Tuesday, 18 March 2014

TALK REVIEW: Eamon Dunphy

The "original contrary journalist" surprises and entertains Belfast's Black Box with his affable, humorous frankness

He is described as a "firebrand", a "troublemaker", an "agitator" and an "attention-seeking freak" but he has also been seen as the most “entertaining, blindingly brilliant pundit of all time”. I’m talking about Eamon Dunphy, of course, the failed second (not third – make sure you get it right!) division footballer who, by his own admission, "wasn't much of a footballer", but strove to get into journalism, and succeeded.

The amiable company of Jackie Fullerton, the genial amusement of an appreciative crowd and the comforting surroundings of Belfast's Black Box enable Dunphy to relax, his strong awareness of both self and audience coming to the fore throughout this talk.

Knowing that his fans will be all too aware of his most well-known views, he wisely does not overly regurgitate Dunphy the writer or Dunphy the begrudger, instead presenting Dunphy the person – pointed, but affable and surprisingly human. It is the way he comes across and not necessarily what he says that will be most remembered by the audience, and he knows it, presenting himself in the best way he can. For the most part, anyway.

Throughout the talk, Dunphy apparently re-enforces his "brand" for all to see, which, in this writer's view, is hardly a brand, but a skill that is rarer than you think. He specializes in incisively unveiling the cynical underbelly of Modern Ireland's Heroic Narratives: including, but not limited, to the swimmer who emerged from nowhere to become Ireland's Golden Girl in Atlanta in 1996, Ireland's first woman President, and, of course, Jackie's Army. Who, for example, wants to remember that for all their success in reaching the World Cup quarter-finals more than two decades ago, the Irish national football team did not actually win a game?

It would be too easy to dismiss Dunphy, as the legendary Jack Charlton put it, as the "original contrary journalist (who) seemed to agree with nothing or nobody". If that was all Dunphy was, then would his words or revelations, as flawed and extreme as they can be, have provoked, inspired and edified to the extent they have? The pundit that enriches one's knowledge and entertains one’s soul is far more important than the pundit you simply agree with. Dunphy is the former, and he is all the better for it.

And, as the title of his recent autobiography hints, his journey to the top has been a Rocky Road: one in which he surely doubted he would even make it. It was more difficult, he reveals, to get an Irish international cap in the day when five "bank managers", the "blazers" of the Football Association of Ireland, picked the team and not the national manager. Worse still, as he puts it, "clubs didn't like us playing for the Republic of Ireland, so Johnny Giles made up excuses for not playing internationally."

With "cock ups everywhere (they) went", Dunphy's fiery reputation stood out when he "started agitating to get rid of the Big Five". He and the players who had threatened to go on strike if the manager didn't get full control of the team won the battle, but it came at a price: Dunphy was dropped and never played for Ireland again. It's what you might call Typical Dunphy: behind seemingly irrational madness lies both reason and substance.

"My environment gave me a certain resilience", he reveals. "We didn't have a TV (in the family); we had to go out and play, read books and newspapers. Kids don't go out on the street anymore, and soccer has declined as a result." A blunt indictment of our technologically dependent society, perhaps, but a necessary one, and an element of reflective sadness in an otherwise charged atmosphere.

A further slice of melancholy creeps into Dunphy's frank, slightly excruciating yet mostly amusing tales of a blessed yet troubled footballing genius. "George Best was actually a very shy and nice man who never said a bad word about women."

But what about Dunphy himself? When did he realise, as a footballer, that he wasn't good enough to "make it"?

"I never grew! And I knew, when I went to York City and reached my mid-twenties, that I wasn't strong enough to be a top player." At one point, he admits, when Tottenham Hotspur were reportedly interested in him, he was "dying" to go; but his manager at Millwall, Benny Fenton, told him he was going nowhere. It was, in his words, as close as he'd come to the big time. Yet, through such near-misses and "failures", a different kind of greatness can be attained: the writing and publication of his first memoir, Only A Game?.

He used to fancy coaching, but his reputation as a troublemaker didn't help. It has, to my mind, worked in his favour; being a manager would eliminate the almost entirely player-centric view that makes his punditry as good as it is. His ability to crack wise out of seemingly nothing remains undiminished; when commenting on the lack of English coaches, he knowingly laments: "They eliminated what you might call 'Officer Class' coaches, and promoted all the dumbos. Look at Big Sam (Allardyce)."

Typical Dunphy, again. Sensationalist, overtly blunt perhaps, but unexpectedly hilarious. And he's no less cutting on the "blandness" of contemporary punditry: "You should talk about football passionately. (Pundits) talk about what they really think amongst themselves, but when on TV, they go into dummy mode." Cue impressions of Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson that really bring the house down.

If Dunphy doesn't say much that we don't already know about Michel Platini and Jack Charlton – it was his views on both, after all, that made him notorious as a pundit – he remains, like John McEnroe, a literally serious presence. It's never dull in Dunphyville, and with Fullerton's calming presence helping to tone down the excessive emotionalism, the validity and value of his guest's words stand out.

Dunphy has plenty of time for his fans' questions, too; although you still suspect it might be better not to set him off on one of his rants. This firebrand may be mellower than he used to be, but it's apparent that making a provocative point, however extreme or downright wrong it can be, is still his game.

Fortunately, the atmosphere retains its general frivolity, and one leaves the Black Box both enriched and entertained. In a surprisingly pleasant manner, Dunphy pretty much proves writer Jared Browne's point that "he has made it, just not in the way anyone would have expected."