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Maligned O'Byrne not always meaningless

YOUNG children deprived of their education but given a crash course in skating and construction studies -- of snowmen -- weren't the only people who viewed the interminable cold snap as a blessed relief.

Fully grown children -- better known as sports hacks -- also basked in the Arctic conditions. They weren't remotely bothered about burst pipes, broken bones or the infliction of yet more damage to an already busted economy.

They weren't even worried about the deadly state of the roads; for one obvious reason -- they didn't have to travel them. Everything was off.

For GAA scribblers especially, the big freeze has been manna from heaven. Put it this way: you've a choice between watching Free Willy 3 in front of a roaring log fire last Sunday or traversing the Wicklow mountains to see Micko's men host the Wee wonders from Louth in the opening round of the O'Byrne Cup. Which is it to be, then: ice cold in Baltinglass or a bottle of Burgundy served at room temperature? Sado-masochists need not reply.



ESCAPE

However, all of this house-bound inactivity has got us thinking -- a dangerous pursuit, admittedly -- about the GAA and its controversial closed-season and the cold turkey experienced by fans around this time of year.

Many GAA diehards are simply addicted -- they can't get enough, and quality-control is never an issue. Others, suffering from post-Christmas cabin-fever, simply feel the need to get out of the house and going to matches has always been their preferred escape route.

These reasons, allied to a curiosity about the new-look Dublin footballers and/or Shane Ryan's career switch to the Sky Blue hurlers, explain why over 2,000 hardy annuals braved the elements to attend the Evening Herald/Dublin Bus Dubs Stars shindig in Fingallians last Sunday week.

For most inter-county teams and supporters, the season proper was due to throw in last weekend. Now everything has been put back a week. The sense of delayed anticipation is palpable. Well, on second thoughts, probably not.

You see, most fans want the new season here upon us, right now, while expecting very little in return. Weather permitting, they will go to a match next Sunday fearing the worst.

Some teams -- the ones who have miraculously got fitter, stronger and faster during the winter training ban -- will hit the ground running. Others (the honest or naive ones) will be miles off the pace. Either way, a majority of players will betray the first touch of Carlton Palmer, if you pardon the code-hopping analogy.

Surface conditions will be even more player-unfriendly than we have come to expect in January. And many of us will head home ruefully asking why we gave up a free Sunday afternoon for that rubbish.



MORATORIUM

Chances are, though, that you'll be back the following week, still complaining.

This is the second year of the GAA's November-December training moratorium, and the likelihood is that playing standards during the various pre-league provincial competitions will be worse as a direct consequence.

Many managers, not to mention several of their training gurus, have complained long and loudly about the closed-season. Certainly, it does seem a somewhat crude way of addressing the burnout conundrum, especially as those most prone to over-training injuries -- college-going players in their late teens or early twenties -- are liable to have trained and played away with their third-level team during this so-called down time.

This is before you factor in the response of some county managers who play January catch-up by training twice in the one day -- hardly the best way to avoid burnout, in our humble estimation.

Then you have the bosses who devised various cunning ways to circumnavigate the collective training ban. ("Hello Johnny, Mick, Joe, Paddy and Mark, imagine all of us turning up at the same gym at the very same time! So you've taken up a bit of boxing, have you? Me too. And is that Tommy Trainer having just walked in the door? Coincidence or what!") Enough rambling. All going well, to the chagrin of the aforementioned scribblers, matches will return next weekend. We will, doubtless, use the opportunity to whinge and moan about the 'meaningless' morass that is the O'Byrne Cup. Many will be the cliches about players getting rid of the last remnants of the yuletide turkey and porter (cake).

Sadly, we won't have Páidí ó Sé around to put his own unique spin on such matters, like in January 2004 when the then-Westmeath manager remarked: "This is the time to be blowing out the dirty petrol." We have a vaguely disconcerting memory that Páidí uttered this immortal line in the midst of conducting a thorough post- shower towelling exercise -- or maybe the mind is playing tricks on us.



MADCAP

Either way, the following week, some 15,000 crammed into Cusack Park to watch Westmeath suffer a familiar one-point, what-if?, defeat to Meath in the O'Byrne Cup final. Proof that this maligned competition, in certain circumstances, can prove a real crowd-puller. We had a similar tale in 2000, at the same Mullingar venue, when over 9,000 turned up in the most God-awful conditions imaginable to watch Longford claim their first piece of silverware since 1968, beating Westmeath in a madcap decider awash with controversy.

The O'Byrne Cup final in 2007, an extra-time thriller where Dublin pipped Laois, could also be used in evidence against the January naysayers. And don't even mention 2008 -- especially to Luke Dempsey, whose Longford charges outplayed Dublin quite brilliantly under the Parnell Park lights before being sucker-punched by two last-gasp Jason Sherlock goals. "These matches are made for Dublin if that's the officialdom we're going to see here," blasted an incandescent Dempsey afterwards.

Hmmm. Come to think of it, maybe the O'Byrne Cup doesn't deserve all this bad press after all. Roll on Sunday...


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