Writing last week’s column about the legacy of Gaelic Football in both the St Nicholas and Na Piarsaigh clubs did nothing to purge the feeling of impending doom I felt about last Saturday’s relegation play-off between the two sides. This was Russian Roulette GAA style, and my club St Nicks was one shot away from senior football extinction.
It was a weird feeling. Normally, you look forward to going to a match, especially if it is a championship match. Even when your team is the underdog, there is a sense of hope about the occasion; or at least the hope that you might get lucky. Last Saturday night was different. During the week when I thought about the game, it wasn’t a feeling of hope I experienced, it was the same feeling that I get when I look over the top of a cliff or lean over the balcony on the top floor of a tall building. It’s a feeling of fear, one that you feel in the pit of your stomach.
I had never actually attended a relegation play-off game before last Saturday night. I didn’t see the point. I always felt it was a morbid thing to do, a bit like stopping and staring at a car crash. Everything I experienced about last Saturday night confirmed those opinions.
The game was a tense affair. Many neutrals were saying that it would be a bad tempered match. I don’t think that was ever going to happen. There was too much at stake for all the players. No player wanted to be the cause of his team’s relegation by getting sent off.
If I were to sum up the game in one sentence I would say it was a case of two clubs who had lost the art of winning trying desperately not to lose. I would imagine that all the relegation finals of the last 10 years have been like that.
When St Nicks won the under-21 county football final replay after extra time against Erins Own in 2003, I wrote the following in this column about my experience of the extra time.
“I was [a water boy and observer] on the opposite side of the field to the selectors. This meant that I was close to the play but isolated from everybody else. I think I experienced every possible emotion a human being can experience during the game. At times I was nervous, I was sick with worry, frustrated, hopeful, angry, disappointed, hopeful again, anxious, disappointed again and finally, deliriously happy.”
That was when we won a county final. All the above emotions flowed again last Saturday except the last one. There was no feeling of happiness, delirious or otherwise, at the end. The game was in the balance up until the final whistle. Thus prolonging the desperation and agony for both sides. St Nicks had a two-point lead when the full time whistle sounded. The supporters and families of St Nicks and Na Piarsaigh just got up from their seats and left the ground as fast as they could.
Ann Cooke of Na Piarsaigh, a woman who received a special award at the Evening Echo Ladies Sports Stars last January for her work for Na Piarsaigh was sitting in front of me. We said “Hello” as we left the ground. I couldn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what to say. So I just moved away. I caught the eye of a few St Nicks people as I left the ground. No words were exchanged. Just eyes raised to heaven and a look on the faces that said “let’s get out of here before someone changes their mind and it’s not really over.”
There were woeful errors from both sides during the game. These were mainly caused by tension and the aforementioned fact that neither team is particularly good at winning. Even so, the game did throw up a couple of heroes. The older players on both sides slogged it out and generally cancelled one and other out, the younger players showed less inhibition and good work by Aaron O’Brien set up Barry O’Donovan for the all important St Nicks goal.
It was at the other end of the field that St Nicks had a real game changer in goalkeeper Kieran McHenry. Prior to last Saturday’s game Na Piarsaigh were the second highest goal scoring team in the championship with eight goals in three games. They could have added four more on Saturday but for some great saves by McHenry.
It is hard to know where breeding stops and feeding starts but when your grandfather was Paddy “Fox” Collins, the first of the all-time great Glen Rovers players, it is not a bad starting point for being the last line of defence. Throw in the ability to kick long-range points (Kieran scored two) from dead balls and you have a very solid foundation.
Where do both clubs go from here? It is hard to predict really. Very few teams that have been relegated from the senior hurling and football grades have made it back up very quickly. The Barrs did it in football and Ballinhassig did it in hurling last Sunday. Either St Vincents or St Michaels, who contest the Premier Intermediate Final will be bridging slightly longer sojourns in the lower grade. So there is hope for Na Piarsaigh.
As for St Nicks, there is the possibility that the club will continue to bounce along the bottom of the senior grade and eventually fall out. Over the past decade we have also seen that clubs who have a near miss with relegation, recover and do well in the subsequent year or two.
Having experienced that trauma on Saturday evening it was a pleasure to watch the Cork Ladies Football team in the All-Ireland Final on Sunday. There is no doubt that the Cork Ladies Football team are, pound for pound, the best team in the country. It was great to see them get such coverage for their achievements in the national press and on the national airwaves on Sunday and Monday.
The irony of this is, if the game was played last week, as it should have been only for the replayed All-Ireland hurling final, the Ladies All-Ireland final would have been lost in the madness of the Ryder Cup golf competition. Anyone who saw Cork absolutely dismantle an excellent Monaghan team in the All-Ireland semi-final would have known that this is a special team and it is at the very peak of its powers at present.
Everything that the Cork Ladies Football team have achieved over the last eight years is down to planning, hard work, attention to detail and the desire of every member of the panel and management to organise their lives in such a manner that they can perform at their best for Cork. It might seem that there is a million miles between the torment of Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday evening and the glory of Croke Park on Sunday. There is not. What the Ladies Footballers have shown is that winning, just like losing, becomes a habit and once a habit is acquired, it is very hard to break.