Capturing the fleeting, fantastic, essence of sport: It’s all a part of The Game

Tadhg Coakley's new book takes us on a journey into the heart of sport
Capturing the fleeting, fantastic, essence of sport: It’s all a part of The Game

Author Tadgh Coakley at the aunch of The Game: A Journey Into the Heart of Sport,at Waterstones, Patrick Street, Cork. PIcture: jim Coughlan. 

The book both starts and ends with the purest, most idyllic of settings. A boy with a ball and its tiny dimples, a pebble-dashed wall and a back garden containing infinite possibilities. Between those points The Game, as its subtitle outlines, takes us on a journey into the heart of sport that at times will lift your own and at others make it ache.

Its author and chief protagonist is Tadhg Coakley, that same boy with the ball in his garden back in early 1970s Ireland and now a writer of some repute which should only be enhanced after this delightful work.

Its beauty is in how personal yet universal it is, how he blends what is in some ways a sociology of sport with what is in part a memoir, making it a work of literature.

Liam Griffin once said of another Irish sports book classic, Christy O’Connor’s Last Man Standing, that it could only have been written by a goalkeeper and a particular kind of one. “He had to have lived, not at the very top,” claimed Griffin, “but within touching distance of it. He had to have lived there to really understand.”

Much the same could be said of Coakley and why his book is such a triumph. Like O’Connor, he went to a famous GAA boarding school, won Munster colleges honours for them, played minor and U21 for his county. Indeed he did more than just play minor for Cork. He won an All Ireland for them in 1979, scoring five goals in their three games en route. He won multiple Fitzgibbon Cups for UCC, playing for the late great Canon Michael O’Brien and alongside Nicky English, with enough distinction for O’Brien to call him up for a trial on the eve of the double-winning season that was 1989-90.

But Corkery never played for Cork that year against English and Babs’ other donkeys. He ended up never playing for the Cork seniors at all. Many years later he bumped into an old friend who enquired if he still held the record for a Cork minor. Coakley didn’t know what he was on about. His friend reminded him about the five goals in just three games. “I’d forgotten it,” Coakley writes. “Imagine forgetting something like that.” When he looks back on all the games he played as a child and as a young man, whether it was hurling for Mallow or playing soccer for the local town team, he has “only a vague sense of it”. “It’s like,” he writes, “it happened to another person, who told me about it once, in a bar.”

In that sense he never quite lived or made it to the very top. He never quite became or made it through to the in-group. In truth, he says, he always felt a bit of an outsider, possibly from a certain introversion or social anxiety, or possibly because of the writer that was always within him. A writer, as he and others like Tom McIntyre have observed, needs a certain remove from the collective, a certain detachment from the action and artist to try to describe what art and that artist has pulled off.

Either way, The Game is the better for it. That Coakley is someone who has known and experienced the sensation of scoring a goal in a Munster colleges final, and how the realisation that the ball is about to go in is a bit like being “under water”, and yet remained outside that bubble of being an elite player, playing in a senior All Ireland or inter-county championship game. Instead he was in the stands, watching such games on with the rest of us, even sometimes cursing and abusing officials and opponents. By nature a mild-mannered man but on occasion – specifically a sports occasion – that could curse out someone in the proximity of others, prompting a 10-year-old and his father at a Munster final to move well away from him.

Why? he explores. What is it about sport that stirs people so much and raises even a dark, hidden side within us? But where The Game is at its most brilliant and moving is when he explores how it can stir the best of us, or bring out others who remain part of us.

In one magnificent chapter called Miracles, he describes a scene from 20 years ago this month. A friend of his was visiting a family grave in Waterford city on a Sunday evening when car after car began to pull up. Grown men with tears in their eyes passed her. Waterford had just won their first Munster final in 39 years. “They did this,” writes Coakley, “because on that day in 2002 their loved ones had come back to them and they needed to pass on some incredible news.”

Coakley also movingly writes about those we wish we’d had or known but never will; an earlier section of Miracles featuring a passage of him walking out of the grounds of Medinah after the 2012 Ryder Cup is an astonishing and poignant piece of writing that you must read and get the book for alone. Possibly the one quibble we’d have of The Game is how most sport today still belongs – or at least should belong – to children, how real sport is less about United and Liverpool on Sky or Newcastle being owned by Saudi but the U10s training or go-games blitz going on in your local field this past weekend, and Coakley doesn’t really identify or examine that. By him not being that coach or parent on the sideline, noticing who is getting a game or touch of the ball and more tellingly who is not, the book and we are not as rich for the insights he’d have provided from such a vantage point on such key themes.

Yet even that is a minor flaw, and an understandable omission, once you read the Medinah passage. Elsewhere in the book Coakley writes enough and beautifully about the wonder and magic that sport can be to the child and how it remains a source of wonder to him now, for all the innocence he and sport have subsequently lost since he was kicking that ball out in the back garden nearly half a century ago. By being both that worldly adult yet always still that kid with a ball, mesmerised by the likes of George Best and Con Roche, Coakley has come up with one of the most distinctive, original, beautiful and best books on sport this country has known. A treasure.

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