09/10/2019 0 Comments
Alone, all Alone - The Story of a Welsh Hurling Nut
The last beads of sweat ran down the hurls as players from both sides sank to their knees in both elation and despair when the All-Ireland Hurling final reached its incredible conclusion on Saturday evening. These words wouldn't look out of place on the back pages of any of the broadsheet...
The last beads of sweat ran down the hurls as players from both sides sank to their knees in both elation and despair when the All-Ireland Hurling final reached its incredible conclusion on Saturday evening. These words wouldn't look out of place on the back pages of any of the broadsheet papers today but they are in fact my words, A Welshman, who technically shouldn't be in any position to have an opinion. As it is I have been blessed and privileged to spend the last 20 years of my life learning what it means to be a Hurling fan and immerse myself in what I consider to be the best sport on the planet....bar none.
Just exactly what is it that has turned this product of an Egg Chasing nation into a rabid Hurling fan and what is it that makes the game such an absorbing spectacle?
Ok, well, the first bit is fairly easy to explain....I couldn't really have lived with a Tipperary native for 9 years without being sucked into the murky world of ash, leather, broken fingers, ‘hang sangwiches’, Rody Bolands and Semple Stadium. It was something I had no choice in, it was either be part of it or get the hell out of dodge.
My very first experience of Hurling was actually a Munster Championship semi-final between Waterford and Cork in Thurles in 1999. We flew in and flew out, it was all a bit of a blur and was over in a heartbeat but on the long walk up Parnell Street in amongst the throngs of Red and White jerseys, I felt something stir inside me, some primeval feeling that I couldn't explain. The atmosphere tore at my insides, and wasn't an emotion I was familiar with. I've experienced similar, the night standing in the San Siro amongst 80k Soccer Fans after Italy had spanked Wales 4.0 in a World Cup Qualifier singing 'Italia Italia Italia' a simple but powerful weapon of intimidation. Or another was the moment, Gavin Henson, he, of the fake tan and shaved chest, popped over that penalty against England in 2005 that set Wales on the way to their first Grand Slam in 27 years. But this was different, this wasn't a feeling that could be explained rationally. After all I'm Welsh, therefore it's perfectly logical to understand why I was affected by games involving Wales. So how is it that a game involving counties to whom I had no affiliation whatsoever could affect me in such a way. Whatever it was, and in truth, I'll probably still be looking for the answer when I'm drawing my last breaths, it came from deep inside me. Within minutes I fell in love with Hurling and all it comes to represent. That's some impact when you consider I hadn't even reached the ground yet.
The feeling you get as an 10yr old child when you attend your very first live sporting event lives with you forever. It's a wonderful feeling to hear the noise and atmosphere get progressively louder as you climb the steps to your seat and look out over the playing surface of the team you have always supported. Well imagine my surprise, when I felt that way just short of my 33rd birthday! This wasn’t how it's supposed to be. Don't get me wrong, I had looked forward to the day, but mostly due to the idea of having a few beverages both before and after the game. The adrenaline rush that surged through me as the noise from the Town End got louder and louder was incredible. It's precisely that moment that, if you'll pardon the pun, I was hooked.
Anyone familiar with the loveable Tony Soprano will be aware of how sometimes it isn't always necessary to be specific when you need something done. A subtle hint of what might happen if you don't is normally enough to encourage conformity. Hence 'my' decision to follow Tipperary becomes clear. Of course, upon discovering that they are one the top 3 Hurling teams in the country did make the decision that much easier to swallow. One wonders who I might have ended up supporting had my flat-mate been from Longford (No offence to those from the O'Farrell County!)
My love-affair with Tipperary began with another Munster Semi-Final between Tipp and Clare in 2001 in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Of course, as with any new relationship, it had a bumpy start....What time is kick off lads?....You mean throw-in.....Is that our throw in?....No, it's a line ball…..free kick ref?….free in ya clown. These juniors are good.....they're minors……juniors are basically not good enough to make intermediate who are not good enough to be seniors....www.Confused.com. Despite standing out like a sore thumb, I had garnered enough knowledge to last the 90mins....err 70 mins without too many drama's. No I left that to the lads on the pitch.
2001 was, as it turned out, the best year I could have chosen to follow Tipperary as they went on to win the All-Ireland Championship against Galway. I was fortunate to attend all but one of the matches en route to the title and I found myself completely and utterly hypnotised by the sport. What really made it for me wasn't just the 70mins entertainment on the pitch but the whole day's experience. It starts with getting up on match days and displaying my colours....I had invested in a classic 2001 vintage jersey complete with 'Finches' logo earlier in the year and bought the ribbons, hats, scarves and headbands to complement. A hearty breakfast for soakage surrounded by other similarly ludicrously dressed people of all shapes, sizes and ages. Meeting the lads in the Venue before the game and picking up my prized ticket. Then the pre match analysis begins. Of course, it was all so mesmerising for me at the time. The now familiar names of Leahy, Kelly, Cummins, Dunne and Corbett could just have just as easily been Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert Dibble and Grubb for all that their names meant to me. It was also interesting to note how all the jerseys mingled together, Blue & Gold, Saffron & Blue, it made no difference, the banter was imparted with enthusiasm and received in the same manner. There was no ill feeling, no sense of a bad atmosphere, just a healthy but fierce rivalry that was to be mirrored on the hallowed turf of Cork's home ground. I was going to enjoy this. I bought my program flicked quickly to the middle pages to try and memorise at least one or two of the Tipp players. Great, so Lar Corbett will be on the left at the front, henceforth, known as Left Full Forward. Kelly on the right. You get this in your head so you can confidently join in the cheers when one or another scores a point. Go on Lar, great point.....err that's Kelly....but he was over there a minute ago...ah yeah, they switched positions. I mean they don't make it easy do they. Back then the wearing of helmets wasn't compulsory, which made player identification slightly easier for the newbee's like me but then in keeping with all the new health and safety legislation that seems to dominate every-day life in Ireland these days, the rules were changed so that now it's even harder to work out who's who. I kept referring to my program but gave up and slid it discreetly back into my pocket as a keepsake of my big day out. To me a program was something sacred, I always like to think they'd be great to look back on one day but somehow I felt a bit of a loser. Every other fella seemed to be scribbling like mad in his. Only at half time did I realise what they were doing...ah sure, didn't Kelly hit 3 frees that half and they hit 4 wides in total. These guys, each and every one of them were umpires, referees and scorekeepers all rolled into one. Great stuff.
The match finished, Tipp won by a point and their march towards All-Ireland glory had begun. The dissection of the match was performed over the course of the next few hours and even more pints of porter. I tried to offer some form of opinion but frankly I was out of my depth. I could barely follow the ball during the game, let alone know who was playing well. There seemed to be so much going on off the ball. I'd be trying to see someone scoring down the other end and there right in front of me two fellas would be beating the hell out of each other (or baiting the shite in Irish) I thought Conor Gleeson had a decent game and I was derided. Gleeson hadn't been forgiven for his performance in Tipperary's loss to Clare in the 97 All-Ireland Final and no matter how hard he tried, his Tipperary brethren, much like the proverbial elephants, would never forget. I assumed that their success over the years had bred an expectation, an arrogant belief that their county had a right to be in every All-Ireland Final. It didn't, of course, Tipp fans were no different to anyone else, they just craved success, it means so much to everyone and being successful means you just want it more. Wow, tough crowd.
A win against Limerick in the Munster Final was followed by win over Wexford in the All-Ireland Semi Final after a replay. And so on to an All-Ireland Final against Galway. All this took place in the glorious summer sunshine. There's a familiar saying, in these parts, Cork bet (Beaten!) and the hay saved....of course, for 'Cork' you can substitute any of Munster counties, the saying isn't the exclusive preserve of Tipp fans.
To reach Croke Park is a privilege preserved for the few, but Tipp had been there twice already that year and I had been there twice too. The history that resonated around the old stadium wasn't lost on me. I was aware of the significant part Páirc an Chrócaigh had played in Irish history, so for this simple and whisper it quietly, this Brit, to be allowed to sit here not once but three times in a year when some Irish men had yet to visit it even once in their lifetimes was a privilege. The old Hogan Stand was still standing back then as was the rickety Nally Stand but the magnificence of the newly built Cusack and Canal End was breathtaking. Much like your first visit to Manhattan, everything was bigger, the stands were bigger, the crowds were bigger, program's were bigger and bragging rights were bigger. The teams paraded. Listening to the crowd roar as the teams made their way around the ground was like a perfect piece of Choreography. This must have been practiced, no? I don't remember much of the match, other than Tipperary won of course, cue the celebrations. They lifted the trophy, the Liam McCarthy. Finally I understood the significance of 'Liam's coming home' endorsed on so many cars with 'TN' and 'TS' number plates.
So the journey began. My travels have taken me all over Ireland, including the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick and the Fitzgerald Stadium in Kerry, not traditionally a Hurling stronghold but quite possibly the most picturesque stadium location. I've seen Tipperary play qualifiers in Tullamore & Laois and League matches in Galway & Parnell Park the home of the Dubs too. I've been lucky enough to attend 6 All-Ireland's Finals. We've had the ecstasy of 2010, sandwiched between the heartbreak of 2009 and 2011, both at the hands of the magnificent Kilkenny. Most counties would be happy to attend 6 All-Ireland Finals in 20 years but Tipp aren't happy. They had just been beaten again by an even better team. Arguably the best team of all time. In fact, it's hard to even argue that point anymore. Ten All-Ireland Titles under Brian Cody's stewardship is frankly obscene, how many do they need. It'll be the ruination of the game. This is what losing to Kilkenny does to a Tipperary man, even an honorary one. It makes you angry and bitter but it also makes you envious and appreciative. Because for any team to dominate the game, ANY game, in such a way for so long is a magnificent achievement and we should applaud all those involved. We may never witness the likes of it again.
The fact that I include myself in that statement makes me quietly proud. I'm no longer the outsider, I now belong, I now live and breathe Hurling. I bleed Blue and Gold. I'm now the one who gets pleasure in explaining the rules to the naive tourist. I'm the one who loves watching their faces contort as the first clash of the ash takes place. I'm the one who waits until after the game before breaking it to them that these guys are amateurs. I now cry when my county loses and cry when they win. When I join in the first few bars of Slievenamon the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I can now argue my point, with a lot more confidence at least, with my peers, although still get the fear of God in me when chatting to anyone old enough to remember the Hell's Kitchen defence of the Tipp team of the 1960's. I feel all the emotions that course through their veins. It's some game lads,
Tiobraid Árann Abu!