Time-Out: What do you talk about when there's nothing to talk about?
“Well, how are things?”
“Ach alright, sure you know yourself…”
“Ah I know…”
“Strange times, eh?”
“Very strange… you’d just hope there’ll be an end in sight sooner or later…”
“… so how are things yourself”
WELCOME to pretty much every conversation I’ve had in the past 12 months. Actually, feel free to throw a few more awkward silences in there, maybe even one of those uncomfortable forced laughs pitched just that bit too high, for a couple of seconds too long.
If you’ve been on the other end of the line or in close proximity during that time, sincerest apologies. It’s not you, it’s me.
It’s just, well, what exactly are you supposed to talk about when there’s nothing to talk about any more?
You won’t need reminding but there’s been no GAA on these shores since December, the Premier League hasn’t been worth a damn since Man United won it in January, while there’s only so many times you can ruminate on what went wrong with Rory at the weekend.
Hot takes come and go but, amid the purgatorial malaise perpetuated by the empty clubrooms, bars and terraces that fuel those debates, the buzz has slowly evaporated.
St Patrick’s Day used to be ringed in the calendar from months out, the All-Ireland Club finals marking the start of spring for so many years, drama and the peak of parish pride on the line in a festival of colour that never failed to lift the soul.
The MacRory Cup has always been the perfect showcase for the next generation, the best of schools football cheered on by starry-eyed teenagers dreaming that one day it might be them.
Yet while we long for the return of brighter days, even the sport that is actually going ahead is struggling to keep us engaged in the same way.
Take Cheltenham as a case in point. When else do people you have apparently worked with for a decade or more, but never actually seen, suddenly huddle in the corner of the office, roaring at a tiny television screen?
There are those shared moments of glory or disappointment thereafter, knowing nods and shoulders shrugged before communal attention turns to the next one – ‘well, who do you have in the 3.30… John?’
Tips are exchanged as floundering micro-economies plot their next move, a baseline goal of breaking even – and a few lunchtime pints - enough to sustain them through the week. Energy spreads and others feed off it.
That there are no crowds to cheer winners across the line is one thing, but when there’s nobody anywhere other than their own homes, in their own bubble, those moments serve only to accentuate a temporary disconnect between us and what we love.
Small talk, as a consequence, has become smaller. Face to face encounters become fraught. The mask isn’t helping the flow but that weird sort of half lunge thing you do when the well of chat is running dry? Yeah, it’s more pronounced.
You may not even have realised just how much you rely on sport as a crutch to keep lines of communication open.
I can recall more than a few weddings, for example, where I’ve surreptitiously sidled up to the table planner near the door for a quick scan of who’s in the immediate vicinity. The result of this reconnaissance mission can make or break a day.
“Who’s yer man there?” you enquire, nodding at the board discreetly.
“Oh, that’s so and so’s husband…”
“Who’s so and so?”
“She works with me, you were only talking to her five minutes ago.”
“Oh yes… what’s he like?”
“…big into cars.”
The lockdowns provided a window to broaden horizons too, a golden opportunity to avoid this slide into the mire.
All those books may look well on Zoom calls, but barely a page had been turned despite best intentions. This was your chance. Sport doesn’t define you!
Immerse yourself, better yourself - become a more rounded individual, a different kind of rounded individual to the one who sat gorging on crisps while watching re-runs of France ’98 and the 1987 All-Ireland hurling final during those early weeks.
Or just spend more time on your phone scrolling, then scrolling some more, hoping to stumble upon the odd Twitter beef you can screenshot to friends or, even better, those involved. Is this what has become of us? Okay, of me?
If you happen to be a GAA reporter in a largely GAA-less pandemic - please, put those violins away - the phone will be at once your best friend and the bane of your existence. Mostly the latter.
For every sweet, sweet ding of a reply from a prospective interviewee, you see, there are the unseen hours of staring into the screen waiting, watching.
Oh, he’s typing. Oh, he’s stopped now. This cute hoor has the read receipts turned off. And then the coup de grace, the Big Kahuna - two blue ticks. You swine.
Because players and managers, like supporters, have become tired of talking about decisions taken above their heads, tired of talking about ifs and maybes instead of whens.
The false starts to the GAA season have been completely understandable given the ongoing public health situation, but eventually a saturation point is reached when it comes to rationalising and debating the latest governmental machinations.
Shafts of light have appeared, and we cling to the hope that a form of normality will return in the weeks and months ahead.
By now, everybody is craving the same thing. They want the games, but what they miss most is everything else that comes along with them.