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The Game – A Journey into the Heart of Sport by Tadhg Coakley

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Non Fiction
The Game by Tadhg Coakley

By Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

‘There I am: a happy innocent boy standing in my back garden, my whole life ahead of me, playing a game with a ball. Around me, my childhood home and my family; safe, fulfilled, intact.’

The Game – A Journey into the Heart of Sport by Tadhg Coakley published with Merrion Press. The Game is a unique gem, a really special book that evoked so many emotions as I turned the pages. ‘As a novelist, sportswriter and All-Ireland minor hurling winner Tadhg Coakley ruminates on the importance of sport in his life. He reflects on the joys of sport, as player and fan, and sport’s pervasive influence, good and bad, on humanity.’

Growing up in Cork I played school hockey and trained with Leevale AC, competing as a 400m runner. It never occurred to me to walk anywhere, I always ran. I loved sport. I loved to be always moving, a trait that affectionately garnered me the nickname of the ‘Duracell Bunny’. Rugby was also a huge presence in our house at the time (and as a family it still is). To this day that strong waft of ‘Deep Heat’ brings me right back to my younger days, spending weekends watching Dolphin RFC play their matches in Musgrave Park and away.

When I reached college age I made a vague attempt at joining the hockey squad but the call of the social life was too strong and I gradually left my own sporting days behind me. But a strange thing happened instead, I became an unexpected GAA supporter. My best friend in college was from Kerry and her ties to Gaelic football were very strong. The pub I frequented was a hub of GAA activities, with many of the UCC & Cork players of the time popping in after matches to celebrate. I have great memories of those years and going to Munster Finals in Killarney and All Irelands in Croke Park. I consider myself lucky to have enjoyed some incredible occasions during those great years of Cork GAA.

In recent years I have returned to running the roads locally and our house is now full of hurleys and sliotars as the next generation steps up. My husband was an avid hurler from Kerry (a rare breed I know!) and with a strong hurling/camogie club close by I have spent many a weekend shuttling kids to training and matches.

Tadhg Coakley was made of a different cloth. His passion for sport was evident from a young age and he represented his county (Cork) at a minor level and his college (UCC) as winning captain of the Fitzgibbon cup in 1983. He also was an avid football/soccer player with his local club Mallow United. In later years he turned to golf and cycling, eventually stepping back from all competitive sports for reasons revealed in this emotional and extremely poignant book.

The Game is not just about the GAA but an ode to all sports, on both a personal and universal level. In a collection of essays that are seamlessly connected, Tadhg takes the reader on an extraordinary adventure from his own days as a young lad starting out, through to observations, all supported by excellent references, about the demise of the culture surrounding sport that we all bear witness to daily. Racism, sexism, toxic masculinity, homophobia, corruption and greed across a plethora of sports are all brought under the radar with a very sharp eye, giving much thought to how we all interact with sport today.

Tadhg speaks very openly about his desire for children, about his wife, Ciara, and about his darker years in college. He reflects on his wins, his losses and recalls a particularly poignant moment with his father. In this book, Tadhg Coakley bares his soul. Also a fictional writer, he refers to hiding behind his characters in other books he has written but in The Game he lets us all in and reveals his truth. With heart-breaking descriptions he refers to his inner voice, the one that led him to believe that he never truly belonged, he was an outsider, different to many of his sporting colleagues. He gave his best on the field, having an incredible sporting career but sometimes, he was never fully present and speaks of his difficulty in recalling accurately memories of goals won and his successes on the pitch. It’s almost as if the world stopped for him in those moments of magic.

In one of the essays entitled ‘Miracles’, Tadhg reflects on his own mother and her love of golf. He reminds us all of those moments when we witness an unbelievable sporting event and we feel the need to share it with someone special…but they’re gone. He uses a hurling example but it could be referring to any sport that you are passionate about.

‘But the place where hurling really dwells is deeper within. Buried there, for a long time. In the quiet. In the quiet of a photo above the television that you went to and touched when the final whistle blew on Sunday. The hat still hanging in the utility room because you can’t bring yourself to move it, but glance at every day. The grave you promise yourself you’ll look after better, now that’s there’s a bit of rain and growth again.
Or when you suddenly see your late mother in your young son’s eyes. And how your Mam loved to go to matches, how it made her feel so alive, so herself.
And you smile at him and give him a hug and do not speak, but remain quiet.
That’s hurling.
Right there. In the quiet.’

I get goose bumps all over when I read these lines. There are many reflective moments like this scattered throughout The Game, making one nostalgic for the days of our youth. Really and truly stunning moments. But amidst the meditations, there are plenty of shocking statistics from across the world of sport, highlighting moments where most of us did nothing. Not immediately impacted by an event, we just kept on supporting, kept on shouting at players and referees, giving no thought to the effect of our actions or lack of. There is some incredible research all through The Game, with a great amount of fascinating detail provided by Tadhg.

The Game is a very profound reflection, a stunning memoir but also it is a piercing examination of our relationship, as a society, with sport. Using his own personal experiences as a writer, a team-player and a fan Tadhg explores the wider influence of sport and its oft-times unhealthy relationship with money. He deals with the collective versus the individual and his sense of often being situated in a kind of no-man’s land. Tadhg Coakley is refreshingly honest in his words providing the reader with a very astute and intimate reading experience. Donal Ryan refers to The Game as ‘a towering work’, which really is a perfect description for this truly masterful piece of writing, an accessible and essential read for all, both sporting and literary fans alike.

The Game by Tadhg Coakley“I realised I was hiding behind the characters in my novel, describing my intimacies with sport and my perspectives on sport through their eyes and in their voices…. I was willing – more, I needed – to expose myself and make clear to readers my relationship with sport and what they mean to me and why. And through me, what sport means to us all.”
– Tadhg Coakley

(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Order your copy online here.

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