Sporting occasions promote positive national pride and joy
ONE of the greatest recent inventions has to be Sky Plus. No matter what you are into, be that sports, movies or a drama series, you can still get on with your everyday life safe in the knowledge you wont miss a second of the action.
Following our club league fixture last Sunday, I went straight home to pop on Sky Plus and catch up on a feast of sporting action, including the Division One and Division Two National League finals, as well as the Champions Cup rugby semi-final involving Leicester Tigers and Racing 92.
Once I completed my catch up, it’s safe to say it left me with an enormous sense of pride for our sport and our island as a whole. Not only because of the superb centenary celebrations which followed the Division One decider, but to see Croke Park packed to capacity in the middle of April was a clear sign of the enthusiasm in this country for sporting events.
When I finished my GAA round-up, I was just as excited about seeing the Dan Carter-inspired Racing 92 appearing in their first European Cup semi-final against the competition’s most successful English club - Leicester.
Unfortunately, the match at no stage lived up to its billing as a sporting contest, but that was not the most disappointing aspect of the occasion. The game was moved from Leicester’s home ground of Telford Road to the City Ground, home of Nottingham Forest FC, only 30 miles away.
I assumed that, with all that was at stake and with arguably rugby’s biggest star in action, the game would be a complete sell-out. Yet, the television showed vast swathes of empty seats, with only 22,148 paying customers attending the 30,500-seater stadium.
I understand the game was hosted at a neutral venue but, when you compare it to the attendance figures our Irish provinces have been able to attract, there is no comparison.
I’ll never forget the 2009 European semi-final at Croke Park, when 82,000 people witnessed one of the greatest Irish sporting occasions ever. While that was a unique occasion, our provinces have become accustomed to playing in front of 50,000-plus attendances towards the latter stages of the season.
The league finals yet again proved to me that Irish teams bring an atmosphere to rival anything in the world. While we constantly bemoan the quality of Gaelic games, the shift towards defensive tactics or the lopsided nature of the provincial competitions, attendance figures remain high, with Ulster in particular leading the way in 2015 and showing an increase in Championship attendances for the fifth season in succession.
As a kid, I can clearly remember travelling to Armagh games across the country, bursting with excitement. I couldn’t get into the stadiums quick enough. All I wanted was a view of the pitch and a look around at the crowd before settling down to see my heroes in action, in awe of their every movement, dreaming that, one day, I would get the chance to perform for my county.
I don’t think spectators realise how much of an input they have on match day. Yes, players nowadays like to listen to music to help them relax or focus on the job at hand, as well as tuning into the instructions regarding their role for the day. Every possible scenario goes through your head on game day but, speaking from personal experience, I always liked to take in a bit of what was happening around me.
Nothing tuned me in more than when our bus would be slowly winding its way in traffic towards Clones. Then, just as we would reach the last sweeping corner before the long straight into town, the garda escort would set their sirens roaring, moving across into the opposite lane and clearing all in its path as we sped our way into town.
For me to see the excitement on supporters’ faces, young and old decked out in our county’s colours, always brought me right back to my own childhood. It reminded me how fortunate I was to be getting the opportunity to live out not only my dream, but the dreams of the thousands of loyal supporters coming to see us.
I never let the expectancy of big Championship days become a burden on me as they were all I ever wanted. More often than not, I knew I was well prepared and ready to perform. Once in the changing rooms, there was little more management can do or say at that stage. It was down to each player to win their own battle.
But before that could happen, there was usually one last GAA tradition to complete in the final minutes before throw-in - the parade. Again, as a kid, I thought this was one of the most special moments you could ever savour as a player. I visualised myself marching alongside them, head up, chest out, ready for battle. The reality, though, with the exception of the All-Ireland semi-final in 2005 and the Ulster finals in 2008, when I could hardly hear myself think because of the noise, was much different. At that stage, as a player all you really wanted was for the game to start so that you could get your first touch.
As I stood in glorious sunshine on June 14 last year in a packed Athletic Grounds, watching the Armagh and Donegal players parade in front of a wall of sound, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and those same childhood emotions came flooding back. I wanted to be back out there. I don’t think those emotions will ever leave me.
It has gone full circle. My time as a player passed in a flash - I’m now back to ‘supporter mode’. But I’m looking forward to travelling the country for years ahead with my own family, taking in the great sporting occasions to come.
Days that make this great wee country tick.