MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: The little things that make Big Sam a master

It’s funny, all those references that slip past you as white noise.

If you got a euro every time you heard some sportsperson or other referred to as a master of detail, how much would you have in the bank?

The sad thing here is the beauty hidden by a lazy expression.

Example? The rehabilitation of Sam Allardyce got underway last week in the English broadsheets as he closed in on the England manager’s job. Among the many boilerplate compliments paid to the former Limerick boss was the aforementioned: the attention to detail.

Nod with recognition? I nearly concussed myself with the repetitions.

But I enjoyed one writer’s focus, based on a casual conversation with Allardyce, when the big man pointed out the flawed body shape of full-backs trying to cut out crosses, the dancing around with arms behind their backs. This is supposedly first on the to-do list with the England squad: to actually get in the way of a ball being crossed.

Second: I referred recently to a visit to the Strand bookshop in New York whence came a book of collected Mark Kram pieces. Kram is known for his great pieces about Muhammad Ali, in particular, but the collection (Great Men Die Twice) has one immortal but throwaway detail about the men who work as boxers’ cornermen (‘The One-Minute Angels’). It reveals the delicate psychology of those 60 seconds between rounds: “The word tired is banned from conversation in any form, even when referring to an opponent. Fighters sag visibly when the word is mentioned.”

Third: On that same trip to the Strand — where Clive James confessed to dropping “thousands of dollars” on visits — I picked up The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. I got a sample online of The Education of a Coach, another Halberstam book, this time about Bill Belichick, New England Patriots coach. Bill’s father Steve was also a coach. Regarding Bill’s own playing days, Halberstam notes that while skilled and reasonably strong: “...he was not going to be particularly fast. Steve knew that early on because Bill had heavy ankles — that was the first thing he looked for when he was recruiting, the ankles, because it was a tip-off on speed.”

(I spent the weekend looking at the ankles of any sportspeople I saw in newspaper photographs or on the television, but I don’t know if I could actually define heavy ankles.)

Four: despite — or maybe because — horseracing wasn’t an interest in the house I grew up, any book on the subject that crossed the threshold was an object of curiosity. I’d give anything to remember the name of the book which threw this gem up. There was a passage about jockeys, and a trainer said in passing he’d considered taking on a certain teenage boy as a jockey, given his natural gifts and intuition on horseback — but had passed when he was introduced to the boy’s mother.

The mother had been quite tall, and the trainer’s view was that promising though the young jockey was, a boy always grows taller than his mother so there was no point investing time and money in a kid who’d be too tall to succeed as a jockey. Many a vital slice of information — addresses, pin numbers, all of differential calculus — has defied my memory over the decades, but that last item has never budged from the shelf, as it were, largely, I think, due to the casual, sure-everybody-knows-that way in which it was offered in the book.

Without comment or clarification. Undeniable fact.

Or perhaps I retained it because I, too, am a master of detail.

Keep your muttering in your own province, please

The little things that make Big Sam a master

It’s interesting to see the slowly-gathering objections to the way the inter-county football championship is panning out — not so much the quality of the fare but the muttering in some quarters about Kerry’s supposed easy route to the All-Ireland final: next weekend’s Kerry-Clare clash in the All-Ireland quarter-finals was being cited as proof in some quarters over the weekend.

I leave Kerry to fight their own corner: what struck me was the distaste visible from some people about the competitiveness of counties such as Clare and Tipperary, as if that disturbed their view of football outside their own precious zones.

Hey, if competition within your own province is a joke, don’t bring down the rest of us, okay?

Jumping back to the heyday of the Aga Khan

The little things that make Big Sam a master

Hey, what happened to the Aga Khan Trophy? When did that drop out of the national consciousness?

I only ask because there was a time no so long ago when the names of the Irish team competing for that cup, and their competitors, were known to one and all, known so well that they were incorporated into jokes that depended heavily on that presumed intimacy.

David Broome, Paul Darragh, Harvey Smith, Raimondo D’Inzeo . . . when I was small it was common enough for a Ray or Raymond of your acquaintance to be called Raimondo D’Inzeo after the Italian showjumper.

In fact, forget the names, the horses were known. If you are of a certain age you’ll have no problem associating Boomerang with Eddie Macken, for instance.

I’m sure the competition is still a highlight for the equestrian fan, with Ireland’s defeat last week because of a refusal (a refusal? Ah, memory) no doubt wounding, but when and how did it recede from its status as a must-watch for the entire country?

Note: the jokes referred to above are condensed into one example I can remember. Q: What do you call an egg on a horse? A: Eggy Macken.

Sorry, Eddie. I’m not proud.

Olympic shenanigans provide so much gold

I’m going to miss the Olympics when it’s gone. What else has provided so much fodder? Over the weekend it was a choice — “antidoping officials from at least 10 nations and 20 athlete groups” to seek the barring of the entire Russian Olympic delegation (thanks, The New York Times) or the German newspaper Bild saying simply that they won’t report the Russians’ medals if they participate.

This is gold, pardon the pun. What’ll I do when it’s over?


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