LIAM MACKEY: A journey down the river of sport

“Ah, this is sure stirring up some ghosts for me…”

That was Robbie Robertson on Somewhere Down The Crazy River, the magical and mysterious 1987 leg of the musical pilgrimage the great songwriter and guitarist had been making from Canada down to the American Deep South since, some 25 years earlier, he’d hooked up with those like-minded souls who, as a talented quintet of singers and musicians, would go on to become known and revered around the world as, simply and fittingly, The Band.

The song came to mind when I found myself down by Dublin’s own crazy river on Wednesday afternoon, where the Sean O’Casey pedestrian bridge over the Liffey was temporarily transformed into a promotional stage for a Premier League sponsor, complete with fake turf, ceremonial arches, and amplified crowd noise, the glittering prize itself drawing plenty of attention from snap-happy office workers enjoying this novel twist to the daily lunch break routine.

But it took the unexpected sighting of one actual living Premier League ghost to stir up the young homeless guy who’d been sitting on the ground with head bowed, oblivious to all the excitement going on around him.

When he happened to look up to see none other than Robbie Fowler being escorted past, his dead eyes suddenly lit up and he was instantly on his feet, a huge smile creasing his face.

“Robbie! Robbie Fowler! Jesus, man, you’re my hero. Seriously, man, I’m a big Liverpool fan. Jesus! Robbie Fowler!”

The Red legend stopped to exchange a friendly word and a fist bump before he was hurried away to pose for photos, while his devotee quietly resumed his former position, hunkered down, grim-faced, staring at the feet of passers-by.

There was barely enough time to wonder — though, sadly, in this city it’s never too difficult to guess — what kind of cruel hand fate had dealt to turn a football-mad kid into a still young man now clearly struggling to survive on the streets of his home town, before duty called for yours truly and it was time to have a few ghosts of my own stirred up.

Niall Quinn was another of the household names in Dublin for the gig and, when a few us repaired to an adjacent eatery to fill our tape-recorders, his opening conversational gambit took me, I must admit, by surprise.

“Last time I saw you in this part of town,” he grinned, “you were hanging out of a window.”

“What nightclub would that have been?” a colleague helpfully asked.

In fact, it turned out that what Niall was referring to was the memorable day in the long, hot summer of 1995 when Jack Charlton brought the Irish squad to the back of the Irish Press office on Poolbeg St in a show of support for the journalists who were occupying the locked-up building after production of the newspapers had been shut down in an industrial dispute.

As one of the ‘welcoming committee’ sticking our heads out of a window to greet
Jack and his players, it fell to me as the Sunday Press football correspondent to make a little presentation to our distinguished visitors, which, as I recall, consisted of a hastily constructed panel of photographs of none other than Quinny himself in the act of scoring his famous goal at Wembley in the 1-1 draw with England in the 1992 European Championship qualifiers.

That game had also happened to be my first on the road as a fully fledged footy correspondent and it was also the night when I first struck up a professional relationship with Con Houlihan which, happily, would go on to become into one of the most
rewarding friendships of my life.

As we reeled in the years on Wednesday, Niall seemed even more taken aback to be reminded that, as we spoke, it was just one week over five years since Irish sport, Irish letters, and Con’s loved ones, friends, and innumerable admirers had suffered the immeasurable loss of the Castleisland — sorry, Castle Island — Colossus.

After a little pause to contemplate that sobering fact, Niall perked up. “I know it’s a very Irish thing to say but it really was a great funeral,” he smiled.

When the Irish Press eventually went under — and before Con was snapped up by other outlets understandably eager to avail of his incomparable talent — he wrote about what he called his “severe withdrawal symptoms” since the Burgh Quay presses had ceased rolling.

“Mondays are the worst. You go to a game on Sunday; without trying, you find yourself composing sentences and even paragraphs in the course of the night.

“Then about four o’clock next morning you wake up and it suddenly dawns on you that you have no conduit for your wild and whirling words.”

In characteristic fashion, he then embarked on what at first appeared to be digression about the unhappy fate of salmon who fail to mate and die, before returning touchingly to his main theme.

“I doubt if I will do anything as melodramatic as departing this world through the lack of a medium in which to report the river of sport but I know how those salmon feel.”

As do we all since the great man put down his biro for the last time.

Still, life goes on, the games continue, and the world keeps spinning. Or, at least, that was the case the last time I checked.

A few weeks ago I wrote in these pages that the only thing I could see which could possibly prevent Cork City from winning the league would be if the Trumpster and that other dingbat in Pyongyang took to lobbing intercontinental ballistic missiles at each other.

Hey, fellas, I was only kidding.

No, really.


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