Monday, January 07, 2013

The Warm Glow of the Winter Leagues

The Championship is the only GAA competition that matters. We all know that. The Association does its best to advertise the National League but real GAA people know those three (four if you count Division 2) Leagues in a row were cold comfort to Cork last year and the year before. To what end, then, are the Winter Leagues? What purpose do they serve?

Who currently has the McGrath Cup on their mantelpiece? Who dusts the McKenna Cup? Who could recognise the O’Bryne Cup if they saw it in a pawnbroker’s window? And how can the boys on the comma-tee bring their wives shopping in New York City if the winners of the Irish branch of the FBD League refuse to travel?

Three-pipe problems, all. But your correspondent remains a fan of the winter leagues, be they ever so humble. They fulfill, almost by accident, a purpose that the professional competitors of the GAA do so well – the winter leagues make the fans happy.

The GAA, being an amateur organisation, is often at a promotional disadvantage compared to professional sports. The GAA prioritises players over spectators, while the professional sports know that spectators must come first if money is to be made.

The GAA Winter Leagues are the only competitions in the GAA where the spectator comes first. Not, of course, the inflatable shamrock-wavers; such delicate flowers would look out of place in such theatres as Ballinmore, Co Leitrim, Ballinlough, Co Roscommon or Tuam, the true heart of Galway football.

No, these delighted fans are the hardcore, the proper GAA people who have been on bread and water since five to five on the third September, with nothing to console them in the long dark nights only soccer players beyond in England, hugging and kissing after scoring goals and otherwise acting the maggot.

For that small but devoted brand, the winter leagues are like a sort of AA meeting where you can not only confess your terrible additions and hopeless needs, but also be safe in the knowledge that, while you are fallen, you are among a community that know and understand your pain.

A GAA person attending a Winter League game is like a man going to an AA meeting, declaring that he used to drink a pint of bleach with a meths chaser just to get the motor running, and being greeted with knowing and rueful smiles. I spent more nights barefoot in skips than in my own bed in 1983, declares a man at the back of the stand. When the rats came for me during the DTs, they ran away again, laughs another happy soul. I just like a glass of wine with my dinner, mutters a girl through clenched teeth, carefully adjusting her pashmina as the players warm up at the town goal.

You could say that it’s only at the winter league games that the GAA person is ever truly at peace. There’s no peace to be had in going to the Championship games. Championship games are fraught with anxiety, less so now in the back door era but still very real for the majority of counties.

National League games are meaningless in themselves but always at the back of the mind of the GAA person is the narrative arc, the presence of the big picture that can be as foreboding as it is enticing. If we never get out of Division Four there is no way we’ll return to glory. If that young fella can carry this form into the summer we might keep it kicked out to them, for a start. If, if, if. Those nagging doubts can never be cleared from the mind as spring moves slowly into summer.

But in the winter leagues the year stretches long ahead. You’re out of the house, and already the cold air is making you feel better about the Christmas excesses. Whereas before your head was annoyed with the most unspeakable muck on telly – and you wouldn’t mind the English stations, but our own! Our own! Is this what I pay the license fee for? – now you’re looking at the tantalising prospect of this year being The Year, , that Magical Year for which you’ve waited since you were a child.

There’s a few lads up from minor that you’re looking forward to seeing. Some lad is back from Australia – covered in tattoos, the hoor, but he was a good one before he left. And can your full-forward work off that condition before the Championship begins?

No gourmand sitting before a dinner cooked by Nigella Lawson herself ever licked his lips as happily as the GAA person at a winter league game, when hope springs eternal in the mud, the cold and the rain. God bless them all, and good luck to them.