All my adult life, my favourite ‘Small crowd at a match’ story hasn’t been in doubt – until now!
One of the glamour football clubs in England had modest beginnings in the first half of the 20th century. They were only getting a few dozen fans at their home games. One Saturday, a supporter rang the club to check the kick-off time. The person who answered the phone, reflecting how anxious they were to get fans in, responded: “What time can you get here at?”
Today, I came across an even better ‘Small crowd at a match’ anecdote. On the BBC website, colourful ex-manager Barry Fry fondly recalled his friend George Best guesting in two games for lower league minnows Dunstable United (where Fry was manager). Best’s gesture was a financial windfall for the club, with 10,000 people coming out to see the superstar, compared with usual attendances of “34 and 43”.
Barry Fry: “Attendances were so small, rather than announcing the team changes to the crowd, we’d announce the crowd changes to the team!”
Most of my adult life, I’ve been a regular caller to the Abbey Hotel in Roscommon. The great old building oozes character and charm. Usually I’m there for lunch or to attend a function or meeting. Today is different.
The hotel is currently serving as Roscommon’s Vaccination Centre. In the fightback against Covid in Roscommon, this is Jab Central. Now I’ve got the call. From my arrival at 10.30 this morning to my departure at 11.05, the whole experience is noteworthy for being extremely well organised, the process conducted by friendly and professional personnel.
After the first of a number of checks (as to my identity, any recent vaccine history, etc.) I park in the familiar carpark. It’s all quite strange. Around me, people sit in their cars, face coverings in place, eyes on their phones/watches. ‘Be on time, but do not arrive more than five minutes before your appointment’ the text had warned. It’s obvious that everyone’s working on getting this timing challenge just right!
I’ve been to the Abbey Hotel for Dinner Dances, weddings, political rallies, awards ceremonies, book launches, every type of function you could imagine. We’ve all been there for jigs and jibes and jugs (i.e. dances, political meetings, coffee breaks), now it’s all about jabs.
I reach a small marquee where those of us being vaccinated today will queue before entering the hotel/vaccination centre. After a few routine (but important) questions from one of two receptionists, I’m directed into what is normally the Abbey Hotel function room, now transformed into a vaccination centre with several cubicles. It’s busy, but all is running very smoothly.
The friendly vaccinator who administers the jab to me chats about the weather and the vaccine roll-out. Then it’s over to an observation zone. I recognise it from a previous life, when it was the area in front of the bar counter in the Abbey function room. Where now those heady nights when you might queue for a drink there, while on the dancefloor below, your neighbours forfeited their inhibitions under the spell of a band belting out Sweet Caroline, or maybe Amarilo itself?
I digress. In the observation zone, the people who have just been vaccinated are advised to sit for fifteen minutes or so. As you sit, with a growing sense of satisfaction at having received Jab One, members of the ‘vaccination team’ approach with information leaflets and advice on possible side-effects. One such lady came over to me.
What she said: “Just take it easy, don’t over-exert yourself today”.
What I heard: “Put your feet up and spend the rest of the day watching football and golf”.
As I sat there, surrounded by maybe fifteen people, a thought struck me. Just being in close proximity to others again felt strange. I have no doubt that it will take time for people to readapt to engaging with other humans.
When I got the nod, confirming that I could return to the outside world, I exited, stage right. I thought of nights when hundreds of people socialised together in this landmark ballroom, now dotted with vaccination booths to facilitate an emergency response to a worldwide crisis.
As I stepped out of that familiar social hub, I could almost hear echoes of past renditions of ‘Living on a Prayer’ or ‘My Way’. That was then, this is now. Back in the carpark, there were new arrivals, the drivers eyeing their phones as they prepared to perfectly time their own walk to the jab – and its promise of better times.
Brief reflections on a busy sporting weekend: The highlight for most sports’ enthusiasts had to be a wonderful US PGA Championship, won by the remarkable Phil Mickelson. At 50, he becomes the oldest Major Champion in history.
Sunday’s final round provided stunning TV viewing as the immensely charismatic Mickelson triumphed over both the rest of the field and time itself. There were amazing scenes as thousands of fans surrounded ‘Big Phil’ as he approached the 18th green. Ireland’s Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry covered themselves in glory too.
I listened to the first half of the Galway-Roscommon game on the radio and saw the second half on GAAGO. It was a very disappointing performance by Roscommon.
Sadly, the Premier League season is over. I’m not sure about the choice of Pep as Manager of the Year. I trust that Marcelo Bielsa (Leeds) and Brendan Rodgers (Leicester) were hot on his heels! Honourable mention also to David Moyes (West Ham). I am aware that Manchester United fans might be chanting their own version of Ole Ole Ole by the time you read this.
At last, like someone ruefully joining a party late, before then making the effort to catch up on lost time, I’ve managed to binge on the odd Netflix series.
I’ve ‘created’ the available time by taking a break from the nightly current affairs ‘blah blah’ on TV. There’s no need to dance every night to the invariably grim mood music of Prime Time, The Tonight Show, etc.
Currently, I’m catching up on The Last Dance, the critically acclaimed documentary series on Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls, and an enthralling era in the history of the NBA.
The documentary benefits from the exclusive footage from a film crew that had extraordinary access to the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Present-day interviews with many of the major players of that golden era completes a dream documentary formula.
It actually took me a while to warm to The Last Dance, but I stuck with it, and am now enjoying the series. Still, I actually enjoyed another Netflix sports’ documentary more, i.e. Sunderland ‘Til I Die. It very powerfully captures the raw beauty of the bond between football fans and their club.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a beautifully made series (2018-2020) which documents the fall and fall of Sunderland Football Club. There is remarkable behind the scenes access. Just how much the local football club means to the ordinary, working class people of English cities and towns is brilliantly portrayed. It’s a superbly produced, poignant and at times heartbreaking insight into the passions football stirs, the extraordinary bond between a city and a club that is struggling to fulfill the hopes and dreams of its fans.
Savouring some of these delights on Netflix, I’m happy just now to break long-held habits by missing out on the relentless current affairs blah blah, starring Stephen Donnelly, Thomas Byrne, Leo Varadkar, Róisín Shortall and others, with a supporting cast (in these times) of celebrity scientists. We can’t take much more nightly pandemic talk, backed up by similar talk-fests on the morning radio shows! Hopefully The Last Dance of Covid is imminent.