Sunday 17 December 2017

Small nuggets are enough to inspire great gold rush

Tommy Conlon

G entlemen, start your engines. The Sam Maguire is beckoning. Unfortunately, the cliff top is beckoning too. Do lemmings have engines these days?

We're mixing our metaphors here, but anyway. Because players from 32 counties have endured winter pain on arctic training fields in order merely to throw themselves into the summer slaughter of the All-Ireland football championships. It is the annual charge of the light brigade; it is the massacre of the innocents; it is the great seasonal cull, rivalled in brutality only by the Japanese whaling industry.

But, undeterred by their imminent destruction, there are white-legged sons of Erin up and down the country with eyes on fire shouting, "Banzai!" Or, alternatively, "Come on lads, no messing about today now." And then it will all end in tears.

Or maybe in the nightclub of some provincial town at two in the morning, wondering if those birds over there will come over and talk to them. Because they won't be going over to talk to them. They wouldn't know how, having spent the better part of their young lives in the company of other lads talking about their hamstrings, their weights programmes and the sweeper system. So they down another round of alcopops and wend their weary way home, finding love in a kebab while some drunk tells them they were a disgrace to the jersey today. Then it's onto the qualifiers, a horrible away game in Ulster, and that's them done and dusted for another season. Ah, the countyman's lot: it's not all new boots and new polo shirts and free feeds.

Which brings us round to the eternal question: why do they do it? Particularly those soldiers at the bottom of the food chain, those denizens of dead end street, the GAA's Les Misérables.

It is to make something of their lives; that's why. They do it primarily to find some purpose, some direction, maybe a little status. A county team offers structure to a life that might otherwise drift; it offers routine, a timetable, discipline and comradeship. It is an anchor at a vulnerable time, a stable platform to stand on while they try to find their place in the world.

And it is at the same time a way of escaping from that world with all its stresses and disappointments and tedium. Of course any team in any sport can offer the same escape: the adrenaline of competition, the excitement of the next game, the endorphin rush of hard training.

But in Gaelic games a county player, no matter how low down the food chain, is still higher up on it than the legions of club players who scuttle about on the factory floor of the sport. There is status in that, no matter how modest. And there is always the promise of the big day out too, at least once a year, and maybe more if they happen to hit a good streak of form. They might even get a visit from Marty Morrissey if things are going really well.

But even if they are locked into a never-ending cycle of harrowing defeats and perpetual frustration, many of them won't let go. Ten years later they're still there. Again, why? The obvious answer is that they enjoy it; they love the whole scene. But maybe the real reason is that they're good at it. And people who are good at something tend to like doing it.

For a lot of young males sport is the one activity devised by mankind at which they are recognisably talented. The rest of their lives might be humdrum but they have found an outlet that gives them an identity; it gives them confidence and prestige. If they play a sport that has a professional structure at the top end, it might even give them a living.

In many parts of Ireland the inherited sport is Gaelic football or hurling. The best of them throw their lot in with the county team and take their chances for better or worse. If they happen to be born in say Kerry or Kilkenny, it is a lot harder to make the grade. But if they do, they have a great chance of entering the roll of honour reserved for All-Ireland champions. And with that, comes a

small nugget of immortality attached to their names. Which has to be the ultimate fulfilment from a sporting life. Those lads don't need to be asked why they do it.

But we would venture that the same reasons and motivations apply to them as well as to the perennial also-rans. It is not just about the medals; it is a way of making something of their lives. And they all have in common, rich and poor, the fulfilment of doing something hard, something that comes guaranteed with terrible disappointments and setbacks. All the monotony and drudgery of a long winter's training can turn to ashes for a Kerry footballer or a Kilkenny hurler with one injury at the wrong time.

The top teams and the bottom teams are ultimately all in it together. They come charging across the field, up to the cliff top and over they go. Some fall early, others later, but they all end up in the same place. Except the one team left standing, holding the flag.

The lads at the bottom, they pick themselves up, dazed and confused, and get ready to do it all again next year.

thecouch@independent.ie

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