THE WHITE HEAT. My Autobiography. By Tomás Ó Sé. Gill & Macmillan. 255 pp. €22.99 h/b
ISBN: 978 0 7171 6934 4
UNTIL VICTORY ALWAYS. A Memoir. By Jim McGuinness with Keith Duggan. Gill & Macmillan. 296 pp. €24.99
ISBN: 978 0 7171 6937 5
I wonder whether there is a kind of style manual for writers of sporting memoirs. You are not required to produce great literature, so there can be lots of short sentences; you are allowed a deal of repetition so that the reader can remember your central theme: you may refer to players by only their first names or use their nicknames because the reader will know who you are talking about. And you can have lots of anecdotes of the kind that would be unremarkable were it not that those involved are household names.
Certainly the two writers of these books have adhered to these principles and there is much commonality in the styles. That each of the writers comes from an isolated region of an isolated county adds to the similarities. They both brought to their work as players and manager a fierce determination, a resolve to be professional and to instil these qualities in their teams.
For Jim McGuinness, the job was harder because his county did not have a history of winning. Compared to Tyrone, Armagh and Derry, Donegal were the easybeats of Ulster; he writes that when he took over as manager, ‘I wasn’t sure if we could win a game.’ Contrast that with the main worry for any Kerry manager at any time: how they would win the All Ireland – a different set of pressures in a county brought up on the expectation of winning and continuing to win.
There are other requirements for the writer of sports books. You story will need to build up to many small crises, not all of which show you in a good light: in fact you must not be afraid to be critical of your own actions. There should be lots of regrets, things you did not do that you now believe you should have done, or vice versa. Lots of laughter too, at something small or as a way of defusing actions that might have led to dissension.
And the drinking of course. Tomás Ó Sé uses the phrase ‘we were let out’ as an explanation of the managerial decision to allow players to visit a pub or hotel. McGuinness tells that his players were required to ring him for permission to drink at a wedding or funeral or family event. After the game, however, floodgates – north and south – were opened.
But there are contrasts also. Ó Sé has high praise for the Kerry County Board and the way they looked after their players. McGuinness, on the other hand, is highly critical of the GAA leaders in his county; he admits, for example, that he had sometimes to call on successful business people to pay for hotel rooms or meals for the players.
But perhaps the biggest contrast is in the personality of the two central characters, hinted in the title that each chose for his book. While both were driven to achievement, McGuinness comes across as consumed to a level approaching obsession. He does not seem to be a very likable character, there is more than one chip on those shoulders. He writes movingly of the death of his older brother at the age of 19 and the death of another brother in a road accident as he was driving the author to catch a flight to the US. Ó Sé, on the other hand, tells us little about himself, and we learn of his marriage breakup only in passing.
Kerry and Cork have a long and sometimes edgy sporting relationship, but Ó Sé emphasises the respect between the counties; he makes the point that while Cork have to make room for hurling, rugby and soccer, success is easier in Kerry where football is supreme. But it appears that things are different in Ulster, where there seems to be a seething dislike between teams, a kind of vindictiveness shown in sledging and petty oneupmanship, a sense that it is not enough to win – you must rub the noses of the losers in the dirt.
Tomás Ó Sé is generous in his treatment of opposing players and managers. Of McGuinness, for example, he writes “This man is a tactical genius, clearly … I’d love to sit down and chat away to him properly.” There is no corresponding encomium from the northerner, certainly not for Ulster managers.
The writing in the McGuinness book is more polished, no doubt the influence of his professional co-writer. In places the story is gripping edge-of-the-seat stuff; in other places, it is intensely introspective. It draws you in and reminds you that as the great Bill Shankley is supposed to have said about football: “It’s not a matter of life and death: it’s much more serious than that.”
Ó Sé’s writing is more factual, though he too has had tragedy in the early death of his father and that man’s younger brother, the former Kerry manager Páidí. But his book is worth the price for a wonderful photograph – you can find it at Sportsfile – as a player he earned more than his share of red and yellow cards, but here he is seen handing the match ball to Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton after the latter had scored the point that won the 2011 All Ireland. It tells much about the man.
These two books, in different ways, say a great deal about the importance of the GAA in Irish life.