I was one of the club’s volunteer umpires for our annual under 10 tournament on Sunday.
As the St. Brigid’s attack mounted, I got myself into a perfect position behind the post, in line with the kicker, to judge whether it was a point. Because they were under 10s, they were using the small portable goals with the small posts, so it isn’t easy to be sure when a ball is kicked high. It was close, but I couldn’t be sure, so I waved it wide.
“Do the thing fair Brolly, you cheating b*****d,” screamed a middle aged woman who had appeared beside me a few moments earlier, “It was f***ing wide.”
A few seconds later, the penny dropped.
“I’m sorry about that, Joe.”
Then, the words that send a chill through the spine of any underage coach or official.
“That’s my son playing. I’m just looking after him.”
I looked over at the young keeper, who was cringing.
For what it is worth, St. Brigid’s ended up playing a superb Glenullin team in the final. In a fantastic game, Glenullin came through by a few points. At the final whistle, their coach, my old friend Giles McNicholl danced across to his troops punching the air with delight and why wouldn’t he? Our lads meanwhile were all sobbing like successful contestants on the ‘X Factor’ until I snapped at them, “Quit yapping boys, it’s embarrassing.” At which point the tears were switched off.
So, when the southern media describe Sunday’s game as the dream final, I ask myself, whose dream?
Not the angry lady behind the umpire or the Glenullin coaches. Nor any of the players on the 32 teams who took the field on Sunday at St. Brigid’s. Nor me. Derry v Mayo might be a dream final. Or Antrim v Cork. Or Leitrim v Offaly. Instead, it is the usual fare. A few teams at the top get their day in the sun and the rest of us shiver in the cold. As the French Queen, Marie Antoinette said, when the starving peasantry turned up at the palace begging for food, “Let them eat cake.” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”)
It is amazing what we are all prepared to put up with. Even as the prospects for around 28 counties worsen every year, we put a brave face on it and pretend that everything is fine. So, instead of talking about our own teams and enjoying their adventures, we find ourselves endlessly discussing Kerry and Dublin and Mayo and Donegal. And when a plucky Fermanagh get annihilated with honour in Croke Park, we say isn’t it fantastic and put if forward as evidence that the championship structure is fine. And in the manner of people on a plane who have survived a crash landing, the Fermanagh team danced a merry jig on the pitch in front of their jubilant support. A crumb of cake was enough for them. Submissive lot, us paddies.
On Sunday past at St. Brigid’s, like all under 10 tournaments, all of the teams had an equal number of pool games before being seeded into different tiers. So, by 2.00pm, there was a cup and a plate competition, both going full swing, sidelines packed. If a club organised underage tournaments along the lines of our senior inter county championship, they’d soon sink without trace.
Imagine starting with a blank canvas today and coming up with the current championship format. You’d be ridiculed. You’d be told it was elitist, entirely unfair and the opposite of the GAA’s primary goal of participation. Since the heart of the GAA is tribalism, our interest is in our own. We can talk about Kerry or Dublin but we do so in the same way we might discuss Manchester Utd or Liverpool. What we want to do is follow our own team. To see them playing in meaningful competition. To enjoy the adventure.
As it is, by July every year we are reduced to saying to each other, “Do you think Kerry will do it?” Or “Do you think the Dubs will do it?”
Funny thing, the winners of the Plate on Sunday, played with the same passion and celebrated with the same joy as the winners of the Cup. That’s the thing about the GAA. We love our own.
Kerry v Dublin? Dream final my arse.