The setting was the press box at Wembley on the occasion of the England versus Ireland European Championship qualifier in 1991, a game fondly remembered for the fact that the visitors fairly battered the home side in a 1-1 draw to chalk up another of those celebrated moral victories of the Jack Charlton era.
The real stand-out moment of the night for me, however, was not Niall Quinn’s equalising goal or even Ray Houghton’s wasted opportunity to give Ireland the victory they deserved. The incident I most vividly recall occurred at half-time. Sitting just in front of me in the press box was none other than the great England World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, who was there doing analysis of the game for a radio station. But when an Irish supporter approached on an autograph-hunting mission, he had, literally, bigger quarry in mind. Thus it was that the most golden of all the boys of the summer of ’66 found himself having to squeeze back in his seat so one star-struck fan could stretch his arm across him to get his match programme signed by Con Houlihan.
That trip to London was my first assignment as the newly installed football correspondent for the Sunday Press and, having long worshipped Con from a distance, in truth I wasn’t far off getting him to sign a programme myself. Like thousands of others I had been a devoted reader of his Evening Press columns, a magical literary experience fashioned in the teeth of unforgiving deadlines and without which no sporting occasion, however big or small, could be deemed complete. From point-to-points to All-Irelands to World Cup finals, the last word, and invariably the best word, belonged to Con.
They advise that you should be wary of meeting your heroes but, for this nervous newcomer on the full-time sports reporting beat, Con couldn’t have been kinder or more encouraging. His great generosity of spirit permitted an easy transition from awe-struck fan to comrade-in-arms, although I would always remain acutely aware that it was a privilege, as well as a joy, to — as he might put it himself — toil beside him in the same vineyard for a number of years.
As numerous colleagues will attest, life on the road with Con was never dull. In Seville for a World Cup qualifier in 1992, he adopted his usual practice of setting up his command post in a congenial bar close to the media hotel. This one was a small family-run place with a big window looking out onto the street and, once the first sighting of the legend within had been confirmed, the bar was besieged by Irish fans who wanted to talk to, buy a drink for, or simply be seen in the same place as him. After just one night of booming business, the owners were so overcome by the surge in profits that, much to Con’s embarrassment, they refused to let him put his hand in his pocket again for the remainder of our stay.
That same year we were in the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen when Con, never a man who could be accused of being a fashion victim, unveiled one of his most spectacular sartorial improvisations. The conditions that night were positively Arctic, with freezing rain lashing those of us who were unfortunate enough to be in the exposed front row of the press box. To my right, Irish Press colleague Charlie Stuart was manfully trying to keep his phone and notebook dry under an increasingly soggy cardboard box while, to my left, I saw that Con was fishing deep in his battered hold-all for something, anything, with which to ward off the elements. When I turned to look again, it was with a start. What Con had found was a white hotel towel but one which, judging by its pattern of blood stains, he had used that morning to mop up a shaving cut. With this eerie veil now draped over his head and his great craggy face peering out beneath, the effect was extraordinary and unforgettable, like a cross between Mount Rushmore and the Shroud of Turin.
That was the World Cup qualifying campaign which culminated in the infamous night in November in Belfast when the two Irelands drew 1-1 in a poisonous atmosphere in Windsor Park. And it was the night when, in our press overflow area, a disgruntled local reached through a cordon of RUC officers to deliver a blow to Con who was, unintentionally, slow in getting to his feet for the start of God Save The Queen. “Stand up you Fenian bastard,” was the accompanying order. A very ugly scene, to be sure, and I recall writing afterwards that perhaps the only consolation was to ponder what must have gone through his assailant’s mind as Con did indeed rise to his full height, first blocking out the floodlights and then the moon.
All ended well for Jack Charlton’s team on the night, of course, with the result that we found ourselves touching down in JFK the following summer to commence coverage of the 1994 World Cup. Four of us from Burgh Quay were travelling together and thought it would be a smart idea to pool our resources and hire a cab in New York to take us all the way to the Irish team’s hotel in Parsipanny, New Jersey. Barely had we crossed the Hudson, however, than it became clear our friendly taxi driver had never been outside Manhattan in his life. After about two hours we were fantastically lost and negotiating hairpin bends as we rapidly gained altitude on the side of a mountain. Initial jollity had long since given way to sullen despair when we found ourselves passing a yellow and black road sign which warned of the presence of bears. At which point, the oppressive silence in the cab was broken by that unmistakable Kerry brogue. “I think I smell Canada,” said Con.
We eventually did reach our destination and later made it more or less intact down to Orlando too, where I recall that even Con, a man who would often have a big stew on the boil at his home in Portobello, was taken aback by the size of American portions. Declining an offer to eat out one night, he explained that for lunch he’d been served a pizza “the size of the wheel of a donkey cart”.
THE shocking closure of the Irish Press in 1995 brought an abrupt end to our adventures, although not before a long, hot summer of industrial action during which Con, despite his heartbreak at what had happened, threw in his lot with the friends and colleagues he called his “comrades on the barricades”. Three times a week, he wrote for our little fundraising paper The Xpress, wonderful autobiographical pieces which were later collected in a book called Windfalls.
And it wasn’t long, of course, before his talents were once again available to a wider audience in the Sunday World and the Evening Herald. When he broke his hip while crossing a road in Cheltenham — “I fell in Cheltenham, not at Cheltenham” he was at pains to point out — it might have been the beginning of a long, slow physical decline but his mind stayed razor sharp and, for the most part, his spirits remained undimmed. I have happy memories from those years of dropping in to see him in the little house in Portobello, with its paintings by young artists adorning the walls, books and papers and writing material piled high on the table, the gas fire on the go, a bottle of wine uncorked, and the big match on the telly.
There were undoubtedly darker days to come for Con, as he endured a protracted hospitalisation, and on my occasional visits to see him in St James’s — never frequent enough, to my shame — I’d find myself thinking of the lines written by the American songwriter Guy Clark: “To me he’s one of the heroes of this country, so why’s he all dressed up like them old men?” Yet, Con being Con, he could still contrive to cheer up the visitor more than they could him. It was during one such visit, I recall, that he stated one of his objections to plans to name the Castleisland bypass after him. “I don’t even drive,” he pointed out, “so they should be naming a bike-pass after me.”
And, remarkably, even when flat on his back and with all his 86 years finally catching up with him, he continued to dictate weekly newspaper columns on subjects as varied as sport, politics, history, music, cinema, poetry, and prose. In many of the tributes which have been paid to him since his death on Saturday, it has been said that he was one of the finest sportswriters of his generation.
That is true, but I suggest it would be even truer to say that he was one of our finest writers, full stop. Con was deservedly honoured in his time with busts and plaques and statues and awards but he often said that the accolade which mattered most to him was from a reader of his Tributaries column in the Evening Press who wrote in to say: “You gave me my third-level education.”
For my part, it was also an education to have known Con, and an uproariously entertaining one at that. It is no exaggeration to say that the private man was as much loved as the public figure was universally revered — and maybe that’s the highest tribute you can pay to any human being. My heart goes out to his right-hand woman Harriet Duffin, and to all who were close to him. The only consolation in losing Con is that the great windfall of words lives on in print. And I envy all those who have yet to discover his timeless world.
As the man himself would say: now read on.