Ireland has always had a challenging relationship with football and a laborious course of acceptance of it. Once encompassing of all that was alien and English, those who supported it, played it and defended its right of existence as a beautiful game were treated as betrayers of the Republic and the independence it had fought and spilt blood for over hundreds of years.
On 20 October, Eamon Dunphy stated that Lionel Messi’s profile as the world’s greatest player was deteriorating: “I think Messi is beginning to show signs of decline. We’ll demonstrate that later despite the fact that he scored that goal,” he said. Barcelona were leading Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City 1-0 at half-time in their UEFA Champions League group stage meeting.
After the break, Messi scored two more to complete a sensational hat-trick in a dominant 4-0 win. Dunphy had gotten it wrong. So very wrong. People offered the usual outrage which comes with a classic Dunphyism, but it lacked the self-regarding bite which people love to revel in when a pundit fails in a prediction or analysis.
Once again showing that what this once steely, outspoken revolutionary rogue had to say, which could once upon a time have had a real and lasting impact in Irish discourse in years gone by, had in this day and age diminished in importance and shock value.
Its impact was lost on a new wave of young football viewers caught in a utopia of social media and an indifference to football pundits, and was equally lost on the old guard who had long ago had enough of his numbing trope.
The highlights reel for the 71-year-old include: Steven Gerrard is overrated and a nothing player, Cristiano Ronaldo is a cod and a disgrace to the game, Niall Quinn is an idiot and a creep, Mick McCarthy is a whinger and Michel Platini has no bottle and was not a great player.
Eamon Dunphy is not a particularly pleasant human being. He possesses many of the characteristics and traits of a young schoolyard bully, who harasses others for personal enjoyment oftentimes out of pure boredom, oftentimes on account of a lack of focus on what is interesting or significant.
He misses the point in favour of the mindless and trivial, making himself the central focus of the story in place of any sort of key moment or narrative. When he makes a jibe his body language reveals all – slumped shoulders leaning forward, unwarranted confidence when leaning back and always, always looking around sheepishly following a patented trivial remark.
He surveys his horizons with bleak, beady eyes embalmed in years of unhappiness, stress, wrinkles and an outward longing for the approval of others – all in the hope of dragging someone in with him. Someone to contest his views, someone to chime in, anything.
Eamon Dunphy feeds off the politically correct, diplomatic model of punditry which has been the case and norm for almost three decades.
Without it he is just a vehement, grey-haired angry old man shouting at himself as the studio lights go off, leaving him in a shallow pit of darkness some might perceive only as black as his withered heart.
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But this is simply not true. Dunphy is a man whose inner personality and media persona are incompatible. “I think there’s two Eamons,” his mother once told him. “That fella and you,” she said, pointing at her son’s face lighting up the television screen.
On the inside lies a sensitive, learned and reflective man who cares for social justice and admires the working-class innocence of his parents, Peg and Paddy. On the exterior lies a frail human being withered by the storm of acting as Public Enemy Number One for the majority of his life: angry, isolated and scared.
The realisation struck in his younger life that he was different to all of the other children. Another moment occurred after his career as an average, middle of the road Second Division footballer in England came to an end, whereupon he realised people would listen to what he had to say. And he didn’t mind the type of attention he attracted because people were finally listening to him.
There is something perversely admirable about the showman-like facade which he puts on each and every week. Indeed while it may seem shallow and hollow, Dunphy does something which no other pundit does – he unflinchingly commits to a set of inherent, underlying principles which guides his judgement.
Until he doesn’t, that is, and changes his mind, contradicts himself and backpedals in hilarious if not despicable and shameless regularity. “I would like to confirm,” he said with a sly grin following full-time of the Blaugrana’s demolition of Manchester City, “that Lionel Messi is not in quite as much decline as I suggested.”
No culpability, no guilt, no humility, and the pantomime rolls on.
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All that is Eamon Dunphy is linked to Ireland and to its relationship with England. He was named after one of the leaders of the War of Independence, later Taoiseach and President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, who founded the modern Republic based on a conservative ideology and moral Catholic backbone.
Ireland was the land of Saints and Scholars who went to mass, prayed to a Catholic God, drank at the pub and never, ever thought about sex. Unless it was to create a child who would grow up to go to mass, pray to a Catholic God and drink at the pub.
Dunphy rejected this idealised depiction of his country – Official Ireland – growing up in the working-class reality of a state which refused him progression beyond second level education in the 1950s, surrounded him with sexually promiscuous priests and damned the sport which brought any degree of meaning to his life.
Born and raised in the snug residential suburb of north Dublin known as Drumcondra, the young Eamon was reserved, unspoken and shy. His parents lived modest lives; his mother, born in Limerick, always sensed a degree of alienation from the true Dublin natives among she lived.
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He met his first friend, Raymond, through a shared love of football at school but recalls lasting memories of playing alone for hours on end as a young child: “Football was the passion we shared,” he wrote in his 2013 autobiography The Rocky Road. “I had been playing with a ball, usually a worn tennis ball, forever, always on my own on a narrow strip of ground behind our home. This was known as the Dump.
“Summer was the loneliest time. With school closed, the days were long and empty. Football was out of season, the Dump deserted. The lack of money to buy a bike or even an ice cream left me isolated with only my ball, if I had one, for company.”
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Football presented an outlet for him as a child to forget. Growing up amid the looming threat of eviction from their rented room in Drumcondra, coupled with the day-to-day poverty which afflicted the vast majority of inner-city Dubliners throughout the 1950s, football was an escape.
It elevated itself for many as more than just a sport. But to the Irish hierarchy, it was a sport second, an outlet of imported and corrupt English culture first and foremost. The year 1905 saw the Gaelic Athletic Association introduce a historic and harshly enforced contraband on all foreign games that were not Gaelic for all of its members. It was only deleted almost seven decades later, in 1971.
This included football as, according to Dunphy, de Valera went about purifying the masses into the retarded culture of Official Ireland, which centralised itself on social policies favouring of a Catholic identity and family values. The ban on football was unyielding and trickled its way into the everyday psyche where it was viewed as alien and working class.
This was the atmosphere in which Dunphy grew his love for the game. Anyone who was seen to favour football over Gaelic Games was viewed as skewed and English despite a throbbing love of the sport growing steadily among the Irish public which saw a golden generation of not only individual players such as Ray Treacy, John Giles and Noel Cantwell, but at the same time a flourishing of the domestic League of Ireland in a now unimaginable golden era of high quality football and high attendances.
Dunphy would travel across the water as a 15-year-old to play for Matt Busby’s Manchester United. After failing to establish himself as a first team regular he famously requested a move away from Old Trafford in search of regular starting time, to which Busby proclaimed that “nobody asks for a transfer away from Manchester United.”
Dunphy’s travels saw him turn out for York City, Charlton and Reading before attempting to construct a domestic superpower to match the heights of Celtic, who had won the European Cup only a decade previous, at home with Shamrock Rovers in the early-to-mid 1970s alongside Giles.
But these ventures were minimal and sandwiched between almost 10 years at Millwall where he made 274 appearances and earned a place in the club’s Hall of Fame, the undoubted highlights coming in the Class of 71’s stretch of 59 home games without defeat at The Den between 1964 and 1967, with the side later coming within one point of promotion to the old First Division.
The late 1970s saw Millwall supporters develop a terrace chant of “No one likes us, we don’t care”, something which Dunphy could undoubtedly resonate with after he made the dramatic switch from football to journalism after hanging up his boots in 1978 having dabbled in the written word for his 1976 book Only a Game?
The autobiography detailed his experiences surviving as a Second Division footballer at Millwall in a world far apart from the glamours and celebrity of the higher echelons of the then-becoming money-crazed celebrity sport.
Italia 90 projected him into his own celebrity status for all of the wrong reasons. In his emerging role as pundit for RTÉ television, Dunphy was publically damning of Jack Charlton’s style of football which earned Ireland a quarter-final spot versus the host nation in their first ever appearance at a World Cup.
In a passionate monologue after Ireland’s underwhelming 0-0 draw with Egypt, Dunphy mourned the history of Irish football and the talent, skill and technique which it was built upon, and how it was now sadly being laid to waste in place of a pragmatic philosophy of blatant hoof-ball: “I felt embarrassed for soccer, I felt embarrassed for the country, embarrassed for the players, for our great tradition in soccer,” he said in the aftermath of the stalemate. “This is nothing to do with the players who played today – that’s a good side. I feel embarrassed and ashamed of that performance.
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Read | John Giles and the true meaning ‘a football man’
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“I’m thinking of men like him,” he said jousting his pen in the direction of John Giles sitting to his left. “Tommy Eglington … all of the great players we have produced. Peter Farrell, the Liam Bradys, the Ronnie Whelans, the David O’Learys.
“This is a great footballing country. To produce players and go out and play that rubbish … tttah,” he concluded, throwing his pen onto the panelists’ desk in what has, in both a meaningful and comedic sense, become a remarkably defining moment in the history of Irish football.
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Dunphy thereafter earned his namesake as Public Enemy Number One for criticising Irish football when it had seemingly reached its apex: one game away from a semi-final on its first ever qualification for a World Cup.
But it was not only the on-field football which bothered Dunphy. Many have backed and echoed his then-scandalous unpopular opinion that Irish football deserved better. That it could be so much more if its technical outlets of Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan and Kevin Sheedy were utilised to their full potential instead of goalkeeper Packie Bonner lumping a catastrophic boot of the football behind enemy lines like a foreign missile time after time in search of a lucky knock-on.
It was the reaction of those outside the footballing community to Ireland’s success which disgusted him equally, if not much more. In a 2013 interview he spoke on the topic of what Ireland’s crowning moment at Italia 90 meant in the context of the GAA, in the context of The Ban and what it meant in his own personal context of growing up accused of being an English-loving, anti-nationalist Irish football player.
Furthermore, it was to what it meant in his context as someone who had defended the game which had offered him momentary escape as a boy from the harrowing reality of a state which in his mind’s eye had let him and everyone he cared about down on every institutional level.
“I think soccer was hijacked when Jack arrived,” he said referring to the appointment of Charlton as manager of the Irish international team in the late 1980s. “When we qualified in 1988 (for the European Championships), I think the mob took over.
“Scoundrels got on board. I don’t think the soccer community ever bought into Jack in any meaningful way. I know some of them hated the football because it was brutal and crude and was anti what the Irish game had always been about.
“What happened then is that everyone got on board and it became a cultural phenomenon of quite extraordinary potency. I have written about what it was like back then to be an original football person.
“There were real football people who didn’t enjoy the Charlton years. But there were scoundrels who loved it. This should have been a liberation, but the very people who were discriminating against us and the soccer community were now on board for Jack and were in the streets fleecing the likes of me. It was ironic.”
There is a sense of self-regard when referring to himself as an ‘original’ football person in Ireland, but Dunphy’s lifelong anger can sympathetically be located therein in that promise of liberation. A climactic liberation which the footballing community alone deserved and badly needed.
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Dunphy went against the wave of popular opinion and euphoria which Italia 90 presented. The competition recalls many people’s dearest and fondest memories despite the fact that the tournament as a whole was bitterly disappointing in hindsight, most especially in the quality of football on display.
However for people of a certain bygone generation Italia 90, both then and now, stands as a milestone of one month of hazy drunken happiness. Drunk on alcohol and, more importantly, a shared sense of collective belonging which only sport can evoke among friends and total strangers.
But Dunphy stuck to his guns and rode the tide of public hatred. Sticking to principles of devotion to football long before it was suddenly heralded as a good of the nation, he grew up in a time where his colleague Liam Brady was expelled from school for refusing to play a friendly game of Gaelic football in school in favour of representing Ireland at schoolboy level in football.
This was all during an era when those who played the game were chastised as unpatriotic by those who swung to the beat of Italia 90 a few short years later.
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Dunphy has long ridden the fame train of the early 1990s where he discovered a simple trope of controversy, which he has played ever since. But in an era where constant, unending statistics reign supreme and are required as the basis for any substantive argument, the loose tongue and mindlessly argumentative nature of Eamon Dunphy no longer holds up to any credible degree.
However, the constant spurring of hatred towards a man who has intelligently grappled and openly struggled with the true meaning of nationalism in Ireland in a sporting context is undeserved, especially in his later years. Dunphy himself has admitted on more than one occasion his admiration for Wes Hoolahan, the archetypal street footballer from inner city Sheriff Street who played at Tolka Park 20 yards from Dunphy’s childhood home in Drumcondra.
But he has also shown his appreciation of James McClean, for a host of different reasons. McClean is a player who every year refuses to wear the English poppy due to his being born in Derry where the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1972 took place.
Dunphy tells a story following the massacre on 30 January: “On the Saturday after Bloody Sunday, when the paratroopers murdered those people in Derry, I wore a black armband for Millwall in an away game at Norwich. I wore it in training all week.
“And I rang all of the Paddywhackery merchants who were playing in England at the time who were always saying how great it was to play for Ireland and I said, ‘Come on lads, we have a chance here to show solidarity with these people who have been murdered by English soldiers. We have a chance to do something here’… and they all put the phone down.”
Dunphy says that he is not a nationalist, but that he is a person. He openly admits the better life he was afforded in the land of opportunity which England was to him in the 1960s and makes no denial of the meritocracy and equal opportunity he was given in this foreign land which accepted him and the game he loved.
In Ireland he saw a nation from which he was alienated and put down. It shunned him, denied him the opportunity to get a decent education, disapproved of him marrying a woman of a Protestant faith and forced a false sense of patriotic pride down his throat which he could not fathom to swallow, even while wearing the green shirt and bellowing the national anthem.
Eamon Dunphy is a controversial figure and a dated pundit. But he is a fragile, thoughtful and intelligent human being who despite much of his ugly outward public persona, cares deeply about his country and the game of football which, above everything else, presented him from a very early age an outlet and escape from a bleak existence in an Ireland of conservative stagnation. All the while unafraid to call bluff on an always lingering sense of false nationalism which has remained present in Irish sport for generations.