The year started brightly. One Thursday morning in late February I was just about to delete an email marked prizewinner when something triggered at the back of my head to open it instead; three days later we walked from the centre of Madrid towards Santiago Bernabeu for El Clasico, Real Madrid v Barcelona.
It felt like the biggest of possible football occasions, the whole world was there or involved or watching in some form, all the top players from the top countries. And there is something in that magical stadium that suggests history and meaning.
Sergio Ramos came across as a kind of modern gladiator and he’s one of those players who manages to be even more impressive live, when you see the physical presence on his home turf, his domination of spaces and collisions. Benzema’s close control was awesome.
Messi only flickered, half-interested in ways. Real scored two goals and it was an experience to be a part of the show, where even though it was obvious that these two teams weren’t as strong as they had been, this was still as elite as it gets in football terms.
It was the last sporting occasion that felt normal. Covid hadn’t yet really hit anywhere outside Italy, 10-days later Europe was on lockdown. A bucket-list kind of night that felt out of place in the year that followed.
For long weeks we lived outside, nothing to do only play. Long days in the garden. Soccer. Obstacle courses. Soccer. GAA. Skill challenges. More soccer. Rounders. Races.
More GAA. More soccer. For months we had just ourselves to entertain and when all the extras of training and blitzes were stripped away, what we had left was sport mainly, sport we had to make ourselves. Sure there was work from home and home-schooling but when we think back on that March/April time of going nowhere (and yes, having an outdoor space was very lucky) it mainly felt like time to reconnect with just playing games because we wanted to.
When live TV sport returned we cheered Erling Haaland and German football for an hour.
Then we went back out to the garden. The summer was made shorter by the nights in the GAA field. The highlight of the week through the winter has been the few hours of soccer training, a bunch of kids just loving being out. Sport begins at home never seemed so true.
Look, that it was meaningless in the grand scheme of things, in the end, doesn’t take away the event itself, one night of fair emotion as a Cork football follower, a win over Kerry in the strangest, best and most unimaginable way possible.
Cork hadn’t beaten Kerry in eight years but it felt longer and there had been something terrible chasings in between. Kerry were looking at taking Dublin down.
Cork had just routed Division 3. It shouldn’t have felt possible but then there was something in the rain and the body language from Cork that suggested it could be different this time.
The game was hardly a spectacle but it was incredibly tense and had these moments — Powter’s tackles, Connolly’s kicks, Kerry misses, Cork’s turnovers — where the thought was building that something was about to happen.
Now I’m a traditional viewer of games generally, preferring to just watch the match than watch the match scroll Twitter. But for some reason a match against Kerry that we’d have been at normally, it felt wrong not to share.
There was something communal about watching it at home, that shared experience where you knew everybody was watching it the same way themselves.
By the last few minutes as Kerry missed chances and Cork came within a goal of snatching the unlikeliest of wins, people started to mention Tadgh Murphy and 1983.
When it came it felt both expected and completely unbelievable and you could more or less imagine the kind of cheering and roaring that was happening in living rooms all over the county.
Even in an empty Páirc it still felt emotional for the players. None of us
were there, but we were all there. A where-were-you moment for the covid championship.
It’d be easy enough to get all cynical about sport these days but it just felt like we needed sport more than ever.
Yes the Premier League and Champions League without fans lacks the soul and emotion and you can say it’s for money and the players are being put under pressure with the physical demands but it’s given us all something to look forward to, something to do through the long days and nights where everything else felt lacking.
In March and April, there were plenty of people on Twitter and in media who were only too fast to tell everyone we wouldn’t see games or sport until 2021 at the earliest and to forget about soccer games happening any time soon; by summer it was back.
There was a massive push very early on to write off the GAA season and just forget about playing games for the year; we’ve had a season that gave everybody involved what they needed mostly — hope, some enjoyment and the sense of something happening outside the constant doom.
The German soccer coach Christian Streich made the point when the Bundesliga season resumed that this notion about sport offering some kind of escape from reality got it all wrong; sport is the reality for lots of us, it is life or a massive vital part of it.
That we got to see it in all sorts of ways this year made 2020 memorable for sure, not one that we’re ever likely to forget.