Tommy Conlon: ‘The few dozen who chucked the tennis balls onto the pitch were the only ones doing their duty’


Tommy Conlon: ‘The few dozen who chucked the tennis balls onto the pitch were the only ones doing their duty’


Conor Hourihane (centre) celebrates scoring the winner against Georgia with Robbie Brady, James McClean, Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Hourihane (centre) celebrates scoring the winner against Georgia with Robbie Brady, James McClean, Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh. Photo: Sportsfile

It wasn’t their fault, but their timing could not have been worse. The tennis ball Bolsheviks had no sooner made their inflammatory gesture than Ireland scored a goal at the other end and the crowd forgot all about them.

The masses were placated by the goal as easily as a child by a sweet. The protest was stillborn. All of the politics was drowned out by the sight of the ball hitting the net. In that moment the FAI could have announced that Sepp Blatter was to be the new CEO and most of the crowd would have continued singing Olé, Olé, Olé.

The juxtaposition of the two moments in Lansdowne Road on Tuesday night exposed a critical fault-line at the heart of the sporting culture. We all know that games have mass appeal for many reasons and one of the biggest is pure escapism. The world loves sport because it provides a reprieve from the lived reality, this vale of tears, the ticking clock that is our allotted 90 minutes.

This same appetite for escapism also helps to explain why sport has attracted so many charlatans to its bordellos of power. The masses are fixated by events in the arena; they are correspondingly oblivious to what is going on in the committee rooms. They don’t care, they don’t notice, and most of them do not bother to inform themselves.

Unlike politicians, blazers are not accountable to a constituency because the fans don’t even know that they themselves are the actual constituents; overwhelmingly they do not accept that they might have some responsibilities in this regard. If they are inclined to hold anyone accountable, it is usually the protagonists in the aforementioned arena – the players and managers. It is easier to turn on a player who is not performing, or a manager who is not delivering, because they can see it in front of them and because it is much more important to them than a blazer who is abusing his power or who is simply too useless to do his job properly. All too often, they fail to join the dots when their beloved team is malfunctioning or the club as an institution is waning. They don’t see the full picture because they don’t want to know; it is too complicated; it is too much like hard work to find out what’s going on. They just want to be entertained; they just want their team to win.

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This is the vacuum that has facilitated generations of administrative chancers; the politicians – to quote Eugene McGee – who hadn’t the guts to go into politics; the creeping Jesuses of the committee rooms who enjoy the ego trip, the expense accounts and the junkets. They get away with it, mostly because the rank and file fans who claim to love their sport of choice don’t love it enough to hold accountable those who govern it. Including The Greatest Fans in the World™.

The few dozen among them who chucked the tennis balls onto the pitch last Tuesday night were the only ones doing their duty. They were the properly patriotic fans. These are the conscientious objectors who make the banners and smuggle them into grounds, who shout the slogans and campaign for change. They have joined the dots; they know where the rot is and why it has spread; and they want to do something about it.

Now, it can be crude stuff. And many is the time that a football crowd, in particular, has adopted a mob mentality when turning on a player or a manager. One wouldn’t want to get too sentimental about the noble proletariat who follow their team through thick and thin. But in the context of Irish football, there has been far too much apathy and not nearly enough activism.

There is not a more recidivist institution in Irish sporting life than the Football Association of Ireland. Saipan was supposed to be the watershed to end all watersheds. The subsequent Genesis report was supposed to be the blueprint for a transformation more fundamental even than gender reassignment itself. Out of the shambles would come a renaissance.

Seventeen years later and the gombeen gene is still deep in its marrow. Older chroniclers of the organisation such as John Giles and Eamon Dunphy would tell us that it has been this way since the World War II, if not earlier. Maybe, therefore, there is something inherently second rate in the culture: a basic lack of education, a gaping deficit of managerial ability in the system, a dearth of people of professional calibre and training. To put it more bluntly: a missing middle class. Maybe they are elsewhere in Irish soccer, running their local clubs and youth academies in a proper and progressive way.


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Anyway, it might pain devotees of the game to hear it again, but overall the calibre of people running the IRFU and the GAA is simply of a far higher standard – and always has been. To find out why might require sociologists rather than management consultants.

Either way, the tennis ball mutineers had evidently decided that enough was enough. They were prepared to obtrude their resentment on to the field of play, that sanctuary normally considered untouchable no matter how strong the emotions. In clubs around England and Europe it has become an effective act of protest theatre among fans, managing to be both subversive and humorous – albeit that a lot of people were not amused by it last Tuesday evening.

And then, with tragicomic timing, Conor Hourihane scored that peach of a goal and the protesters were made to look like the killjoys at a pop-up party. Everyone else was happy, so why weren’t they?

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Sunday Indo Sport


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