For many people, the GAA championship can be a televisual event alone. Given that attending one game probably means you’ll miss two more on TV, it can be easy to just retreat to the couch and watch it all unfold. But I find there are only so many championship games I can watch before I start to get itchy feet. And so I had Galway-Tyrone in Pearse Stadium circled from the moment the draw was made.
Last Saturday afternoon we parked the car in Salthill, saw a few Tyrone heads wandering delightedly along the promenade, gazing across the bay to the Burren and out to the Aran Islands, and smugly thought to ourselves of all the other inferior places those fans could have been dragged to for a match. Bliss was it that Saturday to be alive, but to be in Galway was very heaven (as long as the rain stayed away).
Of course, by the end of our 20-minute walk to the stadium, the rain had arrived. All was suddenly damp. Clare had disappeared into the murk. The day had taken a definite turn. Like all great Irish seaside towns, Salthill in the rain always looks especially sad. We entered the stand and took our seats, directly in front of a large, bearded Tyrone fan who, as my Tyrone-born wife is wont to say when she runs into a former classmate back up home, had “a squad of weans” with him.
I took this to mean that it would be a long day at the office. I didn’t see any vuvuzelas in their possession, but there could be no guarantee. The teams lined up for the national anthem. The crowd stood to attention. Total silence. After 20 seconds of this, I hear attempts by some of the crowd off to my right to sing Amhrán na bhFiann a cappella. These patriotic souls are brutally (and, let’s face it, correctly) cut off mid-flow by the public announcer admitting defeat on the anthem front, so “the game may now proceed”. Referee David Gough wisely followed the promptings.
The real reason I wanted to be at this game was to sample the All-Ireland football championship’s most seismic rearrangement in its almost 140-year history. And also, to try to answer the main question – did it feel like championship? The rain, inevitably, gave the day a certain mournful air. But what championship feels like to the regular punter has necessarily changed. When people talk about “a championship feel”, they’re talking about the same local rivals, in the same grounds you always go to. Familiarity is its key characteristic.
That’s going to change now. This new championship now entails three games, two of which could be in places you’ve never been to before, certainly not in summertime. The GAA fans’ relationship to round-robins has always been a little funny, but nothing could more powerfully demonstrate the capacity for drama inherent in small-sized groups of teams of roughly equal standard than what you’ve seen in Munster this year.
And Kerry’s now likely position in the preliminary quarterfinals will put everyone on high alert. If you can’t finish first, at least finish second, more than likely in the same pot as them, and avoid Kerry that way.
On the field, people associate “championship feel” to blood-and-thunder stuff, but modern Gaelic football eschews that wherever possible. With a man advantage for 50 minutes, and a two-man advantage for a further 10 minutes, Galway saw no need to let the handbrake off – they were sloppy at times, they were overly cautious at times, but they never really looked like losing.
As for Tyrone? I was also at the league game between the sides in Tuam earlier this year, and I was struck by the body language of their players, their management and even their fans. They accepted defeat so meekly on that occasion that I felt certain there would be no major return to form for our 2021 All-Ireland champions.
That sense of drift continued throughout this game. If not for the exhibition of wet-day, wet-ball freetaking that Darren McCurry put on, they would have been out of this game much sooner than they were. The bearded man with the squad of weans behind us remained perfectly Zen throughout. Any vuvuzelas in their possession remained resolutely sheathed.
They have now lost four of the five championship games they’ve played since the 2021 All-Ireland final, and that solitary win came against Fermanagh last year. They will get out of this group and, almost out of respect for their past, they won’t really be a team other teams will fancy being drawn against, but they’re in poor shape. And they had a pretty poor following in Salthill too.
On my way home, I spent a half-hour in conversation with another man very eager to talk about the day’s action.
Kerry were awful, Mayo might not look so good against a blanket defence, Galway aren’t moving as fluently as you’d like, Dublin are inconsistent, Tyrone are out of contention, Derry still don’t have the forwards ... after half an hour of eviscerating everyone, and I mean everyone, we had to come face-to-face with the fact that someone is going to have to win this All-Ireland. Which probably means ... it’ll be Dublin, right? But at least each team has a similar road to travel from now.