Michael D Higgins Interview: Statesman of the game

Ahead of today’s President’s Cup match in Cork, President Michael D Higgins sits down to talk football with Liam Mackey and the result is a conversation encompassing the League of Ireland, Fifa, Roy Keane, Jose Mourinho and Kofi Annan, as well as Seamus Coleman meeting the Duke of Edinburgh, that Jon Walters selfie and how he’d like to see Ireland play at Euro 2016.

Beyond the formal grandeur of the state rooms, discretely tucked away, resides the hub and beating heart of Áras an Uachtaráin. This is the literal office of the presidency, where Michael D Higgins works behind an overflowing desk, and the walls reflect some of the consuming passions of his private and public lives, from politics to rock ‘n’ roll.

Here is a full-length portrait of a startlingly youthful Noel Browne and there a photograph of two other Irish luminaries who, sadly, didn’t get to lead such long lives: Rory Gallagher and Philip Lynott together on stage at the Punchestown Festival in 1982.

Light is admitted through a tall window which, on this crisp spring morning, offers a spectacular view across the rolling lawns and over the trees to the distant Dublin mountains.

It’s the kind of lived-in, worked-in studious room which, it’s not hard to imagine, encourages profound intellectual meditation on some of the great issues of the day.

Like football.

It’s well-known, of course, that Michael D Higgins is a football man. This, after all, is his second presidency — his first was at Galway United, the club that remains closest to his heart, although he has a special affection and concern for League of Ireland football in general. A regular attender at matches around the country, this afternoon he will be in Cork for the President’s Cup game between Cork City and Dundalk, the curtain-raiser to the new domestic season.

He has only been to Turner’s Cross once before (“a long time ago”), and is looking forward to his return. “It’s a good ground and it has a reputation of being nearly as well maintained as the Eamonn Deacy park pitch,” he offers with a grin.

By virtue of his eminent position, his own football world has broadened, and he now moves seamlessly between the local and the global, the grassroots and the glamour.

So, one moment, he is recalling, with fondness, that the Galway United players presented him with Alan Murphy’s jersey on the night he became president of Ireland, and the next he is relating, with evident glee, an exchange he once had with the former president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

“She said to me, ‘I hear you’re interested in soccer’, and she gave me a present of the different jerseys of the national team and some of the major clubs. And I said to her that, you know, Boca Juniors wasn’t in it. So it arrived the following day.”

Also included in what he admits is a mushrooming collection of football shirts, is “a jersey from Chelsea with an inscription on it that could be the Special One.” He chuckles. “It’s a deciphering task.”

He has also, of course, forged close links with the Irish team, as was most recently made public when Jon Walters couldn’t help posting a selfie of himself with President Higgins in the jubilant home dressing room after Euro 2016 qualification had been secured against Bosnia.

In fact, it turns out there may have been a bit of a breach in protocol involved — not that, under the happy circumstances, the president was about to complain.

“That was a total exception because I’m not allowed to take selfies,” he explains. “As it happened, there was more than one but that was the one that got out. The other John, John O’Shea, was involved too. There was a great atmosphere in there.”

The president also reveals that, on the occasion of his historic state visit to Britain, it was his idea that some of the Irish players should be invited to Windsor Castle. “Seamus Coleman came,” he explains. “He got permission from the (Everton) manager to break training at lunchtime, legged it down to London, hired the suit and so forth, and I introduced him to the Duke of Edinburgh as the defender who had the highest number of goals of that season so far.”

The wry smile with which he relates the anecdote suggests that, perhaps, the significance of the stat was somewhat lost on Prince Philip.

Michael D Higgins’ interest in football took root in rather more humble circumstances, journeying by motorbike with his friend Donie McMahon from Newmarket-on-Fergus to Limerick to watch games at the Market’s Field. “It was the era in Irish history of the red Honda,” he explains.

Given that he grew up up in County Clare, it was only natural that other sporting pursuits would have preceded his conversion to soccer.

“I was not a great hurler at all,” he concedes, “but I did play juvenile and non-competitive minor. The game that I was interested in was handball. And the people who played handball, curiously, were the people most likely to cross over to soccer. Handball at that stage was quite a Cinderella in the GAA universe. It is now, of course, there in its fullness, and that’s very, very good.”

Even in that formative stage of his life, it’s tempting to see in the president’s embrace of handball and football something of the instinctive siding with the underdog which would later characterise so much of his political activism. Because, in those days, if handball was cast as Cinderella then, at least in certain quarters in Ireland, football was regarded as one of the ugly sisters.

“There was at that time, in the second half of the 1950s, still quite a bit of a prejudice against soccer,” he observes. “There would be the odd person, late at night, who would say it was the soldier’s game. But I admired the skill of it and the athleticism of it. The actual skill with the football itself was very impressive.”

His love of the game deepened upon moving to his adopted home of Galway and, in the late 60s, was further enhanced by a spell studying at Manchester University. Already seduced by television images of “the magic of people like Georgie Best”, he now joined the faithful attending regular service at Old Trafford where Bobby Charlton and Denis Law completed the holy trinity.

“That was before they made all the changes at Old Trafford,” he says, “but many years later when I went back as Minister to do some fund-raising event for the Irish immigrants in Manchester, I met Denis Irwin and himself — Roy Keane. And they brought me to see the new, changed Old Trafford.

“I have always found Roy Keane to be very charming. Denis is a bit shyer but the two of them did that. And I mentioned it to Roy not so long ago when I met him briefly at the Aviva after our great win against Germany.”

Speaking of which: Does he find it hard to remain scrupulously presidential or does his inner fan just have to emerge when he sees, say, a harsh penalty awarded against Galway or, for that matter, Shane Long blasting past Manuel Neuer?

“They’re two different questions, of course,” he immediately points out. “Of course you’d have to respond to the ball going into the German net — you wouldn’t be on the planet if you didn’t respond to that, as far as I’m concerned. I have changed over the years, I suppose. I would restrain myself from commenting on a referee’s decision now (laughs).”

There is much talk in Ireland, some of it very loose, about the concept of the ‘football family’, but for President Higgins, the real significance of the sport is definitely to be found in friend, family and community connections, and also in its potential as a force for positive social change.

“I would know grandparents who come along to see their grandchildren playing and I would be very supportive of the families that have kept soccer going,” he reflects. “I have a deep, deep respect for all sport and I think it would be very good, when all the elections are over and whoever is in charge of Health, or whatever, that the importance of sport as a central part of positive health is accepted.

“The point is, I often think the Irish public doesn’t realise the huge contribution that soccer makes to their children and their young adults. And putting on my Galway United hat, I would often think when I was going to a game: Why isn’t the place full? It brings up old aspects of my own life: When I was Minister for Culture I would be continually drawing the distinction between active and passive relationship to not just sport but to culture, live performance and so forth.

“It’s sad in a way that the view of the importance of soccer would be a sedentary one. Yes, it’s important that people get the enjoyment and the thrill of seeing people playing in the Irish jersey but I think, at the same time, it isn’t only about the game, it’s about the fun of the whole thing and the companionship and the people.”

There is a topical global dimension to all this too, of course. And so I ask the president if — against the backdrop of issues such as the Fifa corruption scandal and recent protests in England against inflated ticket prices — he fears that football is ceasing to be the people’s game.

“I think it’s very important that it remains the people’s game,” he replies. “And of course it’s not the people’s game when you have all these allegations and examinations and investigations into how decisions are made on venues and the suggestions of impropriety and bribery and so forth.

“I think the average person who loves the game is disgusted at the whole thing. I’m not supposed, I suppose, to have views — I have to regularly remind myself of restraint in these matters — but the fact is, I actually think it might not have been a bad idea to remove the whole thing out of Zurich altogether and start again.

“You’d be surprised with whom I’ve discussed soccer, by the way, and that end of it. (Former UN Secretary-General) Kofi Annan visited me here and we had a discussion about the state of play in relation to it internationally.

“Take South America, where people are kicking a ball on the street or take Africa where people have actually strung a ball together and are playing in different conditions. And these are all youngsters learning clever, clever techniques. But you have to look after it. The game needs looking after.”

Later in our conversation, he returns to the subject.

“People should be really concerned about the damage that it does to the reputation of the game when all that stuff is in the papers about Blatter and Platini,” he says.

“Of course, they have had their suspensions shortened but the president couldn’t have an opinion on that at all.”

His more general concern, he elaborates, is to do with “where the money and commercial side is dislodging the value of the sport”.

And he recalls first raising concerns about the impact of massive broadcasting deals back in the early 90s.

“When I was writing for Hot Press, I did write about the effect of Mr Murdoch on the game. And what I meant by that was nothing personal at all, but in the case of the English League and in the case of European and global football, once it came to really adjusting itself almost exclusively to the demands of television, it was inevitable it would change. And it was inevitable as well that right across the board, in England and Scotland for example, that you would see changes in the relationships with the communities that had supported their clubs.”

But, bringing it all back home again, he is anxious too to stress the positives of how the game is developing in Ireland, citing as encouraging signs the growing number of young girls coming into football and, at a senior level, the introduction of the women’s league.

“And I think it was very good that soccer was one of the very first sports which went about giving racism the red card,” he adds.

There are many other areas in which he’d welcome even more progress, from improved facilities through young player welfare to the kind of upskilling initiatives which might help the game’s more senior citizens prepare for life after football.

And, always on his mind, is the thought of how things might be made better for his beloved League of Ireland.

“When the Aviva is full and all the rest of it,” he says, “before they go home they should ask themselves the local question too.”

All that said, it’s the international game which will dominate proceedings in the summer and, in common with the rest of the travelling Irish support, President Higgins has been busy preparing for France.

“I seek permission from the government of the day to leave the country,” he says with a smile, “but I think I’ve made arrangements to be at the first game.”

Ask him about his hopes for the finals and he answers by saying, “I like good attacking football.” But does he expect to get that from Martin O’Neill’s team?

There is a thoughtful pause before he answers.

“I think they must let themselves go. There are times for defence but when you know you can do that well, you can take the imaginative leaps that give you the goals.”

Tactics sorted, then. The president has spoken.



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