Monday 18 November 2019

Next game looms large once the fog has cleared

'Well Frank, I got €12 diesel and you can give me a pink snack and the Farmers Journal too please?" I rummaged through my wallet and eventually found a battered €20 note stuck between my Coppers Goldcard and my student card. To my surprise, Frank handed me back a tenner.

"Think you've undercharged me there Francie??"

"Don't worry about it young lad, clip over a few points on Sunday and we'll forget about it."

With that he gave me a wink, turned on his heel and headed back through to the bar. I smiled and walked out the door of the parish shop. A huge green monster roared up the road. It was Billy White, a local tillage farmer, out for a spin in his John Deere. He beeped the horn and waved as he flew by, a line of bunting flying like a flag from the exhaust pipe; they'd hung it too low again.

It was county final week and there was a serious buzz about the place. Friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles, sons and daughters were all jetting in from far afield to be part of it; the priest was even talking about running a shuttle bus from the airport at one stage.

That night at training we were greeted with shiny new footballs, each one wearing the club's name in bold black ink; whichever ones weren't lost or stolen would come with us on Sunday. I'd never seen so much gel in lads' hair. They knew the mugshots for the programme were being taken that night and that personal details and honours would have to be provided to go with them.

"You're not 12 stone ya whoor ya!"

The expert pundits of the parish lined the perimeter fences to watch us being put through our paces for the last time before the big day. After training there were scones and tea and we sat scoffing away as the team was named. I was at wing-back and every fibre in my body willed for it to be Sunday; the wait was agonising.

There's something about playing alongside lads you grew up eating crayons in junior infants with, lads you 'kept sketch' for as they got their first shift behind the oil tanker in third class, lads you spent hours doctoring fake IDs with before using them to successfully taste your first beers, lads who were there to share your grief when family and friends passed on. Every club player knows what I'm on about. Multiply these by 100 and you're halfway to the feeling of playing in a county final.

The dressing room before the match was a subdued place. There were scores of cheeks puffing and deep breaths as the jerseys were dished out. I watched as mine flew through the air towards me. I held the brand new jersey up in front of me and must've stared at it for 20 seconds. Jesus, I was born for this.

I took my place on the bench for the photo and squeezed the thigh of the man beside me, my comrade in battle, my brother. We could've filled two benches. Lads who were sitting on beaches in Thailand the week previous had swapped it to sit on the splinter-ridden subs' bench, just to be part of it. We warmed up as babies were carefully passed back to anxious mothers through the wire -- our mascots. Not one eyelid was batted as the other team took to the field. Today was about us.

The parade went by like a flash as I maintained a fixed stare on the back of my teammate's head. Keep it focused. We stood like soldiers in formation for the anthem. Everyone was so focused that the team talk didn't matter; our captain could've rattled off humpty dumpty for all it mattered. I jogged over and gave my opponent's hand a right squeeze as the whistle was blown and we got down to business.

At the final whistle I was overcome with emotion. We'd snatched it from the jaws of defeat with a last-minute victory. I fell to my knees and looked up to the heavens. I jumped up and ran to find the man who, for me, had played such a big part in this. My grandad, who's since passed away. A man who covered thousands of miles bringing my siblings and I all over the country to train with dozens of teams, a man who'd thrown footballs to me in the garden for hours upon end as a gosson, and applauded as I caught them, a man who cared not how well I played but how well I carried myself as both a footballer and a person, a man to whom I owe so much. I found him and we both burst into tears and embraced.

An hour later, we were being paraded through the village on a trailer being pulled by Billy White's John Deere. Our captain had taken to the tractor roof, a can of beer in one hand and our new prize in the other. The crowds were out in their hundreds to welcome us home and a steak dinner waited for us in the local. No player's wallet was touched that night as the drink flowed. The cup was filled with endless concoctions and the game was on repeat mode on the pub's screens. Every ten minutes a voice would shout out, "I've paid my dues. . . !", culminating in 300 people reciting one of Freddie Mercury's finest works as loud as they could. It'd never been so wedged there and remained that way until the early hours.

At the local school the following morning there were sore heads and eye-watering smells of alcohol coming from a lot of lads; not to mention the beer-stained tracksuit tops, but this had to be shared. Each and every child had been there the previous day, while some had even spent some of the night celebrating with us. They brought the roof down with noise as we were introduced and rushed up for autographs after.

The following Thursday we returned to the training field, many hadn't stopped celebrating and it was evident who the culprits were after the warm-up.

"My hammer is acting up a bit there coach?"

Our manager walked out from the dugout, flanked by his selectors with a determined look on his face. "Right lads, it's been a great week. But think how good it'll be when we win the province? Tommy, let's do five laps, you lead it."

The show must go on.

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