Hail to the League we love more than we can ever let on
SIDELINE CUT:Hail to the GAA National Football League! To the perpetually poor cousin of The Championship, that fancy-dan summer show with its hot days and its history, its corporate boxes and six course lunches and its eternal parades. The League doesn’t need any foppery: you take it as you find it. The League is blue-collar. If Bruce Springsteen lived in Ireland, he’d be a League man.
To that most unloved and under-appreciated sports competition in the world, of which managers and players alike claim that while they wouldn’t mind winning it, nobody remembers it.
But some do! The guy from Monaghan or Kerry or Waterford who was, in 1985 or 1998 or 2009, given his League debut somewhere Godforsaken and taken off after 43 minutes just because he fumbled a couple of balls and the manager’s eye glazed over him for the rest of the League before he was finally “released” from the panel for the summer, after which he lost interest; he will remember the League for the rest of his life.
To the only concession to directions to obscure country grounds being a cardboard sign stuck to a telephone post with the word ‘MATCH’ in marker below an arrow pointing to a road that doesn’t exist.
To the wonderfully lawless way in which people ditch their cars in hedgerows, gateways, on double-yellow lines and know they will get away with it because it is the League.
To the outlandish hats and caps (from all eras) which Irish people wear with abandon on those League Sundays when the temperature is hovering around zero and the wind is cutting. Anything goes when it comes to League headwear. Tokyo Fashion Week wouldn’t be in it.
To the young lads who meet scandalised punters with a flinty eye as they charge four notes for a “programme” which consists of a folded sheet of A4 paper still warm from the printing machine.
To the polystyrene cups of tea filled to the brim, leaving no room for milk so patrons get a severe scalding when they take their first sip. (And to the etiquette observed by fans of both counties who share with scrupulous politeness the one spoon supplied to service the sugar requirements of several thousand Gaels).
To the way everyone crowds into the Stand for warmth except for the two lads on the terrace leaning into the gale, just to the left of the town-end goal. Because that’s where they always stand.
To the way the Amhrán Na bhFiann always sounds as if it is being played on a vinyl record circa 1972.
To the way that in Tuam Stadium, it is still 1966.
To being able to hear the manager shouting at his players.To being able to hear what the players shout back.
To being alarmed at the realisation they are mostly just cursing at each other.
To the bravery of the linesmen, who always look peculiarly naked during the League, running up and down with their flags and trying to ignore the heckling.
To the unexpected privilege of seeing a once-in-a-generation star like Michael Donnellan or Brian McGuigan make his debut in the League.
To the trippy departures of the League, where the one rule is that while very little usually happens, anything may happen. Banks of fog, hail storms, melees and fights, crazy scorelines, power cuts, seven and eight red cards, unexpected classics; anything goes in the League.
To the small band of fans who make a winter pilgrimage out of the League. To the Dubs who never cease to wonder that people actually willingly live outside the capital and book a hotel or BB in Tralee or Castlebar or Omagh just to experience what that must feel like.
They always have a good night and wouldn’t swap the League for anything.
They know what all True League fans know: the All-Ireland championship is just for dilettantes and shapers.
To the way the big stars will stand on the field for anything up to half an hour on the field signing jerseys.
To the military speed with which the crowd vanishes after League games in Aughrim or Tullamore, the stadium empty in five minutes flat.
To the noble and lonely sight of a losing manager after a League game, carrying his own gear bag as he exits the dressing room (and sometimes even turning off the lights) and trying to convince the awaiting press men that losing three matches on the trot signifies nothing.
To the groundsman and the way he will appear at the door of the press box when his stomach is rumbling tea-time and jingle his keys suggestively before asking the questions which for decades have announced last orders in GAA press boxes across Ireland: “Have ye no homes to go to?” “Will ye be long, lads?” “Is it a book ye’re writing?”
To the ghostly magnificence of storied GAA stadiums – Semple Stadium or the Gaelic Grounds or Clones or Nowlan Park – when they are empty and it is too dark to see the pitch and it becomes easy to imagine the many great players who have thrilled thousands of people, right there.
To the mathematics which come into play towards the end of the League, when promotion and relegation is all that anyone cares about.
To the Hidden Signs: the first inkling your team might do something special this year. League games are choc-a-bloc with hidden signs.
To the crushing disappointment (something close to shame) t all relegated teams and supporters experience. And to the brief elation of “promotion”.
To Division Four, the most neglected division in all of world sport.
To the impatience that governs the League final, when all counties are already training for the championship and the two teams in the final feel slightly guilty about being there, as if doing something they shouldn’t be doing or the unwitting victims of a national hoax.
And so to their declarations that the League doesn’t matter: “It’s only the League”. “Nobody remembers who won the League”. “It’s nice to win the League but you wouldn’t be getting carried away.”
To the League, which everyone loves more than they let on.