An empty stadium but not an empty feeling: GAA matters more in lockdown

An empty stadium but not an empty feeling: GAA matters more in lockdown

Mark Keane of Cork, centre, celebrates with team-mates after beating Kerry at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

AFTER Cork beat Kerry last Sunday, a cavalcade of about 10 cars of Cork supporters gathered near the entrance to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in a passionate, but surreal, show of support.

Red and white flags were fluttering in the breeze from the open car windows. 

As the players came out the gate, cars horns beeped loudly, flags were waved vigorously, ecstatic shouts of joy and roars of happiness boomed and pierced the dank and dark sky.

The supporters hadn’t been allowed into the stadium but, along with showing loyalty and deep appreciation to the players and management, it was also their unique way of celebrating such a memorable victory, and feeling some small part of it.

Apart from it being Cork’s first championship win against Kerry since 2012, it was also the first significant and liberating win for Cork football since the 2010 All-Ireland final. 

Cork did win the National League final in 2011 and the 2012 Munster final but they were expected to. And all the devastating and disappointing days in the meantime added a massive sugar lump to the taste of Sunday’s victory.

There were times when the Cork public had deserted the Cork senior football team. 

It’s still only a small cohort of diehards which follow them everywhere. Yet, whatever the crowd would have been on Sunday if even some supporters had been able to attend, imagine the explosion of emotion and elation there would have been amongst those present after Mark Keane’s last-second strike?

Trying to picture that moment alone, especially pre-pandemic, when Páirc Uí Chaoimh would have rattled like a boiling tin, reinforces what the championship is missing without supporters.

The emotional resonance supporters lend to those big championship occasions is acutely felt when they are removed. Supporters make sport mean something much more than just the result. 

They are the fuel which drives the championship engine and, in his column last Saturday, Ger Loughnane lamented that loss.

“Without supporters it’s like watching your favourite band with the microphone turned off,” wrote Loughnane. 

“The whole championship experience is missing. The buzz of leaving home in the morning when all is possible. Mingling with the crowds beforehand when all is anticipation. The feeling of being part of a great experience. It’s all about the atmosphere. And that’s just for the supporters.” 

Loughnane then expanded his argument to incorporate the viewpoint of the players. He painted a picture of them travelling alone to the matches, through deserted roads before entering an empty, silent stadium.

“No supporters, no handshakes, no noise,” wrote. Loughnane. 

“You’ve put in endless hours on the training ground and now the big day is here – and it doesn’t feel anything like a big day. All your championship dreams have been turned into a monumental nightmare.” 

Loughnane is fully entitled to his opinion but his belief that the whole experience is “completely flat and joyless” has to be contextualised from the prism of which the championship is now viewed. 

Of course, the championship is radically different to what we’ve always experienced. The emotional connection is bound to feel strange and ephemeral but what is the alternative? 

No championship? If there are no crowds at matches next year too, does that mean that the 2021 campaign will also be emotionally pointless?

The 2020 season taking place in empty venues does make it appear like it’s operating in a different dimension. 

The audience watching the action unfold through screens inevitably feel detached and displaced from the match. But the theory that it’s merely a fixture between two teams, and not a championship contest, is also misplaced.

Last Sunday’s Munster semi-final certainly felt different but the drama in an empty stadium was every bit as spell-binding and authentic as it would have been had the Park been packed to the rafters. 

The collective roar of the crowd may have been absent at the final whistle but the roof must have lifted off every invested household watching in Cork.

If supporters were present, the players would have connected and interacted with them afterwards. But their elation and unbridled joy wouldn’t have been any more real if the stadium was packed.

The players know that their own people are watching from a different space. 

That is just the new reality but there are a multitude of different sides to this argument. The crowd does greatly add to the electricity of the occasion, but the crowd can equally be emotionally responsive to the oscillating drama unfolding on the field. 

That can often work against a team, as much as it can for them, especially when a slump on the pitch can make the crowd – especially the underdogs – feel uneasy. 

In turn, that crippling sense of anxiety can often transmit to the players.

Last Sunday was a competent, confident, cold-blooded, well-coached and well-drilled performance. But playing Kerry in an empty stadium may have benefited Cork, especially their young players.

The flipside again is that some counties may be suffering without its large support creating the atmosphere which those players feed off. 

Empty stadiums dilute the power of collective imagining from the players and supporters. Nobody denies that it’s not the same. 

But, in staging matches in that new reality, that still doesn’t mean that the matches don’t matter, or that they’re “completely joyless”.

In a different context, the games matter more than ever. Because in the middle of another lockdown, the communal joy that stems from people watching their own county has never been more valuable.

Just ask the Cork supporters after last Sunday. 

Even though it happened in an empty stadium, has a Cork victory against Kerry ever been more cherished and valued?

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