Monday, January 30, 2012

If Winter Comes, Can the National Football League Be Far Behind?

The Irish Independent treated itself to one of its shock-horror specials last week. There was a story about a storm brewing over a fixtures clash between the seventh week of the National Leagues and the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup rugby, and the fact of the latter adversely affecting the gate receipts of the former.

All of which makes philosophers wonder if anyone in the Indo every goes to games, or do they just pull this sort of stuff out of a pointed hat. An Spailpín can’t be sure, but he’s willing to bet two butter vouchers and a week’s children’s allowance that the entire gate for the last week of the National Football League in any given year wouldn’t fill Thomond Park once.

Allow for the fact that a slice of those attending those games are Gaels of old school and couldn’t be dragged kicking or screaming to a garrison game, and the chance of any sort of impact from the rubby is tiny. You can’t put a dent in something that’s already flat.

The journalists of Ireland have their arms twisted every year to pretend anybody gives a rooty-toot-toot about who wins the National League, and every year it gets to be more of a joke. Each game in the League is best understood as a once-off challenge, individual and separate from the last or the next.

The matches matter to the extent that everyone wants to play in as high as a division as possible and getting relegated will lower your standard of challenge match for next year but come on. There isn’t that big a drop between Division 1 and Division 2.

There is quite the drop from Division 2 to Division 3, and Division 4 is subsistence football I’m afraid. Doing well in the League is important to those teams, but you won’t see Christy Cooney shaking his booty to the Rubber Bandits on behalf of Leitrim or Sligo anytime soon.

Not that the League doesn’t have its charms of course. You only get proper GAA people at League games. You don’t stand in the snow and rain because it’s glamorous. The banter is more insightful, because the crowds know what they’re looking at and aren’t counting the minutes until they can get hammered with drink up the town after the game.

All this seems to pass the Morketing Deportment by, however. Instead they fill us with blather about Day One and Times for Heroes and Passion and all the rest of it.

The pentitant at a National Football League game doesn’t hand over his or her tenner because he wants to see who’ll win the League. He or she hands it over because he or she dreams of seeing hope for the summer among the muck and the rain. He or she has spent the winter stewing and wondering if something good can happen this summer.

And he or she goes to the League games in the hope of fueling that fire. If he or she doesn’t see something good, what of it? Won’t there be a different team out next week and maybe something will happen then?

Hope always burns until the ball goes up into the summer sky of Championship. The League helps fan the flames, and that’s where it’s true worth is, as opposed to anybody pretending they care who wins the thing.

An Spailpín, exiled from Mayo as Edmond Dantès was exiled from Marseilles, hopes to make the most of his current geography by spinning down to Portlaoise and casting a cold eye on Mayo v Laois. It’s a beautiful ground, and excitement is high at home for Horan 2.0 after the triumphs of last year.

Nobody will be caught napping this year as Cork were last year but there are players bubbling up in Mayo now and the League is the chance to see them audition for the green and red vestments and the impossible glory of the Irish summer. In the meantime, thank God for the League, and something to do of a weekend.