Going out of the Championship in May
THERE is nothing worse for a GAA countyman than to be out of the championship in May. All that training, sharpness, adrenaline built up, hard ground, the lads, the craic, the dreams and suddenly you’re away from the hurly burly and back to the humdrum. There is no end to the havoc this state of affairs can play on a county player’s mental well being.
Of course, there’s the outside chance that a good draw, coupled with a bit of luck, could see you propelled back onto the bandwagon in mid-August, but even at this early stage, we could bet that the likes of Waterford, Cavan, Laois and Westmeath probably won’t even see the end of June, if first day form is anything to go by.
It’s a long long way from here to the draws for the first qualifier. In the meantime, it’s back to the club, watch the other games on TV and listen to the drones of those who want to tell you everything about why your county and you yourself just aren’t good enough.
A trip for milk to the shop becomes a pilgrimage to Lough Derg as those who haven’t the social graces to know you don’t want to talk to them, pontificate with the self taught wisdom of someone who never kicked a ball in their lives, but is the missing Micko in his own mind.
Work is another place you want to avoid people and those who toil in anonymous office blocks in town can be glad of their gloriously ill-informed colleagues who wouldn’t even know the match was on, the day after the championship exit. This is one day you don’t want to talk about football.
All players have championship horror stories. I remember 1998, when we had been beaten by Derry after an energy and emotion sapping semi-final which we were sure we could win. We were desperate; 16 years without a title and back home with nothing again. The game had been live on TV and as far as we were concerned, the whole world that day knew that Armagh had failed yet again.
This failure was back home. Suddenly the phone rang, so reluctantly I answered it. It was some random woman whose daughter hadn’t got her deposit back from the Gaeltacht in time and was ringing to complain.
So relieved I was that it wasn’t one of the hundreds of ‘mini-managers’ to tell me where we had all gone wrong, that I engaged her for 20 minutes and found it a great relief, just to be able to escape from my pathetic world, into her simple, straightforward one.
It shows the mental state of a county player when his team has been beaten, that he would find solace in the demented ramblings of an over-protective mother who had probably been watching Antiques Roadshow when the game was on, rather than even begin to turn the whole mess over in his mind.
Getting beaten is bad enough, but getting taken off during the game is the pits. In this, you become extricably linked with the failure. The long run to the sideline with polite applause from those who you know are thinking ‘Hurry up and get off, you’re useless.’
And the hurt is pure hell. Before the game you were higher in the pecking order than the subs, but now they are still hopeful of finishing the game, while you’re a beaten docket; useless, spent. You look round at all them all, the mentors, the manager and out on the field; the team, those boys you were preparing to spill blood for a few moments earlier.
You have let them all down. It’s worst of all if you get taken off before half time. You’re just in the way for the rest of the match. You don’t even have a seat in the dressing room, so it’s best to stand in the shower, just in case you catch the manager’s eye as he’s giving off to the other players.
And there’s always the evening highlights programmes to look forward to, just in case you didn’t know that you lost because you couldn’t shoot, or catch, or build, or run.
Listening to the pundits brings its own strata of despair because you know that many other thousands are sharing the moment and perhaps nodding in agreement. A fact about pundits and their comments. People only get precious about what they say when their team is winning. Think of Tyrone, Armagh in their pomp and then Donegal last year.
Their supporters get frothy at the mouth when they hear their style of play, or ability, or approach condemned on TV. But when their team is losing, anything goes, because everyone wants to put the boot in, so another boot with a Kerry accent is no problem at all. The loneliness of the county player.
The following morning it comes at you again; the ratings in the paper; below six is a disaster after all the work, toil and effort. The worst part of all is when your marker has got Man of the Match; the final insult; not only did you lose, but your man did most to help them win. This creates a few day’s headlines before the local weeklies emerge on Thursday and you have to hear it all again.
Anyway – Sunday’s game is easy to analyse. Donegal were fitter than Cavan; had better players and a more disciplined game plan. In every game there will be a winner and a loser. Most players are losers more often than they are winners. Donegal will experience their own Crucifixion Sunday at a stadium near you some time soon. Their response to the final whistle told its own story.
No need to rub it in to the beaten team because every one of them have tasted the bitterness of loss. In soccer, the best players move on until they find a team who will win trophies. In GAA, the best players just slog it out and suffer like the rest of us. That’s why they are the best lads in the world.