There is no disguising real emotion. On Saturday morning, the anticipation at our U-9 training session was palpable. The kids were promised a prize if they scored 15 out of their 30 penalty kicks past me.
With 14 successful attempts and only one kick remaining, the anticipation was as real as it gets. The final kicker, Shay, a great kid and mad about football, tragically lost his father in an accident earlier this year.
Walking up to the spot-kick, with his team-mates deliriously cheering him on, nothing else in the world mattered. ‘Christ, please don’t let him kick it wide, or blast it at my shins’ was all I could think to myself, intent on letting whatever effort came at me in.
At the Tailteann Cup semi-finals in Croke Park yesterday, a landmark day for the football championship, emotions were equally real.
In the opening game, there was no disguising the efforts by both teams to make the final.
Cavan, with their superior quality and experience, had to dig deep to deny a determined Sligo team from reeling them in down the home straight.
At the final whistle, the Cavan players and management, were genuinely delighted to win, as were their supporters – who contributed to a tremendous atmosphere throughout.
When Westmeath’s Ronan Wallace buried the ball in the top corner after 14 minutes in their victory over Offaly, the camera panned to a jubilant set of Westmeath supporters, young and old (one being my nephew Aodhán Fallon, son of Joe) who could have been celebrating a score in an All-Ireland final for all the difference you could tell.
Again, the emotion was real.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kerry great Pat Spillane trademarked his over-the-shoulder hook, kicked points with devastating effect.
When son (above) and namesake did the same for Sligo on 41 minutes yesterday, it could have been his father we were watching such were the similarities in style.
Father Pat recently confirmed we have all suspected, that he never had any genuine interest in what happened in the lower football tiers, their players, and the challenges they face. Don’t worry Pat, we all knew that already.
However, after following his son’s Tailteann Cup journey, Pat has acknowledged the genuine merit this competition has to offer, and the profile it can potentially bring to his son’s adopted county and others.
As Pat witnessed first-hand, there was no disputing the passion and endeavour on show when Sligo defeated Leitrim in their thrilling quarter-final victory in Carrick-on-Shannon a few weeks back. One of the games of the summer, by any measure.
As the Tailteann Cup knockers scurry to revise their pessimistic outlook for the GAA’s second-tier competition, those who took the chance to back it thus far, couldn’t have really asked for a better beginning.
Like any new idea or concept, you will never win everyone over at the beginning.
Nor do you need to try. In the same way that it will take us all a while to leave our diesel-chugging SUVs behind for their electrically efficient equivalents, the new GAA world order will take some a bit longer than others to accept.
That doesn’t mean it is the wrong route for us to all go, however. Sometimes it requires a small minority to show the necessary leadership to give something new a try first and prove its worth.
The late majority will then follow. This weekend’s semi-final managers, John Maughan, Tony McEntee, Mickey Graham and Jack Cooney have been such leaders.
Effusive of their support, and authentic in their commitment to the concept from the beginning, their respective players will have benefited immeasurably from their extended summer campaigns.
Young starlets like Offaly’s Jack Bryant deserve the opportunity to both mature and showcase their burgeoning talent on a summer Croke Park sod.
Similarly, long-time servants like Westmeath’s John Heslin and Cavan’s Gearóid McKiernan deserve longer summers than our previous and now outdated championship formats have typically given them.
The disappointment that Maughan, Cooney and their players feel this morning, after failing to make this year’s landmark Tailteann Cup final will be real. As will the regret that some of their peers will be feeling for not giving the competition the respect in retrospect it deserves.
Even in defeat yesterday, Offaly and Sligo are strengthened panels heading into 2023 following their endeavours in recent weeks. Whereas those who threw their hat at it early doors, are no further on.
Cavan and Westmeath will be a fitting final for the inaugural Tailteann Cup in two weeks’ time. The winners and supporters will celebrate it with a genuine outpouring of joy, which will further signal the competition’s inaugural success.
In the same way as my U-9s celebrated when Shay smashed his penalty into the corner of the net. Their smiles and cheers were as real as you could get.