About time Ronnie was recognised as one of our greats

It hardly carried the glamour or gravitas of an induction into Cooperstown or Springfield, it wasn’t like there was a Larry Bird to welcome his Magic Johnson into this particular Hall of Fame, but there was something particularly pleasing about seeing Ronnie Whelan being honoured at the FAI International Awards on Sunday.

In these eyes he has been one of Irish sport’s most under-appreciated greats, within, as well as outside his sport.

For almost half a century we were spoiled with the calibre of central midfield player to come out of this country. Johnny Giles was the fulcrum of the terrific Leeds team of the ’60s and early ’70s.

Then Liam Brady would both adorn and drive Arsenal, guiding them to three straight FA Cup final appearances when that date was the most cherished on the football calendar.

Whelan would emerge as our most influential midfielder of the ’80s, or certainly the second half of it.

And then along came Roy.

They weren’t just playing for anyone. Look at the clubs they served. Leeds. Arsenal. Juventus. Liverpool. United.

For at least three of those clubs, their most glorious period coincided with a time when an Irish midfielder was literally central to it all.

Yet very often the public consciousness skips a chain in that lineage of Irish midfield greats.

It thinks in terms of a holy trinity of Giles, Brady, Keane. Whelan, for some reason, gets overlooked, when there should be a Mount Rushmore with his mug on that lofty landscape.

Maybe it’s because his media work or soundbites aren’t as insightful or incendiary as the others; at times they can even border on the inane. Maybe it’s because he was never the most dominant personality playing with his club or his country at any point; while at various stages Giles, Brady and Keane appeared even bigger than the national team, Whelan was merely another big name in a team laden with big personalities and Big Jack.

He was never loved like Paul McGrath, even though he was far more professional and productive — at least in his club career — than McGrath.

And he was never lovebombed either the way Brian O’Driscoll has been for more than a decade now, and especially the last few weeks.

Last month the Daily Star produced a pullout which ranked the top 50 Irish sports stars ever. A lot of thought as well as space went into the very readable — and indeed — credible production, but it inevitably featured some puzzling omissions and placings.

Interestingly, the list was bookended by both Whelan and O’Driscoll. Whelan was ranked 50th, O’Driscoll first.

In a way, Whelan should feel lucky. O’Driscoll’s old team-mate Paul O’Connell didn’t feature at all. Nor did Denis Irwin, Damien Duff, Shay Given, or any other Irish footballer pre-Giles.

But when a couple of amateur boxers rank in the 40s, another [Katie Taylor] comes in at ninth and 10 GAA players all make it ahead of Whelan it made us wonder if in this country we have any perspective of just how tough it is to play at the level Whelan operated at.

It would be unfair to discard rugby as a drop in the ocean of world sport, but at most it’s a lake. Association football is an Atlantic. Half of all global sport is football; the other half is something else.

If you were to list the biggest or most fabled franchises or institutions in world sport, Leinster Rugby would hardly make it. Just think of America alone with the Yankees, the Lakers; in college, Kansas and Kentucky basketball, Alabama and Notre Dame football or any of the other 25 college gridiron teams that play in front of over 65,000 every game.

In Roy Keane’s time at Old Trafford Manchester United were one of the biggest institutions in world sport. When the club won the treble in 1999, two of those three trophies were lifted by an Irishman, the main man on a team of greats.

Ten years earlier the FA Cup was also held aloft by an Irishman. Whelan. Liverpool were the biggest club in British sport. If there was a team in Europe that could have curbed the great Milan team of Gullit and Van Basten at the time, it was that side of Beardsley and Barnes, not least because they had such a selfless player from Finglas to win and feed them the ball.

You have to doubt that we’ll ever have that again. Four Irish players (Staunton, Aldridge, Houghton and Whelan) on one of the best club teams in Europe. An Irishman — Whelan — scoring two goals to win a League Cup final in 1981. The same Irishman scoring the winner in the following year’s League Cup final against United. And then the following year setting up the key goal in a European Cup final, the way Whelan played in Phil Neal in Rome ’84.

It’s only right we should mark these final months of O’Driscoll’s career. We’re only getting round to realising we’ll struggle to produce another career or player like Whelan.

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