There's a pecking order to honouring sporting greats

To have an airport called after you demands a wider international celebrity most Irish sportspeople simply do not have, writes Paul Rouse.

There's a pecking order to honouring sporting greats

The stir created by the erection of a statue to Ronaldo in his homeplace of Madeira, Portugal is nicely amusing.

The fact ‘the internet’ and newspaper columnists all over the world have deemed the statue to be nothing like Ronaldo has been greeted with a certain glee.

And when the defence offered by the sculptor is even Jesus had his critics, you know things probably haven’t gone as well as they might have. The all-pervasive imagery of the modern age challenges the abilities of sculptors in ways the masters of the past did not have to deal with.

And, in fairness to Ronaldo, he seems to have responded with a decency and common sense to the whole episode — although there is a lingering sense he would equally be comfortable enough if Michelangelo’s famous statue of David was removed from the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, renamed in his honour and brought to Portugal.

There is something else that is interesting about the story, however. Normally, sporting icons have retired or died before they have monuments dedicated to their name.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, the great Argentinian striker Gabriel Batistuta had a statue erected in his name behind the stadium where Fiorentina play in Florence. The statue was commissioned by Fiorentina’s diehard fans to honour the striker who stayed with the club even after it was relegated and ultimately scored 207 goals in 332 matches.

And then he signed for Roma in 2000 for £23.5m.

All has now been forgiven, however, and Batistuta was unveiled in 2014 as the newest addition to the Fiorentina Hall of Fame. At the time, he cried and cried, so moved was he by the ceremony and by the way he was celebrated in Florence.

It is not clear whether he cried also when he was inducted the following year into the Roma Hall of Fame.

The physical remembrance of sporting icons in Ireland comes in many forms.

The sculpture of Christy Ring at Cork Airport. Picture: Denis Minihane

The sculpture of Christy Ring at Cork Airport. Picture: Denis Minihane

There are statues and plaques to various men in various places. There are, for example, statues to Nicky Rackard in Wexford, Sean Boylan in Meath, Christy Ring in Cork, Mick O’Dwyer in Kerry and so on. (By the way, where are the statues to Ireland’s sporting women?).

Obviously, there are also sporting grounds and stands and terraces named after particular players and administrators, but there is something different about putting a piece of art in a public space.

And something different again about having a public space named after you — it suggests a meaning and an importance that extends beyond sport.

You can see that in Belfast where the George Best Belfast City Airport is a most prominent tribute to the greatest sporting son of that city.

If you were to name an airport after any sportsman from Belfast and Madeira, you would very quickly hit on the names of Best and Ronaldo — and, broadly speaking, nobody could really argue.

But who would Dublin people name their airport after? Or Cork people? Or Kerry? Or Knock?

To have an airport called after you demands a wider international celebrity most Irish sportspeople simply do not have. But it also demands a little more than that — it demands that your image has transcended sport and the memory and the potency of that image will remain after you are gone.

The endlessly shifting world of popular celebrity leaves few names standing after they enjoy their stint in the limelight. Most just fade away into background and are replaced by the latest dish of the day. But even those who remain widely known are often widely known for their association with scandal or disaster.

Nonetheless, even though Dublin has never had a Best or a Ronaldo, there are already public spaces named after soccer players in the city.

On the road from Phibsboro to Cabra, there is a bridge that spans the train tracks (along which the new Luas line will run from December) and it is named after Liam (‘Billy’) Whelan.

Whelan was, of course, a Cabra boy who appeared destined for greatness before he was lost in the Munich air disaster along with another eight Manchester United players. He was just 22.

The bridge was dedicated to his memory in 2006 and a lovely commemorative plaque was built into its wall. Most recently, the Liam Whelan Bridge came to public attention when it was defaced on a Sunday night after Liverpool had defeated Manchester United 3-2 in the English Premier League match.

Red paint was used to scrawl ‘Munich Bastard’ and ‘LFC’ around the plaque area.

It was a nasty, grim episode transformed by the response of local people. Bohemians FC (and later Dublin City County) covered the graffiti and the bridge was transformed into a shrine to Whelan’s memory with more than 50 jerseys tied to the railings by people who made clear how appalled they were at what had happened.

The other great soccer player honoured in the physical landscape of the north inner city in Dublin is John Giles.

It is uncomfortably ironic the progress Giles initially made at Old Trafford was facilitated by the loss of Whelan and his teammates at Munich. He had signed on a teenager in 1956 and made the first team in 1959, the year after Munich.

If you walk down off the north quays of the River Liffey — not far past the Four Courts — and turn in towards the markets you will come to Ormond Square.

John Giles grew up in number 7A, under the shadow of the thriving fruit and fish markets, and just across from the glories of Capel Street — then (as now) an eternally fascinating stretch of road in the heart of the city.

Just as with Whelan, the commemoration was unveiled in 2006. It is unostentatious but charming and was erected on foot of work by the Labour Party’s Aodhán Ó Riordáin who was then deputy Lord Mayor of the city.

The plaque simply reads: ‘John Giles: Irish International Footballer was born and raised in Ormond Square. Heroes come from here.’

The great regret, of course, must be that the sporting facilities of the Markets area are as non-existent now as they were when Giles was a boy. His success was a triumph of innate talent match with unbreakable spirit.

Nobody would seriously argue, though, that the Dublin Airport should be named after Giles or Whelan.

The manner in which they are commemorated is something profoundly local — a testimony to the way their achievements are revered in the places where they are born. And that feels right.

So Dublin awaits its transcendent genius.

Meanwhile, down in Cork, maybe the time is right to begin the conversation about the Roy Keane Cork Airport?

Oh, the fun that that would bring!

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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