*Chosen by The42.ie as one of the week’s best pieces of sportswriting http://www.the42.ie/weeks-best-sportswriting-12-2565400-Jan2016/
After just over an hour’s drive, I roll down the window and shout to a fella that looks like a GAA man: “Are ya parkin’ there for the match?”. Yes he says in a thick accent. I follow his lead and park halfway across a footpath facing the right way for home. A 5 minute walk and I’m inside the ground, a tenner in but a free programme so I take two. More space for writing notes. I find myself a good seat, roughly on the halfway line under the stand, a low concrete wall with a length of timber nailed to it and painted in the county colours. It’s about 3 degrees, mid January and little at stake between two counties neither of which I’m from. But this feels like home.
I have my supplies ready. Two apples (one before each half), a bottle of water, about 4 biros (just in case), my wee notebook and several sheets of printouts all are stashed in a lovely jacket a rugby club I coached at once gave me. Triple lined and plenty of pockets. Lovely. The announcer calls out the teams, I make the necessary adjustments in both programmes and stand for a minute’s silence and what I assume is a gramophone recording of the national anthem. A bit of pushing and shoving at midfield, the ball is in and the game is on.
The first ten minutes are busiest for me. What positions are the players playing, who is marking who. What are each teams attack systems and defence systems. Gaelic football has changed a lot in the last twenty years and every team is playing with all kinds of innovations. Sweepers. Double sweepers. Third midfielders. Defensive wing-forwards. Target men. Primary target men. Secondary inside forwards. Attacking corner backs. It’s all here. Goalkeepers are still goalkeepers.
I love it. Watching the game but learning from it too. I’m here to prepare a Scout Report on one team, but you can only do it if you watch both. I’m prepared- a programme and a tiny notebook take in kickout strategies, positioning and tactics. One eye on the game, one eye on what I’m writing so I don’t go past the edge of the notebook and write on my hand (again).
The best part of a GAA match is the atmosphere. Rugby matches I’ve been to the last few years can’t compare, not any more. Too many people there to be there, too few to understand what’s happening at the professional games. Not enough people to have a good atmosphere at club games. The 17 year old girl with full makeup, bad hair extensions and a club GAA tracksuit top knows what’s what here though. Especially when the hint of a row starts in front of the stand. GAA fans know their stuff. “God you’re a good one ref” one shouts when a yellow is flashed a bit harshly. “That ref’ll be grand with a few more years of experience” shouts another further down.
Analysis is great, and I love this kind of stuff. It’s good, hard, open football. The moment I crack the code on how to beat the team’s kickout plan is a good personal moment in the game. But a dirty ball right in front of me where there are three good shoulders, a huge hit which misses, 3 men from each side willing to kill for that ball until the fullback emerges, dodges one and finally is fouled to a huge roar of approval from his side, that’s when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You can’t beat GAA for atmosphere.
I watch the last minute of the game standing at the end of the stand next to a gate. A childhood of missing the last two minutes of games so we’d beat the traffic means I don’t leave before the final whistle. Too many missed last minute goals you’d hear about on the radio on the way home. But still close enough to the gate that I’m one of the first to leave, and after a wee jog to the car I’m in and on my way. A few hours re-thinking the game writing up a detailed Scout Report this evening. And local radio analysis on the game for the drive home. Love it.
Only 7 days til the next one. Lovely.