Name the best Irish sports story of the year? Go on, try. Chances are you won’t get it.
It took place back in July, in a half-full stadium in Tampere in the southern portion of Finland. And, while only the World Under-20 Athletics Championship, and only a second spot, it wasn’t the level or the position on the podium that made it so wonderful. It wasn’t even our nation falsely hinting that it’s a land of sprinters.
Instead it was the make-up of the 100m relay team with Patience Jumbo-Gula, Rhasidat Adeleke and Gina Akpe-Moses three of the squad. Two were born here to Nigerian parents, Moses can’t remember whether she was two or three when her family made the same trip but does know she was barely able to walk, let alone run like the wind.
Ultimately that 43.9 seconds was the glorious summation and very best of a new and different Ireland.
But consider some of what they’d had to endure to bring us this pride and joy in not only a sporting but a societal sense. One person close to Athletics Ireland told of how they’d a serious task in deleting comments online as those comments questioned if they were Irish and asked where their Nigerian bicolour instead of our tricolour was.
This was nothing new as an official at the 2017 European Youth Olympics recalled tears around suggestions we were buying in athletes. We are of course, but if you are going to make that claim at least direct it in the right direction for, as a kid in this country, some are still sickeningly forced to grow a thicker skin based on the colour of that skin.
Then again we’ve a strange, complex and uncomfortable relationship with identity, race and nationality and nowhere shines a light on that brighter than our conversation around and reaction to our sport.
Take Declan Rice’s decision this week it seems to finally declare for England rather than to continue on with Martin O’Neill’s exacerbation and magnification of the FAI’s long and pronounced failure. Accepted as it should be by some, there is still the grumbling in many corners and even instances of outrage. And don’t think it’s merely the underbelly of social media pseudonyms, for even the likes of Kevin Kilbane said in the run-up to the choice that he’d “rather be ranked 150th in the world and never qualify again than have someone who has played, but needs time to think whether they should play for us again”.
Back in 2003, when Kate Thornton was interviewing Samuel L Jackson at the time of the release of the movie ‘Swat’ she mentioned that Colin Farrell was one of “theirs”. “You see that’s your problem right there,” he retorted. “You British keep claiming people that don’t belong to you. We had that problem here in America too, it was called slavery.”
It was one that got a lot of boisterous airing in Ireland and there is that forced vitriol every time it happens from Katie Taylor in sport to Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd and Cillian Murphy in acting to Dara Ó Briain in comedy. Let’s flip this for a moment though.
For where is our respect of those that have a right to consider themselves, as an example, British. Rory McIlroy has repeatedly talked about how that’s where he believes he is from and that’s what he feels he is. And while it may well annoy some people, it also has to be understood for is it any different to James McClean viewing himself as Irish? In short, no.
The same logic applies to Rice, whose links are fairly limited anyway via Cork-born grandparents, when his parents are English, as is his home, as was his home from day one throughout his upbringing. That he ever lined out for us shows a consideration about his roots and now as a young man he has settled on a choice. More power and more luck to him.
It is not our place to question that, even if he did come up through the FAI ranks, for how many in soccer and in other sports were forged by others and we are only too happy to accept and celebrate and claim them?
Do we not consider Shane Duffy one of us? Dan Martin says he would have rode for his home country across the water had they given him the support at a time they were instead mostly focused on track cycling, and that is the sole reason we got hold of him, and yet we happily call out his nationality as Irish.
This weekend the likes of Quinn Roux and Bundee Aki are in the rugby squad to face Italy and we consider that justifiable Irishness. In fact dare we even suggest CJ Stander to be Irish when literally the only reason he lines out for us is due to Munster paying more than Glasgow, as he came to Europe looking to play international rugby with one direction from his grandfather. “As long as you don’t go to England.”
This isn’t about multiculturalism in the real world, for there have to be strict guidelines for international sport to serve a purpose. And even under the most strict of those, Declan Rice has an absolute freedom to play for essentially what is his country on the basis that he believes it to be his country. It’s time we dealt with that, for we do far worse by paying those with no links and then engage in nonsense to convince ourselves that it’s okay.
Maybe Rice’s decision is to do with the fact that Roy Keane disappoints as a number two, with many of the younger players frustrated by the level of coaching, something that feels such a let down after his career regardless of what side you fell on in Saipan. Maybe it is to do with the fact that some in the squad feel Martin O’Neill is out of touch. Maybe he just wants to win.
Or maybe, still only 19, he finally settled on a sense of purpose and place.
Instead of complaining, what Ireland need to do is come to a realisation. The FAI have done well out of hand-me-downs over the years, but to rely on them is to commit the future to the choices of others as if black-jack style chance. For even as the quality of England’s players increases – as will the quantity of those top-drawer players due to them doing so much right at underage in what has been a remarkable revolution – if we are to take anything from them it needs to be their idea and implementation and not their products. Why not look at their approach to underage soccer, rather than those that fall through their net as it’s no longer working and involves clinging to a bygone past.
That’s not to say the likes of the aforementioned Kilbane down the line shouldn’t be welcome for our history and our Diaspora mean many abroad do feel they are from here. But bringing them back needs to be allied to the modern sporting approach of internal science and structures and investment, allowing for an overcoming of all domesticated roadblocks and hurdles. We may be small and we may have competing sports in the market for young hearts and minds, but even at that there is no way we can say our soccer here is anywhere close to maximising its true potential.
As many moan, Rice is now off to join up with those coming through a world-class system. It is based on simple ideas like all the national coaches working out of the one office; an academy system that sees all coaches nationwide invited there to buy into the vision; an England DNA programme around joined-up thinking and links between age groups to create world-class senior skill and talent rather than to look for instant success through size and strength at underage; a semblance of continuity in style, tactics, training and goals all the way up. As FA director of elite development Dan Ashworth said of it, “The only thing that should change is the size of the shirt”.
That’s what they are doing, and what are we doing?
Complaining about the colour of that shirt?
Blaming a teenager?
That’s typical but given our attitude in soccer and across sport it’s also something worse. For they say the hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.
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