You stare at the ticket in your hand and wonder why you bother. Nothing ever changes. Finals come and go, heartbreak remains. Black and amber reigns supreme, and any other colours just fade to the background. 2001 seems a long time ago now. Munster Championships are an appetiser, but the hunger is there for more. Last year seemed like the chance, the time to skin the cats, erase those demons. It wasn’t to be. Maybe a few pucks in it, the bounce of the sliotar. You sigh as you remember what wasn’t, shake your head as you lock the door and begin the pilgrimage to Thurles.
On the way you think things through, lament that its Cork in the first round and not the championship decider. Those are the days a GAA fan lives for, days when for 70 minutes anything can happen, does happen. The bitter taste when thousands as one stream out of the stadium defeated, disconsolate. The euphoria when the Premier County emerge victorious, the taste of triumph washing any bitterness away. Those days are gone, the battles of old never to be repeated. The Championship isn’t like it used to be, you hear people say. One team has dominated for too long. A decade may not be a long time in the grand scheme of things, but to 31 counties in Ireland, it seems an eternity. People will forego championship games this summer in favour of obscure games in the World Cup in South Africa. You weigh up the advantages of staying at home on match days and watching the highlights on The Sunday Game. The sun is high in the sky as you reach Thurles, and you try and remember the last time Tipp played Cork on a dull day in the Munster Championship. It eludes you. You park the car near the racecourse and walk the rest towards the home of hurling.
You’re early so you decide to take a walk into the square in Thurles, maybe sample the atmosphere. You pass people, decked in blue and gold, red and white. It never fails to surprise you, the variety of people you see at games. You see children, optimistic, hopeful, expectant. Losing isn’t in their vocabulary yet. Old men shuffle past, talking amongst themselves about games of the past. They’ll tell you that the game was more exciting back then. In your mind you think of Kilkenny lifting Liam McCarthy again, and you’re inclined to believe them. There’s a buzz around Thurles, pre-match pints being drank, laughter and shouts reverberating around the square. You have a feeling in the pit of your stomach, something you can’t quite put a finger on. You glance at your watch and realise its time to make your way to the stadium.
You hand over your ticket at the turnstile, doing a mental calculation in your head about how many pints the cost of the ticket would have got you if you’d gone to the pub and watched the game on the box. With today’s prices, you conclude, not many. You buy a programme and jog the steps up into the heart of the terrace, dazzled by your first sight of the greenest pitch you’ve seen. Of course you’ve seen it many times before, but it never fails to amaze you. The feeling in the pit of your stomach intensifies. Half an hour to throw-in and the team is out on the field. You watch the warm-up while occasionally glancing at the team pages in the programme. Who’s new? Who’s been around since the dawn of time. You don’t know many of the players from Adam, but inside the hallowed ground of Semple Stadium, for two hours on this Sunday, you’re on first name terms. “Good thing Eoin is fit” “Lar looks up for it”. The team makes its way into the tunnel for final preparations, carried off by a wave of applause that echoes around the still filling stadium.
Ten minutes pass, the buzz around the stand and terraces grows. Five minutes to throw in, and air horns herald the arrival of the two teams. The place is rocking now, and that feeling in your stomach makes you think that perhaps you’ll be seeing a doctor tomorrow. The teams do their round of the field, led by the brass band, and you clap and shout with the best of them. The anthem is sung, and as you look at the tricolour, you realise what that feeling in your stomach is. Hope. Cork will be disposed of. Kilkenny aren’t unbeatable. This summer could end in September in Croke Park. Tears will be shed but they’ll be tears of joy. The anthem ends, but no one heard it tail off. All eyes are on the halfway line. The noise in the stadium increases. Tipp. Tipp. Tipp.
The sliotar is thrown in, and the Championship is underway.
There’s nowhere you’d rather be.