Tuesday 24 October 2017

The day Sligo put soul back into Irish sport

David Kelly

David Kelly

It was the year the people hit back. Even though the GAA sought to pen us in behind the looking glass, the IRFU seemed intent on forcing us to sign up to Sky TV for ever more and the FAI gave away tickets to some folk and charged insane tickets prices to others, it was possible for the little people to enjoy their sport without being tainted from above.

For some, the GAA remain the true soul of Irish sport and the sense of classless communality that coexists on the big days out during the summer remains unmatched by its rival codes.

Rugby's arrival as a true threat to the vast following enjoyed by the GAA and FAI during the past decade has been a belatedly welcome concept; Munster were always a classless following and, ultimately, Leinster have succeeded in branching out and ridding themselves of their elitist tag.

Thanks to the efforts of the smart boys in IRFU head office, who dismissed fears that their tickets would be too expensive for the common man -- and the not so common man -- they delivered a stunning two fingers to a decade of development.

pricing

The damage wrought will be hard to repair, despite their panicked attempts to rescue the situation by altering the pricing structure for the Six Nations.

The FAI's position was similarly dismissive of their fan base; the minor difference in their case was that, unlike the IRFU, who could have filled their stadium had they only reduced prices, the FAI couldn't even fill Lansdowne Road by giving tickets away.

The prevailing economic crisis has forced us, as a society, to retreat into the bosom of our community; it seems much safer there, and certainly better value.

Last September, my eldest kid started turning out with Ballyboden St Enda's, which is transformed every Saturday morning into a giant outdoor creche. But his sporting highlight was arguably not the opening-day hat-trick or the bawled instructions to the floppy-haired guy in Laois colours that he was playing the wrong way. The FAI Cup final in November trumped all that.

It was a last-minute decision to go, but, like many of the 36,000, it was primarily provoked by some tardy enlightenment within the corridors of officialdom that set prices at just €10 for adults and a fiver for nippers.

Not being repelled by the fact that the car wouldn't start -- forcing us to take the bus -- being on public transport actually enhanced the feeling of community; one imagined the 1950s heyday of the domestic game when the trams were thronged with soccer folk heading to Milltown.

The match itself was a thriller, but the intimacy of the occasion was even more visceral. Spending nearly every working week collecting banalities from either very wealthy rugby folk who could have lots of interesting stuff to say, but little interest in saying it, or multi-millionaire soccer players who have nothing to say and take great efforts to confirm that that is the case, rendered the occasion a blessed relief.

Mercifully, Irish rugby players remain embedded within their community and retain both a sense of humour and humanity; Kevin Doyle and a handful of notable exceptions aside, the Irish soccer team is riddled with both precious egos and selfish insecurity.

The cup final day was different. Many of these sportsmen were unknown to the wider sporting public, and could walk down their street -- or even their stairs -- unmolested.

Many of them had emerged from a period of dire economic straits and, at more than one stage, had been forced to play for their very professional and personal future.

Now there were over 36,000 turning up to see them perform on the biggest day of their sporting lives (who can remember Joey Ndo's World Cup bow? Thought not!). Hence, there was a real bond with their endeavours.

A family connection to Sligo gave the occasion an added frisson and, although scoreless, it was a gripping game. Despite being chilled to his small bones, my willing accomplice greeted the penalty shoot-out with as much enthusiasm as his sprint down the stairs on Christmas morning.

During extra-time, we had been joined by a woman in her late 40s whose gloved hands grabbed my shoulders violently as every missed Sligo Rovers chance imperceptibly heightened the sense that they may fall to a sucker punch.

Having spent much of the previous months indulging in soulless occasions in a new stadium that seemed to have disinfected itself against riotous enjoyment and spontaneous combustions of joy, to experience such a thrilling busman's holiday was restorative.

Ciaran Kelly's remarkable four saves in succession may have ultimately clinched the occasion, but what enthralled me as much as the accompanying innocent six-year-old was the standard of the football.

Even a journalist, immersed in the world of agents and spin doctors and plastic participants, absorbed warmth in the winter chill from such a primeval gathering of the people.

Later, when the snows came, and our 100-house estate was engulfed, a similar spirit of community engaged many of us in hours of arduous work to clear the way.

Snarling

We thought we may return to being the same snarling neighbours as before, but that hasn't happened; friendly nods of familiarity with previous strangers reveal a sense of shared existence.

Those of us who went to the cup final felt the same thing. After being treated like pieces of meat by all our administrators for so long, this was a demonstration that the power of the people can still thrive.

As the FAI and IRFU and the GAA all indicate that they are going to address ticket prices on an ongoing basis, that glorious November afternoon may have represented a turning point in Irish sport, which can't afford to take its supporters -- please don't call them customers or clients -- for granted. Especially the younger generations.

By vacating Lansdowne Road in such vast numbers, a potent point had been made. The FAI Cup final demonstrated that our passion for sport remains undimmed. As a nation, we have little else left, whether you're from Seapoint RFC, Naomh Conaill GAA club or Sligo Rovers.

The value of sport may be inestimable because it affects so many of us so deeply. Sadly, in recent times too many people have put an exorbitant price on sport. Hopefully, 2011 will correct the mistakes of 2010.

Because without the people, there would be no sport. Pity it took an economic tsunami to remember it.

Irish Independent

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