Roy Curtis: 'This is what sport can do; the unbreakable emotion it constructs in hours, minutes or even milliseconds'

AS Conal Keaney went about his masterwork with captivating, blowtorch intensity, a precious 25-year-old Manhattan memory glittered in the mind’s eye.

Parnell Park on Saturday might have been twinned with a June day of thunder in 1994, Paul McGrath reimagining the Giants Stadium as Ireland’s dreamland kingdom.

Shipwrecked by waves of weekend euphoria, I thought of those who insist on viewing sport through the narrow prism of numbers and analytics – who coldly distill the beauty and emotion and soul from these evenings and dump in in the trash can – and mourned their detachment.

Because, lost in bean-counter dispassion, reducing great art to a cold, join-the-dots process, they cannot know the life-affirming sensory tinglings that flood the veins when these higher caste contests reach out and kidnap the senses.

What is the connection between a Dublin hurler and an immortal footballer (supplement to the image a delirious Salthill on Sunday as Roscommon rose up to glory; or those enraptured disciples of Jurgen Klopp’s church on the night of Champions League deliverance)?

It is the deepest, epic connection such occasions make with their audience.

A similar flare of adrenalin, the same dizzy, uplifting sense of belonging and lovely lightness of being that McGrath and Ray Houghton sent surging through the nation exactly a quarter of a century ago, touched a smaller but equally frenzied audience in Donnycarney over the weekend.

Anybody passing Newman House on Dublin’s Stephen Green, where the new Museum of Literature Ireland is being prepared, will have seen a quote stencilled onto the hoarding.

It is from James Joyce and it reads: “The supreme question about a work of art is how deep a life does it spring.”

June 18, 1994, Houghton uncracking the Italian safe, McGrath securing his place on some sporting Mount Rushmore, sprung a life of infinite fathoms.

There is a clarity to the memories: the East Rutherford arena stonewashed green; Houghton’s shot tracing a slow-motion loop over a helpless, flailing Gianluca Pagliuca; McGrath, the shy colossus, seizing the title deeds to the free world.

And, back in Manhattan, a sleepless night of celebration. Walking – wobbling – down 3rd Avenue’s vast canyon at dawn. Truly knowing what it was to be alive.

Watching again the old, priceless 2007 Carnoustie film, a manic-eyed Padraig Harrington making a firework display of his ambition, injects the same opiate into the bloodstream.

Wildfires of delirium rage in the soul, too, when the mind scrolls back to Barcelona 1992, Michael Carruth trampolining toward his father, Aussie; the most gorgeous portrait of love. 

A deathless five-ringed moment in time. 

This is what sport can do, the high-rise towers of superior and unbreakable emotional architecture it can construct in a matter of hours or minutes or, even, miliseconds.

One prominent commentator chastised Gary Lineker and his BT Sport panel for their giddy Vesuvian eruptions as the unimaginably tense thread of those Champions League semi-finals in Anfield and Amsterdam unspooled, Liverpool and Spurs touching the stars.

But what did he want, that they detail and parse events with the cold detachment of the speaking clock revealing that “at the signal, it will be 11.27 and 30 seconds?”

Who with a heart would not react with such involuntary animation to those extraordinary comebacks and all they announce about the human spirit?

I’ll happily hold my hands up and admit to such a discretion: September 18, 2011, in so many ways the best day of my life.

When Kevin McManamon’s goal was followed by Stephen Cluxton’s buzzer-beating free, the one that brought Dublin a first All-Ireland in 16 years, I cried a river of blessed tears. I hugged strangers. I danced on cushions of air. 

I surrendered to that old Manhattan thrill of feeling vibrantly alive.

A dear friend and decorated journalist spoke eloquently to me this week of the bond he experienced with his son and fellow Liverpool supporter as, mesmerized, they watched together their team overturn the three goal lead they had handed to Lionel Messi and Barca.

His eyes glazed as he spoke. Right there was the beauty of sport.

On that September day in 2011, I felt the spirit of my late father at my shoulder. The man who had brought a childhood version of myself to Croke Park in the 1970s, awakened a life-altering passion for Dublin, one that declines to dim.

I thought of Dad again on Father’s Day eve as Keaney – approaching his 37th birthday, yet emptying himself in one of the most selfless and inspiring displays I have ever seen from a sportsman – transported those of us sardined into a rocking Parnell Park to the heavens.

Some might have been inclined to measure Conal’s performance against Galway in numbers.

But that would a pointless as counting the number of words as Luke Kelly sings Raglan Road.

On one occasion, Keaney’s hand rose highest amid a thicket of hurls to field a puck-out.  Standing, maybe 15 yards away, I felt a visceral billowing of the emotional sails.

Sometimes analysis is superfluous. You just have to let go. And feel. Allow all that deafening, life-affirming thunder wash over every pore.

The thunder boomed unforgettably in New Jersey some 25 years ago today; Thor fired anther bolt at Parnell Park on Saturday.

And, perched on Ireland’s family tree of higher achievement, twin authors of euphoria and an inspiring sense of place, Paul McGrath and Conal Keaney were blood-brothers.

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