It is 1971 and I am ten years old. I am watching the Cork hurler Con Roche take a sideline cut on a hot day in a heaving Semple Stadium, in Thurles.
Thirty-two thousand other people are present in this moment around me. I am with my father and some of the Walsh family– old friends – and my older brother Dermot has just played with the Cork minors, winning the Munster hurling final.
We are beside the sideline and I have a good view of Roche as he bends down and places the sliotar on the grass. He stands back and lowers his torso in his approach to the ball, as hurlers do. The hurley is swung hard, at an acute angle, into the sliotar. We are so close that I can hear the sound of the hurley’s heel slashing into the earth – a dull, meaty thud. The other sound of the hurley’s bas striking the ball: a gravid ‘pock’. The ball rising towards the Tipperary goal, the pitch of the crowd’s anticipation rising too – it’s a great cut. The ball falling towards the goal, the sound of the crowd deepening and mounting, expectant.
There’s a slight shimmer in the distant net and a different noise detonates itself. A concussive wave booms and rolls through the stadium as though it is a living thing, bellowing its approval.
I sometimes wonder if I’m seeking the sound of that crowd at every game I attend. If it is the cause of my desperate exultation as I sit in the stand and the match approaches. I’m like an addict craving that first high I experienced when I was ten.
Experiencing that sideline cut compels me, as a boy, to incessantly hone skills and devote myself to playing. Which, in turn, leads to my presence on that same pitch in Thurles, only six years later, playing for St Colman’s College, Fermoy, in an All-Ireland colleges final against St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. Johnny Lenihan, the captain and one of the leading players in the team, has been moved to midfield and I am drafted in at wing back to replace him.
I will be sixteen years old in four weeks. It is my first senior colleges game. It is also my first All-Ireland final and I have only three memories of the match.
Trying not to show my discomfort when my marker approaches me before the game. He is six inches taller than me and six inches wider. He has a beard and looks about twenty-five.
Waving frantically to the sideline in the first half when our centre back and lynchpin, Seanie O’Brien, is knocked out beside me and I’m thinking, That’s it, we’re beat now.
Winning possession near the final whistle, I have a sense of having the ball on the ground before me. I am running and guiding it past an opponent to a teammate – hockey-style – and it leads to a goal by Jimmy Monaghan. I have no idea how.
Years later my brother-in-law Michael Harrington – a real hurling man – told me I flicked the ball away from a St Kieran’s player as he was about to strike, then caught it and cleared it up the field for John Boylan to win possession and a create the goal for Jimmy, but I can’t visualise it. According to The Irish Times the following day I was ‘an outstanding figure in defence’ but I can’t visualise that, either. I have no memory of it, in any case.
I have no recollection of the final whistle, being mobbed by schoolmates and friends. I have no memory of my family being there, the cup presentation, the speeches, the dressing room afterwards, the journey back or the celebrations – nothing.
All of that must have happened and I must have been part of it. It must have been amazing to a quiet and innocent fifteen-year-old boy. But it’s all a blank.
Hours after the game I bump into our coach, the charismatic John Whyte, who had gambled heavily (against strong opposition from within the school) by putting me in at wing back. It is outside the Grand Hotel by the river in Fermoy. He grabs me by the shoulders and grins. He smells of smoke and drink and tells me I was the man of the match.
After that day, after that game, I was a hurler – I was a serious player – I know this now.
Being a player doesn’t mean skill, so much as being able to use that skill and do a job for your team in serious circumstances, when something serious is happening and you are playing against serious players, for serious stakes.
An All-Ireland final qualifies as serious stakes, even at secondary-school level. There were thousands of people at the game and it was in Semple Stadium. And the opposition was Kilkenny.
You often hear the expression ‘He’s a born hurler,’ or ‘She’s a born footballer.’ In truth, nobody is born a player, you become one – because you really want to be one.
At some time in my childhood a switch was flicked inside me, giving light to an idea. Giving life to the presence – the lifelong presence – of sport in my consciousness. Was it that Con Roche moment in Thurles in 1971? Perhaps. It was probably more than one event and my brother Dermot winning an All-Ireland minor medal with Cork that year was more than likely a major spark. Or the sense of wonder in my father’s eyes, the reverence in his voice, when he talked about hurlers like Christy Ring and Mick Mackey. Or watching Dermot and other Mallow heroes win a county championship in 1972. Or the sight of George Best’s immeasurable beauty when he scored again and again and again in 1968; his impossible grace; his promise making all promises possible, all futures pliant and fine, all bodily movement a kind of magnificent, inevitable, riparian flow.
What I wanted most from sport – what all children want – is to belong.
Sport is about not being alone, about the need to not feel alone and it’s good at it. And I achieved that as a boy.
Belonging, being part of something (something bigger) – feeling at home somewhere – brings a sense of rightness and possibility.
Belonging is no longer being alienated, no longer being different, no longer being alone, no longer being outside looking in. Belonging is being inside, belonging is being one of many, belonging is longing answered, belonging is no longer being lost. Belonging is being found.
Luckily, although my playing days are long over, I still feel I belong among the tribes of sport. And that’s a great feeling.