Sunday 18 August 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Circadian rhythms out of kilter with merging of the seasons'

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) celebrates with defender Virgil van Dijk on Friday evening. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) celebrates with defender Virgil van Dijk on Friday evening. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tommy Conlon

It used to be a case of wake me up when September comes but the circadian rhythms are out of kilter and August has become the new September.

For years the Premier League's silicon chip wouldn't activate inside my head until after the All-Ireland football final. It dovetailed perfectly with the ancient biorhythms: the end of the GAA season, the darkening days, autumn already putting on its winter coat. This was the proper time to start tuning into the news from England.

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And even then, you could ease yourself out of hibernation with a good stretch and a long yawn. Nothing was ever won or lost in the early months of the season. It wouldn't really get serious until November, more or less, and it wouldn't become compelling until the shake-up around Christmas and the new year.

This was a traditional indulgence that contemporary evolution has erased. The fat on the bone that kept title contenders warm in the early months has been pared away to almost zero; nowadays points dropped in August and September can have punishing consequences the following April and May. And not just for United or City or Liverpool and the rest of the front-runners: all creatures great and small have to be at it, as they say, from the first whistle on the first day.

Bottom to top they are all traversing a financial tightrope that is now so high in the sky, the safety net below is virtually invisible.

So, what was once a leisurely autumn is now mission critical; winter is merely life or death and spring comes with the apocalypse. Truly, it is exhausting.

It is why one faces into every new season with an increasing sense of weariness rather than anticipation. The television ads before and after games cajole us into sitting back on the sofa with match-ready beer and pizza as part of the experience. But at this time of year it feels more like we need hiking boots and crampons and protein drinks for the 10-month campaign that lies ahead. We are not on the cusp of a prolonged and purely pleasurable joyride but instead at the base of a mountain that will have to be scaled. The biggest show in world sport is a yearly epic of entertainment that has somehow morphed into an endurance test too.

We would of course be fresher for the new expedition if we had enough time to recover from the last one. But Big Football has become a beast for all seasons. Summer is suffering more and more coastal erosion from the game's ever-swelling tides, eating deeper into May and earlier into July, one way or another.

The engine is not allowed to turn cold; it is always ticking over; there is always something happening to feed the sporting news cycle. The close season has become like a one-week holiday: no sooner have you started to relax than it's time to start thinking about packing again.

If some of us feel suffocated by the prevailing atmosphere these days it is perhaps because our identity has been genetically modified without us even knowing. Where once we were fans, we are now consumers. Where once it was a game, it is now a product. Where once it was cheap, we now have to pay through the nose. If the professional game was always a business, it was once a local business, albeit often run by shady dealers. If they were hucksters, they were hucksters you might see down the pub. You'd see the players down there too. Obviously it is not like that any more; it has gone corporate, global, its owners and executives a sort of Bilderberg Group with balls attached.

The process began in 1992 with the birth of the Premier League, English soccer's year zero. The revolution since then has delivered spectacular talent and drama into our living rooms. We all know that and few of us would want to turn the clock back. But the supercharged financial boom has brought with it a fundamental mutation in the relationship between the game and the masses. The game that was once almost free has been sold back to us - and the hard sell has become harder, louder, more hyped with every passing year.

Which is why this weekend does not so much feel like the start of a new season but the continuation of a never-ending season; not a beginning but merely a resumption after the ad break. It is why one feels not so much excited as beleaguered, no longer quite sure whether to sit on your sofa and watch the match, or just hide behind it, fingers in your ears to muffle the noise. You want to watch it of course, but you'd prefer to orbit it without being devoured by the sporting equivalent of a cosmic black hole.

In Ireland the space-time continuum has been ruptured further by the GAA's decision in 2017 to move forward the dates of the All-Ireland finals by a couple of weeks. It has played puck with our aforementioned circadian rhythms. A lot of us haven't been right since. August has become September and September has become August; up is down and down is up; out is in and in is out.

The All-Ireland football final on the third Sunday in September signalled for many of us the natural end of one sporting season and the start of another. But now this hinge in the calendar has disappeared, a tide mark dissolved in the waves of change.

As the chap in Ecclesiastes said, not today or yesterday, there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens; but I'm damned if I know which is which or when is when any more.

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