Thursday, May 08, 2008

Championship 2008

Seán Moran remarked in his Irish Times column on Wednesday that the Championship begins this year with a contest between two teams, Longford and Westmeath, who have no chance of winning the actual competition. And he said it like it was some kind of bad thing.

We sometimes forget that the Championship is like no other team sports competition in the world. There is no facility for transfer of players, meaning that you are blessed or burdened with what accident of birth has delivered unto you, and it’s a knockout competition. The back-door has altered this a little but it remains real by the time you get to the last eight – once you slip up, you’re gone.

In George Will’s marvellous book about major league baseball, Men at Work, Will quotes the former pitcher Warren Spahn’s remarks about winning. Spahn points out that baseball is not a game of winning, but of losing. A .300 batter is considered exceptional, even though a thirty per cent success rate is considered failure in nearly every field of endeavour.

Watch Colm O’Rourke in the Sunday Game studio when he sits back in the chair and explains that it’s all about winning. Colm O’Rourke played for the guts of twenty years, from the late seventies until the early ‘nineties. He has two Celtic Crosses. That’s a ten per cent success rate. That means that for ninety per cent of O’Rourke’s inter-county career he watched someone else go up and collect the big pot, either on telly, in Croke Park or, most bitterly of all, among the vanquished on the field of battle. So if it is indeed all about winning, Colm O’Rourke spent eighteen summers of his life wasting his time.

An Spailpín Fánach does not think O’Rourke wasted eighteen summers, and I’m pretty sure that O’Rourke would do the same again if given the chance. And that’s because Championship is that one sports competition where the old saw is true, and it’s not about winning but about the taking part that makes it the magical occurrence of the year, the highlight of each and every Irish summer.

Longford, Westmeath, Leitrim or New York are unlikely to win any national or provincial summer trophies, but that doesn’t lessen this week for them. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an edge in the border towns like Ballymahon or Moyvore or Mostrim or Rathowen this week, as the daily business is done, or that people don’t pay closer attention to the sports news after the hour on the radio. All that energy isn’t wasted if there’s no gravy on final day. That is the gravy. That’s what makes it all worthwhile, the county colours flying high and proudly on the eve of battle on the field of honour.

An Spailpín Fánach believes that half of county Leitrim is in New York this week, gearing up for the big Gaelic Park clash with New York. Maybe a few of them took the A-Train to the Bronx last night, to watch the Indians beat the Yankees. As they watched Derek Jeter patrol the infield for the Yankees, did they think of what it’d be like if Fate had arranged things differently, and the captain of the Yankees was one of the Jeters of Drumsna or Gortlettragh, and what it would be like to look forward to him carving up the field from wing-back on Sunday, in mortal peril of the sort of hard belts that are dished out at 400 Corlear Av, The Bronx, NY 10463, but motoring on nonetheless, for the sheer pride of the jersey?

Reader, they thought of nothing else. This, this is the Championship at its finest, the heady expectation, the ecstatic fulfilment, the wretched despair. So what if it ends at five to five this Sunday, or if the fight rages on to Dublin in August, to late August, even to – blessèd date! – the third Sunday of September? This is living. This is Championship.

And even so it is in the Kingdom itself, that county which, when it comes to winning titles, is like Cleopatra, daughter of Isis, Queen of the Nile, as described by Shakespeare – when they should be satisfied, they only grow more hungry. And so it is again this year as they prepare for the three in a row, as alluded to already in this space.

So it’s Kerry versus the rest, once more. Who can stop them? Whoever meets them in their first game after the quarter-final. If Kerry are to be stopped, it’s only there they can be caught. The Munster Final is only a training game for them anymore; if they win it’s business as usual, and if they lose they recalibrate and return stronger than ever, à la 2006. But in both games after the Munster final in the past two years Kerry have been vulnerable, insofar as the word applies to the best team in the country. Monaghan caught them stale last year, and Jack O’Connor admitted in his book how blessed Kerry were not only to draw Longford in their first qualifier game, and in Tralee at that. If any noble thought arose in Kerry to offer Longford the home venue, on the basis that the qualifiers are meant to favour the weaker counties, they kept it to themselves.

But if Kerry are cruising by August they will be more or less unstoppable. They have the best team, they have the best panel, and they have learned the lessons of the Ulster revolution of recent years utterly. O’Connor details in his book how the tackle is now completely different in football, even though no rules were changed, and Kerry have adapted best to that. In Kerry, they see football as their game, and they evolve with it better than anyone else. And that’s why they’re the best.

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