We're delighted to present an exclusive extract from Boy Wonder: Tales From the Sidelines of an Irish Childhood, the acclaimed new memoir from Dave Hannigan.
From epic victories to crushing defeats, Boy Wonder is a poignant comic memoir about fathers and sons, sport, and the rites of passage that shape every childhood.
Do Not Adjust Your Set
We were sitting in the car. My mother and I. Smoke had started to fume from her ears with the frustration of waiting.
‘Go in and get your father,’ she said. The tone and the use of the word father denoted that my mother was annoyed. Seriously annoyed. I was only eight but I could tell that much already.
‘Go in there and get him?’ I asked from the back seat of the Vauxhall Viva. Surely she wasn’t serious.
‘Yes!’ The voice was raised now. She was serious.
I opened the door and began to walk the ten yards from the kerb to the front door of John O’Mahoney’s bookmakers. I’d sat vigil outside the betting office so many times as my dad went into there to gamble on the horses but I’d never ever been inside. Now, I was being told to go in search of a missing parent who had disappeared behind the mysteriously frosted-over windows and doors. I walked slowly, hoping my mother wasn’t watching or wouldn’t notice my deliberate attempt to fail at my task. I didn’t want to cross this Rubicon. I wanted my father to emerge from the other side of the door just in time to spare me a glimpse behind the curtain.
At lunchtime on Saturdays, we drove to the top of Edward Walsh Road so my father could have a flutter and my mother could shop at Kelleher’s, the conveniently located shop next door. There, she’d invariably run into some old neighbour from Ballyphehane while browsing the bargain aisle where recently out of date food and broken biscuits could be had at knockdown prices. This meant her trip around the store usually took longer than it should, making this the perfect arrangement. She shopped. He wagered. Problems arose when he gambled too long and she was left waiting outside. This was one of those days. And, for some reason, she was in no mood for waiting any longer.
The door was much heavier than it looked. Then again, it wasn’t built for my puny eight-year-old arms. When I pushed my way in, nobody seemed to notice my arrival. All eyes were trained on a tiny screen mounted high in a corner where two walls met. Every man in the room was straining his eyes, watching tiny horses on some faraway distant racecourse jostling for position around a bend. Everybody in the rapt audience seemed to be clutching scraps of yellow paper in their fists. Some were rolling tiny pencils between their fingers, others had the little lead instruments perched on their ears, like carpenters preparing to measure a cut.
A tinny, disembodied English accent was coming through the speakers talking furlongs and favourites at a speed and in a language I knew my father spoke but I did not yet understand. A man was standing on a heightened platform carefully scratching numbers and lines onto a board. Every other remaining inch of wall space was papered over with the carefully-appointed racing pages from tabloids and broadsheets. Those I recognised. I knew those black and white columns of meaningless numbers because I’d seen my dad pore over the agate type at the kitchen table, a suburban Bletchley Park code-breaker trying to read the runes and change his family’s fortunes.
A cloud of smoke hung low from the ceiling. Older men with Brylcreemed hair sucked on the smouldering butts of cigarettes, clasping them tight between the thumbs and the forefingers of hands long ago stained mahogany by nicotine. Now and again, they blew philosophical wisps of blue in front of their faces, shaking their heads, crumpling a beaten docket in anger before hurling it to the floor. Boys not much older than myself, hard chaws I know my mother would have called them, huddled together in corners carefully etching 1s and 2s and Xs into the boxes alongside the names of English and Scottish teams on the football coupons.
I stood just inside the door taking it all in, afraid to venture any further into the lair. I didn’t know it then but I had penetrated one of the great masculine sanctuaries, a demimonde that made me both unnerved and excited in ways I was too young to understand. It reeked of tobacco, sweat, desperation and manhood. The only women in the room were employees, sitting behind the grille at the counter, taking bets and counting cash, collecting notes with one hand, handing back coins with the other.
There was a whiff of the illicit and the clandestine about the whole atmosphere. In a few years, I too would become a regular, like every other man and boy in the greater Togher metropolitan area between the ages of twelve and ninety. For now, though, my eyes were darting left and right, like a hunter searching my quarry, seeking out my father.
I found him perched on a stool by the back wall, deep in conversation with a man I didn’t know. They appeared to be in a huddle, whispering, wearing the expressions of characters with some great conspiracy afoot. My father was reading aloud information from his copy of the Daily Mirror that was carefully folded open on the racing card pages. The other man was nodding his head sagely, writing something down on a fresh piece of two-fold white and yellow paper. I sidled across, slowly, anxious not to interrupt the exchange of obviously vital information.
‘Dad! Dad!’ I said, tugging his sleeve.
‘Hello, boy, what’s wrong with you?’ he asked with the casual air of somebody who met his youngest son here all the time.
‘Mam says we need to go,’ I whispered. I’m not sure why I whispered. I guess some instinct told me this might spare him embarrassment.
‘Is she finished inside?’
‘She’s finished a while, we’re ready to go.’
I could see him surveying his options. ‘Okay, boy,’ he said, leaning into his co-conspirator, exchanging one more byte of crucial information before carefully folding a sheaf of dockets into the top pocket of his shirt and nodding at me that he was ready to go. In the car, my mother’s complaints about his timekeeping were quickly fobbed off with promises of life-changing gambles that were about to pay off big and he drove home at great speed.
‘Will you slow down?’ she shouted as we turned left a little too sharply onto Togher Road.
‘I can’t,’ he replied, ‘we have to be home for the start of Sports Stadium.’ Sports Stadium ran on RTÉ television from 1972 until 1997.
For half of that period we lived in one-channel land so it was, literally, the only show in town on Saturday afternoons. In a time before cable television it was the nearest we came to a sports channel, except it broadcast for just four to five hours per week. And, unfortunately, for much of the first decade of its existence, it seemed like most weeks ninety per cent of it was devoted to horse racing. Damned infernal horse racing.
The suits in RTÉ knew their audience. They knew my father.
From the moment Liam Nolan or Brendan O’Reilly came onscreen to introduce that day’s fare – the gee-gees with a sprinkling of other stuff in between – he folded himself into the comfy armchair nearest to the fire, engrossed in live races from courses all over Britain and Ireland. Kempton. Uttoxeter. Epsom. Cheltenham. Leopardstown. Fairyhouse. I came to hate these bizarrely-named places. I came to hate horse racing. It monopolised the television, took up the large portion of what was supposed to be a sports show, and, almost on cue, broke my father’s heart every seven days.
In this regard, his proximity to the flames was convenient because that’s where most of his betting slips ended up. At the conclusion of a race, he might wait until the steward’s enquiry then he’d give it one more careful read, a scholar running his eye over the exam for the last time, before flinging it into the fire in disgust. If Mam happened to be in the room, she reacted in different ways according to her mood. Sometimes, she smiled wryly and listened to his recurring tales of woe about a nag falling at the last, fading in the home stretch or being unfairly boxed in on the rail. Other days, she derided the whole business as ‘a mug’s game’, saying something about ‘fools being easily parted from their money.’
If he happened to have a winner, he’d rise and place the docket neatly in the frame of the mirror that hung over the mantelpiece. Above all the other trophies.
His own mood mostly ebbed rather than flowed with his fortunes. All manner of dark imprecations and curses were muttered under his breath and sometimes over it too. Individual jockeys came in for character assassination, trainers casually impugned for fixing races, and various ignoramuses and amadáns he met in the betting office vilified for passing on false leads. There was plenty of blame to go around. I wandered in and out of his orbit, not because of the always entertaining soap opera of his wagering but in search of the one thing that made Sports Stadium appointment television.
At a certain point each week, the incessant diet of horse racing was leavened by a brief interlude – a segment called Soccer Stadium. Wherever I was in the house or on the street, my father came calling, roaring at the top of his voice. He knew how much I looked forward to those twenty minutes. I sprinted to the couch in time to devour every second of one of the few outlets where televised soccer was available to us. If my mother wasn’t gone to one of her many sisters’ houses, she’d throw me in a slightly distressed Wagon Wheel, a fractured McVitie’s United bar, or a bruised Penguin from her Kelleher’s stash of misfit treats to heighten the enjoyment.
The best episodes of Soccer Stadium were those devoted to offering up the highlights package from the European soccer matches that had taken place in midweek. That we already knew the scores having listened to the action play out live on radio three days earlier did nothing to lessen the experience of being transported to foreign lands where everything about the game looked different from the sport we knew and loved.
These games invariably took place in cavernous stadia with running tracks necklacing the pitches, often with legions of armed guards and Alsatian dogs hovering menacingly in view. The height of exotica. Sometimes, in winter, daunting banks of snow the likes of which we’d never seen were piled up in front of the advertising hoarding behind the goals. Another wondrous sight.
Occasionally, the pitches were coated with frost and the ball used was orange. What a novelty. The shirts were a little odd too compared to what we were used to, and most of the goalkeepers wore tracksuit bottoms as they flapped at long-distance shots flying by. In Europe, the goals always seemed more spectacular or maybe that’s the way I remember it.
Liverpool nearly always figured, usually on their trips behind the dreaded Iron Curtain. Again and again, my father tried to explain to me that there was no actual curtain though and this was merely a phrase popularised by Winston Churchill. Hardly an explanation to appeal to me. It was years before I understood that strange metaphor. I just preferred to see the Iron Curtain as a place where Liverpool went to eke out a score draw or scoreless draw to stamp their ticket to the next round.
In this regard, their consistent success helped an entire generation eventually come to understand the meaning of the away goals rule and the definition of the word ‘aggregate’.
As Liverpool and, later and much more fleetingly, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa swept all before them, we discovered the difference between Dynamo and Dinamo in faraway, alien cities like Kiev, Tbilisi and Minsk, and soaked up a knowledge of central and eastern European geography that stood to us through the rest of our education. In any primary school classroom, the soccer fans were the cosmopolitan sophisticates who could tell Bucharest from Budapest, not to mention being able to explain that Ajax was a famous Amsterdam nursery as well as a trusted brand of domestic cleaner that mothers kept under the sink.
Our imaginations fired up by what we had just seen on Soccer Stadium, we ran from our houses to meet in the square, recounting what we had just seen, mangling the pronunciation of the names of goalscorers and their clubs, and then doing our best to try to re-enact the highlights. Of course, it was always difficult to try to replicate an overhead kick or an acrobatic volley when you were playing on a hard, unforgiving concrete surface that tore skin on contact. Still, we gave it our best shot and for an hour every Saturday afternoon, we recast ourselves as peculiarly Cork-accented Olegs and Dimitris and Vasselys.
We also worshipped heroes closer to home. For a time Sports Stadium tried to live up to its actual billing by offering us other curios that didn’t involve jockeys and whips and betting. The most memorable of these was Top Ace, a competition featuring the best handball players in Ireland, and, at one point, from America too. That we were mesmerised by this spectacle may have been because it was novel and entertaining or it could just have been that it wasn’t horse racing. At a certain juncture in my childhood, croquet might have provided a welcome relief from the blasted sport of kings.
What was amazing about our relationship with handball is that it was purely televisual. We had never seen it live. Indeed, the first time I even saw a handball alley was much later, when I started to play Gaelic football with Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh, and spent interminable Wednesday afternoons making long trips to depressing, vaguely sinister boarding schools in rural backwaters. Complete ignorance of the game and its culture didn’t prevent us from sitting down to watch Top Ace. Much to the chagrin of my father.
‘Why don’t we play handball?’ I asked.
‘That’s only a game for country boys,’ he replied on the way out to the kitchen. He was a man inordinately proud of his urban heritage, like only somebody whose entire family had lived within the Cork city limits for several generations could be. ‘Call me when it’s over and the racing is back on.’
Despite his disapproval, we came to know the finest exponents of the art, men like Dick Lyng and Pat Kirby, who wore short shorts and singlets (sometimes in their county colours), flinging themselves around a court with a glass wall at the back for the cameras. We learned the rules and the difference between 60 by 30 and 40 by 20 from Mick Dunne and we thought the whole thing strangely fascinating. The occasional presence of an American (or ‘feckin’ Yank!’ as my father described them when he deigned to watch with me) lent an ersatz glamour that drew us in further.
Nobody in our extended family on either my mother’s or father’s side had ever been to America. This made Terry Muck and the sprinkling of other Midwestern competitors objects of curious fascination to us. Some of them wore headbands, sweatbands and goggles, strange accoutrements that made them look even more alien than they sounded in post-match interviews.
The paucity of live soccer was such that in 1980 I’d get excited and/or called into the room when a Coca-Cola commercial came on television. Why? Because it featured tanned Americans playing soccer in a park bathed in the kind of sunshine we only saw for a few fleeting hours every summer. The star of the show was a boy around my age whom I hated and admired in equal measure, depending on my mood. This precocious character looked like he’d walked straight off the set of an episode of CHiPs and a later urban myth reckoned it was the first role played by Ralph Macchio, the original Karate Kid.
Certainly the lad had the deft footwork of somebody fluent in a martial art because he performed all manner of impressive tricks with the ball. He was flicking it with his left repeatedly, managing to pull off a game of headers with an equally talented friend, and then volleying it back and forth with somebody who might have been his dad. I wanted to emulate him. I wanted to kill him.
All of this played out in a perfectly manicured park where he was surrounded by what seemed like his entire extended family on some sort of picnic – even his grandmother was smiling at his antics. The latter detail troubled me greatly because I knew for a fact if I was juggling a ball in the vicinity of my nan I’d be shooed off by her or my mother or the small army of vigilant aunts who served as her very own praetorian guard. For a while, I was a tad obsessed with the Coca-Cola kid, jealous of his ability, his amazing technicolour lifestyle and his profile. I remember going on and on to my poor mother about how it would be easier for him to get scouted by an English club since he was always on the telly. I also beseeched her to buy me a yellow t-shirt just like his because it made him look Brazilian.
When she refused, all I could do was go out into the front garden to practice the especially audacious piece of skill that ended the commercial, which involved him flinging himself airborne and executing a perfect overhead kick. That the ball ended up going to the legion of admirers who were following him around this bucolic park rather than into a goal mattered not a jot. I was too besotted by the acrobatics involved so I spent hours trying to replicate this feat.
Nothing tires a nine-year-old out like repeatedly hurling yourself skyward attempting an overhead kick on a mucky front lawn the size of a postage stamp. Not to mention either that, unlike the American boy wonder, my efforts were not rewarded with a Coke and a smile, but with a dressing-down from an angry mother irate at the mud on the back of my shirt.
I felt similar envy towards a group of kids who cropped up as regulars on Youngline, the one half an hour per week that RTÉ devoted to young people’s programming. A few minutes of each show every Thursday was devoted to a video of a Dutch coach called Wiel Coerver doing soccer training drills with boys not much older than myself on perfectly manicured fields. Again, I watched for several different reasons: to soak up this smidgen of soccer onscreen, to copy the drills in order to improve my skills and to grow impossibly jealous of these brats.
Inevitably, I was convinced all that stood between me and making it as a professional one day was a few sessions with this sage from the low countries, delivering heavily-accented instructions in a way that made him sound serious and rigorous. Just what I needed to improve. Decades later, I learned Coerver was one of the most progressive youth coaches in the world; father of a method of teaching that still bears his name, and in providing us with access to his teaching RTÉ was truly fulfilling its public service remit.
Back then, my main concern was figuring out how to be one of the boys who got to work with him on the show. I once sat down and wrote a letter to Youngline outlining why I’d be perfect for the slot. They never wrote back. Not even Pat Butler, the presenter with the Cork accent, bothered to put pen to paper. I later found out they couldn’t possibly have replied because my mother admitted she never actually mailed my missive.
I forgave her because it wasn’t like she didn’t indulge my passion for the beautiful game. On Wednesday nights, she’d holler for me if a soccer player like Pat Jennings or Peter Shilton was being stalked by Eamon Andrews and his red book at the start of This is Your Life, one of her most beloved shows each week. She adored the almost obligatory rags to riches biography of the subject. My father hated it, dismissing it as a mutual admiration society before reminding me every single week that the great Danny Blanchflower once told Andrews to shove his red book. This story might have impressed me more if I had ever seen Blanchflower play.
My father spent most episodes of the show exiled in the back kitchen. He’d put Marty Robbins on the record player just loud enough so that we could hear it in the television room and sit there tearing into some Eric Van Lustbader novel about ninjas, one of his peculiar obsessions. Meanwhile, every schmaltzy anecdote or teary memory recalled by one of Andrews’s guests was invariably and awkwardly soundtracked by ‘Big Iron on his Hip’ or ‘The Cowboy in the Continental Suit’ wafting through the walls.
Everybody in the house was attuned to my appetite for soccer, any soccer. One Thursday evening my sisters called me in to where they were worshipping at the altar of Top of the Pops. They thought I might like it because some Scottish guy called BA Robertson was kicking a ball up and down the stage while singing a song that actually had soccer-themed lyrics. I traipsed around the house for days afterwards singing the most memorable lyrics ever learned by an eight-year-old.
‘Knocked it off, you know I knocked it off,
While I was sitting in the corner with my tracksuit off
I was hopin’ I’d be playin’
But I never thought I’d be winnin’ the game.’
That a few scraps of sepia-tinted footage on This Is Your Life or ball-kicking antics on Top of the Pops were regarded as something to feast on sums up the poverty of our viewing options when we had only one and then two RTÉ channels. A few times a year, there were Ireland internationals shown live on a Wednesday afternoon, fixtures that required a sprint from the classroom once the dismissal bell rang and a maternal understanding that homework would have to wait. Every May, there was a glut of (well, three) live matches as we gorged ourselves on the finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, the European Cup and the FA Cup. We prayed for replays in the latter game to give us one more ninety minutes to savour.
All of the above will explain why, years before the Catholic Church introduced Saturday night mass, that particular evening already contained the most religious experience of my week. Match of the Day came on around 11.20pm, ridiculously late for a young child but, especially before we bought our first VHS video recorder, it was appointment television. It could not be missed. Under any circumstances. And this meant there were delicate negotiations with my parents and special arrangements made so I would be in situ to hear the theme music that was the soundtrack to so many of our sporting dreams.
‘Da da da daa dadata data…’ went the number composed by Barry Stoller in 1970, a year before I was born. I never knew his name but Stoller was our Beethoven. Our Mozart. Our Liszt. He moved us every time we heard those notes. This song was simply the sound of joy and breathless anticipation, signalling the start of maybe fifty glorious minutes of soccer highlights. When I lashed a ball against the wall in the driveway, ‘Da da da daaa dadata data…’ was playing in my head and sometimes I sang it out loud if nobody else was around. I had nothing to be ashamed of. Every other kid was just as affected by that tune.
The build-up to Match of the Day began many hours before that emotional music played and Jimmy Hill’s distinctive chin and beard hovered into view. There were many obstacles to be overcome before we reached that point because Saturday night was bath night in our house. Afterwards, we sat, reluctantly, on a kitchen chair placed in front of the fire as my mother blowdried our hair (‘or else you’ll catch your death of cold!’ she warned).
Then the clock started ticking. At 9pm, the RTÉ news came on, the headlines almost invariably about bloody events in Ulster, and that meant it was time for me to head upstairs to bed. Every anxious step of the way, I was assured that I would be woken the moment The Late Late Show ended.
‘Once Gay says goodnight, we’ll come up and get you,’ assured my mother. I knew from a young age Gay Byrne was as important to her as Jimmy Hill was to me. His involvement, however tangential, in the covenant between us assuaged my fears.
If she was always the guarantor, it was my father who inevitably did the heavy lifting. Because that’s what was involved. He’d wake us with a whisper and a hand on the shoulder. Then he’d carry Tom and me down from our sleeping beds and place us bleary-eyed, stretching in front of the dying embers of the coal fire. Tom took the couch. My spot was on the rug on the floor leaning against my father’s legs. He produced a few dry sticks or a couple of lumps of coal and these were judiciously placed to rekindle the blaze, just enough to ignite flames to keep us warm past midnight.
Some evenings, my father might be freshly returned from a game of Don in Flannery’s Bar at the top of Clashduv Estate, the distinctive hoppy aroma of Murphy’s Stout on his breath and a little mischief in his eyes. Those nights, he ignored the many stern warnings issued by my mother earlier in the evening and headed into the kitchen at a certain point in the show to see what was cooking. Returning triumphantly, he balanced unwieldy sandwiches made from carving delicious slivers from the Sunday roast basting in the oven. No meat ever tasted as good as those contraband cuts consumed on those late night vigils together. No televised football ever seemed as magical. We saw goals that were imprinted on our memories forever. I over-celebrated any scored against Liverpool because it tormented my brother but even he was left open-mouthed by Justin Fashanu’s effort for Norwich City. The most spectacular production I ever saw on Match of the Day.
The ball was fed to the burly number 9 at pace on an uneven pitch; he controlled it nonchalantly with his right as he turned on the edge of the box, then let fly with his left on the volley. I was behind the couch within seconds trying to volley a cushion in a similar fashion against the wall. Every child on the street spent weeks afterwards trying and failing to recreate the whole movement, right down to the arc of the ball on its way past the outstretched hand of Ray Clemence.
Then there was the night Keith Weller wore white tights for Leicester City against Norwich City. It was an FA Cup match in winter and we were informed by the bemused commentary team that he had chosen to do so to insulate his legs against the cold. This sounded logical enough – even to an eight-year-old – and he scored in that match too, so it obviously didn’t impede him any. The strangest part of the night was Match of the Day ending with a brief sequence of Weller’s footwork set to ballet music. My father thought that especially hilarious.
Jimmy Hill was as much an icon to us as any of the players. I remember seeing the actor Brian Murphy on an episode of the sitcom George and Mildred drawing a Hill goatee and moustache on a mirror so he could see what he looked like with that kind of facial hair. I searched high and low, through drawers and all around my sisters’ bedroom, until I found a marker so I could do the same in our bathroom. Hill may have sounded like a strict headmaster but he opened the door to our dreams every Saturday night.
Once a month, we salivated as he introduced the Goal of the Month contenders. ‘Goal A scored by Ian Rush for Liverpool versus…’ Every single time Tom and I argued our choices and then resolved to put our selections on a post card and mail it off to the BBC in Shepherd’s Bush, wherever that was. Every month that earnest midnight resolution didn’t survive into Sunday morning. And when the results were announced we were always filled with regret about our failure to enter this competition.
In spring, the Easter Saturday night edition of the programme was rendered especially spiritual because it also marked the end of our Lenten fast. In our family, we always gave up sweets for the forty days and, according to ecclesiastical law (or my mother’s perhaps rather loose post-Vatican II interpretation of it at least), the penance ended at midnight on Holy Saturday.
As the old wooden clock on the mantelpiece ticked towards midnight, my father assured us it was running a few minutes slow, thereby allowing us to pare further time off our penance. After forty days, every second counted. This meant the three of us watched the last part of that particular Match of the Day while stuffing our faces with squares from the giant Cadbury’s bars – the eggs having been deemed too sacrosanct for a premature feast. Just the type of nutrition a young boy needs when heading back to bed in the wee small hours of the morning.
Sometimes on Saturday nights we were shooed up to bed the moment the credits rolled. But on cold nights, in the years before central heating arrived to warm our hearts, he’d send us to get our, by then, tepid hot water bottles so he could refill them with freshly boiled water. As we waited for the kettle to sing in the kitchen, we’d dawdle by the telly so that we could see the playing of the national anthem, a bizarre coda to the night’s entertainment.
There was no ‘Sinne Fianna Fáil, atá fé gheall ag Éirinn…’, just an orchestra playing Peader Kearney’s tune over a reel of classic images: waves cascading towards the shore, streams trickling over rocks, cobwebs glistening on tree branches and a butterfly fluttering its wings on a leaf. All manner of flora and fauna culminating in a glorious sunset over a mountain that seemed to rise out of the sea.
‘Why do they show that?’ I asked.
‘To remind us how beautiful Ireland is,’ replied my father.
Boy Wonder by Dave Hannigan (published by Gill Books) is out now.