: “There is not one ounce of malice in him. He is an enthusiastic young boy. He has got great prospects. He was very upset by it all.”

THE FA: “At least one of the match officials saw the coming together, though not the full extent of the challenge.” Do they ever listen to themselves?

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