Going off the beaten track

And so it’s that time of year again, the time of year when nine out of 10 columns begin “and, so, it’s that time of year again”.

Another seasonal marker is the circulation in this publication’s sports department of an email entitled ‘The Dark Santa will see you now...’, this being the Commander-In-Chief’s traditional way of letting the troops know that we are to gather in what, in the run-up to Christmas, he likes to style his “crib”.

Which, after the mandatory change of clothing, we all dutifully do. Change of clothes? Sorry, I forgot to mention that, at the CIC’s insistence, we all have to dress up as elves, while the man himself opts for a shiny leather onesie, topped off with what I believe is known as a gimp mask.

Apologies to readers who may be uncomfortable with the unusual direction in which this week’s column appears to be going but, I can only say in my defence, that it turns out the treatment of painful welts does require heavy medication.

Another of the Dark Santa’s jolly japes in the run-up to Christmas is to jerk his specialist reporters out of what he calls “the comfort zone”, by giving them orders to get to grips with a sporting pursuit which is largely alien to them. Theoretically, this means our chess correspondent in Mallow could be sent off to cover beach volleyball in Rio. Of course, this never actually happens and not only, I suspect, because we don’t have a chess correspondent in Mallow.

However, it does explain why your football correspondent found himself on the road to Navan last Sunday morning in the company of champion jockey AP McCoy.

Cards on the table, now: despite the fine example set by my father — a man who brought a monkish intensity to the study of the form book — I never did inherit the racing gene, preferring two legs to four from the earliest age and even more so when the two legs had a football for company.

The extent to which my ignorance of the ‘sport of kings’ only deepened over the years may be gleaned from the fact that, back in the early ’90s when I was combining football writing for The Sunday Press with a radio column for The Irish Press, I once filled a slow day on the latter beat by devoting an entire column to what I considered the sheer and utter pointlessness of race commentary on the radio.

Certainly, the visuals of the sport were not lacking in colour or drama, I was willing to concede, but unless you had money invested in the thing, I couldn’t see any attraction whatsoever in the increasingly excitable recitation on the airwaves of a string of spectacularly silly names.

A couple of nights later, the phone rang on my desk in Burgh Quay.

“Is that Liam Mackey?” a stern voice enquired.


“This is Jim Dreaper and I train racehorses.”


“You don’t know much about our game, do you?”

“Ah, you noticed...”

Decent man, Jim invited me to be his guest at Leopardstown in the hope of making me see the error of my ways. Truth to tell, he didn’t entirely succeed in that endeavour, although for a brief moment when one of my picks was leading the field, I was suddenly transformed from indifferent neutral into baying beast. Unfortunately, the additional weight of my modest fiver proved too much for The Beruki and he crashed to the ground at the last fence. Worse, much worse, he didn’t get up.

“Dat animal is brow-en bread,” I recall a Liffey-watered voice saying over my shoulder. Fearful of inflicting a terrible double-whammy on the equine industry, I’ve more or less steered clear ever since.

For all my ignorance, however, I still found Tony McCoy a fascinating and engaging interviewee, but I will leave it to readers to judge for themselves the fruits of our labours, which appear on pages 14-17 today.

For now, I just want to make a point of noting that Tony’s sporting passions also include football. Specifically, he is a devoted Gooner and says that — as someone who, as child, owned a pony called ‘Chippy’ — he finds it surreal to now be on friendly terms with Liam Brady who, along with Alex Ferguson among many others, texted him congratulations after his 2010 Grand National win. Not only that, but on the occasion of Tony’s 30th birthday party, a helicopter made a surprise landing in his back garden, and out stepped Ray Parlour brandishing an Arsenal shirt signed by all ‘The Invincibles’, and bearing the legend ‘McCoy 30’ on the back.

And this coming Monday night, Tony will be in the Emirates in north London to see his team host Chelsea and receive yet another commemorative shirt, this time marking his 4,000th winner.

On which celebratory note, I fear we must leave things for another week because I see that a new email has just popped up on my screen, one marked ‘Most Urgent’ and announcing that Dark Santa wants to see us all again, this time for what he calls “a round of festive party games”.

Oh, oh, oh.

And there’s people who think yer man McCoy has a tough gig?

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