Michael Moynihan: In praise of old sports shops

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By Michael Moynihan

You probably saw in last Saturday’s newspaper that I met Moss Finn for a chat. He was great company, but there was a shadow over our discussions.

He referred to the Western Star (now long closed), I asked him to talk about his shop (now lately closed); he mentioned Beecher’s, a dark and welcoming hostelry that once beckoned the weary shopper on Patrick Street (again, long closed), and I saw his reference to Beecher’s and raised him, tangentially, the Grand Circle, a similarly inviting establishment on Emmet Place (now, sadly, long closed etc etc.)

A couple of quick clarifications: a) we did not in fact spend all our time talking about pubs which are no longer open and b) the Grand Circle was the only place I ever visited with a menu item described thus: “Chicken curry, rice/chips”. This consisted of a lavish portion of chicken curry on a bed of boiled rice, which rested in turn on a bed of chips.

Great days.

Whatever about the lost pubs of Cork, the loss of Finn’s Corner as a sports shop is a serious milestone. Among other issues, it underlines a long-running change in the curious matter of buying sports gear, a neglected corner of anthropological study.

For most of us, the purchase as kids of those early pairs of football boots didn’t occur in the same way it does nowadays. By which I mean in an airy, open space, with pulsing contemporary music in the background as a surly teenager in a tracksuit pushes approximate sizes at you, while also talking rapidly, sometimes to an unseen person at the far end of the teenager’s earpiece, sometimes to you.

Au contraire: The experience in the old days was far more likely to be a claustrophobic matter of fitting on a pair of boots found “out the back” that was slightly too big, to allow you to grow into them, while also bumping into a random collection of tracksuit bottoms hanging just behind you, and ducking your head to avoid a dozen low-hanging hurling helmets.

Many of the old-school sports shops were so tightly packed, with merchandise, staff, customers, clothes rails, that often the first time you saw your new boots properly was when you got them home. Perhaps that explains the relative success of the old Blackthorn boots (“the boot that boots the ball”, according to the ads.)

This reflects the changing status of sportswear, of course. In the Cretaceous era, when your columnist used to head for town on a Saturday afternoon with his teenage pals — he was a teenager himself at the time, what are you insinuating? — nobody wore runners. Or tracksuit pants. Or tracksuit tops, come to think of it.

Now the young folk wear little else. It need not detain us unduly to observe that a time traveller arriving from the mid-eighties to Patrick Street nowadays would wonder where all the athletes were going, given almost everybody under the age of 20 was dressed for the Olympic Games.

Even allowing for the change in fashions, though, it’s sad to see Finn’s Corner go because it strips out another shade of individuality from the city. The same for Ludgate O’Keeffe — the epitome of the tiny sports shop — or Football Crazy, or any of the other sports shops which have fallen by the wayside over the years. Some have survived: the likes of Cummins Sports springs to mind, and it — and others like it — helps reduce a gloomy sensation that’s becoming more and more common in the country.

By that I mean the feeling of being somewhere both general and specific a lot of the time: Some town or city in Britain, given the array of familiar retail names on shopfronts in most Irish towns and cities

More names particular to their own area would be welcome but that would put a brake on progress, I suppose. Taking sports shops as our template, that would mean giving up the airy spaces, the pulsing music, the surly teenager.

Who could go without those?

The last of the boys of summer

Sad news last week with the passing of Roger Kahn: He was 92.

Kahn made the scene in the New York sporting press of the fifties onwards, and so lived the life many of us view as the platonic ideal of the sportswriter’s life. He was raised in Brooklyn, wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune and the sports magazines of the day and turned out over twenty books, including A Flame of Pure Fire – the life story of his local innkeeper, one Jack Dempsey.

(Early on Kahn takes up Dempsey’s invitation to spar — “The fastest left-hand punch I ever saw up close creased the right side of my face, etching a line along the jawbone. A right I never saw cracked into my midsection.”) Kahn’s masterwork was The Boys of Summer, when he revisited, twenty years on, the Brooklyn Dodgers he’d reported on in the early fifties. He met men who’d lost everything, whose children were crippled by Vietnam, who were doing well and who were doing just well enough.

It was a huge success when published in 1972 — ‘a baseball book the same way ‘Moby Dick’ is a fishing book’ was one review — and remains an absorbing read.

I’ve referred to it before, but Kahn’s parting glimpse of Roy Campanella, the player paralysed in a car crash, still reverberates: “He pushed the lever and the wheelchair started off bearing the broken body and leaving me, and perhaps Roxie Campanella as well, to marvel at the vaulting human spirit, imprisoned yet free, in the noble wreckage of the athlete, in the dazzling palace of the man.” 

In all sports rules need enforcement

The clouds appear to be gathering when it comes to the black card in hurling, with predictable keening.

There’s no cynicism in hurling. There’s huge cynicism in hurling. Gaelic football has even been mentioned once or twice.

What nobody wants to address is the simple fact of enforcement. The rules exist in hurling but they simply aren’t enforced.

Take the semi-occasional complaints about handpassing: if a referee doesn’t see a clear hand-passing motion, then he awards a free. If a referee doesn’t see the motion and gives frees, then players won’t be long adapting and making sure the motion is clear and visible.

Nobody wants to be picking on referees who are trying to manage games which are exponentially faster than they were twenty years ago, but if the issue is one of enforcement then it doesn’t matter what the rules are. Asking referees to finesse their judgement even more to determine which offences are black card, which are yellow cards, which are red . . . This is unfair on referees and likely to have exactly the opposite result in terms of the quality of play to what’s intended.

Mahomes and the cannon arm prevail

I didn’t make it out of the first quarter of the Super Bowl, which you probably noticed was won by the Kansas City Chiefs, who beat the San Francisco 49ers.

The Chiefs’ star is quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a chap who came to my attention when a clip circulated of him throwing an American football out of Arrowhead Stadium.

Apparently when he was still in school his coach had to get opposition teams to agree to giving him more room for his warm-up throws; they usually resisted until they saw Mahomes throw a football sixty yards down the field, landing among their own players. Then they gave him all the room he wanted.

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