Irish Independent - Weekend Magazine - - Column -

Ashark can smell a sin­gle drop of blood from a mile away. I’m the same with foot­ball, ex­cept I’m even more deadly. I can hear a ball be­ing whacked from at least two miles. I have to lean my head out and side­ways when I’m lis­ten­ing, or pre­tend­ing to lis­ten, to any­one who’s talk­ing in front of me. My left ear is in need of a service or some­thing. If I’m stand­ing at the ket­tle, look­ing at it, I can hear the dogs out the back, be­cause my right ear is fac­ing the kitchen win­dow. When I’m walk­ing away from the ket­tle the dogs seem to be in a gar­den much far­ther away — in Cabra, or Mar­rakesh.

It’s not the same with the foot­ball. Both ears are grand. If any­one taps a ball within a two mile ra­dius of the ket­tle, the jacket’s on and I’m off.

Es­pe­cially in the au­tumn, af­ter the foot­ball drought that other peo­ple call the sum­mer. Fall­ing leaves and foot­ball — I think Si­na­tra had a song about it. I hum it any­way, re­gard­less of whether the song ex­ists or not. Fall­ing leaves and foot­ball — I’ll love you ’til the fi­nal whis­tle.

Any­way. Last night I heard the un­mis­tak­able sound, boot to ball. But it was dif­fer­ent. It sounded a bit dry. The shark de­tects the blood in wa­ter and, to a man of my vin­tage, wa­ter is the nat­u­ral habi­tat of the foot­baller. When I was a kid foot­ball was a wa­ter sport. The player was drenched, his boots were leak­ing, the ball was lodged in a pud­dle and, af­ter re­peated con­tact with the boot, it skid­ded into an­other pud­dle, and sank.

So any­way, I fol­lowed the sound of the kick and ar­rived at the new all-weather pitch be­hind Su­perValu. There was a bunch of young lads train­ing. It was rain­ing — of course it was — but it didn’t mat­ter. The pitch looked per­fect and the foot­ball — the push and run — looked ef­fort­less. The young lads were fo­cussed, fast and pre­cise.

I felt sorry for them.

Those poor lads are go­ing to grow up think­ing that foot­ball pitches are green and that the ball will al­ways do what they want it to. That’s no prepa­ra­tion for life.

Here’s my the­ory: Ire­land be­came a mod­ern, pros­per­ous Euro­pean coun­try — kind of — be­cause the foot­ball pitches were com­posed of muck and wa­ter. They taught us to bat­ter our way through ad­ver­sity, to make the most of what we had, and to cheat. But these young lads trot­ting around on the plas­tic grass, think­ing they’re in Barcelona in­stead of Fin­glas East or Manorhamil­ton — they’re be­ing conned.

Brexit — now there’s a pitch made of muck and wa­ter. But just imag­ine Ja­cob Rees-Mogg’s head is a ball in a pud­dle. (He al­ready looks like a pud­dle, so the job’s half done.) The ne­go­ti­a­tions will be a game of foot­ball on an Ir­ish pitch.

We’ll be com­pletely at home, up to our ar­ses in muck. We’ll be grand and we’ll win in ex­tra time.

I got the bends once, when I ran off a pitch too quickly. It was my own fault. We were two-nil up, so I should have taken my time when our man­ager, Mis­ter Hur­ley, called me off. But I just wanted to get in un­der my anorak — and I suf­fered the con­se­quences. My joints were pure agony and I was shak­ing like Elvis on speed. And all I got for my trou­bles was a pat on the back and a “Good man, Char­lie”. But what a les­son: it made a man of me.

My brother, Paddy, came home from a match in Coolock once and told us that a Ger­man U-Boat had come up out of the pud­dle in front of the away goal.

— I swear to God, lads, he said.

Paddy was the goal­keeper, so he was in the per­fect po­si­tion to see what hap­pened. He was ac­tu­ally nose-down in the pud­dle, clutch­ing what he hoped was the ball, when he saw the sub­ma­rine’s periscope rise up slowly in front of his left eye. By the time he was up and hid­ing be­hind his goal­post, the whole U-boat had risen out of the muck.

— Then the thing at the top, the hatch, like, opened and the Cap­tain’s head poked out.

— Where are vee? he asked Paddy.

— Coolock, said Paddy.

— Mein gott! said the cap­tain. — Ze home of Ir­ish foot­ball!

He climbed out, fol­lowed by 10 more Ger­mans — and a sub. They wanted a match and Paddy’s team ham­mered them seven-one be­cause of the state of the pitch. The Ger­mans shook hands, climbed back in, and the U-boat sank back into the pud­dle.

Paddy will tell you him­self: the whole ex­pe­ri­ence made him proud to be Ir­ish.

But these poor lads here, play­ing tiki-taka on the per­fect sur­face? I fear for my coun­try.

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