THE text message from the Irish Examiner sports desk wanted to know if I would compose an article for their supplement detailing what the Championship smells like.
Most journalists I know would run a mile from such an abstract exercise in self indulgence. Not I. The idea held an instant appeal. I signed up immediately.
Maybe that says something about me. But the fact that you’re still reading says something about you too.
So, what does the Championship smell like? It’s a subjective question. And a subjective question deserves a subjective response.
For some people, it will be the smell of fried onions and burnt burgers wafting across a town square. For those who are partial to lunch from the boot of a car, it could be the waft of tea from their trusty flask.
In my book, those odours are too specific, too obvious. I promptly drew a line through all those familiar smells like fresh cut grass and favourite watering holes. None of them summed up the entire experience of the Championship.
The Championship, or to be more precise, ‘My Championship’, smells like the cobbler’s shop which I first entered when I was four-years-old.
Anyone who has ever frequented such an emporium will require no further explanation. I was knee high to my father when I first stepped from Hall Street, Maghera, into Hughie O’Doherty’s tardis.
A cobbler’s shop. Leather, polish, glue — and a century of hard journeys over roads and fields — it’s a powerful and unforgettable assault on the senses.
As my father talked to Hughie, I would stand and luxuriate in the deep, intense aroma of this curious little shop which seemed to belong to another time and another world.
Every time we entered that shop, we encountered the same scene. Hughie would be sitting hunched at his work. His leather apron was so old it was impossible to imagine what it looked like when it was new. Apart from a few pairs of shoes, nothing in the shop look less than 50-years-old.
Hughie’s shop was part of his house. He lived and worked on a street which included a furniture store, a clothes shop, a newsagent, a pub and a bookies. My father used to joke with Hughie that the only time he left Hall Street was to go to Mass. Like most of my father’s humour, there was more than a grain of truth to the line.
As a child, boy and man, I loved going into Hughie’s shop. Like the Championship, nothing else compares to it.
The McKenna Cup. The League. Other sports. Nah. They just don’t cut it. Walk into a cobbler’s shop and the fragrance overwhelms your entire being. It’s impossible not to drink it in, and soak it up. The Championship is the same.
The January competitions provide light reading. The League provides food for thought. But the Championship is the real deal.
Last week we had Donegal and Tyrone in Ballybofey. A sold out MacCumhaill Park. While that game lasted, for the 17,000 fans who were in that ground, there was no yesterday, there was no tomorrow, there was only the result.
In Hughie’s shop, the racks were always packed with a dizzying array of footwear. The quality varied enormously. A fine pair of lady’s boots would stand regally beside a wrinkled and crumpled shoe that didn’t look worthy of repair. No doubt, every shoe meant something to someone.
Championship games are the same. Some are great, some are good, and some are awful. But for the people who are involved in them — those matches mean everything.
Even when I was a boy, Hughie’s shop seemed out of touch with the modern world. It was a throwback to an ancient time. His pot of glue and the hollow tip-tap of nails being hammered into soles. In the 1970s, it was an anachronism.
Forty years later, Hughie has left us, and his nephew Crickey has inherited the apron. The tradition and the business continues.
The Championship also defies all modern methods. The provincial system is outdated and unfair, yet it remains untouchable.
Why? Because we keep going back.
Once you’ve experienced the smell of a cobbler’s shop, you never forget it. And given the chance, you will always welcome the opportunity to walk into a world that time has forgotten.
Just like the Championship.
The League provides food for thought. But the Championship is the real deal.