Every year it's the same. Cheltenham week and all conversation follows a familiar pattern:
`Had you anything today?'
`I had the first two, but my banker let me down in the big race.' etc.
All of a sudden, everyone is an expert on matters equine. For your average sports fan (who wasn't born with a betting slip in their back pocket), Cheltenham is one of the few times of year when we venture forth to pack out the bookies and queue up to place our £1 each way bets on horses we know nothing about. This is much to the obvious chagrin of the regular betting fraternity. For people with an interest in horse racing, Cheltenham is their Olympics. I know several people who every year take this week off and head across the water - a larger group takes the week off to flit between the pub and the bookies for the few days. Their visible annoyance with the `once a year punters' is quite interesting. Among those who back horses, it seems there is no tolerance of part-timers. You're either in it for the long haul, good days and bad, or not at all.
I'm sure that betting shop etiquette, the fraternal bond between regulars and their suspicion of intruders, would make a fascinating subject for final year sociology students to dissect over pints, but it won't be me!!. No, this week there are much more pressing sporting matters on the horizon.
The clubs and the people from their areas know that they are living through heady times. In Crossmaglen and Glasnevin, Athenry and the parishes of Doora and Barefield, local heroes are awaiting the big day
On Friday in Croke Park, four teams will contest the All-Ireland club finals. This will be the culmination of their year's effort and sacrifice. The All-Ireland club series has become our most significant cultural and sporting event of the year. The competition has grown in recent years to overtake the Railway Cup in significance. The simple reason for this is identity. I don't know about anyone else, but my chest doesn't exactly swell with pride if Leinster win an interprovincial game. The sight of a dewy-eyed supporters proclaiming a great day to be from Ulster, Munster, Connaught or Leinster just doesn't happen. But your club, well, sin scéal eile.
In general, people play with their local club all their lives. The ties you have with your club are quite often intertwined with family and friends. Through bereavements and weddings, through successes and failures, the club is the common bond between people of the locality and an integral, central part of their community. Anyone who has never witnessed the joy of a small parish club winning a county title or the despair of relegation must find it hard to understand the significance of playing for `Your Club'.
Quite often this week, my thoughts have wandered to the club's involved in Friday's finals. Last night in particular, during a long training run, trying to shake off the disappointment of a weekend defeat, I knew that there were other groups of players with more of a spring in their collective step. On fields in Clare, Galway, Armagh and Dublin, groups of players were putting the final touches to their preparations for Croke Park. I'm sure the same expectant buzz was apparent in all four camps. Awaiting the announcement of the first 15, treating last minute injuries, bounding around the training field with all the effervescence of newborn lambs.
At this stage, all the hard work has been done. The tortuous heavy training, the careers put on hold and weddings postponed. All that is left now is the countdown to Friday. They run together around their respective grounds for the last time, with interested observers from the parish casting knowing eyes across them, similar to the seasoned punters who view the early morning gallops in Cheltenham for signs of form. This is all part of the giddy expectation of being involved in such a special event. The clubs and the people from their areas know that they are living through heady times. The players' places in their clubs' histories are already secured, but the big day and club players' nirvana still awaits. In Crossmaglen and Glasnevin, Athenry and the parishes of Doora and Barefield, local heroes are awaiting the day. Daydreams have strayed to winning and subsequent celebrations. Work has been put on the back burner as their focus is all trained on The Match.
Come St. Patrick's Day I'll be in Croke Park, along with thousands of fellow evangelists. I've no doubt that a fair percentage of the crowd will be club players from all over the country, there to witness the big day. The thought must occur to them all - What if? What if we hadn't been beaten in last year's county championship? Jaysus lads, it could be us!!
Well next this year is another year and hope springs eternal. The draw is already made for the county championship and it won't be long in coming around. After St. Patrick's Day, the journey will begin again. Throughout the country, teams will set their sights on county finals and beyond, sacrifices will be made and bodies pushed harder. You can't help it; it courses through your veins - other sports you can enjoy, but none affect you so deeply, so fundamentally.
Gaelic Games and in particular our clubs, provide us with a unique richness and quality in our lives that is so lacking in our increasingly homogenous modern western society. We should celebrate them, we should enjoy them, but above all else we should support them.
BY PADDY SWAINE