As Roscommon prepare to play Leitrim on Sunday, PAUL HEALY says that while we might be indifferent to the GAA at times, ‘normal service resumes’ once the championship starts…
Please just throw in the ball, ref! First: a confession. I won’t pretend that it means quite as much to me now as it used to, because it doesn’t.
Not quite as much, but it still means a lot! That doesn’t mean that I should be condemned, it’s just that life got in the way. So I am always happy enough to admit that I don’t get to every game, that I don’t know every player…because that’s just the way it is.
Life is made up of phases, and sometimes we dip in and out of areas of interest. Career challenges, children, even middle age comes along!
And yet…come championship time – even for those of us who can’t rhyme off the FBD results or claim to have been at every NFL game – all the magic just comes rolling back!
While the hairstyles and shirt collars may have been appalling, overall the late 1970s were memorable for Roscommon GAA fans. Of course we were spoilt. I can only really comment from the perspective of my generation. Roscommon won the Connacht senior football titles of 1977, ’78, ’79 and ’80. We won the National Football League in 1979, the All-Ireland U-21 title in 1978, and reached the All-Ireland Senior Football Final in 1980.
I was a teenager in Rooskey during all of this strutting on the national GAA stage. My memory of that great era is that we probably took this annual competing for honours for granted. As young lads we weren’t likely to listen to the sage advice of older folk. I’m not sure that I realised it was a special era. It was as if one day I was 12, and then when I woke up as a 13-year-old and continued into teenagehood, Roscommon were routinely beating all before them in Connacht – and putting up big scores too. I thought that was normal. We had no fear of Galway or Mayo. We played with power and determination, but – unless my mind is playing tricks – most of all, we played with swagger. We were stylists. True, we largely abandoned that approach in the 1980 All-Ireland Final, but any fair verdict on that great team will surely acknowledge that it was made up of a gifted set of players who graced the game with distinction.
As young lads, we would surely have enjoyed gaelic football anyway, but we were particularly drawn to the game because of Roscommon’s prowess in that era.
For thousands of Roscommon people of all ages, the 1977-’80 period was a happy time, fondly remembered now for the enormously satisfying trips to Hyde Park and other venues. Success with swagger.
The best of times.
Easily beating Mayo and Galway couldn’t last, of course. It made no sense! Getting to four successive All-Ireland semi-finals made no sense!
Along came barren times, what I labelled the ‘decade of despair’ in my role as sports reporter with the Roscommon Champion. Post-1980, we didn’t win another Connacht title for the remainder of the decade. Finally, in 1990, Martin McDermott led us out of the abyss, following up with a successful defence of the Connacht title the following year.
Young, and with less commitments than now, I invested a huge amount of emotion in the GAA in those years, as a fan and as a reporter. So did thousands more – then and now. Many of them have never ‘switched off’ in the way that I sometimes have. There was no switching off in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Supporting Roscommon was a glorious anguish. There was the added responsibility of following the fortunes of the great club side, Clann na nGael, another team which, like Roscommon, tested the emotions and hearts of supporters.
There really was no feeling like the feeling you got on the morning of a big match, whether it was a trip to Castlebar or Galway, or maybe a Connacht final in the Hyde.
In many ways it was a different Ireland, even as recently as the mid-1990s. The pubs were packed on the Friday and Saturday before the big game, as anticipation grew and nervous debate developed. The towns and villages were adorned with flags and bunting. Shannonside began to go out and about and host special preview programmes. Marty Morrissey or Michael Lyster might appear in the Main Street, staring into a camera in front of the Bank of Ireland. We were excited early in the week and often irrationally confident about our prospects. By Thursday or Friday the nerves took hold, and we were petrified at the prospect of defeat. We imagined how the game might unfold. We dared to visualise Tony McManus bearing down on goal. We sought reassurance from friends and neighbours. We called into Paddy Joe (the barber in Roscommon Town) and placed huge faith in his words of wisdom. By Friday we were making arrangements about how we would travel and with whom. We loved the morning of the match; all things were still possible.
When the referee threw the ball in, our hearts were in knots; now we had no control, now we wanted it to be the beginning of the week again.
Years of near-misses and occasionally heavy defeats and infrequent joy. Then, in 2006, something extraordinary happened. A peerless campaign by our minors led to All-Ireland glory. The memory of the joy and emotion and pride in Ennis (and later in Roscommon Town) will live with everyone.
We don’t need to go all the way, to actually win finals, in order to fully savour and appreciate what is so special about the GAA, and specifically about the championship. Just embarking on the journey is usually enough. After all, most campaigns are doomed, but that reality can’t diminish the excitement and expectation at the start, or the madness of the journey, wherever it takes us.
The championship just takes hold of us, sets off on its mystery tour and brings us with it.
There were some savage tight games between Roscommon and Leitrim in the early 1990s. A great and often bitter rivalry was created. It was powerful stuff. To this day, even if recent meetings have seldom been that close, there’s mighty rivalry on the pitch and in the stands. Sometimes very sparky in the stands. Nothing would delight Leitrim more than to get one over on Roscommon. And the great passion that the underdogs, Leitrim, will bring to the battle,acts as a leveller, at least for a while.
Players come and go, times change, hairstyles change, reality tv stars even become Presidents. County teams rise and fall. One of the greatest days at the Hyde was in 1994 when Leitrim, not Roscommon, won the Connacht title (against Mayo). It was epic, and we proudly marched behind them to an All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park against Dublin. Roscommon have had their ups and downs too. Eras of promise, eras of heartbreak, eras to forget, eras of hope.
Whatever era it is, and whatever the status of a team at a given time, the start of the championship is a leveller, and also a cause, however misguided, for hope. The eternal hope, shouldering logic out of its path.
Today is Thursday. Nothing can stop us now. The next three days cannot be sullied by missed chances, bad refereeing, dubious management calls. For now, it’s pure adrenaline. Marty Morrissey might be on the way down. The flags are flying. The Hyde is being readied, the pub debates are starting, the players are toiling in the shadow of the old stand.
Every year, whether you’ve been in or out of the GAA all year – or just in a bit and out a bit – it hits you, grabs you, brings you back in.
Just throw the ball in ref – and let that glorious damn suffering begin.