Jason and the juggernauts

CLOSE UP : Jason Sherlock A young Gaelic footballer has become a marketing man's dream as soccer giants wait in the wings. Andrew Baker reports
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The Independent Online
DUBLIN is crammed. Gaelic sports fans from all over the country - from all over the world - have converged on the city for today's All- Ireland Gaelic Football final, and the resultant shortage of accommodation has caused, in the words of a Dublin disc-jockey, "a bed-hunt of first- Christmas proportions".

There is a reason for all this hysteria, and it is not just that one of the two teams contesting the final is Dublin (the other is Tyrone). The reason is the presence in the Dublin team of the nearest thing that Gaelic sport has ever had to a superstar: Jason Sherlock.

Sherlock is a marketing man's dream. Young, good-looking and superbly athletic, he has taken to fame like a thirsty man to Guinness and the magazine racks of Dublin have been plastered with his rock-star features all summer long. "He has a very charismatic way about him," Liam Horan, the Irish Independent's Gaelic football correspondent, says. "He's multi- talented. He's a real buzz character."

Those multiple talents are the reason why we may soon be seeing rather more of Sherlock on the British side of the Irish Sea. As well as his leading role at full-forward for Dublin, Sherlock is a basketball international. But it is his prowess on the soccer field that is the key to his future prosperity.

He is a striker for University College Dublin, where he studies Health and Safety on a soccer scholarship. But UCD are not any old college team: they play in the Irish Premier Division, and Sherlock's performance in their friendly against Liverpool prompted Roy Evans to promise him a trial. "He's not big," according to Dr Tony O'Neill, UCD's head of sport, "He's only 5ft 9in or so, but he's very pacy, so quick, and so brave. I'd say he has what it takes to make it all the way in professional soccer . . . that's definitely what he wants to do, and I very much hope that he makes it." It seems likely that he will. As well as the constant rumours about interest from English clubs, Sherlock has more tangible evidence of his talent in the Under-21 cap he won for the Republic against Austria in June.

But these days talent is not always enough, and Sherlock has cannily engaged as his agent another sportsman who successfully made the transition from the Gaelic code: Kevin Moran. "Kevin has been through it all before," Sherlock says. "It's great to have his support and advice." The essence of that advice was that it was a good idea to get as much big-match experience as possible in Gaelic football. "The Gaelic game gives him the experience of playing on a big stage in front of huge crowds," Moran says, "50,000 or 60,000 people. That has to be a good thing - it was certainly a great help to me."

But now is not the time, according to the mentor, for the protege to be thinking about the Premier League. "We're not paying too much attention to the matter of playing football in England at the moment," Moran says. "We're just waiting to get the All-Ireland final out of the way. Sherlock concurs. "That's all for the future," he says. "Right now all my focus is on the final."

We can expect a big performance. For Sherlock has the star's knack of scoring at vital moments in vital games. Against Cork, in the All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin were behind when Sherlock received the ball with his back to goal. In a moment he swivelled, sold the Cork full-back, Mark O'Connor, a dummy that dumped him on his backside, took two strides towards the goal and buried a right-foot shot in the far corner of the net. It turned the game.

The move exemplified not only Sherlock's sense of timing, but also the speed and agility that are his hallmarks, whatever sport he is playing.

Gaelic football is a kind of hybrid of soccer, rugby, basketball and Australian Rules, although aficionados claim that its roots are more ancient than any of the above. The ball may be carried if it is bounced regularly off the pitch or a foot. Goals kicked between the posts count for one point; into the net scores three. The traditional Gaelic football full- forward looks as if he has been dislodged from the Mountains of Mourne by seismic activity; full-backs are built on a similar scale. Given his height and slimmish build, Sherlock ought not to be able to compete with such men. But he has the leap of a salmon, and uses his speed to exploit his opponents' bulk: witness the expression on Mark O'Connor's face as he watched Sherlock bound for goal.

"I think my experience of playing basketball has helped a lot in Gaelic football," Sherlock says. "The basketball skills of handling and balance have come in very useful."

He has imported more than skill to the Gaelic game: there is also the is the manner of his goal celebrations. "Gaelic sportsmen are traditionally non-emotional," Liam Horan explains. "They celebrate after scoring by shaking hands. They are not effusive men. Sherlock breaks all those rules." Indeed he does. And he doesn't even need to score in order to do it. In a recent game against Meath, Sherlock celebrated the award of a free-kick by kissing the referee. "He behaves like a basketball player or a soccer player," Liam Horan says, without a hint of disapproval. "Also, it has to be said that the average Gaelic football player is not all that concerned about his hairstyle."

The hairstyle - a jet-black flat-top - and Sherlock's exotic, almost androgynous good looks account for his appeal to the young. But he is no sort of pampered softie: Gaelic football is a tough pastime, and Sherlock can give as good as he gets. "He can take a belt," as Liam Horan puts it. He knows, too, that his team-mates will look out for him. "The other Dublin forwards are - abrasive people," Horan says. "They mind Sherlock. He took the field in the game against Laois recently and very quickly the Laois corner-back tested his jaw. He found himself immediately surrounded by Dublin players: the message was - you don't do that to Jason."

No doubt the full-backs of Tyrone will be keen to test Sherlock's mettle in this afternoon's All-Ireland final at Croke Park. But he will not need any extra motivation. He comes from the Dublin suburb of Finglas, and as a boy stood on Hill 16, the grandstand raised on the rubble of the 1916 Easter Rising, to watch Dublin's last appearance in the final 12 years ago. Hill 16 is where Sherlock's fans will stand today, with their "Jay-O" banners. Although he may dream of fame and fortune in another sport in another land, Jason Sherlock will not want to let them down, not at the spiritual home of Gaelic sport in his home city. "He can do it," Liam Horan says. "He has been doing it. He wears the crown of fame well."

Sherlock will not let the fans' adoration go to his head: "I have no problem with all the attention I get," he says. "After all, the fame thing is not going to be around for ever. I might as well enjoy it while I can."