Granted, it would be stretching things to say ‘If Carlsberg made Connacht semi-final days’…but there was something very positive about last Sunday in Roscommon town.
There was a giddy excitement in evidence in town all weekend. Well, I suppose we were the last team out in the competition. It’s fair to say the appetite had been well whetted. On Saturday afternoon I saw three men chatting earnestly on the Athlone Road, one of the men sporting a Roscommon GAA cap, the other two sporting no caps at all.
It was obvious they weren’t talking about the price of turnips, Donald Trump or the rushed appointment of Máire Whelan from A(G) to B.
The men were within the shadow of the Hyde, and as I watched their animated analysis, I knew they had Roscommon and Leitrim on their minds.
We encountered the three wise men as we made our way to the Family Fun Day at Scoil Mhuire, where the football stars of the future were trying out their drills on super slides and bouncy castles. Later, on the way home, the open gates of the Hyde was an invitation I couldn’t resist on this beautiful evening.
I drove in to have a look around, fuelled by curiosity and the type of anticipation that prompts members of a wedding party to have a ‘gathering’ a night or two before the big day.
A small number of people, perhaps eight or nine, were toiling away on various eleventh-hour routines.
‘Prunty Pitches’ vehicles were parked close to the pitch and the purr of their machines barely invaded the stillness.
A few men were operating machines between the halfway line and the goal on the graveyard end; you could say it was grassroots GAA in action…prior to the main event the following day.
It can be a nice experience to gaze on the Hyde Park pitch on the eve of a big game, when there are no players, only unrevealed mysteries.
Moving forward twenty hours or so, and now it’s Sunday afternoon. As much as three hours before the big game, many fans were gathering in the vicinity of Hyde Park. I left it until twenty minutes before scheduled throw-in. At 3.10 there was quite a long queue for tickets, which I presume contributed to the short delay in the game starting.
For many years now I’ve watched these games from the stand on the near side – the one beside the Hyde Centre. I’m drawn to the raw banter of the terraces, where the soul of the GAA lives. On Sunday however, I decided to reclaim my place in the press box.
Things have changed here over the years. Once, when Killoran and Newton ruled the centre of the park, there was just the Herald and the Champion, maybe the Connacht Tribune, then Shannonside when it started up, and then on the day of a Connacht final the handful of local ‘hacks’ were joined by the royalty from the national papers and RTE. Needless to say they always had a great welcome for themselves!
These days, the press box is bustling like Grafton Street on Christmas Eve…well, not quite. The Hyde media centre is an enormous, long, narrow corridor, running the length of the big stand on the ‘County Home’ side. Once upon a time, the press box was occupied by a few old-stagers who had seen it all, and maybe a couple of young ‘whippersnappers’ who were starting our on their journalistic journeys and hadn’t seen an awful lot yet.
Veteran or newcomer, cynical or mad enthusiast, they got on well enough. They scribbled the scores into their notepads – and tweeted nothing.
‘Who got that last point? Who gave it into him?’ they asked, and someone, even a member of the direct opposition, would always oblige.
They cracked in-jokes, complained and complimented the play to excess, sometimes bore the brunt of abuse from nearby supporters, oohed and aahed when the PA man announced scores from around the grounds, and – at all costs – dutifully tallied the wides in the corner of a page.
No two reporters were necessarily alike, but they all had one thing in common; they never crossed the ‘Governor’ of the Hyde press box, the late Jackie Brennan.
Now, in 2017, dozens of reporters sit in front of their tablets/laptops, glued to the updates from other GAA grounds, the sporting world and life generally.
There were perhaps thirty to forty reporters in Hyde Park on Sunday; the Roscommon People and Herald, Leitrim Observer, other Connacht papers, the national newspapers, Shannonside, RTE, Newstalk and God knows how many more papers, radio stations and television channels.
There were also sound men and sound women and other technicians and County Board personnel and stewards and VIPs and some lovely locals who provided the press box occupants with tea, coffee and sandwiches.
It is of course a family, a family with a very long and narrow living room. For a good while on Sunday I could hear Willie but I couldn’t see him. Many of these reporters cover the same beat; watching Roscommon wherever they go is the beat that at least eight or nine of them are on. Some of these journalists have been on the Roscommon beat for many, many years; it has rarely been a dull assignment.
The notepads aren’t entirely gone yet; many of the reporters still record the action with a pen, before transferring to their laptop or tablet. Many of them tweet as they go; on Sunday one of the contingent recorded the Roscommon penalty on his phone and a couple of us asked him to replay it to see if the Leitrim ‘keeper had got a touch (he hadn’t). It makes you wonder how long the GAA can resist calls for video evidence.
Now that I had made a return to the press box, I also made a beeline for the complimentary coffees. Chatting to a few more people along the long walk towards caffeine, we were all in agreement that Hyde Park looked magnificent and that this occasion, sun-draped and all as it was, was a throwback to some of the great days at the Hyde that remain in our memories.
When it was all over, several of the journalists headed for the vicinity of the dressing rooms to find out what both camps had to say. Slowly the press box became less crowded. Now I could see Willie but I couldn’t hear him. But all was good; Willie’s words had danced across the airwaves and Roscommon were back in the Connacht Final.
There had been a feelgood factor all day. The sun was still beating down. So, a little later, I decided to sample more of the atmosphere. In ‘The Hatch’, Kevin McStay, the Roscommon manager, was enjoying a pint and mingling with the fans. Where else would you get it?
The GAA…not a bad movement. Honestly, if Carlsberg made amateur voluntary organisations that, whatever their failings, have a happy knack of reflecting the heart and soul of the people of Ireland…