Friday 30 September 2016

Pain lingers when you can't afford luxury of perspective

Tommy Conlon

Published 23/08/2015 | 17:00

Eamon O’Shea stepped down last Sunday, after three years in charge of Tipperary
Eamon O’Shea stepped down last Sunday, after three years in charge of Tipperary

When there's only a single point in it at the end, post-match pathologists will usually be spoiled for choice when it comes to the cause of death.

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They can find a hundred micro-moments and isolate any one of them as the reason it ended in defeat for one team and victory for the other; the merest bobble of a ball that randomly favoured one player and not another.

Tipperary's hurlers may well have spent the week haunted by some such private memory, re-living in their heads a tiny fragment of play that nobody else even noticed then, or remembers now. But they can't let it go because they believe in their hearts it would've or could've changed the outcome. The torments of the one-point margin.

It is no trivial thing, this kind of pain. It is an emotional scar that lingers for years, even decades. At one level it's only sport, a game; we all know this. At another level it is life itself. For elite amateurs like these, the game they play isn't just a part of the greater mosaic that includes work, family, partner and friends. The game subsumes all of these things; it envelopes the rest of the lived life into its all-consuming biosphere. All perspective is lost because they cannot afford the luxury of perspective. It is everything or nothing.

Obviously this is not a healthy balance of life's priorities. There is no balance at all. They are living two lives: the civilian life, and the sportsman's life. But the latter, of course, is master.

The investment in time it demands is enormous. But it is in the unseen investment where the psychic damage is done: the emotional commitment is what leaves them so vulnerable. And they can't avoid it; they won't get away with holding something back; they have to pour heart and soul into it too, along with that daunting weekly timetable of training and meetings and all the rest. And by pouring their hearts into it, they are liable to get their hearts broken.

The physical courage of an inter-county GAA player is taken for granted; the emotional courage it requires is unacknowledged and unquantified.

The survivors of the 2010 All-Ireland winning Tipp team have accumulated a world of pain in the five years since. All was optimism back then; it has turned to ashes season after season since. Instead of medals they have picked up scars that will hurt anew every time they touch them; every time a memory comes unbidden to the mind of that chance, that tackle, that hook, that ball which spun away from their grasp.

And by and large these psychic scars are nursed in private. They're not for sharing, they're not appropriate for normal conversation - they run too deep for that.

Eamon O'Shea walked away last Sunday with a raw wound that will be a long time in the healing; a long time before it even becomes a scar. The Tipp manager stepped down after three years in charge. In his press conference he was able almost to stand outside the wave of distress that was about to submerge him, and describe it as it was happening to him.

"In one sense I feel emotional," he said, "obviously losing is huge . . . That's what high-level sport is. It's a beautiful thing but it's a brutal thing and it's both at the same time. That's the essence of what happened today."

O'Shea brought them agonisingly close to the summit last season but, like many other managers, found in the end he couldn't get to the bottom of Kilkenny. No matter how deep this Tipp team dug into Kilkenny, they could not get to the bottom of them and find their breaking point.

And maybe those battles took something away, like a boxer who's been in a few wars too many and finds that the original spark is gone, never to return.

Galway looked the fresher force last Sunday. They had that innocence about them which is the hallmark of a young, fearless team. It's a dangerous kind of energy to possess, this hell-for-leather naivety, and it is available to a young team only for a season or two before experience and knowledge and worldliness blunts its edge.

But for now they have this precious fuel. It may be a simple biological energy, all those hormones and all that testosterone fizzing around in a clatter of young lads who are mad for road. But it's being harnessed and channelled by a manager in Anthony Cunningham who has been around the block more than once, and yet who seems also to have found a new zeal himself. Maybe those bucking colts in the dressing room are making him feel younger too.

He watched as they conceded a goal inside 40 seconds; then another goal and a third goal. And he watched as they rallied back from those hammer blows. They looked like they could take any amount of punishment and come back for more. They played as if they could survive anything; they played like there was no tomorrow.

While Tipp played like they had a few too many yesterdays. But they needn't torment themselves about all those tiny moments that could have gone their way. The answer this time is in the big picture: they were beaten ultimately by the exuberance of youth.

Only a point between them, but a gulf between innocence and experience.

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