John Bull has always divided opinion. To our neighbours, he came to symbolise the best of British: A jovial, chubby, but solid and honest character of rural stock. For others (ie pretty much everyone else), this representation came to be viewed in very different terms. Just how different was apparent in a New York Times piece from 1861.
Written at the start of the American Civil War, when Britain’s sympathies were being questioned, it criticised the sacrifice of Mary Stuart, the annihilation of Napoleon, the Opium Wars with China, and the brutal crushing of what was termed the ‘Indian Revolt’ by the world’s pre-eminent power.
Quite the rap sheet. “In the struggle for ascendency, this real Bull has tossed aside every principle of probity, of piety, and pity,” it read.
Over 150 years later and Bull has now been linked to the universal failure here in Ireland to embrace the use of a sweeper in hurling.
Now there’s a sentence you’d never expect to write.
You could argue, with some conviction, that the discussion on the evolution of hurling in which Donál Óg Cusack and Derek McGrath engaged was mistimed and misplaced on The Sunday Game.
Some went as far to label it as self-serving but there is the kernel of... something in the wider question of British influence on our sporting character.
The suspicion of change and innovation across the Irish Sea which Cusack mentioned, that struggle to adapt to the “wider influences” in the games which they invented, has been real.
It can be seen in the timelines of football, rugby, and cricket, the three most successful team sports to emerge from the Victorian era.
The England rugby team, for instance, have always been associated with an old-school ten-man, bish-bosh game. They are perennially viewed as yeomen to the game’s southern hemisphere royalty. Even the England team that won a World Cup in 2003 couldn’t shake that tag of dourness and functionality.
“I’m not sure they know what scoring a try is anymore,” said the Australian great David Campese of Clive Woodward’s side. “There was a time when rugby was exciting. Remember that?”
There was a time when it was amateur too and the RFU held out much longer than the other unions when it went pro in 1995.
Their cricket team was handicapped for decades by a system that treated their international stars as county players first and national representatives second.
It was only in 2000 that the concept of central contracts was accepted and only then after their national sides had plummeted to embarrassing lows.
England hosted the Cricket World Cup in 1999 but were eliminated the day before the official song was released. The Sun ran a front page announcing the death of English cricket in general — aping the Sporting Life headline that gave birth to the concept of the Ashes in 1892 — after they slumped to the foot of the Test rankings.
And then there is football.
Beaten by the Republic of Ireland in Goodsion Park in 1949, England lost to the USA in the World Cup a year later in Belo Horizonte. But it was 1953, when they were eviscerated by the Mighty Magyars, that it became obvious to the rest of the world that England’s emperors had no clothes.
Hungary’s skills and tactics left Walter Winterbottom’s lads, still wedded to the old ‘WM’ formation, in the shade. Yet the blind refusal to accept reality and modernity that was so endemic in the game there was summed up brilliantly in Rory Smith’s book Mister, which charted the history of England’s exiled thinkers.
Among them was George Raynor who guided Sweden to the 1958 World Cup final only to find that the best postings he could muster back home were with Skegness Town and Doncaster Rovers.
Roy Hodgson, who followed his trail to Scandinavia, summed this up in his foreword to Smith’s book: “He is typical, in many ways, because his reputation remains considerably higher abroad than at home. Here was a man who fell short of football’s ultimate triumph only because his side ran into a 17-year old by the name of Pele in the World Cup final and yet he struggled to find work when he returned to England.”
This insular view of sport in England doesn’t, as Cusack suggested, represent “ the last remnants of British culture on these islands”, but it’s possible to argue that we have been similarly myopic in our approach to rugby and soccer and that our approach to both has at least some link to old colonial ties and thinking.
The Republic of Ireland’s agricultural approach under Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill has been widely criticised in recent times and the Jack Charlton era was built on a crude and simplistic system that, the legend goes, prompted Spanish midfielder Michel to compare it to rugby after a World Cup qualifier in 1989.
Joe Schmidt apparently took in some of the Republic’s games under Charlton during his first Irish residence back in the early 90s and, while the Kiwi has railed against the very notion, the fact is his Ireland side has been painted as one-dimensional on at least three separate campaigns stretching back to 2016.
God knows they weren’t the first.
Think of Simon Geoghegan and you picture him sprinting for the corner, ball in hand and blonde locks hanging on for dear life, but this is a player who apparently went through the 1992 Five Nations without receiving one pass in an attacking position.
Innovation, S&C, and the embrace in any collective way of modern coaching manuals and practices took time to catch on in Ireland and hurling has maybe been the laggard in that pack.
It’s not long, after all, since the lazy assumption held that Brian Cody’s great Kilkenny team dominated despite/because of a disdain for tactics. So maybe there are some legs in Cusack’s take, though we’d be loath to run it as far.