Thursday 17 August 2017

Fergus McDonnell: From Hill to Hell - some things are just too important to be enjoyable

I'll carry to the grave the memory of when my son turned to me and said: 'Dad, Dublin are winning by seven points and the Hill are singing ring-a-ring-a-rosey. This is the best day ever in Croke Park.' Photo: Sportsfile
I'll carry to the grave the memory of when my son turned to me and said: 'Dad, Dublin are winning by seven points and the Hill are singing ring-a-ring-a-rosey. This is the best day ever in Croke Park.' Photo: Sportsfile

Fergus McDonnell

There was a time when the thought of a match day in Croke Park would fill myself and my better half with giddy anticipation. We loved everything about it, from the scamper for tickets, through being too nervous to enjoy the morning fry with the usual gusto, all the way to the Sunday night sing-song and the warm comfort of knowing there would be another day out.

There was no better way to get yourself physically and emotionally drained. Even the days of defeat would end with the satisfied feeling of a great occasion spent in good company.

Among other attractions, the science of the pre-match pints intrigued me. Hill 16 is no place to stand with a full bladder so you have to carefully balance the imports and the exports, the secret being to have enough to enjoy the build-up without finding yourself hopping from one foot to the other for the last 10 minutes of the first half.

Herself would be in one of the stands, with the comfort that brings, but the lads were on the Hill. Weaving your way to the toilet at half-time, queueing and then weaving your way back to find that not only have you missed the sambos, but some interloper has set up camp on your precious piece of real estate, is enough to have you turning the air blue - and not in a good way.

But those were the days before the children got too numerous and too old to leave with a babysitter on summer Sundays. And so began the journey from Hill to Hell.

Before we knew it, we were buying family tickets and missing all or most of the pre- and post-match festivities.

Sitting in the Cusack or Davin Stand exposed me to another evil - the opposition supporter. Or worse still, the opposition supporter who is only supporting the opposition because they are opposing Dublin.

Slowly but surely the joy was being sucked out of match day. The stomach-churning nervousness was still there, but now it was being smothered in a coating of frustrated annoyance and topped off with a dollop of dread.

I'll carry to the grave the memory of the 2006 semi-final against Mayo when my son turned to me during the second half and said: "Dad, Dublin are winning by seven points and the Hill are singing ring-a-ring-a-rosey. This is the best day ever in Croke Park."

Little did he know it was about to become one of the worst.

Before long, I was reduced to watching on television, where the lack of liquid anaesthetic and proliferation of clichéd commentary brought the whole experience into the realm of torture. Now there were more reasons to be mournful. Listening to people either on the television or sharing the space in front of it saying things that suggested this was the first football match they had ever seen turned me into a narky old man before my time.

Over the years, this condition has worsened, culminating in last Sunday's events, which must represent the lowest of the low for any former football supporter.

Having spent four hours on the golf course (another deeply frustrating experience) I got into my car just as the final bars of the national anthem were being drowned by the guttural roar of Croke Park's capacity crowd, turned the radio to Lyric FM secure in the knowledge that there would be no mention of 'the match' and headed for home.

The kids have long-since stopped bothering with us on a Sunday (and most other days that don't require our cash) and as my wife was in the local GAA club watching the action unfold, myself and my misery had the house to ourselves.

So I lay on the bed with the curtains closed for 30 minutes, got up for a shave and a shower (there are very few ills known to man that can't be cured by a shave and a shower) and only then, at 5.15 and secure in the knowledge that, for better or worse, the game was over, did I dare to peek out from behind my veil of anxiety.

Living in Dublin, you can sometimes gauge what is happening in Croke Park by the atmosphere that pervades the city. You will also get little hints by the shouts and cheers that come from nearby houses. And you always know when the game is over because people emerge from their darkened TV rooms into the sunlight. Phone calls ignored during the match are returned and kids rush out onto the streets to re-enact what they've just witnessed.

But on Sunday, for some reason, the signs were hard to read. Twitter, as it does, gave me the information through comment rather than bald fact. From Ciaran Lennon: 'Dublin win while playing worse than expected and Kerry better than expected.' Thank God for that. Having convinced myself that defeat would be the best outcome because it would mean an end to the torture for another year, I was shocked by my relief, my elation, at the result.

As I peeled back the layers of detail to reveal what had been a masterpiece of a match, I was almost sorry that I hadn't been there to witness it. Almost, but not quite. I had survived another match day, closeted away from the action and shielded from the emotion and turmoil I once embraced.

Roll on the final, and I hope you enjoy it. I won't.

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