Paul Rouse: In search of the sporting moment of the decade

There are three Dubs at a table talking about the greatest sporting moment of the last decade.

Paul Rouse: In search of the sporting moment of the decade

There are three Dubs at a table talking about the greatest sporting moment of the last decade.

These are men who love to argue with each other, no holds barred.

But then, all of a sudden on this one subject, it’s like listening to a choir and the tune is delivered with clarity: “Cluxton’s point”.

The five-in-a-row is not even thrown up for consideration. Instead, it’s Cluxton’s Point, the Year Zero of modern Gaelic football.

And it’s easy to see why: the point which Stephen Cluxton kicked in injury time in the 2011 All-Ireland football final earned Dublin a first All-Ireland title since 1995. The immediate context was that Dublin had until minutes earlier appeared certain to lose the final to a Kerry team filled with multiple All-Ireland medal winners. Indeed, Dublin had trailed by four points with just six minutes remaining and seemed bereft of ideas on how to bridge the gap.

Without the comeback that ensued – capped by Cluxton’s point – it is extremely unlikely that the years that followed through the rest of the decade would have brought the high tide of success that has yet to abate.

But either way – for these three men – the elation of the moment, and of the days that followed, leave it as the centerpiece of their sporting decade.

The subjectivity of it all is obvious – in the hierarchy of picking your sporting moment of the decade, the criteria shift according to personal taste.

If you love golf, then it’s a fair bet that your prize moment is Shane Lowry winning the British Open, or Rory McIlroy’s multiple titles, or the ‘Miracle at Medinah in 2012 when Team Europe closed an immense final-day deficit to beat America and claim the Ryder Cup.

Or what about rugby? Leinster’s various European Cup successes and Ireland’s Six Nations championship wins under Joe Schmidt, reached a highpoint with victory over England in Twickenham in March 2018 to claim only the fourth Grand Slam that has been won in 145 years of international rugby played by Ireland.

But do you pick the clinical dismantling of England on the cold spring day? Or do you go back almost two months earlier to the wildness of Johnny Sexton’s drop goal against France when all appeared lost? Or do you skip on into the autumn to the day that the All Blacks were soundly beaten in Dublin, for the first time ever?

On and on the conversation can go, across every sport played in the last decade in Ireland, or watched around the world by people from Ireland.

For many people, the monumental sporting moment of the last decade will not be a high-profile national or international event.

Rather, it will be something deeply personal: a race finished, a match won, a weight lifted, and so on.

And there can be no arguing with that. It is in the deeply personal that the power of modern sport truly reveals itself.

It’s in how the most high-profile international sporting occasions find a personal resonance in the same landscape as private, deeply individual moments.

What connects the two is the idea of play. And the multiple connections demonstrates time and again the manner in which sports can bring people together – even if it is to argue or to fight over lists of greatest moments.

There is a basic question that bears out the power of sport: what is it that people talk most about in the hours when they are not working or not sleeping?

There is a very significant section of modern Irish society for whom the answer to that question is sport.

Basically, sport provides a platform for people to dream. Every season, every game, every passage of play leaves even the most unlikely of competitors diseased with hope that this time, finally, will be their time.

This, in turn, leads on to the manner in which sport wraps itself like bindweed around a person’s emotions.

Sport can provide a person – any person – with joy, even in the most seemingly banal of games.

The Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon has written of “the rare moment of transcendence that might be familiar to those who play sports with other people; the moment, arising from the chaos of the game, when all your teammates occupy an ideal position on the field; the moment when the universe seems to be arranged by a meaningful will that is not yours; the moment that perishes – as moments tend to do – when you complete a pass. And all you are left with is a vague, physical, orgasmic memory of the evanescent instant when you are completely connected with everything and everyone around you.”

Mostly – almost always – of course, sport does not seem like this.

Instead, it is often laced with struggle, disappointment, rejection, disillusion, even anger.

Even the most mundane of sporting events carries the capacity to provoke extravagant emotions – good and bad – that somehow seem proportionate at the time, even when they are clearly not at all so when later considered.

On one level, a decade of emotions can require a lot of sifting to establish a list where priorities can then be ordered from top to bottom.

But, on another level, the sifting is pointless. What could be better than a reaction from the gut?

And, after the gut has spoken, the greatest sporting event of the decade? That’s an easy one.

It does indeed involve a late free kick, but it’s not Cluxton’s Point.

Instead, it happened in April this year, in the fading light of a Saturday afternoon, in the backfield at Westmanstown GAA Club in west Dublin.

The Under-14 Girls Féile football semi-final between Skerries Harps and St Oliver Plunketts-Eoghan Ruadh is in a sudden-death shootout.

The teams had finished level after extra-time – a great match that flew up and down the field from start to finish, as two excellent, well-matched teams tore into each other. And now the sudden-death free kicks from the 20m line have been going on for more than a quarter of an hour.

The teams are deadlocked after 11 kicks apiece – scores and misses stepping perfectly beside each other.

And then a Plunketts’ player – we’ll call her Cáit – is next up. Like many of the girls on both teams, she is destroyed with tension. She has to be coaxed (and more) to take the kick. It’s a bit like the way stablehands try to push a deeply reluctant horse into the stalls before a race.

Up she goes, eventually, in a slow march and takes the ball from the referee. She stands just behind the 20m line and it’s quiet. She swings her right foot. The ball arcs beautifully between the posts.

She has never kicked a ball like this before – in fact, she almost never scores. Normally, she runs and chases and tackles and wins breaks and passes the ball on to others – but doesn’t score or usually even shoot.

But now this – a winning point. For the team coach – her father – there is, in that moment, pure, unrestrained joy.

A few tears may have been shed – or maybe a small bucket of them.

And that is the sporting moment of the decade – this one and every other.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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