Archive for the ‘The Book Club’ Category

Leaving The Liberties Lockdown

We head out of lockdown on Monday, with the revised three phase exit strategy providing a certain symmetry for what was effectively a three stage entry process back in March. It has been a long and strange time over these past few months for everyone.

Maybe I should have kept a diary to document it all. Instead I tweeted random thoughts and took plenty of photos of cats and street art for Instagram – hey whatever gets you through – so I had a flick through those posts as a prompt to pen a few thoughts on what lockdown here in The Liberties was like for me.

Phase 3 begins on Monday – 105 days after the first stage of lockdown. We knew things were serious back on 12 March when at 7am in the morning in Washington DC (11am in Dublin) then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was giving a speech to the Irish public starting with “I need to speak to you about the Coronavirus”. Looking up from my desk in the office at that time, people were going about their daily work oblivious that this would be their last few days in the office for over three months.

I make Leo Varadkar’s speech five days later – his unprecedented St. Patrick’s Day address – the second phase of entering lockdown. The whole thing got serious when even I was sitting on my couch that night getting a bit emotional about it all. “This is the calm before the storm, before the surge. And when it comes, and it will come, never will so many ask so much of so few.” Gulp.

A week and a bit later and it was our final phase of entry – into full lockdown. By then there was over 2,000 cases and sadly 22 deaths. Friday 27 March it was announced that “with effect from midnight tonight…everybody must stay at home in all circumstances” except for a number of situations including brief individual physical exercise within 2km of your home – no more running in the Phoenix Park for me.

This all had me so addled that at the end of that speech I did my first bit of panic shopping as I stuck my runners on, went out to the local shop just before it closed and embarrassingly this was what I brought home – that and some chips as I thought the chippers would be closed at midnight – thankfully it never came to that.

I was lucky enough to be able to continue to work from home during this time and have that routine of a typical working day to keep me in check. I switched my usual morning commute time for daily yoga! Certainly it was a stress reliever and a help for my lower back which hasn’t enjoyed the kitchen table chair I’ve been sitting on every day!

With live sport also in lockdown what the hell was I going to do with my time. Initially I started with chronicling all my Shamrock Rovers match programmes going back to the 1990s, then I moved onto the jerseys and then I started working my way through the Rovers squad doing video interviews for the club’s social media channels!

The videos of course allowed me to showcase my bookcases – and I also added some new books to the shelves. All told I reckon I read 16 books during lockdown. My lockdown recommendations are:

Football: Stillness & Speed, Football Hackers, Forever Young
Apocalypse now: Station Eleven, Zone One, Notes from the Apocalypse
Fiction: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Devil in the White City, Normal People

Ah yes, Normal People. What a great distraction the TV version was. Wonderfully shot, acted and soundtracked and who didn’t fall in love with Marianne or become fixated with Connell’s chain.

As we exit lockdown, there will be things I will miss and I know that can sound a bit selfish when you think of the reasons why we went into lockdown. Such as the evening walks through the near deserted streets around The Liberties but I’m hoping to keep these strolls going post-lockdown (see previous blog post here). I will miss that time walking to the soundtrack of David O’Doherty’s hilarious Isolation podcast from Achill Island on the Second Captains podcast platform.

There were a few weeks when the DPD driver was the person I spoke to most face-to-face as I availed of some online shopping – one of these deliveries was a hair clippers and two haircuts later I will be glad to get back to a real barbers sometime in the future.

I got back into the habit I had long gotten out of and started watching the main evening news on RTÉ each night. And live sport on TV was replaced by live CNN in the evening with Wolf Blitzer and the Situation Room chronicling America’s woes. As the US numbers get worse with 125,000 deaths and counting, the numbers in Ireland got better and better, with thankfully no deaths recorded on some days in late June.

The outgoing government, which I had very little time for, I think deserve great credit for the excellent job of handling the crisis and they hand over to a new government just as we leave lockdown. Let’s wish them the best and not worry about what is in or out of their programme for government. Let’s not worry about a second wave, question when can we go on holidays abroad or give out about the increased traffic on the roads.

Let’s think of all those who have worked so hard over the last 100+ days to get us into the position that we can leave lockdown. Think of those who we have lost and those friends and family that have helped us get through this. Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands and be thankful of the good days that are to come.

Tallaght Time book launch

July 16, 2013 1 comment

The official launch of Tallaght Time took place in the Gala Room in Tallaght Stadium on Friday 12th July ahead of the Shamrock Rovers v Derry City game. Broadcaster, and well known Hoops fan, Con Murphy officially launched the book and it was great for the authors to have Con do the honours and to have so many friends and family there for the launch.

Con Murphy with the authors of Tallaght Time

Con Murphy with the authors of Tallaght Time

There are some more photos of the launch on the book’s facebook page here.

On the night in Hoops Scene, Shamrock Rovers’ matchday programme, there was an edited extract from Chapter Seven of Tallaght Time describing the dramatic conclusion to title battle between Rovers and Bohs in 2010 when the Hoops travelled to Bray on the final night of the season.

Chapter 7: Who wants to be League Champions? 2010 Title Run-in

A draw was all that was needed for Rovers to be crowned champions unless Bohs could put a hatful past Dundalk in Dalymount Park. It was first blood to Bohs who went 1-0 up against Dundalk after only 12 minutes. When Bray scored eight minutes later, it meant that if results stayed that way, it would be three in a row for Bohs. Gary Twigg was not going to let that happen without a fight as he latched onto a through ball from Craig Sives just before the break in Bray.

7-2 Gary Twigg about to score against Bray bb

Gary Twigg
The ball gets down the side and the boy’s slipped and I was in. I saw the keeper coming and I took it around him. I don’t know why but for some reason I let the boy get back on the line. I’d usually hit it first time. I kept taking it in. The boy was closing me and I had nowhere to go except through his legs so I took it with the outside of my left foot. Thinking about it now I don’t know how I kept so calm with the pressure! The roar that went up that night when it went in was unreal. I think there was a lot of nervous energy going out from everyone.

Stephen Rice
With that goal other strikers may have snatched at it but Twiggy showed why he was the best striker in the league.

The Rovers fans’ nerves were eased when Twigg’s strike partner Thomas Stewart rounded off a fine passing move one minute into the second half giving Rovers a 2-1 lead while Bohs had conceded and were now only drawing their game. In the season that was in it, there was to be another twist when Gary Shaw’s diving header equalised for Bray after 69 minutes and Bohs went 2-1 up 10 minutes later. Rovers went into the three minutes of injury time at the Carlisle Grounds knowing that one more goal for Bray would mean the end for Rovers’ title ambitions.

In Dalymount Park, the final whistle went with Bohs 3-1 winners. In Bray, the Rovers fans beseeched referee Alan Kelly to blow up with a cacophony of whistles of their own. Alan Mannus had to make one final save but the referee blew up after what seemed the longest few minutes ever of injury time. The Hoops had waited 16 years to win the league but they had to wait no longer.

Rovers fans swarmed onto the pitch to celebrate with the players. Fans embraced each other with tears streaming down their faces. After all the ups and mostly downs since the last league title in 1994, this meant so much to the Shamrock Rovers fans. Nobody ever said winning the league would be easy but Rovers had managed to do it the very hard way. After 36 games, just two goals separated them from Bohemians at the end of the season.

There was a chaotic trophy presentation on the pitch. Surrounded by thousands of Rovers fans, captain Dan Murray managed to get his hands on the trophy alongside Stephen Rice to lift the coveted trophy to the backdrop of confetti and flares. In the melee that followed with fans swarming the podium, Pat Flynn was cracked over the head with the trophy, cutting his head open with blood flowing down his face. It was champagne though that flowed in the Rovers dressing room when they eventually got there.

Stephen Rice
The trophy presentation was poor but if you had to present me that league trophy in hell with fire and demons running around me, I would have taken it! It was crazy stuff. It was a massive night for the club and all of us players. It is something that we will never forget. It was incredible that some of the young fans out in Bray that night weren’t even alive when we won the last title.

Gary Twigg
What a night. If anybody says to me what is your best night playing for Shamrock Rovers, well the answer is that is the best night. That night will never be beaten for me, that was pure emotion.

The league trophy ready to be presented on the pitch in Bray

The league trophy ready to be presented on the pitch in Bray

Trevor Croly
My daughter was at the game with my mam and dad, and I wanted to stand and watch the presentation with her. I had her in my arms and I just watched the guys. I just wanted to see the lads get their reward. It was an emotional night, one of those special moments in your life.

Justin Mason
It was mayhem but who cares. It was brilliant. There was a guy in a wheelchair in front of us and he was trying to get on the pitch with two of his mates. We came down and lifted the wheelchair over the wall so he could get on the pitch! I thought Pat Flynn had head butted the trophy because he is that mad. I didn’t realise it was accidental!

Buzz O’Neill
We went into a pub in Bray and what struck me was that it was all the same faces who had been in those meetings in the Plaza Hotel back in 2005, who had gone to the High Court hearings, who had been in Cobh back in 2006 [when Rovers won the first division]. A friend was there with her Dad and I started hugging her Dad and she was saying, ‘oh, by the way Dad, this is Buzz’. Never met the man before in my life! We limped over the line to a degree but when they engrave the League of Ireland trophy it doesn’t say ‘won it by one goal’, it just says ‘champions’.

Match Facts
Two or more teams had finished level on points at the top of the table five times before in League of Ireland history. Shelbourne had a superior goal difference to Derry City in 2006 and three titles were decided by playoffs, including Cork Hibernians’ 3-1 win over Shamrock Rovers in 1970/71.

15 Rovers players won the first League of Ireland medal of their careers that night. In the modern era, seven players have won the Premier Division with three different clubs. All of them played with Rovers and, with the exception of Joseph Ndo and Colin Hawkins, they all won a title at Rovers – John Coady, Mick Neville, Paul Doolan, Neale Fenn and Gary O’Neill.

© Macdara Ferris and Karl Reilly / The Liffey Press (2013)

Tallaght Time, published by The Liffey Press, tells the remarkable tale of Shamrock Rovers’ recent history since the club moved to their new home told through the words of those closely involved; Rovers officials, players and fans. In depth interviews were carried out specifically for the book with a number of Rovers officials and players including Gary Twigg, Stephen Rice, Dan Murray, Trevor Croly, Stephen Kenny and Jonathan Roche amongst many others.

The book describes the many magical nights since the Hoops moved to Tallaght such as Cristiano Ronaldo making his debut for Real Madrid against Rovers; the visit of Alessandro Del Piero and his star-studded Juventus team and winning their first league title since 1994. The book also charts Rovers’ extraordinary 2011 European campaign including the never-to-be-forgotten win over Partizan Belgrade in Serbia and the trip to White Hart Lane.

The book is 320 pages in length with over 70 colour photos by club photographers Bobby Best and George Kelly and includes historical inserts and detailed appendices with results, appearances and scorers for all Rovers matches from 2009 to 2012.

Tallaght Time is available from the Shamrock Rovers megastore, online and in Easons, Reads and Dubray Books.

Front cover Tallaght Time


Tallaght Time: Shamrock Rovers 2009 – 2012

“Tallaght Time: Shamrock Rovers 2009-2012” the book I’ve written with Karl Reilly, with photos by Bobby Best & George Kelly, has gone to print. Published by The Liffey Press, it should be available for purchase around end of June.

Front cover Tallaght Time

Tallaght Time tells the remarkable story of Shamrock Rovers’ recent history since the club moved to Tallaght. After a nightmare decade-long journey, they finally got to play in their new home in 2009 after overcoming near financial ruin, planning pitfalls and High Court cases. Only in their wildest dreams could supporters of the club have foreseen the success that would come while playing in the venue. Rovers, now owned by its fans, would win back-to-back league titles and qualify for the Europa League group stages during their short tenure in Tallaght.

Told through the words of those closely involved, including Shamrock Rovers’ managers, officials, players and fans, Tallaght Time describes the many magical nights since
the Hoops moved to their new stadium: Cristiano Ronaldo making his debut for Real Madrid against Rovers; taking on Alessandro Del Piero and his star-studded Juventus team
in 2010; and winning their first league title since 1994. The book also charts Rovers’ extraordinary 2011 European campaign when they made history by becoming the first Irish team to reach the group stages of a major European competition after a never-to-be-forgotten win over Partizan Belgrade in Serbia.

13-1 Europa League football comes to Tallaght MF

ISBN 978-1-908308-44-3

Ringsend lad Langan ‘Running through Walls’

September 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Growing up in Ringsend, Dave Langan dreamed of playing international football for his country in Lansdowne Road, the stadium that was just a fullback’s long throw away from his home. He was able to live out that dream of playing for Ireland as well as to fulfil the ambition of many boys to walk up those famous Wembley steps to collect a winner’s medal at a cup final.

Those footballing highs were counterbalanced with lows in both his career and away from football where he battled with injury, marriage difficulties and, at one stage, homelessness. This month Langan published his autobiography ‘Running through Walls’ which chronicles his battles on the pitch as well as the battles he faced, and continues to face, off the pitch.

Langan played 26 times for his country over an 12 year period so when spoke with the former Ireland right back this week, we asked what was his career highlight from his time in an Ireland shirt?

“My debut was something I will never forget. I played against Turkey and we won 4-2. Every game was great though especially in Lansdowne in front of that crowd and the great atmosphere. I loved it when you walked out and then the national anthem was played. Your lungs would burst and the hairs would go up on the back of your neck. It was unreal.”

Another career highlight for Langan was playing against Argentina in Lansdowne Road in 1980 where he had to mark a certain Diego Armando Maradona.

“Playing against Maradona was very special,” admitted Langan. “It was his balance that was unreal. I’d never seen anything like it. He would go over tackles that would kill others and he’d just skip away from them. I clattered him a few times and he just looked at me as if to stay ‘Is that the best you got!?!’”

Langan was part of the Ireland team for the famous win over France in 1981. It was a win that was to come at a price for the former Cherry Orchard player who picked up a knee injury that would cause him untold trouble in the rest of his football career and beyond.

“The French game when we won 3-2 was one of hell a match. I got a bad tackle that day when a French player came in on me very late. My knee has given me severe problems from then on. I’ve had to have 10 operations on that knee.”

That game was part of the qualification for the 1982 World Cup and Langan has strong views on Ireland’s failure to qualify for that tournament.

“The most disappointing time with Ireland was when we missed out on qualifying on goal difference when Eoin Hand was in charge. We were cheated over in Belgium. The player who dived in the last couple of minutes should have got an Oscar for it. They scored from that free kick to beat us 1-0. Kevin Moran had a goal disallowed in France. The gods were against us that year. We didn’t have one bit of luck. It was a major disappointment and we would have loved to have played in that tournament.”

When Ireland did subsequently qualify for a tournament in 1988, Langan missed out when manager Jack Charlton controversially omitted him from the squad. It had been another famous English manager, Brian Clough, who gave Langan his start in the professional game. Clough had a unique way of welcoming Langan into the ranks.

“The first thing he said to me was not ‘welcome to Derby’ but ‘can you use a brush? Well, go down and brush my office.’ From then on he kept ringing and sending for me. He’d ring the boot room and say ‘send me down the Irishman.’ He’d never call me by my first name, just Irishman. I’d go down, and he’d say ‘go get me a whiskey’ or ‘go and wash my car’. He was a one off and he wouldn’t get away with that now! He is an all time great for what he did in his career. He was a hell of character.

“He hated you giving the ball away. In the Derby dressing room, there was a sign he put up that said ‘The biggest crime in football is to give the ball to the opposition’. If you gave the ball away, he’d go absolutely ballistic! It was a good way of teaching you to keep the ball and it was a good way to bring you from an apprentice to a professional.”

After Derby, Langan moved to Birmingham City before joining Oxford United where he had great success.

“My favourite time in club football was with Oxford. I scored a goal against Shrewsbury that brought us up to the division which is now the Premier League in England and we also won the Milk Cup.”

The 1986 League Cup Final, or Milk Cup Final as it was known then, played at Wembley saw Oxford beat QPR.

“It was my first time in Wembley and I couldn’t believe it. I remember going up Wembley Way with Ray Houghton sitting beside me in the coach. He goes ‘there is your three sisters’ as he recognized them having been over for an Irish dinner in my house before. When I looked, the three of them were there waving at me!

“I was a young guy from Ringsend used to playing on the Dodder pitches and here I was playing at Wembley. It was hard to sink in. When you are a young boy, you see the cup finals, the players walking up the steps and you wonder what that is like. You want to do that yourself and then when it happens to you, you are so proud. I can still remember walking up those steps, being handed the medal and the roar of the crowd when our captain lifted the cup. It just stays with you forever.”

In Langan’s book, co-written with Trevor Keane and Alan Conway, he tells the story of these footballing career highlights but also of the dark days that followed him hanging up his boots in 1989. He admitted that documenting his troubles has at times “been very difficult. There have been many lows in my life. Moments like when I turned to drink, all the operations I needed and how depressed I got. It all had to come out but it was great to get it off my chest as you are better off getting it out in the open. We’ve worked really hard, it has nearly taken us nearly 18 months to write. It has been tough going at times. Sometimes you want to jack it in but we hope it goes well.”

At one point after he finished playing, Langan even found himself homeless but it was through the help of friends and family that he was able to get back on his feet.

“I ended up sleeping in the town hall basement cupboard as I’d nowhere to go. Cherry Orchard did a charity night for me and that helped me a great deal to get back on my feet. The FAI did a dinner for me too.”

Peterborough, the town where he finished his playing career, is Langan’s home now and he works there in the local authority.

“I look after the Mayor, help him get ready and do the teas and coffees for his guests,” said the 55 year-old. It is a nice little job. There is no lifting!”

This is important as Langan had his right knee fully replaced in April this year and will have his left knee operated on early next year. The launch of his book has surprised some of those in the city hall.

“I was on Radio Cambridge and they did a big spread in the Peterborough Telegraph so people are coming up to me saying ‘I didn’t realise who you were’. I suppose I kept things quiet but it is good now that the book is coming out.”

Next month, Langan will be in Ireland for a book tour. He hopes to get to Aviva Stadium to watch Ireland take on Germany and he is particularly looking forward to a book signing in Tallaght Stadium ahead of the Shamrock Rovers v Derry City game on October 13th. Growing up in Ringsend where Rovers were founded, Langan is a big Shamrock Rovers supporter. As a child he used to travel to see the Hoops when they played in Milltown and he still keeps a close eye on goings on at Rovers.

“I am coming over for 12 days for the book launch. There will be loads of book signings in Easons and I’m going to travel around Ireland for that. I’m going to be busy but the one I’m really looking forward to is the one in Tallaght. I also hope to do a book signing near Lansdowne the day before that and am hoping to get to the Ireland v Germany game.”

Published by DB Publishing, ‘Running through Walls’ Dave Langan’s Autobiography is released in September.

Article published on on Monday, 8 September, 2012.

Ball Four – A home run rather than a no hitter

December 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Ball Four is Jim Bouton’s account from inside the locker room of his 1969 season in Major League Baseball. Bouton gives an irreverent look into ‘America’s game’ in a book that was massively controversial when published in 1970. Bouton’s career is on the decline in ’69 having been released by the New York Yankees where he won the 1962 World Series. He ‘pitches’ up in Seattle with the days of his fastball behind them and he tries to redefine himself as a pitcher with just one pitch, his knuckleball.

The book is described as more than a baseball book and, maybe similar to Eamon Dunphy’s 1974 book ‘Only a Game?’, it certainly is that. Like football, baseball has changed immensely since both books were written with the owners no longer having the control over players wages and contracts that they had back then. Bouton’s descriptions of haggling over wages and contracts are very detailed and highly amusing with the amount of money nowhere near the multi-million dollar contracts that are in baseball or football in 2011.

The book traces the Bouton’s journey during the season as a relief pitcher travelling across America with the Pilots in their only season in the Major Leagues. The drink, the women and the drugs (not recreational but the “greenies” used as performance enhancing) are all covered as well as the politics of the dressing room where Bouton was an outsider due to his liberal views; liberal for 1970 that is.

The twentieth anniversary edition which I read included updated chapters – ball five and ball six – covering Bouton’s career in TV, as an inventor and the fascinating section on his return to Major League Baseball with the Atlanta Braves at age 39. It is a pity that this section isn’t covered in more detail.

Ball Four is no Moneyball – another book not really about baseball – as you do need some knowledge of the game to follow Bouton’s story but it is an absorbing behind the scenes look into life on the road as professional baseball player.

Categories: The Book Club

A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke

November 20, 2011 Leave a comment

With thoughts turning to books of the year, I’m sure listed in many people’s 2011 choices, including my own, will be Ronald Reng’s book ‘A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke’. It will be listed in the sporting category but it is much more than just a sports book as it tells the tale of the battle that Robert Enke fought with depression, a battle that the German international goalkeeper ultimately lost, taking his own life in 2009.

Told by his friend Ronald Reng, it pieces together Enke’s life, both sporting and personal, through interviews with family, friends and former teammates. It is a heart breaking tale with the concluding chapter not one to be read on the journey into work unless you want fellow commuters wondering why they can see tears. It is an insight into those suffering from depression and how it affects those around them.

The book traces Enke’s life and his footballing career that began with Carl Zeiss Jena and then Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany before his successful time at Benfica. It also details his disastrous time at Barcelona and Fenerbache where his depression first surfaced before his footballing redemption began in Tenerife and back in the Bundesliga with Hannover 96. It was at this point in his career in the run up to the 2010 World Cup that he became the German number one goalkeeper before lapsing back into depression resulting in him taking his own life.

From a sporting point of view, the book gives a great insight into being a goalkeeper in the modern game with discussions on the various styles of goal keeping, the different training undertaken compared with outfield players and more than enough detail on goalkeeping gloves!

It is interesting to ponder whether Enke’s path would have been different if he hadn’t debuted for Barcelona when they were knocked out of the Spanish Cup by third division side Novelda. It is easy to blame Frank de Boer and Louis Van Gaal as the reasons for his disastrous time at Barcelona when Enke spiralled into a cycle of depression before his ill-fated move to Fenerbache. The death of Enke’s two-year-old daughter is another defining moment in Enke’s life.

Reng outlines how there are no easy answers as to why Enke stepped in front of a train leaving behind a wife and child. It is a sad but fascinating story as throughout the book it is clear what a decent, caring and thoughtful individual Enke was.

This month is the two-year anniversary of Enke’s death and, on the weekend that a Bundesliga match was postponed due to the attempted suicide by the match referee, there is still so much that we have to learn about depression and the mental struggles many people face every day. This book goes someway to helping to understand.

To hear a Newstalk interview with the book’s author click on the link below.

Shedding some light on the shady cycling drugs game

November 4, 2011 Leave a comment

For those with an interest in cycling, drugs in sport or in the wider sporting world, they should get their hands on a copy of “Racing through the Dark – The fall and rise of David Millar“. The book tells the story of talented Scottish cyclist David Millar as told by the rider himself.

It is the story of how even a clean and successful athlete like Millar felt pressurised into taking drugs in order to compete and win in professional cycling. It charts the development of his career and the almost inevitable tipping point where he became one of the many cyclists competing while using the performance enhancing drug EPO.

In the week when three Pakistani international cricketers were sent to prison for their part in a betting scandal, it is interesting to read Millar’s expose into the cheating that occurs in cycling through the use of performance enhancing drugs. However Millar’s story, more importantly, is a tale of redemption. He honesetly assesses how he turned his life around, both personally and professionally, to emerge as a clean athlete, championing the cause of cycling by highlighting what can be achieved without drugs.

Written with the help of Jeremy Whittle (author of the equally good Bad Blood), it is a unique insight into the world of drugs in sport from a self-confessed doper and provides hope that cycling can emerge from the long dark drug fueled period.

For a few more recommendations from the genre of cycling literature, see my previous post

Reading and Riding

July 11, 2011 2 comments

Sunday’s stage of the Tour de France had some incredible crashes. On the descent of the second category climb, a crash resulted in broken bones for two of the big Tour riders, Alexandr Vinokourov (femur) and Jurgen Van der Broek (collarbone). The second crash was as bizarre as they come with two riders in the six man leading breakaway knocked down when one of the passing TV cars veered into the group hitting Sebastian Flecha and bringing down Jonny Hoogerland. The Dutchman ended up stuck in a barb wire fence at the side of a field just like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. It probably was a lucky escape for Hoogerland who “only” had to receive 33 stitches in his wounds.

With a rest day today, there were no live pictures to watch but it got me thinking about my interest in the race. I’m of an age that I remember the heady days of four professional riders taking part in the Tour de France (Kelly, Roche, Earley and Kimmage) with yellow, green and stage wins coming in the Tour for the first three in the quartet. And while Sean Kelly now commentates on Eurosport and Stephen Roche’s son Nicolas is riding this tour, it is probably the last of the quartet in Paul Kimmage that probably shapes my view of the tour and pro-cycling in general. I still enjoy watching it but I do so with a certain healthy skepticism.

Kimmage’s “A Rough Ride – An insight into pro cycling” is the seminal book on cycling and drugs. The Dubliner certainly broke the mould with his book where he told the story of his entry into the pro-ranks and how he began to take drugs, not to win, but to stay in the sport. Kimmage was lucky in that he was able to switch careers to journalism and his book is warts on all on the subject. The view from many in the sport is that he “spat in the soup” as many of his former professionals say about those who tell the tales of drugs in the sport.

Kimmage’s book, 1990 William Hill (WH) Sports book of the year, is one of a number of cycling books I have on my bookshelves. There is a mix of auto-biographies, biographies as well as a number of sports book of the year winners and nominees. I’ve a few books by Irish sports journalist David Walsh. His Kelly biography documents Sean Kelly’s career up until 1986 and I’ve also a pictorial book by Walsh and Kelly himself (Sean Kelly – A man for all seasons) which charts all of Kelly’s career from his first Tour de France stage win in 1978, his amazing seven Paris Nice’s in a row and all those classic wins (Paris Roubaix, Liege Bastogne Liege, Milan San Remo to name but a few).

A rider from Kelly’s era who is no longer with us is Laurent Fignon who died of cancer last year. His autobiography “We were young and Carefree” tells the tale of a rider who straddled the era of more casual drug use in the sport and the recent rampant EPO era. The story is shaped by those eight seconds that he lost the 1989 Tour by but this is rider that won a brace of Tours as well as a Giro d’Italia. In a brutally honest account Fignon outlines not only his strengths but his weaknesses and cycling against Tour legends like Hinault and LeMond.

Britain’s current top rider Bradley Wiggins was another rider that had to abandon this year’s tour due to a broken collarbone following a crash. In the 1980s, Britain’s most successful Tour rider was Scotsman Robert Millar. In 2007, Richard Moore wrote “In search of Robert Millar” (Best Biography British Sports Book Awards) a fascinating insight into this enigmatic climber. A former team mate of Stephen Roche, Millar won the climbers polka dot jersey in the 1984 tour. His story includes how Spanish riders conspired for him to lose the 1986 Tour of Spain where he finished runner up. It also includes the strange story of Millar’s withdrawal/disappearance from cycling and public life in recent years.

A cycling book collection would not be complete without ones on the rider that dominated the sport in the 2000s and continues to be one of the most talked about riders despite his recent retirement. Lance Armstrong’s autobiography “It’s not about the bike – My journey back to Life” (WH Winner 2000) is the incredible story of Armstrong’s battle with testicular cancer. Most readers will have been touched at some point in their lives by cancer and the story of how he is diagnosed and the battle to recover is amazing even without the conclusion to the story with him coming back to cycling to win the Tour a record number of times.

The problem with the story is that it is too good to be true. David Walsh’s “From Lance to Landis – Inside the American doping controversy at the Tour de France” chronicles Armstrong’s story. Walsh uses court testimony and interviews with those who were within Armstrong’s inner circle to document what was going on at the Armstrong’s US Postal team. The section where Walsh details Damien Ressiot’s L’Equipe newspaper examination of past blood samples using the new test for EPO and Armstrong’s doping control form documentation is stunning. In a similar vein (pun intended), Jeremy Whittle published “Bad Blood – The secret life of the Tour de France” (2008 WH shortlist). Whittle tells the story of following the tour as a journalist and his gradual awakening to the doping fraud that he was watching in front of him in the peloton.

One final book on my shelf is Matt Rendell’s “The death of Marco Pantani”. Pantani was a pure climber who seemed to glide up mountain passes with his career highlight being his victory in the controversial 1998 Tour de France which started in Ireland. The first half of the book documents Pantani’s soaring career and his fall from grace that ultimately saw Pantani found dead in a Rimini hotel following a cocaine overdose. The second half of the book is a forensic assessment of Pantani’s drug use using Pantani’s own doping records. It details how if every rider is on drugs, it is not the best rider that wins but the rider who responds best to the drugs. Whittle explains how the drug use in the off season or when there are no controls, allows riders to train harder and push their bodies to the edge pushing their haemocrit levels far above the safe 50% allowable level.

It was with interest I read the reviews of David Millar’s recently published autobiography in the paper over the weekend. Millar, who has returned from a two year drugs ban, is riding in this year’s tour. The book has been described in the Irish Times as “a shocking expose of the corruption at the heart of a wonderful sport. Those who run cycling at every level would be well advised to closely study it, though history tells us they probably won’t.” Sounds like my kind of book! Happy reading and riding…

Categories: Cycling, The Book Club

Stat Attack

Published in Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers v Drogheda United, 20 May 2011)

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’.” Mark Twain

If you go down to the bookshop today, you may be in for a mild surprise. As amongst some of the terrible sports autobiographies, sports almanacs and books on fishing, you will find a number of books that use statistics to explain how teams win and that debunk a number of sporting myths. It seems the sports economists and statisticians have gone slightly mainstream.

A classic of this field is Michael Lewis’ bestseller Moneyball. Lewis is the American financial journalist who wrote Liar’s Poker about his time as a Wall Street trader and that withering report on Ireland’s economic situation for Vanity Fair last March (When Irish Eyes Are Crying). However, the must read for sports fans is his book telling the true story of how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, turned his team into a force in America’s Major League Baseball despite the mediocre finances available to them. How did he do this? Well, his key weapon was ‘sabermatrics’ or baseball statistics. He used statistics to rubbish common held baseball beliefs on topics like stolen bases and runs batted in. It was in the transfer department that Beane excelled, using these stats to find undervalued players who he then signed for the A’s making his squad compete with such financial and sporting heavy hitters like the New York Yankees. This story is set for a Hollywood version with Brad Pitt staring as Beane in a script by Aaron Sorkin. The use of sabermetrics has now become commonplace in baseball with the Boston Red Sox being a leading exponent. The Red Sox owner, John Henry, has looked to bring some elements of sabermetrics to the ‘soccer’ team he owns, Liverpool football club.

With baseball there is a defined set out outcomes with each element of play. Essentially it comes down to a battle between two players; the pitcher and the batter and between strikes and balls. Each element of the play can be assigned a set of outcomes. The same cannot be said for football. It is 11 players versus 11 players but it is in a very fluid format. So can footballmetrics be used to the same extent as baseball’s sabermetrics? Simon Kuper, Financial Times sports journalist, teamed up with Stefan Szymanksi, a sports economist, in 2009 to publish Soccernomics which threw a cold analytical eye on football and explained Why England Lose and other curious football phenomena (as the book was titled in the UK). Like in Moneyball, Soccernomics sets out challenges to many of the perceived wisdoms of the sport using data collated by statisticians, football nerds and even FIFA to reveal more about the game. The chapter ‘The Economist’s Fear of the Penalty Kick’ should be required reading for any football fan and maybe everyone at Shamrock Rovers given our recent history with the penalty kick.

The authors recount the story of how having access to a database of 13,000 penalty kick outcomes helped Germany defeat Argentina in the 2006 World Cup quarter final and how another database should have helped Chelsea win the Champions League in 2008 but for Nicolas Anelka to go against the plan in the shootout in Moscow letting Manchester United win. As most footballers have a dominant kicking foot, by kicking to that side they strike the ball cleaner and hence have a greater chance of scoring. However, goalkeepers know this or they may have access to some penalty statistics on their opponents. The best penalty takers in world football mix it up, making the goalkeeper guess.

In Soccernomics, the statistic database developed by Basque economist Ignacio Hertan was used to recommend the right approach. His database, with nearly 1,500 penalties from the late 1990s, recommends penalty takers to shoot 61.5% to their dominant side to maximize their chance of scoring. The keepers best strategy for saving was to dive to the kickers dominant side 58%. A similar exercise was done looking at 500 penalty kicks from La Liga and Serie A. 57% was the answer in the paper produced on the subject by Steve Levitt who is also one the authors of theinternational bestselling book on economic theory Freakonomics.

This year another book has emerged to challenge a few more sporting norms. Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences behind how sports are played and games are won tackled such topics as are stars more valuable in a team than a balanced team and why is playing at home so valuable? The authors, one a University of Chicago finance professor and another a writer for Sports Illustrated, answered the question as to how much is home field advantage worth to a team? Well, on average teams at home will win around 60% of their games and that statistic is similar across games such as baseball, cricket and rugby as well as football. The stats for various competitions are Major League Baseball 54%, American Football 58%, International Rugby 58%, International Cricket 60%, England’s Premier League 63%, South American football 65%, La Liga 65% and Serie A 67%.

But what is the reason for this? Is it the difficulty for teams in travelling away, or that the home team is more comfortable in the familiar surroundings in the stadium? No, the answer rests with the match officials and the influence of the crowd.

Many refereeing decisions are subjective and are influenced by players and the crowd reaction. So what is not under the players influence? Well, the number of minutes added for injury time at the end of a game. A London School of Economics Professor carried out a study on the length of added time in over 750 La Liga matches. They determined that in tight games with the home team winning by one goal the injury time is on average two minutes. However, if they are losing by a goal the average injury time is double that, at four minutes. If the game is a draw, the average injury time is three minutes. If the team is well ahead or behind where adding or reducing time won’t make any material difference, the average injury time remains at three minutes. Similar injury time bias towards the home team have been found in the Premier League, Serie A and the Bundesliga. More bias towards the home team, backed up statistics, is that the home team receives fewer red and yellow cards than the visiting team. The size of the crowd also has an influence with larger attendances leading to a larger bias in favour of the home team.

Looking at these statistics, it seems the referee is helping the home team, prolonging the game to help them score in a tight game, reducing the time if they are winning by a small margin or giving them less yellow or red cards But why? Is it the influence of the crowd makes the referee favour the home team? The answer seems to be yes. The referee knows that if they book or send off a home player then they will be subjected to a negative reaction by the crowd. So does the crowd reaction subjectively influence them and how can this influence be checked? A study in Sweden looked at 21 matches played behind closed doors. Without the influence of the crowd, the normal home field advantage seen in the statistics reduce significantly. Fouls given against them declined 23%, yellow cards 26% and red cards 70%.

Nobody is suggesting that there is a deliberate up front bias for the home team but the subtle pressure of the crowd unconsciously seems to influence the match officials. Statistics certainly seem to back up the view that the crowd influences the referee and hence the outcome of a game. For Shamrock Rovers, home advantage is just as important as any other team but maybe more so when viewed with the fact the Hoops essentially played away from home in every game from 1987 to 2008. Obviously the assembly of the superb squad by Michael O’Neill has been the major influence in Shamrock Rovers finishing runners up and league champions in the last two seasons. But we can also say that the large crowds that have turned up to support Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght have been influential in the Hoops’ recent success and that the statistics back that up!