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Ciarán Murphy: Time to relish the opportunity to see games in the flesh

Lockdowns proved there are things you don’t get to feel in your gut unless you’re there

The last game I attended before Covid was two years ago almost to the day – March 1st, 2020. It was a Sunday morning, we had played a club game in north county Dublin, and later that day Galway were playing Meath in Navan in the Allianz Football League.

Looking at the map, it appeared I had done most of the travelling already by the time our game was finished, so I felt I couldn't in all good conscience not attend. Galway were coming off the back of a 2-25 to 0-12 win over Tyrone in their last game, they were joint-top of the league with Kerry and Dublin, ahead of both of them on score difference, and the Pádraic Joyce revolution was in full swing.

It was, in many ways, a typical day out at a league game. I would be watching the game with a friend of mine from Meath, and while I was awaiting his arrival, I went into the clubhouse in Navan to soak up some of the atmosphere. There I met an old school buddy of mine from St Jarlath’s, and soon after I met eight or 10 lads from my home club, who had travelled east for the day to see how Galway were shaping up.

The usual pleasantries were exchanged, before we tried to outdo each other with observations from Galway’s previous four games; who was moving well, what the championship team would end up being, silently mining each other for worthwhile opinions to pass off as our own (suffice to say I was doing rather more listening than talking). We walked in together, I met my compatriot for the day, and we took our seats in the stand.

There followed a robust, energetic encounter, where Meath looked good for long spells and led by 1-6 to a point shortly before half-time, but Paul Conroy got four points off the bench and Galway emerged 1-14 to 1-12 victors. Whether it's Páirc Tailteann or just the people who populate its main stand, it's a brilliant, atmospheric place to watch a football game.

The loss relegated Meath, while Galway it seemed were set fair for a league final appearance. Later that night I settled in to watch the highlights of the game on RTÉ, texting my incredulity to all and sundry that the decisive point in the game, a thing of beauty from Shane Walsh, was somehow left out of the highlights package.

It doesn’t get any more quintessentially league than that, surely. And then – 12 days later, the world collapsed.

Inter-county football didn't return until the middle of October, when Galway lost by 15 points to Mayo in an empty Tuam Stadium, there wouldn't be fans back in grounds until the middle of 2021, and all throughout that time, we must have made an unconscious list to ourselves of all the things we would surely do when we were allowed to do them.

I was certainly glad that my last experience before Covid was so . . . I even hesitate to say good, necessarily, but it was just so typical. It was a perfect reminder of what these early season days are supposed to be. I wouldn’t hold it against anyone for waiting until February was over before attending a league game, but now that spring is edging closer, the excuses are starting to run out.

Renewed enthusiasm

That's not to say that a renewed enthusiasm for just 'being there' won't lead to missteps along the way. Over Christmas, flush with said fervour, I made a commitment to watching NUI Galway play at home in the Fitzgibbon Cup against Mary Immaculate College from Limerick on a Wednesday evening in January, mainly to see Cian Lynch in the flesh.

When, with dread certainty, the rains descended on Galway City on the night in question, and I was huddled under a tree in Daingean peering over an ocean of umbrellas and another generation of Galway students wearing entirely ill-suited footwear, I had ample opportunity to once again ponder my life choices.

But still, for all that, I saw the Mary I full-back, Keith Ryan absolutely level Evan Niland with one of the five best all-time reducers I've seen in the flesh. Ryan is a serious defender, and Niland got up, dusted himself down, and nailed the resultant free. I'll remember both those incidents if Ryan goes on to represent Tipperary, as he looked likely to do that night, and if Niland continues his progression with Galway.

These are things you don’t get to feel in your gut unless you’re there. Attendance figures look to be resilient enough this year, but maybe a reminder is needed that these communal experiences are what we missed for the last two years.

We didn’t get much of a break between our last existential threat to humanity and the next one (leaving aside the other, slightly more medium-term existential threat to humanity that we’re all slowly marching towards), and we could all certainly do with at least a week off from pondering our future as a species – maybe a week where your county is playing at home, and it’s a hurling/football double-header.

Quite frankly, I think it’s the least we deserve.