In a few weeks, in fields all over the island of Ireland, groups of men will pull up in their cars, struggle to lift their heavy legs out the doors, and then they will trudge across towards dressing-rooms. Their backs will creak as they walk, and their bellies will suddenly feel a lot rounder than at any time since the previous September. The cold air will invade their nostrils and the smell of the dark will send a shiver up their spines.
They know there will be rough nights ahead, long evenings where a bad choice of food at lunch hours earlier might come back to haunt them and end up sprayed all over the grass. These are the club hurlers and Gaelic footballers of Ireland and their imminent return to training is as good a time as any to recite their manifesto.
I am the GAA club player. I am the low man on the totem pole. I am the bottom of the food chain. I am the fella who must organise his whole life around the fixtures involving an inter-county team I will never play for. I am constantly patted on the head by the authorities and the media but nobody really wants to do anything to improve my station. I’m the lifeblood of the association, so they say. Most of the time I feel like its whipping boy.
I am the man who must tell the people at work that I’m not sure when I want to take my summer holidays. It could be June or July or August. But I won’t know until they are almost upon us. It depends on whether we get knocked out of the first round of the county championship and have to go through the back-door. And it depends on how the county team does. If my team-mate Mickey Joe is still hugging the bench with the hurlers as they make their way through the All-Ireland qualifiers, our next championship game might have to wait until September. But, here’s the best bit, I won’t know that until the day it happens.
I am the man constantly telling his wife to rearrange the plans for the weekend away. What else am I supposed to do? I don’t have a clue from week to week when our next match is. She knew that when we got married. Back then, she had the ludicrous idea of booking a wedding venue two years in advance. That was her soccer background coming through, thinking all the fixtures were planned in advance. I had to remind her then that I played Gaelic football, a wonderful sport where those in charge make the calendar up as they go along. At least that’s what it looks like where I’m standing. We call it the view from below.
I am the man who doesn’t know how many matches I will get to play in any calendar year. In the next few weeks, I will head back out to training with the club. The nights will be gloomy, often wet, and there’ll be evenings I wish heat came off the floodlights around the field. But, I’ll get into it eventually. There’s nothing better than the feeling of the body hardening up and the fitness returning. I’ll be raring to go soon enough. And then I’ll wait and wait and wait until we find out when we get to play meaningful games. Could be this week, next week, next month. That’s the manager’s mantra. I’m so sick of hearing it at this stage but what are you gonna do? I love the game. It just doesn’t seem to love me back so much anymore.
I am the man who has to maintain form for 14 weeks at a stretch. Yup, last summer, I was flying in our championship opener. Hopping off the ground. The eye was in. The touch was there. One of my best games for the club ever, if I say so myself. Of course, the problem was we won and then the county team started winning and their manager banned all club matches for the foreseeable future. When we ran out for the next round of the championship, the leaves were falling from the trees and my razor sharpness was gone. I blamed our fitness trainer. He blamed the calendar and I knew he was right.
I am the man who often sits outside in the back garden on a fine summer’s evening and wishes we could play matches in that kind of weather. Last year I counted a dozen beautiful, warm, dry nights when we had neither training or a game at the height of the season. I tortured myself doing this because with the passing of each one I knew that our next outing would inevitably be in the driving rain of a chillier than usual September evening. One of those nights when you wouldn’t put a cat out. How weird is it to play a game where the majority of players, the club stalwarts, hardly ever get to play in whatever passes for an Irish summer?
I am the man who once watched 112 days pass between championship matches (that was back in 2012) and was then expected to play twice in six days. Where else would you get it? What other sporting body would tolerate a situation in which 99 per cent of the adult playing population must sit around twiddling their thumbs or playing challenge matches as it’s sometimes called, waiting to get on a field where something is at stake. Then getting told to go out and do it three or four weekends in a row.
I am the man who watches his inter-county team play with mixed feelings. I want them to win because some of my clubmates are involved but I know if they lose my own career will be much easier to manage over the ensuing months. Call it the GAA club player’s strange dilemma. I call it my life.