Thursday 23 November 2017

Like Christmas, one of the best things about sport is who you share it with

Munster captain Peter O'Mahony. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster captain Peter O'Mahony. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

When I looked over at my dad after the whistle blew for half-time of the All-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park last August, he looked like someone who had just stepped off a rollercoaster with his eyes wide open and an incredulous stare of "did that just happen?" painted across his face.

We had just watched Kerry take a firecracker to the semi-final with goals from Darran O'Sullivan and Paul Geaney towards the end of the half which pushed Kerry into a five-point half-time lead.

When things happen that fast, there is less time to make sense of it so the drama grows like a fireball in your head. On top of that, we were watching the game near the highest point in the upper tier of the Hogan Stand which added some dizziness to the frenzy.

Sitting that high up also mixes the reaction of all those sitting in front of you with your own view of the game, and when that's mainly Kerry fans, it all leads to a heady elixir.

As a reporter, when you work or watch a game from the press area, a certain decorum is expected in order to be a reliable narrator (local radio can work off a different riff of being brilliantly partisan).

Being neutral is practically offensive as a supporter which is also why watching matches with your family becomes more than just about the game. I generally go to Kerry games with my parents.

When my mom cheers for a point, that point takes on a new status. When my dad predicts there is no way Kerry will lose this semi-final, I know Kerry are in trouble because my dad and correct predictions have rarely enjoyed a particularly fruitful relationship.

How long Kerry remain in the championship every summer has a direct influence on how often my parents come up to Dublin during August and September and therefore how often we see them during those months because we, the 'kids', all live in Dublin.

So connecting big championship days to Christmas morning has always been an easy comparison to make because a certain algorithm always works; the family gathering for breakfast with an excitement, a dread but always some version of expectation whether good or bad.

The Dublin v Kerry semi-final last August brought all the nerves of a final. At half-time, we had talked ourselves into the worst kind of instant gratification: hope. And when there's hope you give yourself completely over to the match which was why leaving Croke Park after the Dubs won was among the most deflated we've ever felt after a game. But being at that game with my parents was also one of the best occasions of the year.

The endearing aspect about sport is that you don't need to know those around you to enjoy it.

I was in a pub on Exchequer Street in Dublin to watch Ireland's game with New Zealand in Soldier Field last month.

There had been a buzz around the city from early evening. Not everyone has access to pay-per-view channel eir Sport (which broadcast the game) for various reasons but because it had a social and convenient kick-off, it felt like a mass coming-together on a Saturday evening.

Standing in a pub full of fans, we oohed, aahed, cheered and roared at the brilliance of Ireland.

Watching a game in a pub holds the same kind of charm as watching a game on the terrace - you've the right to butt in on other people's conversations and spar with their opinion and for this not to be considered rude; emotions are unfiltered and run around without nuance or restraint, finding a good vantage point remains a fluid thing and whoever is standing beside you can have a big bearing on your experience of the game.

That Saturday evening we stood there for a few hours, wishing for the same outcome, watching history being made, celebrating it, before scattering in various directions.

Sometimes sport as a unifier hides in plain sight but sometimes you can feel it and see it. Sport was at its most powerful and poignant on that clear October afternoon at Thomond Park for Munster's Champions Cup game with Glasgow, the day after the funeral of Anthony Foley.

I happened to be sitting beside Billy Keane in the stand as he reminisced about the Anthony he knew so well which was what the day was also about - a chance for folk to tell their own stories about Anthony and to show their respects for him at the home of Munster rugby.

The part of the day which will live forever in my memory was the tradition the Munster players - led by captain Peter O'Mahony - shared with us on the pitch ten minutes or so after the final whistle.

They generally sing 'Stand Up and Fight' with each other in the dressing room after every game. But with Anthony's two sons in the circle with their arms around the Munster players, it felt like we were brought into the inner-circle when they sang that Munster anthem in front of us all out on the pitch.

It was an unforgettable and powerful show of unity to the Foley boys. It was heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure.

Sport, like Christmas, is about who you share it with and at times of loss it is a chance to reflect on the memory of those no longer with us.

In the age of fake news and post-truth, few things continue to unify us like sport does.

Irish Independent

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