Balls! I don’t know who invented the ball but to borrow a Showwaddywaddy line, “Who was that man? I’d like to shake his hand…”
I recall the words of old Spurs wizard Jimmy Greaves at the conclusion of the 1986 World Cup tournament, “There’s been high balls, low balls, long balls, wide balls, in fact it’s all been a lot of… fun.”
The ancient Greeks played ball games while some form of activity with a ball is found portrayed on Egyptian monuments. Considering how much time has passed since the days of Tutankhamun, that’s a lot of balls.
I’ve spent my life watching balls being kicked, caught, headed, punched, potted and pucked. Indeed my life continues to be time-tabled between ball games with work filling the spaces in between. Ball games have taken me on an emotional rollercoaster ride giving me the best days and worst disappointments that took days to subside. For God’s sake I’ve lost sleep after balls have sailed wide or over the bar when they should have been shaking the raindrops off the net. Where’s there’s a ball, I’m hypnotised, mesmerised and a little giddy.
The earliest memory is from 1968 when, much to my angst, Jeff Astle struck the ball to the Everton net in the FA Cup final. The former West Brom and England star died in 2002 as a result of heading the old leather balls so often during his career. He really did.
The following year there was further disappointment when a Frankie Donnelly inspired Carrickmore beat Coalisland with a late goal in the O’Neill Cup final in Dungannon. Fr Peter Paul Kerr done the dreadful deed. It was too much for a tender nine-year-old and a defeat that reverberated around the town for years. Put it like this, it is a more vivid memory than my First Communion, the 11 plus or the births of a cluster of wee brothers and sisters.
Where men, and indeed women, are gathered around a ball the crowds are sure to follow.
Arsenal fanatic Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch, “I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: Suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” A billion men and one empathised.
There were more heartaches. What have the 1972 World Cup final and last year’s All Ireland hurling final got in common? The Gods contrived to make me miss viewing both, that’s what! I didn’t want my Ma to take me out of the Gaeltacht for lunch when I was 12, the afternoon West Germany beat Holland 2-1. It was traumatic. It still is.
And don’t even start me about the Tyrone Ladies GAA who fixed last year’s Junior final to throw in at the same time as what only transpired to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest ever All Ireland hurling final. It was the only game played in Ulster that afternoon. I said don’t start me! I feel another song coming on… “I’m not no red football to be kicked around the garden…” though Sinead O’Connor was singing about her emotions and not a Size 5.
An unsettled soul, wherever I wandered I found the ball park. Lansdowne Road in Dublin 4 was a dump but what an atmosphere at the Five Nations back in ’82 when tickets for the terraces could be bought at face value on O’Connell Bridge the morning of the game.
That was back when Molly Malone rather than the hackneyed ‘Fields of Athenry’ reverberated around the old stadium as Moss Keane carried half a dozen Englishmen on his back. ‘Rugby players have funny shaped balls,’ said the T-shirt.
Yankee Stadium in the Bronx was another cultural treat as Darryl Strawberry hit home base while the fans went crazy in the Bleachers. Holy Cow!
As for the walk from Liberty Square to the Stadium of Legends in Thurles for the Munster hurling final… it’s one for the bucket list. It is iconic.
Then there was the Giants Stadium June 18, 1994, Ireland 1 Italy 0 that author Joe O’Connor described as his “concept of heaven.” To borrow Max Boyce’s catchphrase, “I was there!”
When some folk look at Sean Quinn from Brackaville they see a GAA referee, I see someone who was in the Crucible Theatre 30 years ago on the night Dennis Taylor potted the last black ball to beat Steve Davis in the most epic World snooker championship final.
The most exhilarating ball games are all around us, often found in unexpected places. The ladies football junior semi-final between na Fianna and Pomeroy last year had it all; 2-18 to 3-12 after extra time, great scores, courage, mistakes, a bit of fisticuffs, howls of joy and tears. Lads who complained about the admission fee entering the ground threw extra cash on the table as they left.
Throw in three Septembers in the noughties and great club wins and the ball owes us nothing.
Ball games mapped my life. So why oh why, do I not get the small ball with the dimples? As all around run to the fairways and get excited about Rory, Darren and yer man with the funny accent, I look on in bemusement, an outsider identifying with Mark Twain, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.”