They shook stadiums. Some of them even shook up the world. All of them heroes, and not just for one day.
News guy wept and told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Five Years, David Bowie (1972)
Alright, so everyone dies some year and every year someone dies, but has there ever been a more bewildering year than 2016?
Never has the arts, especially music, been more devastated in a single 12-month raid by death than this past one. And yet it’s not as if that field of human endeavour can definitively claim it was more ravaged than sport was.
For Bowie, sport will see you with Cruyff.
It’ll see your Prince and raise you Ali.
It’ll see your Cohen and raise you Palmer, a hand that would prompt Leonard himself to walk from the table; ‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game,’ he’d concede earlier this year in You Want It Darker.
Even when music played one last card by producing the sick joker that was the premature death of George Michael at 53, it still couldn’t trump the scandalously unjust passing of Anthony Foley a full decade younger.
All year it was as if the grim reaper, like some macabre Nick Hornby, couldn’t quite make up its mind whether 2016 was the year he would assemble the greatest music collection ever or the most stunning sports one, and kept alternating between the two before deciding to have knockout exhibitions in both.
If one shaded the other, then Foley’s tragic leaving probably tilted it. With his passing, it was as if the sports fan in the grim reaper wanted it darker. It killed the flame.
Rather than view the two fields in competing, dichotomic terms though, one exhibition at one end of the gallery, the other collection down towards the opposite end, it’s perhaps better to see the sporting and musical portraits of 2016 interspersed, side by side, one complementing the other.
In many ways, Johan Cruyff was another David Bowie, an astonishingly brilliant and innovative performer who dominated and redefined his field in the 1970s to the point of elevating it to a form of art.
Like Bowie, his impact wasn’t confined to that decade or his own performances; just as Bowie produced and influenced everyone from Iggy Pop to Lady Gaga, Cruyff coached and influenced everyone from Pep to Lionel Messi.
Even his age and cause of death approximated that of his fellow Thin White Duke. Bowie passed away two days after his 69th birthday. Cruyff died a month short of his, also to cancer, part of the price for being the one man who looked as cool smoking a cigarette as David Bowie did.
And then there was Ali. Cruyff was merely the most important footballer of the ‘70s – possibly of all-time. Muhammad Ali was the most important sportsperson of the ‘70s – and the ‘60s – and probably of all-time.
Ali the athlete may have died a long time ago; take your pick as to when the body gave up on him – in those wars against Frazier and Spinks, against Holmes in Vegas, against Berbick in the Bahamas – but there was something inspiring and beautiful as well as tragic about how his mind and spirit kept fighting on through the years.
Because of his age and visible decline, Ali’s death wasn’t as shocking or as sudden as, say, that of Prince, but such was the widespread affection he was held in, his passing resonated just as strongly in the public consciousness.
Prince himself would have been foremost among those paying tribute had he still been above ground. A few years back, he wrote out a list of his various influences. Most of them were musical – Stevie Wonder, James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell. But first on his list was Muhammad Ali.
It was a matter of spirit: no little black guy from Minneapolis could have been as daring or as emboldened as he was in the ’80s without being a child of Ali’s America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a case of seeing a fellow artist at work as well; just as Prince penned some of the best songs and albums of the 20th century, Ali was just as brilliant in his way with words, the first and baddest rapper of them all.
Some other sculptors of pure sporting art were whisked away this year. Carlos Alberto was much more than just the man who scored the goal that sealed the 1970 World Cup for Brazil, but in the public memory he will forever be that moment in time, crowning the ultimate team goal by the ultimate team.
Mick Roche was a prince among hurlers; it could be said that only in the year of his passing, in the form of the Maher brothers, has Tipperary found again his perfect fusion of steel and style. John Horgan of Cork was similarly the purists’ and the pragmatists’ ideal of a corner-back.
Joe Lennon wasn’t quite the stylist in the mould of a Cruyff, but he was a pivotal player in a Down team which was to Gaelic football in the 1960s what Ajax and the Dutch national team were to football in the 1970s: they shook and sexed the whole thing up, challenging what a team from their part of the world could be and how the game could be played.
Lennon would never quite have the scope or canvas as well as the charisma to build a Barcelona in his image but through some of the books he wrote and courses he ran in Gormanston, he was an important coaching figure in his sport.
Sport, of course, isn’t all about creativity, just as it isn’t all about the players or coaches. It involves graft and administrators that provide the conditions for the beauty to flourish. 2016 was the year the GAA lost two former presidents that had been there to hand out the cups during the Riverdance/Revolution years that were the 1990s: Jack Boothman and Joe McDonagh.
Danny Murphy’s longevity and influence in Ulster matched that of his namesake Frank in Cork. Frank, of course, is still with us, but sadly his fellow countyman/selector/raconteur/official John Corcoran isn’t, just like soccer and the FAI this year mourned Milo Corcoran.
It was the year we lost Christy O’Connor Junior and Christy O’Connor Senior, men who helped make the Ryder Cup what it is today, men who helped make Irish golf what it is today.
It was the year golf lost Arnold Palmer, the man who helped make golf what it is today. Before there was Tiger, before there was even Jack, there was Arnie, the one who paved the path for them to shine on nationwide and worldwide TV, even during the commercial breaks.
At 87, he may have been like Leonard Cohen – ‘I’m ready, my lord’ – but like with music’s great laureate, it still felt like his curtain came down at least one song, one hole, too soon.
There were others though who were cut down just as they were clearing their throats.
2016 may have been Irish rowing’s greatest year but even it wasn’t immune from tragedy; in September, 23-year-old Ailish Sheehan, a probable future Olympian, died from a head injury sustained upon celebrating winning a medal at the World University Championships.
JT McNamara, after the most defiant of battles, finally passed away, if you can say the word ‘finally’ about a man who was just 31.
2016 should have been known as the year of the Miracle of Chapecoense Real instead of the Tragedy of Chapecoense Real. In 2009 they were operating in the fourth division of Brazilian football. A month ago they were 90 minutes away from winning the South American equivalent of the Europa League.
They were Castel Di Sangro, Leicester City and Connacht rolled into one. Now they are Marshall, the victims of South American football’s equivalent of Munich ’58. Just like Matt Busby’s men, they should never have been asked to get on that plane, but sadly, just like death itself, human folly remains with us.
Michael ‘Ducksy’ Walsh, the greatest handball player of them all, was only 50 when he passed away after a short illness.
Anthony Foley was just 42. Rarely has there been such a public outpouring of emotion upon the passing of an Irish sporting figure. Christy Ring’s passing probably matched it on account of the stature he was held in; Cormac McAnallen for the brevity of his life and cruel, sudden nature of his death.
Foley’s funeral was the marriage, the midpoint of those elements. On top of that, his passing also had an international dimension: world rugby itself was strikingly rattled and moved by the passing of Number 8.
None of us will ever forget how Munster and the Foley family honoured its most loved son in the days after his passing. The guards of honour. The words from the altar. The songs. How they stood up and fought and played and won against Glasgow in Thomond.
On the album that came out the week he died, Bowie sings:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried
‘I’m a black star, I’m a black star’
It’s as if something similar and mystical has been at play with Munster since Foley’s passing. As if his spirit and place has been taken by a group of players each wanting to be a red star, recommitted to living and playing like Anthony Foley lived and played.
It still doesn’t seem fair. It still doesn’t seem right. It all still seems like a bit of a sick joke. As if someone somewhere wanted the ultimate Reeling in the Years programme, where more than half a century of popular culture could be condensed into one year. As if in the heavens suddenly wanted to throw the greatest Pro-Am ever followed by the greatest party and musical jam.
And maybe somewhere that’s where all our sporting heroes have gone. To some golf club in the sky, Ali and Axel cracking a line with Arnie on the green, while Cruyff and the two Christys are on the fairway shouting for them to get a move on; at some point they want to catch Bowie and George Michael duet on vocals with Lemmy on bass, Glenn Frey on guitar and Prince showing off his versatility by going on drums.
It’s a comforting image, but not as comforting as the knowledge that our sporting heroes all gave us some party down here. And that they had some party down here. They shook stadiums. Some of them even shook up the world. And at some point, they all danced and laughed in the purple rain. All of them heroes, and not just for one day.
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