Every sportswriter is a trader in nostalgia. It comes with the territory: Instant memories. Even if you file a match report on the whistle it’s already fading into the past — “matches previously played” was Christopher Hitchens’ phrase.
That’s why you see in every sportswriter a fondness for the heroes of the scene when they started hammering the keyboard, the peers who lived it. Oddly enough, the only gods higher in the pantheon are those who came long, long before.
All of which is by way of introducing a documentary on tonight, The Boys In Green (RTÉ One, 9.35pm). It begins with a brief sketch of Irish soccer before the mid-‘80s. Yes, the robbery in Brussels appears in all its muddy glory, complete with Jan Ceulemans’ header and Seamus McDonagh’s despairing flop on the ground when he realises what’s happened.
Then Jack Charlton arrives, and it all gets interesting. Not exactly in the way you might think, mind you.
For one thing, because we associate Big Jack with Italia ’90 and later tournaments, we forget that he became manager halfway through the ‘80s. As a taster of what that decade meant, exactly, the documentary makers show us some scenes from Irish airports of the time.
In itself this is enough to give you pause. Beyond the pastel shades — yes, everyone dressed like that — the misery is palpable. The faces crumpling as a son or daughter shoulders past the camera on the way to another country tell you more than a dozen books ever could about the country at the time. And your columnist knows whereof he speaks, if you check your local bookshop.
(In that regard it was interesting to juxtapose tonight’s documentary with another showing on RTÉ last week about the Boomtown Rats: if the Ireland of the mid-‘80s looked a grim prospect, it made the Ireland of the mid-‘70s look like Moscow under Stalin. Or maybe that was the point.)
There’s a danger here, of course, of tipping into the territory first colonised by the Monty Python Yorkshiremen sketch. The dismissal of the younger generation as cosseted has a long provenance; it was rarely expressed as succinctly as it is now, but today’s snowflakes are tomorrow’s grizzled veterans. If you’re doubtful, consider the old sweats on social media recently snorting at the prospect of kids going on skiing holidays; to listen to some of these you’d think they’d gone to school in the 1890s, not the 1990s.
However, the ‘80s was grim. In that regard the success of the team could hardly have been better timed.
The strictly sports end is well looked after in the documentary — the 8,000 in Lansdowne Road for what David O’Leary called “a chasing” by Denmark, for instance. This being an Irish sporting body, the inevitable machinations in a smoke-filled room are rehashed, with Eamon Dunphy on hand to tell us that Ireland were very nearly managed by Bob Paisley, the great Liverpool manager. John Giles saying he wouldn’t have put “a bad penny” on Jack Charlton succeeding as a manager is priceless — because, not in spite of, the fact that Giles played on the same Leeds team as Charlton for a decade.
They’re all here. Aldridge and Whelan are as chatty as you’d imagine. The man who voiced so many of their achievements, George Hamilton, as golden-throated as ever. Nowadays your columnist hears him more as a genial host of his own classical show on Lyric, but for the purposes of this documentary he was able to recall the Go Home Union Jack banner at the first game of the Charlton era.
History, eh? It’s always different when you go back. Kudos to Ross Whitaker and his team on telling us as much about who we were as well as what we watched.
Many thanks to the reader who alerted me to the passing of Matvey Natonzon, AKA Falafel the Backgammon King, last week.
No, this is not a direct lift from Damon Runyon. Natonzon was born in Russia but grew up and lived in New York, where he was a backgammon hustler for many years — by which I mean he subsisted on what he could earn by playing backgammon for money, a chancy lifestyle which was enabled by free lodging (he often slept rough in Washington Square Park), and augmented by what he earned for guarding a chess player’s favourite table in Washington Square Park. (His retainer? Two dollars a day.) Eventually Natonzon hit the professional backgammon circuit — yes, that exists — and presumably enjoyed a more recognisable lifestyle until his untimely death a few days ago. I mention him here because there will undoubtedly be some kind of Joseph Mitchell-type piece popping up in The New Yorker soon about him, followed within 18 months by a Netflix documentary. Or better yet a Netflix movie, probably starring Liev Schreiber as Falafel.
I suppose there’s no way out of it. We’ll have to talk coronavirus.
At the time of writing major sports events haven’t been cancelled — minor sports events haven’t been cancelled, come to that — but how much longer can some of those stay in the diary?
The Olympics, for instance, seems to be a watershed. If it looks like being cancelled, will that be taken by other sports organisations as the event driving their decision? “We can’t have our event — sure aren’t the Olympics being cancelled, and if they can’t keep people healthy at that, etc etc.” On a lighter note, will this also expose us to the glories of sports logic? This often-neglected branch of philosophical thought will surely come to the fore now. Have no doubt but we’ll have people pleading for their event to be given the go-ahead despite prefacing those pleas with some variant on: “I know there’s a global pandemic which is rocking the world’s economy and terrorising millions ... but if we don’t play this game how will we make sense of this season?” Be on your guard, even while you’re washing your hands.
This will lead inevitably to dreams of a striking vista, a deserted cityscape inhabited only by packs of feral dogs warring with hordes of swaggering wild cats, their squabbles broken by a hoarse voice echoing down the concrete canyons: “League champions 2020! League champions 2020!”
No doubt about the book of the week if you have your eyes open. Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell series of novels, The Mirror And The Light, has been the big beast in view for the last while, and the reviews have been very positive.
Your columnist hasn’t bunked down with its predecessors yet, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, but is looking forward to the couple of weeks in his future when he can do so. Incidentally, I was unaware that Mantel has a strong Irish connection through her great-grandmother.
“Her name was Catherine O’Shea,” Mantel has written. “She spent her early life in Portlaw, a mill village near Waterford in the south of Ireland ... at one time Portlaw was so busy that it imported labour from London.”
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