Larry Ryan: The sacred routine of a match on the box has somehow been protected 

Larry Ryan: The sacred routine of a match on the box has somehow been protected 

At least one thing is certain now in these uncertain times: we all let too much slide over the years.

If only we had known that watching sport on television would eventually come to be regarded among the most fundamental of all the human rights.

If only we had any inkling that even in an hour of deepest crisis, where more or less every other facet of our existence is having to be sacrificed, society would at least make sure we have a match to watch on the box.

When we think now of all the emergency logistics put in place to keep this one sacred routine in place for us — all the bubbles sealed and testing done and planes chartered — it’s crystal clear that we should never have let so many matches get away from us.

All week they’ve been flooding back, the ordeals of yesteryear, innocent times when we just didn’t know that your right to watch the match is as good as enshrined in the constitution.

The 1980 Cup Winners’ Cup final always springs to mind first, for some reason. With all we know now, how is it conceivable that a traumatised boy might only arrive home during extra-time, having instead been obliged to spend the previous 90 minutes at a ‘solemn Novena’?

The outrages pile up. Flashbacks. Sent to bed before Match of the Day. All those evenings when Today Tonight encroached into the crucial early minutes of Grandstand and the FA Cup replay highlights.

It’s like a bad dream now, but there was the lad in college who was fascinated by the Paris-Dakar rally, which meant you might be gazing at vast expanses of sand on Eurosport even as they were kicking off over on Midweek Sports Special.

And then came the many and varied indignities of married life in the dark days before Sky+. When you could, despite registering suitable protest, find yourself switching over to something like Lost during the last knockings of a gripping Champions League tie.

I think of the World Cup in 2006 and retiring reasonably gracefully from the bar to the ballroom of the Abbey Court Hotel for the formalities of my sister’s wedding even as Ronaldo was winking and penalties loomed.

We didn’t know any better. Even worse, it is the persecuted who were made to feel guilty for appealing for our basic needs to be met.

We think back to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and the self chastisement the man practised for constructing his life around the Arsenal, for making sure that he always saw the match, even if there were competing minor attractions such as family gatherings.

But there was no need in the world for Nick to reproach himself, we know now. All he was doing, in securing access to the match, was protecting his own mental health.

We sure have a trump card up our sleeves from here on in.

At times it feels something close to miraculous — after a shaky start back in March when they tried to wean us off with doses of nostalgia — all that has been done this year to preserve the match.

At some level it has been decided that other aspects of civilian life, like a few pints or a dinner out or a gig or a film or a holiday or even a bit of elective surgery can be safely consigned to the nice-to-have pile. But things would disintegrate entirely if we didn’t have the match.

Indeed, if the spiritual ritual of watching the match has been altered in any way in these troubled times, it is mainly to accommodate the idea that you can easily be watching two matches at the same time. That we might have been selling ourselves even shorter than we thought.

It is something wondrous to see how far we have come. From a dark age when the match on the small black and white box in the corner was under constant threat from ‘getting the news’, to having two or three screens in front of us, all broadcasting matches.

Not that our people haven’t met society halfway on this one. It has been give and take. And we should acknowledge the gargantuan efforts to upskill themselves made by all those citizens whose embrace of the digital age began and ended with a Casio watch, but who are now streaming and casting and YouTubing matches as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Nor should it be overlooked that we are, by and large, paying through the nose to watch the match. They are queuing up to charge us from all sides. There appears to be no end to the list of creditors we must assemble to guarantee access to the match.

Once things settle down a small bit perhaps we will see more protests on that front, now that we have established that the match is as fundamental to our survival as water.

Meanwhile, the more suspicious among us can’t help wonder what the powers-that-be are trying to distract us from, by maintaining the supply of matches.

And there is still an acknowledgment that certain fixtures are more important than others. So we are willing to countenance the loss of some matches — as long as it is only the league.

While the rugby appears to have been stripped of its customary apocalyptic resonance without the attendant social aspect. Can a rugby match even be said to have taken place without anybody in a pub urging shush for the kickers? 

Nevertheless, as the hurling championship dawns, it would be churlish not to give thanks to those making things happen this weekend. As Derek McGrath put it this week, these lads are representing something bigger than themselves and their counties.

They are playing for the sanctity of the match for all who have gone before and who will come after. They are elevating the match to a central role in our culture. They are slapping a preservation order on the match.

And after all they have done, how will anyone ever again be asked to switch over to Lost?

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

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