SO the end of a season that had everything, except a winner. As closing nights go, it was dramatic and strange.
The commentator at the Castlehaven/St Finbarr’s county semi-final, Patrick Mulcahy, broke the news that Liverpool had conceded seven goals to Aston Villa, even as the country was on the verge of lockdown and the penalty shoot-out had begun in front of a more-or-less empty Páirc Uí Rinn.
That sentence sums up a year of change.
Certainly, the GAA won’t be the same again, in season layout or in overall outlook.
It’d have been a hard sell pre-2020, for instance, to convince anybody that club games could be worthwhile without most of the club and its members/families/supporters present.
Worries about games being meaningless or vapid without the buzz of championship crowds were forgotten amid the pulsating play and high scoring.
The players, happy to be playing at all, cared plenty how it turned out. How else to explain the intensity of a county semi-final between the Barrs and Castlehaven, where every single ball was fought for?; where a crowd of 100 people could be described as raucous?; and where Brian Cuthbert and Derek Kavanagh — a great commentary duo of knowledge and enthusiasm, by the way — spoke about the game becoming a war in the second half?
If there was a sense that a club game like this wouldn’t exist at all without people watching, that got knocked on the head by the emotions that were played out. Here’s the second thing: The appetite to watch games online.
The Examiner streaming service obviously has been of its time, filling that gap for those club people who support their local team and for the very interested GAA heads who’d go to any game during the summer.
It’s floated an idea as well, though, that, for better or worse, GAA people might fancy the option of being able to see games on TV in any future GAA calendar.
Mark Landers spoke, last week, of a hurling fan in one part of the county who might not necessarily fancy an entire day travelling to a game, but would jump at the chance to watch online.
TG4 always filled a certain missing link for the inter-county and club game. The Examiner blitz of three or four senior games every weekend (along with the clubs putting on streams and commentaries on various platforms), and even the minor ones during the weeks, have been essential for people in clubs and extremely handy for those with the general interest to watch the better neutral games.
There’s a balance to be struck here between wanting fans live at games, when possible, but there’s been something in the club championship that suited the idea of watching games and days unfold online. Last Sunday felt epic for anyone interested in Cork GAA.
People have seen stars unfolding they might not have otherwise. Cork hurling fans have had a glimpse of Alan Connolly.
And Cork football fans got serious treats last Sunday, too.
The game itself had already been quite intense, with some sparkling, quality scores in tough conditions, but mainly serious football of intent.
And then Brian Hurley, who’d been his usual, sparky, dangerous self in those not-often-enough spells where Haven managed to get him on the ball, grabbed the game.
A chase back into his half, to turn over a ball, and then a sprint down the other side, to set up an equaliser for Mark Collins. A monster sideline kick off the outside of the right foot — in fairness, the commentary team called it right away as possible — that swerved high and over, with the wind, and looked a winner.
The curl on the ball might not have looked quite as perfect as Maurice Fitz’s famous one against Dublin, but it was special still and on another night, without the game online, we’d all have missed it.
Then, the occasion of the penalty kicks — and, look, we’re not sure on the penalty concept, as surely shots from 35m out for points would be more relevant to the skills of Gaelic football — but you couldn’t deny the spectacle.
We aren’t sure on the penalties-as-lottery-thing, either, but it’s probably not quite as obviously based on potential to prepare as soccer is.
We read a piece during the week about Harry Kane’s penalty success rate, a mentality driven by the knowledge of technique perfected: Kane takes 50 penalties a day as practice. He doesn’t try and trick the goalie, but trusts his technique.
Castlehaven were fooling around before training, one night a couple of weeks ago when Bernie Collins told them to practise some penalties.
There aren’t notes on what way a goalkeeper or player might go. Mark Collins went to the keeper’s right first and wasn’t sure what to do with his winning second — he went left and scored again.
These were proper penalties from a proper player. James McCarthy spoke, afterwards, about Collins and Ian Maguire going toe-to-toe at midfield and the Castlehaven player has been the constant driving force for that team for an age now.
He kicked frees and has 2-15 from four games overall. He linked play. He won kick-outs in the air. He stood forward as the main penalty-taker when Brian Hurley was injured, because of that sense of responsibility.
It was the least surprising thing of a different night to see Mark Collins step forward and deliver and the penalty shoot-out winner even got trampled by team-mates, like in a World Cup semi-final.
A day later, it was all over. A massive high, followed by a gaping low, which seemed in keeping with a championship summer that’s had a lot of contradictions and conflicts anyway.
A template calendar sort of stumbled upon by crisis. A summer where a lot of people didn’t see a game live that reconnected with the clubs long-term.
If there was a tendency to question the value of running games earlier in the spring and question the off-field lapses of judgement, they brought an awful lot of interest and distraction and chances to play/watch/discuss for these months for a fierce amount of people.
It turned out that games of any sort were better than no games at all, by a long way.
That might have been more important than ever this year.