JOHN RIORDAN: Catching hope and footballs in the rye

It was panic stations on Friday and Aiden O’Sullivan was an oasis of calm, says John Riordan.

I’d never met him before but he was a reassuring voice on the other end of the phone in spite of the fact that he was bearing bad news.

FedEx had only delivered one of the 10 boxes of gear we needed for the Etihad GAA World Games in Abu Dhabi to the building he manages by Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

Yes, I told him. I was also expecting 10 boxes to arrive. No, I said mournfully. I’m not sure why it was that only one of the boxes had landed into the apartment building he manages by Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

My tone was one of defeat. It wasn’t simply the sort of defeat that goes with having two teams and no jerseys a week out from the group stages. There was also the grief stage of acceptance; another thing goes wrong?

Fancy that.

It was out of the hands of O’Neills so I didn’t even bother them with our setback. The delivery had made its way through customs and had left Newark.

Somewhere in the great big city, I imagined a load of GAA gear mired in a fruitless trek across streets and down avenues. A wordless Holden Caulfield set adrift; catching deflated O’Neills footballs and oversized O’Neills polos in the rye.

“Welcome to The Chelsea,” smiled Aiden as I rushed in later that day. The Whitechurch man has been here nearly two decades and knows well how to cope with movable parts.

By this point, there were nine boxes in the delivery room so that was a victory of sorts. He helped me load the car up and I drove up Broadway to Gaelic Park to begin the arduous process of dividing out the gear between teams and sizes and kit bags.

The following night, we got our second full-on training session of the week going. It took us two 12-minute periods of 13-aside to iron out all the weaknesses and confusion. We then moved to a nine-aside for the second pair of quarters and it started to flow.

Our opponents were the New York colleges team who will be in Manchester this week for the British Universities tournament and they were brilliant at exposing our frailties.

A bollocking was needed but it was interrupted by my phone ringing. Later I would listen to the message from Aiden, that same reassuring Cork voice, pleased to let me know that the rogue box had found its way home.

As we filed off the pitch, content that we had finally strung together two good sessions, I pulled Tim O’Sullivan aside.

His parents are from West Cork and he’s a product of the excellent Rockland GAA club, north of the city near Pearl River. So it pained me all the more to tell him he was not in the 12-man panel.

His reaction will probably end up being one of the fondest memories of this entire process. He took it well, praised the other players and said he was looking forward to the trip regardless.

Early Sunday morning, I headed to The Chelsea, picked up the last box and hailed a taxi. The driver Sajjad inputted Gaelic Park to his Google Maps and as we drove north alongside the semi-frozen Hudson River, Sajjad taught me some Arabic to use in Abu Dhabi.

“‘Yahalla hibabi’ is a good thing to shout at the players to encourage them,” he said helpfully.

“But don’t say it to anybody working in service. They’ll go off for coffee and a cigarette just to annoy you.”

I think our lads will probably mutiny as well, I thought to myself, but I thanked him sincerely. Sajjad said he’d check out Gaelic football on YouTube. Hurling too because his brother played hockey for Pakistan.

The great thing about Sajjad too was that he was able to offer a glimpse into the normality we’re heading towards.

The Middle East PRO sent a list Monday of dos and don’ts to be passed on to all players. We’ll be in a sort of GAA bubble for most of it but better safe than sorry.

On Monday night, we gathered for the last light session before the flight we were due to take last night — if no other setbacks got in the way.

It was another bitterly cold night and the wind cut across from the subway tracks, pushing us towards despair or the desert or both.

As we walked out through the darkened Gaelic Park bar and piled too many bodies into the car, I was finally filled with hope because they were filled with such enthusiasm. They’ll enjoy this rare experience and that’s more important than anything this week.


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