Monday, September 24, 2012

Donegal Worthy of All-Ireland Win

There can be very few football games as easy to analyse as the 2012 All-Ireland Football Final. If, somewhere far off in deep space, an alien race were watching events unfold at Croke Park from their own strange planet, they would come to the same two conclusions as everyone who saw the game.

Firstly, scoring two goals in the first ten minutes of a game of gaelic football gives a team a considerable advantage. Secondly, even though those two goals can be worked back, especially if the scorers go into their shell a little bit rather than press home their advantage, it’s no real uses unless the opposition’s scoring chances are taken when they come.

And so it came to pass. Donegal, that team built to command from the heights, got a perfect start. They then seemed to hesitate slightly and sit on the lead, allowing Mayo to come back, which Mayo, to their eternal credit, did.

But it was never enough. Mayo reduced the deficit from seven at its worst to three a number of times during the course of the game and if they could have brought it back to two or one, maybe Mayo could have pulled off one of the greatest-ever Croke Park comebacks.

But they didn’t. Points weren’t scored early in the second half that would have put Mayo cats among Donegal pigeons and by the end a desperate Mayo were reduced to hoping for the goals that Donegal not only haven’t conceded but haven’t looked like conceding all year.

In the dying minutes, Mayo substitute Séamus O’Shea looked liked a man high-stepping through meadow as he tried to pick his way through the packed Donegal rearguard until their was clear room to shoot. And that was something nobody’s found in front of the Donegal goals all year.

Donegal are correctly praised for their system but systems only take you so far. Gaelic football is like few field sports in that the very nature of the game means you must attack. Negativity has its fixed horizons, but only creativity can truly set you free.

So while Donegal’s system has revolutionised this year’s Championship, it should be noted and noted well that the system would be nothing without Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden to put them over the bar or into the net, as appropriate.

A system can take you so far but only talent can bring you home. All Donegal should be proud of their fine team, their fine manager and their fine players. It hasn’t always been easy to maintain a first-class football tradition in Donegal. Isolation, emigration and the strong influence of soccer from the county’s historic association with Scotland all make the current generation’s achievements all the more remarkable. More luck to them, and may they winter well.

For Mayo, it was just another kick in the head, of course. Mayo have been posterized so often now that there is a danger that the wind may change and the county would be left that way.

Mayo are in the bizarre position now where a day out in Croke Park is like a visit to the dentist. It’s something that has to be done but it’s not something any sane person would look forward to. It’s just something you need to get done if you are every to know peace. Is there any team that has so long a list of losses in finals, with no respite? It’s hard to think of one.

There will be repercussions from the defeat, but not seismically so. More local tremors. The County Board will have to face a reckoning over a very thought-provoking ticket distribution policy, but on the field people release that this is a young team with many cornerstones in place.

There was speculation before the game that Mayo were a “team without stars” – how, then, could you describe David Clarke, or Ger Cafferkey, or Keith Higgins, or Aidan O’Shea, or Kevin McLoughlin, or Cillian O’Connor? None of those boys are over thirty either.

Horan has spent the first two years of his reign searching for a forward combination that will knit. He hasn’t quite cracked it but once he does, only good things can happen.

And so Donegal go on the beer while Mayo go into hibernation until the FBD League. Hopefully, there’ll be snow for that first FBD game. It always adds to the atmosphere, somehow.

And then the snow thaws and the shadow-boxing of the National League starts and then, all of a sudden, the summer is here and it’s time another run at Sam, 62 years on. I said to someone this weekend that we have measured out our lives in Championships. There are worse things to measure lives by.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Donegal and Mayo in the Theatre of the Remarkable

Donegal are rightful favourites for this year’s All-Ireland. In other years when they were in the final, it seemed like Mayo were the story – would this be the year the county would finally break free from the House of Pain? This year, the final is about Donegal, and Mayo are hoping for the best.

Donegal have delivered what has been, up to this final, one of the most astonishing campaigns we’ve ever seen in the Championship. It’s not just that Donegal have beaten teams – they’ve hammered them, broken them, laid them waste and scattered their bones to the wind.

Donegal have pillaged the opposition the way the Vikings pillaged Ireland one thousand years ago. The apprehension felt by teams before facing Donegal is like that felt by the monk writing in his round tower in the ninth century, preferring the howling of the gale to the howling of the Norsemen:

“Since tonight the wind is high
The sea’s white mane a fury
I need not fear the hounds of Hell
Coursing the Irish Channel.”

Donegal mess with heads. Darragh Ó Sé tipped Mayo in his typically excellent column in yesterday’s Irish Times, but earlier in the year, Darragh had a different story. After Donegal pounded Down to win Donegal’s second straight Ulster title, Ó Sé wrote:

Donegal take you out of your comfort zone. Everybody knows what it feels like to go out and play a game of football – it’s the most natural thing in the world, the one thing that feels most familiar in an inter county player’s world.

But Donegal get you doing things you don’t want to, they get you worrying about systems and angles of running and fast-break attacks. They do everything they can to make it feel unnatural. You’re thrown off your stride immediately and you spend the rest of the game trying to get it back.

That’s how Donegal smash teams. That’s how they smashed Cork. By the second half of the first All-Ireland semi-final, Cork were reduced to stringing men across their defence and hoped to God they would be able to withstand whatever terrors Donegal would hurl at them next.

And withstand they didn’t. Cork, that fine team, those big beasts of men, were blown away, just as every other team have been blown away this year by Donegal’s unstoppable force.

And now Mayo face that fearsome Northern fury. The very fact that Mayo are back in another All-Ireland Final two years after the miserable end to John O’Mahony’s Second Coming in Pearse Park, Longford, is testimony to two factors.

The new manager, James Horan, is the number one catalyst of course, but the richness of the often-derided football tradition in the county can't be ignored. If Mayo were chokers, they would have curled up and died by now. They haven’t. They’ve come back, just like they do.

Mayo would be the story of the year if Donegal did not exist. James Horan and Jim McGuinness are similar in many ways, 21st Century managers of 21st Century teams. And while Donegal are deserving favourites, that doesn’t mean Mayo haven’t a hope.

Firstly, as Ó Sé pointed out yesterday, Mayo’s previous experience will stand to them. Because the county became a punchline to a series of middling jokes after those All-Ireland losses that’s not immediately obvious, but it’s true.

 The All-Ireland final is not like any other game. People tell you the principles of poker are the same when you play for matches as when you play for money. The principles may be the same, but the actuality of the game is completely different. You think differently, and play differently, once you’ve suddenly got something to lose.

All of a sudden, Donegal have a lot to lose. Their magnificent season isn’t worth a hill of beans if they come second on Sunday. Ask Mayo. They know. Donegal haven’t felt that white heat of All-Ireland Final day before. Mayo have, and are stronger because of it.

Secondly, it’s interesting to note how differently the two campaigns have gone. Donegal came, saw and conquered in all their games. Mayo had to sweat against Sligo, lost their captain against Down and hung on for dear life against the All-Ireland Champions.

Mayo 2012 don’t do panic. In both the Connacht Final and the All-Ireland semi-final, Mayo have successfully implemented Plan B. If Jimmy McGuinness has to reach for Plan B at half-post four on Sunday, what happens then?

Of course, something remarkable will have to happen for Donegal’s Plan A not to have worked, as it’s worked a dream so far. But this is the All-Ireland Final. This is the theatre of the remarkable.

Two weeks ago it looked like Kilkenny’s magnificent hurling imperium of the past decade was finally coming to an end. But it didn’t, because Henry Shefflin would not allow it to happen. Shefflin delivered one of his greatest performances on the greatest stage. All-Ireland Finals are like that. They can inspire men to write new histories.

Mayo have the experience of the big day and nobody knows what Donegal will be like if the system starts to go wrong and time starts to tick away. In no place on Earth does time tick away as quickly as on the last day of the Championship, as the autumnal sky darkens and winter can be tasted on the wind.

If Donegal hold their nerve and play to their pattern, they win, they will deserve to win and they will be magnificent Champions. If not, Mayo can turn a page and use Game 5 of Year 2 to deliver that long-awaited Sam 4. Mayo to win. Mayo, Mayo, Mayo. Always Mayo.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Going Dutch on Later with Jools Holland

It’s hard to believe that Later with Jools Holland is twenty years on TV. The aged and bewildered will remember Holland and the late Paula Yates presenting The Tube on Channel 4, the vanguard of a revolution that never arrived. The fossilized remains of those who remember the 1970s will remember Holland playing the piano for Squeeze, when up the junction was very cool for cats.

That’s a long, long time to be involved in something as ephemeral as popular music. Freddie Mercury thought that great pop songs should be like disposable razors, and God knows Freddie wrote plenty of great pop songs in his day. Why, then, this continuing effort to build and maintain a canon?

There was a fawning article of wide-eyed wonder about Later with Jools Holland in the Observer on Sunday, with a lot of puff pieces from various music industry sources about how great it is to meet one’s fellow artists, how competitive it is between them, and the incredible respect they all have for each other.

There were even star-struck ingénues – “In 2000 a debuting Chris Martin muffed the introduction to Yellow because, he said, Gary Brooker was in the room and he couldn't stop thinking about this being one of the guys that wrote A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Well, pinch of salt to the green room, please. That’s all very hard to believe.

The only thing all these artists have in common is that they all work for record companies and all like to see a dollar at the end of the week. The notion of a giant love-in across the musical divide is hard to swallow. They’re all on Later for the money, because that’s what the music business, like any business, is all about.

For instance – Donovan was a guest in 1996, while Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros were guests in 2000. Donovan had “this guitar kills fascists” written on his guitar, while Strummer had “this guitar kills hippies” written on his.

So suppose they were booked on the same show in 1998. Would Strummer attempt to batter Donovan to a tie-dyed pulp in the studio, or would they find common cause in the fact that both their incomes are provided by Sony Music? Donovan covering Guns of Brixton and Strummer doing Mellow Yellow is my money, followed by a yard of purple prose in Q Magazine about music uniting across the generations.

An Spailpín read somewhere that the true power of Later with Jools Holland is the perfect symbiosis that exists between the old veterans laden with credibility but desperate for relevance and the tyros who need credibility to bolster their claim to be the Next New Thing.

The perfect episode of Later would be a duet between Aretha Franklin and Adele. Aretha would be grateful for Adele’s considerable popularity while singing with Aretha would be a further confirmation of Adele as the queen of popular music. Chi-ching, say the boys in the boardroom.

There are some great moments on Later, of course. There couldn’t not be on a music show, among all the grubbing for dollars. The Observer references John Cale’s performance of Hallelujah, and your correspondent was quite charmed by Katy Perry’s exhibition of campanology when she performed I Kissed a Girl a few years ago.

But while the Observer cites the four million views on You Tube of the Cale Hallelujah as proof that taste will out, the reality is that the vast majority of people who viewed it did so because it was on the soundtrack of Shrek.

The poet tells us that music has charms to soothe the savage beast, and it does of course. But the music companies know how to sell product too. It’s fifty years since Bill Haley rocked around the clock – a half-century is plenty of time for the boys in the boardrooms to have the formula down as pat as Coca-Cola’s.

FOCAL SCOIR: Speaking of Chris Martin, this 2008 article by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker sums up Coldplay, U2 and that whole horrible school. Here’s that Katy appearance on Later, then, to cheer us all up. Ding-dong.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Problem with Comments

The London Independent is the latest media organisation to take a crack at corralling its comments section. Instead of the usual stream of comments displayed one after another like a vitriolic virtual daisy chain, the Indy hopes that its new format, which involves voting yea or nay on the topic at hand, will help structure debate and lead to greater clarity.

Well. Good luck with that. Comments are the opposite sex of contemporary journalism – you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t live without ‘em. Contemporary journalism means online journalism, either in text or rich media. The other formats are already dead; it’s just a question of how quickly they either adapt to the new online reality or sink slowly beneath the waves.

Comments are seen as the key to online success. Success is measured in page views and popularity with the search engines, and comments drive both metrics. The more comments on a piece, the greater the engagement, the greater the eyeballs, the better the chance to charge for advertising appearing on the same page.

So far, so good. The only problem is that very few human beings have the time to trawl through the several hundred comments that a piece can generate.

For instance – Gary Younge has 440 comments at the time of writing on his piece in the Guardian on what he sees as the “most racially polarised US election ever.” It is significant that the Guardian has a “jump to comments” link beside Younge’s byline. It’s like they realise nobody expects any sort of enlightenment from Younge, whose prose can be a bit on the worthy-but-dull side. The Guardian Brain Trust realise that people don’t want to think things over and come to a balanced view as much as they want to get into the pit and start pelting each other with rotten fruit and vegetables.

News should be dull old stuff, really, but in the battle to stay alive media organisations are tempted to reverse the Prime Directive of news and journalism, which is that what is in the public interest is not necessarily what the public is interested in. This then sees media organisations deciding their front pages on what’s provocative rather than news-worthy.

There has always been this temptation in the media of course, but it was tempered by the many grey old bastions of probity that held the line. Now, even these are being slowly eroded.

Comments will not rule the roost forever. Google pretty much runs the world wide web right now, and early this year they took swift and devastating steps to destroy the SEO industry that sought to skew page rankings in the SEO industry’s clients’ favour. Google are unlikely not to have noticed that comments are not online engagement of the virtual town hall they would purport to be, but rather the screaming of so many bedlamites, each hoping to be heard above the din of the rest, and will surely turn their guns against comments just as they did the SEO industry.

What to do then? It is unlikely the London Independent’s initiative will work. Painting something pretty colours isn’t the same as a root and branch fix. However, there may be hope on the horizon, and from a most unexpected source.

Lord Tebbit of Chingford is an eighty-one former British cabinet minister. Older readers will remember him as Darth Vader to Margaret Thatcher’s Emperor Palpatine in the 1980s, the enforcer of Thatcherism. Tebbit now writes a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph, a column that is unique in its author’s replying to comments one week after they’ve been published.

This return to the old school is thrillingly revolutionary. In other media, authors either ignore the commenters or else engage in the discussion there and then, where engagement is possible. Instead, Tebbit lets them marinate for a week, and then turns over the rock to see what wriggles underneath.

There is something strangely devastating in the way Tebbit does it. This is an eighty-one year old man, remember, and a man who knows what it is to suffer after his wife was so cruelly injured in the Brighton bombing. Where commenting is done in heat, Tebbit responds in cold blood, and rather exposes the more over-the-top commenters for the blowhards and gasbags that they so often are. The fact he uses the commenters’ nicknames as if they were actual names adds to the fun. Consider this from August 27th:

“I am still trying to make sense of davidaslindsay's remarks which, as I read them, suggested that SWP supporters were switching to support Mr Cameron, but then nothing much that he writes makes sense to most of us I suspect. To be fair to Mr Cameron, he was supported by southcoasttrader and goldenboy, but sodit wrote a good piece on Thatcher's victories and questioning Cameron’s ability to match them.”

Well done, sodit. Dunce’s hat for davidaslindsay. Perhaps Tebbitism is the correct way to deal with comments – to let the storm blow out, and then re-enter the debate to see what progress can be made among the calmer heads there for the long haul.

Tebbit’s approach is unlikely to take off, but it’s hard not to admire the old man for his engagement at his age, and his old-world regard for the proprieties of debate. In the meantime, we can only hope that the next evolutionary leap in publishing will happen soon. There is only so much roaring to which one can bear to listen.

FOCAL SCOIR: Although an enthusiastic commenter myself, this blog has never had its comments turned on. I don’t have access to the blog for most of the day and am therefore unable to moderate. If someone is willing to pay me to do this then we can talk. Hey, Denis – give me a call, big man. You’ll have a few pound to spare when poor Trap gets run out of town.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Free Travel More Dangerous than the Government Realise

Even though the budget isn’t actually due for another three months, and even though Dáil Éireann isn’t even due to sit again for another fortnight, a year’s holidays in some countries, the sky is dark with kites being flown.

As the kites bob and weave on the breeze, there is a highly-remunerated government advisor in a shed somewhere with a squealometer, registering the level of howls each proposed cut makes. The louder the howl, the more the minister is likely to moonwalk back out of trouble before the dread blade falls. If there’s no discernable howl, into the mulcher she goes.

This blind-man’s-buff school of economic policy is worrying when you consider that few governments has had as long to formulate their agenda before taking the reins of office. When you consider that not since WT Cosgrove had to form the very state itself after a bloody civil war has a government had so clear a task before it, the shirking of that responsibility is staggering.

There is no precedent in Irish electoral history for the kicking Fianna Fáil, the perpetual party of government, received in the last election. The electorate has been cross with Fianna Fáil before, and sent them to bed with no supper. This time, Fianna Fáil have been thrown out of the house entirely, and told be damned to them.

The government was elected on a bill of reform. Reform of public finances and reform of public life, to ensure that the recent calibre of disaster was never visited on Ireland again.

Everybody knew that this is what the government had to do. Everybody, that is, except the actual government themselves. A dread terror stole over the heart of the nation when Enda Kenny did not go into government on his own, and dare Fianna Fáil to support their own policies. Instead, Fine Gael opted for politics as usual, going into coalition with a Labour party with whom Fine Gael agree on nothing except that they are neither of them Fianna Fáil.

The government sat on their hands for the first year of their five year term, content to blame Fianna Fáil, Europe, the IMF, the church and anybody but the people for the country’s woes. Even though Enda Kenny went on television to tell the nation that the debt is not the nation’s fault, it does still seem to be the nation that’s footing the actual bill. It’s hard to have it both ways.

And now, having long-fingered manning up in their first year, the coalition finds itself with a hard budget to implement while about to be bogged down by the two biggest oil-and-water debates of the past quarter-century, abortion and children’s rights. Those two kraken circle the island, waiting to come ashore and wreck havoc, while in the meantime the cabinet desperately fly kite after kite.

Yesterday’s kite was a hinted suggestion that the government were “looking at” free travel for pensioners in the same way Charlotte Corday looked at Jean-Paul Marat. Reform of the public service – and pay deals are only a part of that reform – is what the government should be about but the combined absence of both vision and bottle mean there’s no way that’s getting touched. And as such, the kites go up to establish who’ll squeal the least.

However. If the government think that that zapping free travel for the elderly is a free shot, they ought to think again. Not only do they not understand the mandate they were given by the people, neither do they understand just how the country has changed since any of them last had to look at a grocery bill and wonder if the household could afford it.

Free travel for the elderly began as a relatively cheap perk for pensioners in the 1970s. It was nice to have it, but it’s unlikely it was used all that much. Most pensioners would use free travel to visit their children and grandchildren, and in the 1970s and 80s those children either lived locally or abroad. Free travel didn’t come into it, and once you’ve seen Lough Key Forest Park once, that’ll do you ‘til you’re called.

But that’s changed now, as Ireland’s grand plan to not export her youth was to build concrete jungles around the cities to house them instead. As such, couples with young families now find themselves trying to raise children as children were never raised before, with both partners working and out of the house from the early hours until the dead of night.

Childcare in such circumstances works out at about a grand a month I’m told. You know when there’s a mortgage rage decrease of 0.25% and we’re told it’s great news for mortgage holders as they save €500 a year? You’d want to lop more than twenty times that off the bill before those mortgage holders would break even on childcare. And that’s forgetting that they’re paying off on values that do not exist any more, on the basis of trying to keep in some ways sane.

How do these twenty-first centuries families, who will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Rising in three years’ time, cope? How do they make ends meet?

Because all over Ireland, the Sunday evenings that used to only see students on buses and trains on their way back to college now see those students being joined by grannies who will be staying in their children’s box rooms in Lucan and Clonsilla and Blanchardstown and Louisa Bridge, wherever in God’s name that is, trying to help them make ends meet until this storm passes. And one of the reasons they’re able to do it is because they have free travel on buses and trains.

That’s a very delicate ecosystem that relies on a lot of factors in balance. It’s hard on granny, it’s hard on the parents, it’s hard on everyone. If the government pulls the rug on that, a much bigger house of cards may come crashing down with it. And it’ll make abortion look like sorting someone for false teeth in comparison.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Resilience and Realism Win the Day for Mayo

Mayo have been involved in many extraordinary Championship displays over the years. Some extraordinarily good, some extraordinarily bad. But neither Nostradamus, the Oracle at Delphi nor Paul the Octopus from the 2010 World Cup could have foreseen the drama at Croke Park on Sunday, as Mayo beat Dublin to advance to their thirteenth All-Ireland Final appearance.

The general wisdom was that the Dublin v Mayo game would be a cagey affair. Instead, Mayo turned up to shoot the lights out in a way that few in the county would have thought possible, even in their wildest of dreams.

Mayo people looked at the teamsheet and didn’t see scores. They saw good lads who’d break their hearts for the green and red but they didn’t see any Joe Corcorans or JP Keans or Noel Durkins. The fact that all of the forwards scored turned that preconception on its head and those Mayo forwards are the toast of Mayo for the week.

Not that the win was down to the forwards alone. The Mayo defence has been the same all through the Championship and pretty much the same all through the League. Establishing Ger Cafferkey at fullback has been one of the first things James Horan did, and he built out from there. On Sunday, instead of the certainty that he was blessed with during the summer, James Horan had to run the changes at the back and hope to God everyone could hold on.

And that’s what they did. People talk about modern football being about the squad rather than the team and that was proven again on Sunday as Chris Barrett and Richie Feeney stood up to be counted after waiting patiently on the bench during the summer, which can’t have been easy for either of them.

There has been talk about an increased level of cynicism in Mayo football, which isn’t entirely accurate. Mayo are playing modern football, and certain tactics are part of that. Darragh Ó Sé gave a master class in this a few weeks ago in the Irish Times. Maybe Horan is a fan – An Spailpín Fánach is, and hangs on every word Darragh writes.

What is refreshing is that this is accepted by a Mayo public which normally insists that Mayo teams have to play “in the Mayo way.” When – or if – Eugene McGee’s comma-tee change the rules to make this sort of thing an offence, Mayo will change too. But until such times, we dance with the girls in the hall.

Besides. Mayo 2012 still have that recognisable swagger that has traditionally distinguished the Mayo footballer. For this particular trait, look no further than corner forward Mickey Conroy, who is surely having the season of his life. First, Davitts’ great run to the All-Ireland final and now his triumphant return to the county team. Conroy has the full bag of tricks and it was a treat to see him work his magic yesterday.

Sunday worked out perfectly for James Horan. The Dublin comeback gives him plenty to work on in training, and the performance off the bench proves that there is real competition for places. All of that is good, but what is even better is the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that ever since Mayo returned to the top table in the mid-1990s, the county has tortured itself over what an All-Ireland winning team might look like. The consensus was that that you need Fionn Mac Cumhaill in midfield, Cúchulainn on the forty and Manannán Mac Lir bossing the square. A team of heroes, in other words, who know neither flaw nor weakness. Anything even slightly short of that shot you down to the level of the Warwickshire Junior B level.

Sunday’s semi-final suggests that in searching for perfection over the years Mayo have overlooked excellence. In other years, the loss of Andy Moran would have broken Mayo’s hearts. This year, Mayo know that while they’re still in the Championship, they’re still possible All-Ireland winners. As they lost man after man on Sunday, the next man stood up to be counted as he came off the bench.

It would be wrong to categorize the Dublin comeback as a choke-job. Dublin came back because you don’t get to be All-Ireland Champions without being able to play like that, but also because the Mayo defense was being held together with spit and string by that stage. But hold together they did, and that’s the point. Mayo have learned that sometimes you don’t have to perfect. Sometimes, mere excellence can get it done. Roll on Donegal.