We have all heard it said that half a loaf is better than none. Mostly it’s true, but occasionally it’s not and this is one of those times.
So now I have your attention, let me set the scene and explain.
It’s August 2018 — Limerick have just become All-Ireland hurling champions for the first time in 45 years. Dolores O’Riordan and The Cranberries are blaring out over the PA system in Croker singing their song Dreams.
I am lucky enough to be on duty that day covering the game as a neutral fan. I look around, the emotion is just unbelievable. Young men and women are seeing their father or mother crying, possibly for the first times in their lives. They are experiencing an overwhelming feeling of joy that at last their day has come, perhaps thinking of those gone to their eternal reward who never got to see this day. Strangers are embracing, brought together by this common passion, opposing sides are congratulating the victors and shaking hands. Even as a Tipp man I cannot help but be sucked in by the whirlwind of emotion created in this magical stadium. Now pause...
Imagine all this, with no electricity generated by 82,300 people. Sure, it’s the players that make them feel that way but it’s the crowd that generates that electricity in the air that every player feels on the pitch and any player that tells you otherwise or that you don’t notice the crowd is lying.
I have been lucky enough to experience that feeling of ecstasy, standing in the dressing room, the knock comes to the door, “it’s time lads”, our captain, our leader, walks out first and we follow, like soldiers into battle and then you reach the end of that tunnel, you turn and run out onto that pitch faster than Usain Bolt and the wall of noise that hits you, the roar of 82,300 people. Well. I still get goosebumps when I think about. I don’t think I will ever have that feeling again, that buzz, it’s just irreplaceable.
I would die a little inside to see an All-Ireland final where the emotions are just as high in the dressing room, the players are willing to do whatever it takes to win, they leave their dressing room, run down that tunnel, take the turn and… nothing. The sound of silence, the sound of seagulls and a lonely hawk trying to keep them away. That is not a championship final.
When you win, you’re everyone’s friend and can do no wrong but when you lose, the pats on the back and the words of support are few and far between. It’s the Atlantic ocean between winning and losing and when players are at their lowest after losing a final it’s their families and close friends who are there to help share the burden.
When you win, the first people you look for to share that magical moment with are that same bunch of people. A behind closed doors final would mean you look for them and there’s nobody there, nobody to embrace, nobody from your family or club to say “we did it” and have that unforgettable minute of perfection where nothing can trouble you.
Nowadays, with health and safety, there are no more pitch invasions and it’s probably only right when you see the potential of what could happen, but wasn’t there something magical about a wave of crazed fans, supporters, friends tearing onto a pitch like wild horses let out for the first time, embracing players as if they were best friends. Regardless of this lockdown we won’t see that again but it’s nice to remember.
So how can I best describe a final in isolation. Well I was part of a group that was prepared by one of the best in the business — Liam Sheedy — the greatest manger I have ever had.
There was or is never a stone left unturned when Sheedy is involved. Semple Stadium would be empty, but the noise of Croke Park is being replicated through the speakers. We’d even line up, meet the President, often portrayed by a member of the backroom team like Mick ‘The Claw’ Clohessy — you wouldn’t be bowing to this man but rather looking up, a man mountain but a gentle giant.
All these are one-percenters but they do help to adjust to the game at pitch level, the not being able to hear your teammates or instructions from the line. But no player ever feels that buzz in an A v B game. I was known to produce a fist pump or two during big games but I never did one during an internal match — it’s the crowd that brings out that emotion in you. The crowd is just as much a part of this unique day as anything else. Like the words used in the film Gladiator, “win the crowd and you will win your freedom”.
President John Horan has played down the idea that GAA can be played at all while social distancing remains necessary. Many intercounty players are frontline workers. How can you ask them to play a game, full contact. But talk still lingers of a closed doors return. I am not a health expert, so I’ll leave that debate to them.
But in life, occasionally, getting nothing is better than getting something. We have all had those moments at a crossroads and had to decide which way am I going? Do I take this job and hope something will come of it or do I wait for the right opportunity? The GAA and sports bodies worldwide are at that crossroads now.
For me, the answer is choose nothing. There can be nothing until every single person is safe to enter the stadium, whether that’s the 10-year-old child watching his or her heroes, the person selling programmes, or the players we’ve all come to see.
I want sport back in our lives just as much as the next person, but back in the proper manner.
Last week the GAA acknowledged there was “no appetite” for the ghost crowd games but it is still mooted as “a last chance saloon” effort. I hope we do not have to enter that saloon.
The nothing will make us even more hungry and force us to make those efforts individually and on a national scale, to think more about our everyday actions, to achieve something as a country. A championship behind closed doors might satisfy us somewhat but ultimately only drive us further away from the dream of what makes us and our game so special — the players, the roar of the crowd, the buzz. You just cannot match or replace that.
As The Cranberries put it in Dreams, “Oh my life is changing every day, in every possible way”. Don’t change our championship — it’s perfect. Choose nothing for now — the right choice is coming. Let’s wait.