“This is going to be a long, long night…”
– Fergus Dennehy: Circa, March 2016
Straight off the bat, I’ll be honest with you all, I’m not the biggest GAA head in the world.
I’d never even been to a live match before.
So last night, when I found myself standing in the freezing cold watching a Kerry U21 game, all while feeling thoroughly and completely out of place in this alien GAA mad-world, let’s just say it was a strange experience.
Here’s how it all came about:
So, I’d just started working as a photographer for one of the local papers here in town and one of my first assignments was to get a few ‘crowd shots’ at a football match taking place in the newly renovated Austin Stack Park stadium.
Seriously, I don’t know why they chose me of all people, it baffles the mind.
Sounds simple enough right? I thought so too, bu it, uh, didn’t quite as quickly or smoothly as I had expected.
I decided to get down to the stadium nice and early, to avoid the mass crowds and thus make it easier to maneuver through the stands to get the photos.
However, as I drove along the road next to the stadium, I was astounded at the sheer number of cars parked up outside. It seemed as if my plan to avoid the huge crowds was quickly going up in flames.
My fears were confirmed when after parking up, I caught a glimpse of the mass group of people already seated in the stands. There didn’t look like there was going to be much room for awkward photo taking…
‘Right, this is going to be a little tricky’ I thought to myself.
I joined the throng of people heading towards the stadium, all of whom were decked out in in the famous green and gold and eagerly discussing the prospect of the game and who they thought would come up trumps for Kerry.
As I walked casually amongst them, camera bag in hand, I was met with only one thought in my head:
‘Right, the rest of these people are probably looking at me and thinking that ‘this guy here, he looks the part. He’s got a camera and all, he’s definitely be a regular match goer and GAA media head’.
I needed to to keep this ‘GAA look’ going, I thought quickly.
“Next” a voice shouted from in front of me, I glanced up and realised it was my turn to buy ticket for the match.
‘Just act cool Dennehy, you got this’, I reassured myself.
“One adult ticket please” I said confidently the kindly old man behind the counter.
“Sorry?” he queried, looking at me strangely.
‘Oh god, am I at the wrong counter?’ I panicked inwardly, ‘this is definitely the counter for season ticket holders or something, I’ve been rumbled…’
“Umm, one adult ticket…please?” I said back to him, my voice cracking just a little.
“No bother” he replied before proceeding to press a series of buttons on his machine out popped the ticket.
“Thanking you” I replied, wiping my brow in relief before bounding through the turnstiles, confidence renewed and image as a ‘legitimate’ GAA fan still intact.
Entering the stadium, my head was turned in every direction as I tried to take in all the surroundings.
Huge floodlights stretched far up into the sky in front of me, a teenager selling match programmes was shouting to the crowd while a group of old men wearing flat caps and puffy jacket walked beside me randomly uttering “ah jaysus, she’s looking well” and “Hup outta that!”.
‘Yeah’, I thought, this was definitely going to be an experience.
The stand was almost completely full when I reached it and I saw that it would be very cumbersome to try and get any individual shots of people without stepping on the person in front of them, such was the crowd.
So it was that I, being a completely awkward person, decided that my only option was to sit through the first half of the match and try to snag people in for a few photos at halftime.
Here’s the scene that greeted me on arrival:
So it began.
From originally having planned on being in and out of the stadium well before the game even started, I was now sitting in a crowd squashed up next to a father/son pairing who were both heavily engrossed in dissecting the team line ups.
Needless to say, I knew absolutely none of the players that I was soon going to be cheering for.
“Looking forward to it?” the people next to me asked just before kick off.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been looking forward to it for ages! It should be a cracker!” I replied, hoping they wouldn’t see the clear deception in my eyes.
‘Here we go’ I thought as the whistle went, ‘Time to play it cool, just blend right in Dennehy and we’ll get through this with our image intact’.
What followed was some of the most interesting, self aware, downright strangest 35-70 minutes of my recent life.
My life had become this scene from the IT Crowd:
In my efforts to be ‘recognised’ as a fan, I went full GAA: I cheered when the others cheered, I winced they winced, I booed when they booed, I clapped for the injured players and I gave abuse when they gave abuse.
I even went so far as to cheer the ‘Maor Uisce’ or the ‘water man’ on the sidelines as I called him, even though the majority of what he was shouting to the players was complete and utter gibberish to me.
After a while though, I subconsciously found myself less and less occupied with ‘keeping up my image’ to those around me and more and more on enjoying the game that was taking place in front of me.
It actually did soon turn out to be a ‘cracker’ of a game!
Soon enough though, halftime arrived and I bounded up and wandered the stadium nodding politely at the stewards as I went, being careful not to look them in the eyes too much though in case they saw through my devious ruse.
I meandered around and quickly got all the photos that that I needed. My mission was complete and I was free to head away now if I so wished…
I didn’t though.
I couldn’t leave my ‘boys’ down now, having invested so much in them in the first half.
So it was that I wandered back inside and took my seat back amongst the rest, as the players exited the tunnel to rapturous applause.
The second half flew by in a whirlwind of cheers, whistles, shouts of encouragement at points scored, agonizing groans at missed chances to score and a sheer admiration on this writers part for the outstanding commitment from the guys on the pitch.
Looking around at the crowd near the end of the match, I no longer saw it as ‘them’ and ‘I’ situation, I saw it as unified ‘us’ situation, as completely cliché as that sounds.
We were all part of something here, part of a community.
A community that had left the warmth and comfort of their homes, paid hard earned money and braved a cold, wet Wednesday evening to come out and cheer on their local U21 team and all out of nothing more than pure passion and sheer enjoyment of the sport.
I’ll reiterate what I said at the start of this post that I don’t know much about GAA, but after spending an evening watching this match, I think I’m leaving just a litter wiser about it all.
For me, that’s a start.