Grassroots Gaelic Football and All-Ireland Fever…

Tomorrow, Tyrone and Mayo will stand centre stage in the All-Ireland Football Final. It is the ultimate sporting showpiece, with desperate demand for tickets at a reduced capacity Croke Park.

Ballygawley is bouncing and Glencull looks great – the spiritual Harte-lands of Tyrone GAA are dressed in red and white, and the bunting is up. There are good discounts to be had on car flags and headbands at Ballygawley Roundabout, as well, “each day between 4pm and 7pm”, according to the Errigal Ciaran Facebook page.

This is the type of thing GAA folk live for. Hook it into our veins. Find an auld scrap heap banger and paint her red and white. Do they still sell air horns with gas cannisters? Beep your horn going through Aughnacloy, once you’ve got your sweets and newspapers in Leo Daly’s shop.

It’s fair to say that there’s plenty of anticipation building among some neutrals too. Quite likely they’ll be rooting for Mayo, the good guys of the GAA. It’s always easier to follow the fairy tale, I guess. However, it was Tyrone’s stunning victory in the semi-final against Kerry that has taken people in the county back to the glory days of the noughties – a time when the zeitgeist was real. 3 All-Irelands in 6 years. Now, the wildness is alive in Tyrone once again.

A crushing loss to Dublin in 2018 sobered up those expectations last time out. Other Ulster teams have suffered plenty in the past. In 2010, I stood in Castlewellan Square, watching the Down team come home having just missed out on All-Ireland glory. The crowd roared and cheered regardless. The men in red and black had come so close. Who remembers that there was only one point in it?  One step from immortality.

I never had a mission of playing at the dizzy heights of county football, but was a bit part club player when I was younger. I quit playing at 19… and truly regret it. The magic of those lost years can never be regained; the genie is out of the bottle.

But you never forget the ugliness, the intensity, the unbridled joy of playing. The fear. Or the mucky socks and the stale smell of gloves. Above all, the satisfaction of clattering an opponent down onto their arse. Utter ignorance.

Certain things left their mark on you: The boys you grew up with, the deadly chat in the changing rooms, and flecks of spit in your face from a roaring, red-faced manager. Our group won all around us at Errigal Under-14s – we were only youngsters, but walked like men.

School football was another animal. At our place, St. Ciaran’s, you’d relish the desolate October days when training would begin. Forty minutes for lunchtime – get quickly changed, out to the quagmire of liquid mud; then military-style drills and a short match. Perhaps a rice krispie square in the canteen after if you’d time. Martin McElkennon had us operating like a well-oiled machine in those days. He’d make us run the roads outside the school gates, silently daring each boy to match his pace and overtake him.

The body is always put on the line playing football, with every sling, cast and crutch worn like a badge of honour: every injury has its own story of triumph or despair. We learned a harsh lesson about mental strength one day, before a club final. The manager said, “Make sure you get off the minibus laughing and shouting, lads, and put a smile on your face – even if you’re nervous. Let them see you chatting.” But the other team must have had the same advice, ‘cos those boys walked off their big coach roaring and cheering. Psychological warfare at 17-years-old! We were beaten that day before we’d landed in the changing rooms.

That was the business of playing the game and, this Saturday, it’ll be down to business for supporters. Serious discussion on team tactics is a key part of the day’s ritual for some – big men will make their phone calls before, during and after the game: “What’d you think of that, Sean? Was it a black card at all?” or “I know, John, I wouldn’t like to meet a referee tonight, let me tell you.” How many fans will walk up and down the roads and lanes outside their homes, unable to watch the last five minutes?

Not even Ronaldo’s return to United will distract us. The Saturday Game on RTÉ it is. In Tyrone, everywhere in the county will be quiet and still, from the hills of Dunmoyle to the waters of Washing Bay, as our heroes stand tall in Dublin, a hundred miles away.

Main photo by William Murphy