Comedians tend to worry a lot about the ‘too soon’ moment, that minefield of a border between the darkly funny and the wincingly crass.
If a celebrity dies in, shall we say, unusual circumstances, what is the precise duration of what passes for an acceptably decent interval before the ‘comedy=tragedy+time’ equation can be safely applied? Perhaps the simplest rule of thumb is that if you have to ask, it’s still too soon.
Would that it were as straightforward for those of us who have to sit down rather than stand up to make our living. Even Bill Hicks might have balked at finding a way to mine laughs from a routine in which ‘Ireland’s greatest sporting moment’ and ‘Ireland 1 Denmark 5’ stand cheek by jowl.
Last Saturday was definitely too soon but now, after another week of intensive therapy, I think I’m finally more or less ready to deal with the fact that, just two nights after Ireland were crashing out of the 2018 World Cup, RTÉ’s ‘Ireland’s Greatest Sporting Moment’ was inviting us to relive Italia ‘90, Bill O’Herlihy’s happy-clappy hat and all. (Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the transformative madness of that summer than the fact that, all these years later, you can still look at Bill’s happy-clappy hat and find yourself smiling, not retching. Why, the archive footage shows that even the Dunph found it amusing at the time).
Along with the shoot-out in Genoa, Ray Houghton’s goal against Italy in Giants Stadium four years later was football’s other contender in the 90s contest, up against Michael Carruth’s gold in Barcelona, Sonia O’Sullivan’s gold in Gothenburg and Clare’s All-Ireland hurling title. Invited to sit in judgment on which moment possessed the ultimate X-factor was an equally stellar sporting line-up of Ruby Walsh, Ronan O’Gara, and Derval O’Rourke.
Any one of those could talk for Ireland but it was Ruby who stole the show by laying into the presence of Houghton’s goal in the list.
“This is hyping up mediocrity,” he exploded. ”We got kicked out of the competition. We are talking about a world champion with Sonia O’Sullivan, an Olympic champion with Michael Carruth. Clare at least won the All-Ireland. Ireland won one match and came home. I wouldn’t have it there. That’s what we do in Ireland — jump up and down and roar about mediocrity.” I know what you’re thinking: that’d be the Keane talking. Except that, if you look back at a clip of the players celebrating Houghton’s goal against Italy in 1994, Himself can be seen, er, jumping up and down and roaring with the best of them. So I guess we have to eliminate him from our inquiries this time.
Still, no less than Ruby, nor indeed the rest of us, I’m sure Roy was much less enamoured with what followed in America, a prolonged anti-climax which, after defeat by the Netherlands, saw Ireland coming home with, as Walsh put it on the programme, “our tail between our legs.” That said, many people have rightly pointed out that Ruby seemed to be missing the whole point of the programme: as prominently flagged in its title, it’s about moments, not games, still less entire tournaments. I was lucky enough to be in the press box in Giants Stadium the day Houghton put the ball in the Italian net and I will certainly always remember it as a great moment in time, even if the strike itself was a bit of a loopy one and the real star of the show that afternoon was Paul McGrath.
But while people are entitled to debate where Houghton’s goal against Italy fits into the honour roll of Irish sport in the 90s, there can surely be no argument whatsoever about the one moment that rules them all: when David O’ Leary’s penalty hit the back of the net in Genoa.
Except that the expert panel on ‘Ireland’s Greatest Sporting Moment’ thought differently. One by one, Ruby Walsh, Ronan O’Gara, and Derval O’Rourke opted for Sonia O’Sullivan.
It is not remotely to belittle Sonia’s achievement in claiming gold in Gothenburg to suggest that this can only be described as a bizarre choice and one which, to nobody’s surprise — including, I would imagine, the panellists themselves — was completely at odds with a public vote overwhelmingly in favour of the penalty shoot-out.
There’s a temptation here to suspect that Ruby, Ronan, and Derval were just being provocative for the sake of it but I think there’s more to it than that and I think it perhaps says something about what separates elite sportsmen and women from the rest of us: a single-mindedness in the pursuit of excellence which can sometimes — and this was definitely one of those times — appear indistinguishable from tunnel-vision.
Here’s the thing: under Jack Charlton’s rigid tactics, Ireland’s football was never going to light up the world. But in going as far as they did in the country’s first ever appearance at a World Cup, Ireland’s footballers lit up the nation. And the nerve-shredding drama of the penalty shoot-out against Romania propelled the emotional impact of that unprecedented achievement into another dimension.
Taken purely on its technical merits, Dave O’Leary’s penalty was hardly much different to thousands taken before or since. Which is not to buy into the silly idea of the penalty shoot-out as a lottery; tests combining skill and nerve don’t come much more exacting in football and, considering all the circumstances, O’Leary’s immaculate execution of the spot kick was worthy of high praise.
But it was what it meant to so many which elevates it above all other Irish sporting moments, not just of the 90s but of all time. It might only have been for a few short weeks but, seriously, was there ever a collectively happier time to be alive in this country than when Italia 90 took over our lives and we all took leave of our senses? And, in capitalising on Packie Bonner’s save, David O’Leary’s penalty was at the very heart of that national outpouring of joy, a sporting moment which utterly transcended sport.
If, as they say, politics is too important to be left in the hands of the politicians, then maybe there are times when sport is too important to be left in the hands of the sportspeople. Obliquely addressing that most momentous of moments in Genoa, Con Houlihan put it best when asked how he’d enjoyed Italia 90. “I missed it,” the sage replied, “I was in Italy.”
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