THE late Dermot Morgan once quipped that he supported UCD’s soccer team because he didn’t like crowds. By that logic, he would have liked the GAA National League, and he would have liked the League’s various warm-up competitions even more.
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If a summer championship match is played before a meagre attendance there’s a sorry sense out anti-climax to it. If you’re one of 400 odd at a McGrath or O’Byrne Cup or FBD League game you feel you’re part of a small community of similar souls.
There are few if any part-timers to be found watching a game in the January chill. Instead you’ll find the fan for all seasons; the true believer; the hardcore supporter. I’ve always enjoyed winter games but can’t claim to among the ultra-loyal band of diehards.
However, in the line of covering these games for various newspapers over the past decade I’ve observed this rare breed of devotee up close and in their sparsely populated habitat of the main stand or bank on the coldest Sunday of the year.
The GAA is particularly prone to the Irish sporting condition of people withholding support until there’s a bandwagon marked craic, drink and victory to jump on. Victories in winter go uncelebrated; post-game pints are sipped in a quiet, contemplative environment. Yet with that comes a sense of camaraderie among fans. Even if you don’t know a fella’s name or face you quickly progress to nodding terms because you’re alike; you’re both here when it matters. Players prove their worth in the raw heat of summer. Supporters show their mettle in the gloomy, bone-chilling afternoons of mid-winter.
Nobody can fool the hardcore supporter into believing these games matter hugely in the greater scheme. They don’t, and that’s part of the appeal. But sometimes a genuine thriller materialises. Something happens, usually a row, and suddenly the supporters are hollering and the tackles are flying in. What began as the usual three-quarter pace affair is now more important than the All-Ireland final, the US presidential election and the roll-over club lotto result combined.
These occasions are the GAA equivalent of a loyalty bonus scheme. They are wonderful because they are seldom. The week-to-week appeal is more based around the chance to learn about players before they’ve made their championship (or even League) debuts.
In smaller counties, the hardcore fan will know them from the club scene but in bigger places such as Cork or Tipperary a player can spring from the shadows, sometimes even without having played underage for the county.
The seasoned supporter appreciates the chance to run the rule over the newcomer in a low-key environment. He will scrutinise the performance, often mercilessly, but never too loudly. Experience has told him that among the 400 hardy souls in attendance are likely to be the debutant’s extended family and sometimes they don’t appreciate hearing that their young fella – the darling of the family, the pride of the parish, the gleaming white hope of the county – is just another useless shaper.
Analysis is delivered out the side of the mouth to a like-minded accomplice: “The left foot is horror-bad” or, while patting their own ever-expanding gut, they’ll sling out a line about how this 20-year-old teetotal fitness nut must have eaten and drank too much over the Christmas “because, I’m telling you straight now, he’s overweight”.
But we don’t want to give the impression the hardcore supporter just criticises his own players. He also criticises the opposition’s players and the referee. The ref gets it inevitably and often. The other team’s members get it particularly when they are pantomime villains or when they don’t look like your typical GAA player. Paul Galvin fulfils both criteria and he can be depended upon to liven up the day of the diehard.
All life’s frustrations will be vented in his direction. The only problem for the venter is that, like John Mullane, Galvin seems to get a buzz out of all the hostility. Nevertheless, he will be missed when he’s gone – not just for his bile-riling antics but also for his skill.
One thing the hardcore fan appreciates over everything is proven excellence in the field. Before the 2010 Cork-Kilkenny NHL game at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the announcer asked patrons to welcome the four in-a-row All-Ireland champions to Cork and sustained applause filled the Leeside air. Brian Cody made a modest gesture of thanks to the covered stand behind him. He knew, of all people, this lot wouldn’t flatter him. Their respect was hard won.
The diehard is a sound judge of excellence. He, and this particular brand of obsessive is nearly always a he, has seen the greatest and he’s seen the worst. He’s seen it all. But that still won’t prevent him from turning off the TV and abandoning the warmth of the sitting room to journey to the county ground again and again.
Home or away, winter or summer, in times of triumph or despair, he’s there: the foul weather supporter in a land of fairweather bandwagon hoppers. Because he recognises the ancient truth of fandom: deliverance comes only to those who abide during the darkest days.
The majority turn up on the big occasion with a replica shirt and a few opinions they’ve gleaned from the papers. The diehard, though, is on a higher path. He’s of a mind with American author Greg Anderson who said: “Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”
And Greg never even made it out to Ruislip of a January Sunday.