LARRY RYAN: Sport’s tussle to control the narrative

Illustration: Peadar Drinan

Are we now the best little country in the world at rejecting a narrative? Bursting bubbles might be the true people’s game.

You could feel the pressure build through last weekend, as the superlatives piled up for the two hurling semi-finals. A storm was brewing.

As early as the moment Peter Duggan pulled out that miracle point for Clare in the second half of the first semi — that supreme feat of power and skill, like a juggler strayed into a strongman competition — it was clear last Monday’s The Game documentary on RTÉ had to be postponed.

For a start the whole thing had to be remade to include Duggan’s point, to slobber the super slo-mos on it and mount an investigation into how it is that these lads are capable of such things, with four or five giants bouncing off them. Perhaps get anatomical experts involved, to dissect the human wrists.

And the other thing The Game had to do was pull the handbrake a small bit on the hyperbole. The ‘game for the Gods, played by Gods’ stuff. 

Because the nation had been telling itself that all weekend. And hearing it back again was like the Christmas cake landing out after the trifle and pudding had been dispatched.

And so the nation started to feel slightly queasy. And the backlash began. As inevitable as a soft free to level it in the last minute.

And so they arrived, on cue, this week, the conclusions that hurling isn’t in such a great place after all; that the rules don’t apply, that there are too many scores, and sure nobody plays the game anyway.

By Monday, when the next part of The Game airs, we’ll be pointing out that Ringy could have lost a pound or two, that Mackey looked a bit one-sided. 

And when they show the super slo-mo of Austin Gleeson’s wonder goal against Cork last year, all we’ll see are the five steps he took somewhere along the way.

Maybe we’ve been burned too often by boom and bust but it’s how we’re programmed now. A natural cycle of checks and balances. 

The fundamental distaste for too much of a good thing that had us tiring of the heatwave around day four.

It’s probably why control of the narrative is so prized within the GAA. It’s probably why Galway and Clare wouldn’t talk before their semi-final or tomorrow’s replay. 

It’s why John Kiely sprang into emergency action at the final whistle last Sunday, pleading for the mercy of our discretion.

Hurling people can handle hyping the game, but God forbid the hype comes to your door.

And the narrative gets slightly out of control, like it did for Galway when David Burke let slip earlier this summer that he thought Kilkenny feared them these days.

They survived that one, but will hardly make the same mistake again. Savage honesty might be hurling’s most celebrated commodity, but it’s only encouraged on the field.

And so, savage honesty now largely comes with a price tag, usually from former players, through columns or punditry work. Or a bookie forking out for some biting criticism to slap their brand on. 

Limerick hurler Shane Dowling did speak recently about the difficulties players might have in dealing with the conventional wisdoms that accumulate around them.

“Does Joe Public’s opinion matter when you’re lining out for a Championship game? 

The obvious answer is no, but Joe Public’s opinion mattered to me when I was a young player and it’s still difficult at times because I manage a pharmacy in Raheen and I deal with Joe Public every day.

"When it comes to the game you have to block out all the criticism and the praise.”

It was an honest account of his own struggles with the psychological side of the game, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of an insightful piece was its sponsorship by Littlewoods Ireland. 

It was another example of AGC — athlete-generated content.

Increasingly, that’s where we must look for honesty in sport. 

A certain kind of honesty, anyway. Places like The Players’ Tribune, where athletes like Romelu Lukaku and Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane have recently put their sides of their stories, with full control of the final draft.

Does it give stars and their publicity teams a much-needed right of reply to the scurrilous media? Is it the end of journalism or a soft landing for sportswriting, in the tender embrace of public relations? Does it matter?

Speaking recently to the New York Times, The Players’ Tribune editor Gary Hoenig underlined the value of their platform to athletes.

“It’s good strategy for an athlete to control his own — I don’t even call it image — his own narrative. That’d be a good strategy for you and me too.” 

By and large, the work has been well-received. 

Sterling’s pre-World Cup account of his poor upbringing was an antidote to the flash image the English tabloids have cultivated, Lukaku’s childhood memory of his mother diluting milk to make it last the week, and how that drove him, was powerful.

So far, nobody has much appetite for rejecting the narratives the athletes have been setting out. 

Then, this week, Neymar had a go at AGC as his people rolled out the latest phase of his brand rebuilding strategy after a disastrous World Cup. 

He poured out his heart, admitted he sometimes exaggerated fouls, confided he had looked in the mirror and become a new man — all for a Gillette advert.

And judging by the outpouring of scorn around the world, he might just have ruined AGC for everyone. Burst another bubble. 

Unless, in one last throw of the dice, AIB can involve him in one of the exchange programmes they’ve been using to sportswash their own narrative.

Surely it’s time Neymar finally tried hurling. And proved he truly is the best a man can get.

More than a game for forthright Seán Óg 

The Game was beautiful, the footage breathtaking, and the tapestry of heritage woven delicately between the Glen Rovers five-year-olds pucking tyres to “99 and a half” year old Dick Walsh recalling Lory Meagher and the historical deeds of 1931.

And now it has got hurling’s greatness off its chest, as every hurling evangelist is obliged to do, it should be even better over the next two weeks, rummaging in the treasure of archive material.

Ó'hAilpín playing for Cork in 2007. Picture Inpho
Ó'hAilpín playing for Cork in 2007. Picture Inpho

You took it for granted, with official GAA involvement in the project, there would be no pulling over or under the ball.

But as it explored hurling’s part in who we are, amid all the talk of pride in the parish, it could hint too at our darker edges.

When Seán Óg Ó hAilpín told how playing hurling made him feel loved and accepted, it was, on one level, a feelgood conclusion to the first instalment.

But it made us ask too what might have happened had he never picked up a hurley.

Would he have been accepted at all?

Heroes & villains 

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Ali Meeke: For that ice-cool spotter, but only if she called ‘nuts’ before sticking it through the keeper’s legs.

Pat Ryan: Hurling’s modern goal drought is another failing being highlighted as the backlash gathers pace.

So fair play to Pat for obliging last Sunday when he could easily have ‘taken the sensible option’.

In the process, he even restored the one thing the Gods consider to be missing from hurling’s armoury; the lob.

HELL IN A HANDCART

Clare: When is a sweeper not a sweeper? We may never resolve this highly-charged philosophical pickle they have foisted on us.

Hockey: Are we ready for the backlash yet? Still think it should only be a foul for accidental ‘foot’.

And maybe the referees could let it flow a bit more, using their ‘common sense’.

And what about letting them pick up the ball? And adding points etc etc...


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