Wednesday 25 April 2018

Nothing beats being there

On Sunday, when the dinner had been eaten and my father had finished a couple of pints over the village, we'd hit the road in the Morris Oxford. To see Sligo Rovers in The Showgrounds, or the county football team in Markievicz Park or an Eastern Harps game in Corran or Kilcoyne Park. We might have lingered on the way home from Mass to see the final few minutes of our local junior soccer team Gara Celtic doing their thing in Conlons Field.

There were trips to the dogs in Galway, expeditions to point-to-point meetings after an impecunious uncle bought a horse, midweek jaunts to see juvenile GAA matches. A trip to a match on Sunday seemed as natural as the trip to school on Monday. It was rare we stayed at home.

The odd thing is how many of those matches I remember vividly. These days I can't remember where I put the keys half the time but I can see a particular save a Rovers 'keeper named Gary Scothorn made in a game against Shamrock Rovers 40 years ago, tipping a ball over the bar with the heel of his hand, absolutely clearly in my mind's eye.

My memories of those Sunday trips are wholly positive. In fact, they're downright joyous. To this day I rarely feel as alive as when I'm on my way to a match, anticipating great things which often don't happen but sometimes do. And that's why last weekend, I brought my seven-year-old daughter Lara to the greyhound races in Galway on Saturday night and to the Connacht final in Roscommon on Sunday. Because if she can get even half of what I've got out of sport, it's a gift well worth giving.

The dog racing trip was prompted by her discovery, while fossicking through an old shed up the boreen, of my Uncle Ned's greyhound enclosure. Ned is a few years gone now but the bowls, the leads and the muzzles were still there, as though waiting for him and the dogs to walk back in. The discovery prompted childish questions about what greyhound racing is like, which could only be assuaged by a trip to the track in Galway where I'd spent many of my younger days watching Ned's dogs not do quite as well as he'd expected them to.

Is there anything in sport as soothing as a run of the mill night at the dogs? The betting isn't too heavy, no one gets over excited, you and the kid can walk among the hounds as they get ready for the night's work, there is an air of great good humour about, old men, small kids and slightly bemused tourists mingle at the railings. Inside a bunch of Clare dog people ruefully watched this year's championship hopes evaporate at the hands of Limerick. The hare made his jerky way around the track, a few hopefuls ran solo trials before the proceedings began in relative earnest.

There was a bit of a vogue a while back for greyhound racing, along with almost everything else in Ireland, to position itself as a corporate night out, something worthy of the attention of the high flyers. Perhaps that's a good thing but on Saturday night last the meeting was low-key and quiet and not much different from the meetings I remembered 30 odd years ago. And that seemed like a good thing to me.

Lara was enthralled, by the names, the Ardboula Hawks, Bumblebee Bingos, Outback Hotchners and McHugh Tahinas, and by the prospect of putting on a bet or at least choosing the dog I'd bet on for her. Her first choice Bumblebee Messi won. It was a short odds favourite, no big deal. But in the fourth race she insisted I put the money on a black bitch named Esker Stoke which, according to the odds, had about as much chance as a golden labrador slipped into the race as a ringer. In fact she insisted so strongly that the girl at the counter suggested I heed my daughter's advice. Esker Stoke won and Lara got €37.50 back from a fiver.

Shortly afterwards she chose an even more outrageous outsider. This time I managed to talk her out of it. The dog won in the canine equivalent of a canter. "You just said a bad word," observed Lara. I did. But it was a good night.

The last time Sligo beat Mayo in the Connacht final I was the same age as Lara is now. Accustomed as she is to watching the Cork footballers and Sligo Rovers on television, I had to explain that on this occasion victory was somewhat less likely. She is a confirmed Cork fan, her favourite sporting question being, "If X were playing Kerry, who would you cheer for?" We usually work our way through America, Mars, monsters and various other undesirable elements before concluding that there is no one who she wouldn't cheer for against Kerry. She doesn't get this from me. Honest. They pick it up in Cork.

On Sunday the difference between the experience of going to a match and watching it on telly struck me with great force. There was a lot of harsh criticism of the Connacht final and the harshest seemed to come from people who'd seen it on TV and tweeted their disapproval from the couch. But on the couch you can be dispassionate about a game in a way you can't be when you're there. Where I was both Sligo and Mayo fans seemed gripped and moved by the ebb and flow of the match and there were few complaints about the standard of play. On the terrace you become emotionally involved in a way which means objective judgements about the match have to be left till you see The Sunday Game.

There's also the fact that match day isn't just the match. It's the hats, the flags, the scarves, the headbands, the hot dogs, the cameraderie and that ability, still remarkable and wonderful, of opposing fans to stand beside each other without fear of physical retribution even when they're saying the most awful things about each other's teams.

The one problem was that Lara initially couldn't see over the heads of the other spectators so I brought her down to the wire. By the end of the game she'd crawled inside it and was sitting on the Hyde Park grass with perhaps the best view in the house. And because of that easygoing GAA attitude which drives some tight asses mad but which I love myself, nobody said a word to her. It was the closest I'd been to a big inter-county match in a long time and the sheer force of the physical hits and the courage with which the players withstood them was remarkable to behold. Witnessing them made me reluctant to criticise the guys on show in a way I wouldn't have been had I been watching at home.

I wonder how much my daughter will remember of the game. The sight of John P Kean hitting the crossbar, Frank Henry putting a ball inches wide, Aidan Caffrey blocking a goalbound shot, the bright yellow match programme with its focus on Luke Colleran and Gerard Courell from the 1928 decider, Mattie Brennan's headband, Mayo keeper Ivan Heffernan getting the bird for taking so long over his kick-outs are indelibly imprinted in my mind from 1975. I hope similar images have stuck in Lara's mind and that those memories become as precious to her as mine are to me.

On the way home she drifted off to sleep while myself and my mother listened to Tipp and Waterford on the radio, attaching the name of a Galway footballer to the places we passed through on the road from Roscommon. Ballygar was Mattie McDonagh, Moylough was Enda Colleran, a signpost indicating Kilkerrin prompted the mention of Johnny Geraghty and Christy Tyrell, one for Dunmore drew down the memory of Pat and John Donnellan. My mother followed those lads everywhere when they were on the Galway three in a row team. I wasn't even born then.

We drifted homewards along the country roads in a landscape defined by football and matches gone by.

Just another Irish sporting Sunday. Sunday in the Park with Lara.

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