Nothing so infuriates the pub drinkers and twitter users of the world more than the question of greatness in sport. If you want to start an argument in a bar or on social media in the morning, there’s no better way than to say”Person X is the greatest boxer/footballer/hurler of all time”, and vigorously defend your point of view despite whatever evidence there is to the contrary.
Given those circumstances then, it could be taken as read that when RTE decided to present a show on “Ireland’s greatest sporting moment” a few weeks ago, that whatever decision they made wouldn’t be met with, shall we say, universal approval. The programme featured a greatest sporting moment from each of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and the 2000 to 2017 period, and while it was certainly entertaining, there was more than one or two questionable decisions.
Padraig Harrington becoming the first Irishman to win a golfing major in 60 years in 2007 undoubtedly deserves acclaim, and the Irish football teams success of the late 80’s and early 90’s were certainly memorable, but was Munster beating New Zealand in a glorified friendly in 1978, really Ireland’s greatest sporting moment of the 70’s? Was it better than the international achievement of John Treacy winning a world cross country championship for instance? And while Ireland beating England in the rugby in Croke Park in 2007 was certainly a special day, do John Hayes’ tears on the day actually trump other more heroic acts on the field of play of golf courses/athletics tracks/boxing rings of the world?
When you consider the serious international competition involved, where does the GAA come into play? There’s always a difficulty comparing international events to local ones. Obviously golf, athletics, boxing and soccer are sports that are played widely in most countries of the world, so excellence in them should take precedence. Rugby is popular in about ten countries, but it’s only on this little island of ours that Gaelic football and hurling are played. Still the makers of the programme didn’t ignore our games completely as they featured a few great GAA moments. But what does a great “GAA moment” really mean?
Take for example the question of the Kilkenny hurling team of the 00’s. The Cats won four All-Irelands back to back, from 2006 to 2009, the first time something like that had been done since the 1940’s. So did them putting the seal on a glorious four in a row in 2009, in one of the greatest finals of all time, constitute a great sporting moment?
According to the makers of the programme, no. Why not? Well Brian Cody’s men were, almost without question, the greatest hurling team of all time, but were not necessarily the most loved. It comes with the territory of being so dominant I imagine. I mean, sure they had Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh and countless others but when they did win the All-Ireland in 2009, I doubt there were many outside of the county boundaries actually hailing it. But when Tipperary beat them to put an end to the five in a row dream in 2010, rightly or wrongly, it was cheered to the rafters. So yes, everybody knew they were great, but wasn’t it even greater to see them beaten? Apparently-some will say-lamentably, yes it was.
Of course Kilkenny are not the only county who have a right to feel aggrieved. If anything, the Kerry footballers of the 1975-1986 era have even more cause for complaint. The likes of Paidi O Se, Pat Spillane et al were, pretty much inarguably the greatest Gaelic football team of all time, certainly until the current Dublin side came along, but the two occasions they were featured in this show, were two of the only times in 12 years they were beaten!
Dublin beating Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final in 1977 is still feted as one of the greatest football games of all times, but considering Dublin were media darlings at the time, you’d wonder if the game would still be so popular if Kerry had won it. And Offaly winning an All-Ireland in 1982 with a dramatic last minute goal was fantastic theatre, but if, as he should have done, the referee PJ McGrath had penalized Seamus Darby’s push on Tommy Doyle, it could so easily have been Kerry’s five in a row. Would Kerry winning a five in a row have been deemed worthy of inclusion as one of Ireland’s greatest sporting moments though? Well, it probably should have been, but it’s debatable if the public would have gone for it.
The problem, however, isn’t really to do with the choice of moment at all. It’s the titling of the programme that’s the biggest bone of contention. If the programme really wanted to honour sporting greatness, then it wouldn’t be called “Ireland’s greatest sporting moment“, but rather “Ireland’s greatest sporting Achievement” Because, while it’s a wonderfully dramatic moment when Offaly deny Kerry a historic five in a row with a last minute goal, or the most downtrodden of counties such as Clare emerge to win an All-Ireland after 81 years, does that really compare with the level of effort and professionalism that it requires to complete a feat like putting four All-Ireland titles back to back? Now that really is sporting greatness.
We took Kilkenny and Kerry’s greatness for granted during their periods of success. It’s only now, looking back, that we realize how special those sides were. Who will be the next hurling side to win a four in a row? It may not happen for another 50 years. Dublin may well complete the football four in a row next year, but considering their distinct advantages in terms of population and funding (more on that soon) I doubt many of the inhabitants of the other 31 counties will be shouting about it from the rooftops.
Now, obviously, if Dublin do win the four in a row next year they should be applauded for it, but I doubt it will feature as an all time great highlight if such a sports programme is repeated again in ten years time. But if say, Mayo beat them in a cracking All-Ireland final in 2019, to end a wait of 68 years for an All-Ireland, then you can imagine how special an occasion that would be. Because, while it’s a great achievement when one of these sides completes a four in a row, it’s a great moment when they get beaten.
Maybe if RTE really wants to stir the pot again they should organize a separate programme whereby Ireland’s greatest sporting team of all time is selected. We could have a representative of the Ireland 88-90 soccer side, the grand slam winning rugby side of 2009, the respective four in a row teams of Kilkenny hurling and Kerry football, and perhaps a Cork ladies football player from the current era, and each could argue their case as to why they should be picked as Ireland’s greatest sports team of all time. Then we could get the public to vote on it and end the argument once and for all.
Even if we did do that though, I’m not sure us gaels (c)Joe Brolly) would be happy at the end of it. In fact I’m backing the Rugby boys to win it. Why? Because, well, there’s a rugby bias isn’t there?!!!