Two men passed away today. They were in completely different fields but both were influential in my life.

My grandfather’s house was a house of football. In the back of the house, by the pit in the back garden where my grandmother hung clothes to dry and, on the other side, a cavernous garage that I’m not sure was ever used to house a car but was always full, sat a washing room with two washing machines and more football jerseys than I ever knew what to do with. One wall was full of boots. We visited once and my father signed me up for the team, we went into the room and came out with boots and a jersey, and I was a registered player with Regional AFC in Limerick city. The family seemed to breathe the sport.

The living room in his house had a piano on one end and a television on the other, and the shelf above the television was full of VHS tapes. My grandfather and various combinations of his sons recorded match after match of football. There were documentaries there, reviews of compilations of games or eras as a whole, and what felt like every World Cup match from 1974 through 1986. I would sit and watch these videos one after the other. That’s how I discovered Johan Cruyff.

The videos didn’t talk about his tendency to become embroiled in controversy or his occasional difficulty in getting on with others (this wasn’t unique in the Dutch national side of the 1970s), his failure to show up in 1978 merely mentioned in passing as one of the reasons the Dutch failed, again, to win it all. The videos instead created in my mind the legend of Dutch football, Total Football, a legend that simply doesn’t work without Cruyff at its centre. It showed me all these things, and it showed the famous turn.

I spent hours in my grandfather’s garden practicing the turn. It was more of a field, really, at the side of the house. A couple of boys a little older than me, passing by on their way somewhere further in towards town, interrupted to mock me. From a distance it must have looked odd, a boy on his own basically dancing over a mostly stationary ball. I was embarrassed, in part because I was always embarrassed when other children tried to communicate with me, but I was also perplexed. Couldn’t he tell I was teaching myself the Cruyff turn? Didn’t everyone want to know how to do that?

I was never all that good at football and so there were very few occasions on which I pulled it off. It was a pale copy of the original even when I did, of course. Cruyff was that great team personified: its arrogance, its grace, its football nothing less than a gift to mere mortals. I didn’t adore Cruyff as I did Maradona; he was too complex for me. I watched his matches and he just seemed to reach out and hold the field gently, allowing the others to play alongside him until it was time to show them all up. Maradona was a series of eruptions, something from another planet sent to torment men. Cruyff was one of us, but still simply better than everyone else in mind and body.

A handful of years later I sat in a friend’s room and watched The Larry Sanders Show for the first time. It was something else, something different from the blockbuster comedies coming to Irish televisions from across the sea. It was slow without treading water, a deliberate thing. Larry Sanders was amazing in ways that I didn’t expect, not because it was something completely new but because it was so adept at elevating something I thought was familiar. I had seen This is Spinal Tap but this was something more. Spinal Tap elevated spoofery to an art form, but that’s not what Larry Sanders was about. It was something more than that. I’m still struck by the show’s finale, at how successfully it mixes pathos with its comedic goals and how utterly, utterly faithful it is to the series as a whole. The DVD set is one of my most favourite received gifts (courtesy of my wife). It’s simply wonderful.

Both men had talent, and both men encouraged me to think. Cruyff and Shandling both had talent, tons of it, talent to spare; they could do things other people in their field simply couldn’t do. Their excellence came from how they used their minds to elevate their craft. Cruyff, first as a midfielder with a “free role” a long time before that became a standard term and later as a coach, and Shandling as the architect and star of a show that would seem ahead of its time if only we’d ever actually caught up. Their bodies of work are both emblematic of the need to work hard and to reach beyond and to push regardless of how far your talent brings you to begin with. I admire them greatly for that, and I am grateful to them both for the wonderful moments they have brought me in my life.

Rest in peace.


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