We are living in a polling vortex. Everything is polled. From opinions on VAR to the ‘Great Jamie Heaslip Podcast Plebiscite’ debacle, we have tested and tasted so much that instead of just cooking a family dinner, it’s best to create a twitter poll, socialise it, and wait an hour before going to the shops. The adage “if everything is important, nothing is” now applies to polling; if everything is worth polling, maybe nothing should be.
We in Ireland suffer more than most. So small, so outward-looking, we ingest other people’s polls passively, too polite or too mad for the pain they inflict upon us to resist.
Brexit. The British general election. The democratic primaries. We breathe them in, and they drain us, and we only realise how beaten by all of it we are when we need energy for some polling that actually matters to us; like now, when a General Election arrives like a drunk at closing time, baying for liquor.
One man who will need all his energy to peak this spring -much earlier than he’s used to- is two-time All-Star, one time Mayo captain, Alan Dillon, who last week secured the blessing of Enda Kenny to become Fine Gael’s candidate in the Mayo constituency.
A faraway glance may lead you to think Dillon, with his 15-year intercounty career, would need little by way of extra support to secure his seat, such is the esteem he was held in as a footballer. But, politics in Mayo is like football in Texas. There are dynasties and there are divisions, what there is not is any sure things. Dillon will need to employ all the calculated nous he did as a footballer to navigate the deep and dark waters he has just plunged into. If he thought dealing Aidan O’Mahony was problematic, wait until he sits opposite a Healy-Rae in the Dáil chamber.
Dillon walks a well-worn from sports to politics, but would be wise to remember, for every Jack Lynch, there are a dozen Paddy ‘The Hooligan’ Holohans.
Holohan, already a Sinn Fein councilor, began his push for big office on Tommy Tiernan’s talk show a couple of weeks back. Tiernan seemed none too convinced by the former MMA’s shtick, but was too polite to say it. Holohan’s subsequent self-sabotage ensured his journey from cage artist to a member of parliament was shorter than a Conor McGregor fight.
As fleeting as The Hooligan’s foray was, it was nowhere near as brief as that of Australian Rugby League legend Mal Meninga’s political career, which lasted a mere 28 seconds.
Meninga, the most respected league player of his generation, ran as a candidate in his Canberra territory’s 2001 general election. His race ended, mid-sentence, during his first public interview, when answering the simplest of questions, he responded “... I’m buggered, I’m sorry, I have to resign.”
Meninga later went on to explain: “I’d been doing all this preparation for six weeks prior about all these questions.
All these questions you get asked there are two or three answers (you have prepared), so they asked me this question, why should people vote for me?
“And I hadn’t got this question in the whole six weeks of preparation. The Jiminy Cricket’s on the shoulder and told me, ‘What the bloody hell am I doing this for?’ Bugger it.”
Meninga’s uncharacteristic decision to sidestep rather than embrace contact may have saved him a heap of misery working to be something he clearly wasn’t. Other sporting heroes have risked their legacies, and time has yet to tell to what end.
Former cricketing icon Imran Khan is the current Prime Minister of Pakistan, a country that has for months been on the brink of a “proper war” with neighboring India. Khan is feeling more heat than he ever felt at the crease.
In West Africa, former Monaco, AC Milan, and Chelsea striker George Weah is president of his native Liberia. The 1995 Ballon D’or winner was a hero to millions of Liberians - born to poverty in a Monrovian slum as one of 13 siblings, Weah’s election to the highest office was signaled as a victory for the ordinary people of a country crippled by conflict and corruption.
Two years in, his heroic feats on the field are becoming wistful nostalgia, the tide may be turning against him as inflation rises and hopes of promised reform subsides. Weah, like many sportspeople before him, has found life outside the chalk more difficult than life within.
The US has seen surprisingly few sportspeople make the transition from the winners’ podium to politics, despite having no shortage of stars willing to speak their minds.
LeBron James, Greg Popovich and Steve Kerr show little regard for the conservative maxim that sports stars should just ‘shut up and dribble’, regularly voicing articulate opinions on how they think their country is failing them, and in particular, less privileged others. It will be interesting to see whether a career in politics awaits any of them.
Likewise, in the UK, among footballers at least, few have sought public office after their playing days. The outspoken Brian Clough was twice asked to run as a Labour candidate but declined. Sol Campbell had an ill-fated tilt for the conservative candidacy for Mayor of London in 2016.
But, with Gary Neville’s admirable and unexpected recent ascension as a voice of social reason from his pundit’s chair, how long before he is scouted for a political career?
Dillon should not be discouraged by these cautionary tales, however. The Irish example has been a little more accepting - or forgiving - to GAA stars. Kerry’s Jimmy Deenihan spent a combined 33 years in the Seanad and Dail, holding numerous portfolios. Enda Kenny’s father, Henry, a winner of an All-Ireland medal was a TD for 21 years. Seán Flanagan of Mayo was 26 years a TD and ten as an MEP.
John Donnellan of Galway was a TD for quarter of a century! And, lest we forget, CJ Haughey, who won a county title with Parnell’s of Dublin in 1945 before embarking on a political career worthy of the Netflix treatment.
Of course, the common denominator amongst the above examples was the possession of an All-Ireland medal (save for Haughey, but he possessed many other things). This will be the stone thrown at every Mayo footballer, past or present, who ever sticks his head above the parapet for any reason, be it as a pundit or a politician.
Perhaps best for Alan Dillon then, that he is running in the one place he is certain nobody else has a Celtic Cross either; his home constituency.