Vincent Hogan: Show is crocked but imagine the blandness of our summers without it
Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30
Paul Galvin tells a story about the grim nuclear winter that Kerry football found itself pitched into by defeat to Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland final.
He was in a hardware store one day when approached at the check-out by an elderly man. The stranger's attempt to speak was, suddenly, short-circuited by an upswell of raw grief. Grabbing Galvin by the wrist, he squeezed hard, his lips trembling, his eyes tearing over. No words passed between either man, Galvin recalling: "His face said enough. He was hurting, the same as the rest of us."
The man shuffled away and, hopelessly choked up himself now, Galvin put down what it was he had planned to purchase and walked away "talking to myself".
He did so recognising the essential irrationality of their exchange. Imagine football so eating grown men up in a world pockmarked with real trauma and heartbreak. How could it so diminish what might be regarded as an adult perspective?
The question maybe misses a central truth about Kerry. Football isn't and never has been some kind of trifling summer diversion in the county. It is a central strand of the Kerry personality. A cornerstone of how they see themselves.
"It shouldn't be that serious, but it is," admits Galvin.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice will understand precisely what his brother-in-law was getting at. Because this winter is surely dragging for Fitzmaurice like no winter has done before. He is one of football's deepest thinkers but, last September, he over-thought the challenge of beating Dublin.
One of the compelling images of the 2015 All-Ireland final was that of 'Gooch' Cooper relentlessly tracking the runs of Philly McMahon, one of the game's greatest attackers chasing down a corner-back. Fitzmaurice deployed 'Gooch' to be both back and forward, which essentially cursed him to be neither.
Whatever regret the Kerry manager carries from that day, his use of 'Gooch' is surely top of the page. It seemed, if anything, a loss of nerve, an articulation of anxiety. Why else put a master cellist playing cymbals?
To be fair, Kerry's All-Ireland win of 2014 had been secured by a final defeat of Donegal that was rooted in precisely this kind of selflessness and tactical rigidity. Fitzmaurice saw Dublin unravel like a cheap suit in the semi-final and, in a three-week window, figured out a way of out-McGuinnessing Jim McGuinness.
It proved a tactical masterclass, but the spectacle stank the house. A poor game of Gaelic football is still as bad as sport can get. It is the fertiliser bag of fashion. Where is the grace or elegance in 28 big-boned adults just skelping one another whilst trying to perfect the body-check?
Is it really such a mystery that a footballer like Jamie Clarke now chooses travel over the minefield of packed defence?
The new season kicks into gear tonight and there's a decent chance that Dublin and Kerry will entertain in Croke Park. Even in depleted form, both have sufficient resources to put out strong 15s and January isn't a month when big guns ordinarily take refuge in cynicism.
The Dubs have won the last three National Leagues under Jim Gavin and, given they've coupled two of those victories with All-Ireland wins, it's fair to assume the Dublin manager regards a strong spring as the ideal prelude to a big Championship.
He represented maybe the game's last great romantic until that 2014 semi-final upset alerted him to the inherent recklessness of playing all-out attack against teams wired with the patience and ruthlessness of saltwater crocodiles.
Dublin have now won their last three Championship meetings with Kerry and, unless Stephen Rochford ends Mayo's great hunger, the most compelling narrative of this summer's Championship will surely be the sense of Fitzmaurice trying to work a plan to gun down Galvin.
Sure, Ulster will have its notions too through Monaghan, Donegal and Tyrone and it would be a foolhardy soul who'd reckon Mickey Harte especially hasn't the smarts to ridicule a suspicion that we are looking at a two-horse race here. But who else do you honestly reckon comes to the ring with a puncher's chance?
So many of the traditional powerhouses have lost their identity, history just mocks them.
Meath are no longer hard enough to turn opponents' mouths to sandpaper and, without that edge, they look lost in a humdrum pack.
Galway's regal past seems to have been subsumed by the modern desire to turn football into a militaristic shuttle run. In Carrick-on-Shannon last May, they were pulled for 42 frees. Against Leitrim.
Cork won an All-Ireland in 2010 with a team that nobody can name today and have since become the game's most captivating case-study in human frailty.
Down, their final opponents back then, are cursed with the hopeless optimism of men who believe Ulster can be conquered through open football. Cavan's plumed history doesn't obscure the fact that they haven't really been nationally relevant in more than half a century.
And what can be the reasonable expectations this year of Kildare or Laois? To unseat Dublin in Leinster?
The Championship doesn't do fairytales anymore like Clare's of '92 or Leitrim's of '94 unless you regard the emotion decanted by Westmeath's first ever defeat of Meath last June as something plumbed into that category.
Worse, the structure of it, the sense of so many games having an illusory pulse until we reach the All-Ireland quarter-final stage creates the air of a season still spinning plentiful half-truths.
This week, Bryan Sheehan alluded to the fundamental silliness inherent in a ratio of 12 training sessions per game. Bryan is, of course, a Kerry footballer.
Imagine the ratio if you're working just as hard in Wicklow?
Because the game seems a slave to preparation now irrespective of jersey colour. No matter the altitude at which you fly, being a county man demands the same repressed germ-free lifestyle. It's a wonder so many still sign up to it.
So enjoy that organic lentil-flavoured couscous chaps, make sure to hydrate daily with enough water to float a ferry and , if you slip up with a chocolate bar at lunchtime, make that breakfast porridge with water next time.
You are part of a show without which our summers would be unimaginably bland.
Yes, it's fundamentally crocked. Yes, it's tethered to a provincial system no longer fit for purpose. Yes, the GAA prefers to re-assemble flower arrangements rather than dig the old corpse up and start again.
But name a Championship in the world with true democracy at its heart? Honestly?
Kerry's winter hurt to carry them home.