Jerry Seinfeld once made the observation that when it comes to sport, we are ‘rooting for laundry‘. When Michael Owen was playing for Liverpool he was a hero to the Kop – his outside-the-outfit-y-fronts were slightly skid-marked for effectively displacing uberhero Robbie Fowler, but he was still an object of veneration. Yet three years ago he was roundly jeered and even booed by most of Anfield. His crime? Wearing a Newcastle United shirt. Wearing different laundry.
We’re meant to hate. Nick Hancock – yep, my vision of the world is informed by the bon mots of comedians – put it well when he denounced the habit of having a ‘soft spot’ for a team. Hancock denounced such talk, saying that “football is not like religion, football is religion, and you don’t hear the Pope saying he has a soft spot for Islamic fundamentalism”. His addition to this quotable quote, that he was disappointed every weekend of the season that the optimum set of results – Stoke City winning and everyone else losing – didn’t come to pass, struck a chord with me back in the mid 90’s.
Now though, I’m not so sure. Even Nick Hancock would admit that Port Vale are singled out for special doses of venom – he must be having a right old time at the moment as Stoke sit comfortably in the Premier League while Vale languish in the depths of League Two. And once you admit that all teams are equally hateworthy but some are more equal than others, then there’s got to be someone you hate least. It might be due to geographical distance, or lack of competition, or lying down like a whipped cur whenever they meet your team – take a bow, Newcastle United. And my recent affection for the England soccer team has shown me that is possible to change your tune as you grow old(er) and mellow(er). So with all those caveats in mind, I’d like to record the existence of two counties that I like to see win, even feeling some disappointment when they fail.
The first of those is Dublin. I can imagine the splutters of outrage that would greet such a sentiment expressed anywhere else online or in the real world. The Jackeens! How could you like the soccer hooligans masquerading as GAA fans? And it would be fair to say that in the real world there is a divide between them and culchies. Many’s the time in my time in college in Dublin where I encountered situations where they looked down on everyone and everything from the provinces, as if the only difference between their home town and New York was that only one of them was still a capital city.
But in GAA terms, that sense of difference is something to be celebrated, not scorned. Noel Purcell was once asked when he would be heading up to Croke Park to watch the Dubs. Why, he replied, would he be bothered with a team of culchies? At the time I thought he was making some Hot Press-style cut at bogball and stickball. Now a little older and a little wiser, I can see that he meant that ‘Dublin’ GAA teams were stuffed to the gills with people up from the country who only played for the Metropolitans because it was impossible to haul themselves back home of a weekend to play for their real county. It would be hard for the native Dubs to get excited about a team like that.
Which is what made Heffo’s Army so exciting. The weight attached to this team in GAA history far outweighs their achievements. Four All-Ireland’s in ten years was a decent return, but Offaly won three All-Ireland’s between 1970 and 1983 and their legend is almost entirely based on one kick by Seamus Darby. The Dubs were different because of that soccer-style sense of razzmatazz and the townie ways of Tony Hanahoe, Brian Mullins et al. But they were the same too because, well, they loved Gaelic games (or one form of it, and how many of us genuinely devote equal time to both football and hurling?)
The Dublin GAA fraternity are our allies, not our enemies. When the rugger buggers were swooning because 20,000+ attended the decisive match in the 1993 All-Ireland League between St Mary’s and Young Munster, such hubris was slapped down by Robbie Kelleher who scornfully noted that the Dubs could get attendances like that at League matches. Whether this is true or not – seems unlikely – it doesn’t change that fact that having the likes of Kelleher, a D4-type stockbroker, on our side against those who despise the GAA and everything it stands for, is something to be celebrated.
The charges laid against the Dubs are usually puddle-shallow. Supposedly they are all bandwagon jumpers because 70,000+ go to Championship matches while you’d be doing well (whatever Robbie Kelleher says) to get 7,000 at Parnell Park in the spring. This means they have an awful lot in common with the rest of us beyond the Pale. There were only 14,000 people at Waterford’s opening Championship match last year against Clare and a lot fewer than half of them were from Waterford (full disclosure: I wasn’t one of those present). Yet there must have been 50,000 people in Croke Park in September wearing white and blue. By that measure, it is the Déise ‘faithful’ who are the bandwagon jumpers, not the Dubs. These metrics – modest crowds far below the capacity of the venue in May / June, hysterical bleating that the diehards can’t get tickets in September – can be applied to every county in Ireland. Except Dublin.
Then there’s the whole soccer thing. It’s been a long time since liking soccer was considered an insult even among diehard GAA types. Almost everyone I know who is involved in the GAA, even those who are active in their clubs, has some interest in soccer, particularly (and ironically) English teams. Yet when the Dubs are involved their olé-oléing is instantly bracketed as some manner of crime against the memory of Michael Hogan. So what if the way the Hill supports its team is different to the rest of the country? Would people rather they were down in Dalymount Park?
So those are some defences against the Dubs. But there are reasons other than numbers and a shared sense of tribalism to like Dublin. In football, they are truly a bunch of the most lovable losers. Mayo are often cited (not least here) as a county whose inability to close the deal makes them attractive. Yet in 2006 Dublin managed to out-Mayo Mayo, throwing away a seven point lead against supposedly the most brittle county in the land. How could you hate someone who could implode in a manner that would make a British tennis player blush?
In hurling, sympathy for Dublin comes from another direction. Hurling is a sport constantly having to prove itself. With Laois completely gone out of the picture, Offaly and Wexford heading that way, and Clare, Galway, Limerick and Waterford continually flattering to deceive, the sport is desperately in need of some new blood. It’s not a question of someone challenging Kilkenny. At the moment, we need Kilkenny to dip their standards for that o happen. But once that happens – and it will; it must – Dublin, with a lot of success and minor and Under-21 level, could be waiting in the long grass.
All this might change were Dublin to become any good. A team striding through the world would get old pretty fast, and there might be some justification to concerns that Dublin’s population advantage would make it invincible were they ever to get their act together. The thing about sleeping giants though is that they invariably tend to go comatose rather than wake up. Look at Newcastle United. Why have a down on a team for something that might, but probably won’t, happen? When the facts change, I change my mind. If Dublin become successful, I’ll reassess my attitude to them in that light. Until then, it’s hard to hate.
As I wrote this, it dawned on me that a success for Dublin could have immediate dire consequences for Waterford. If Dublin win Leinster and we win Munster then one of our rewards would be put in the same half of the All-Ireland series as Kilkenny. But you know what? I’ll take that chance. Winning Munster is an end in itself, and the odds are that we’re going to have to meet Kilkenny at some point if we want to win the ultimate prize – avoiding them until the final didn’t do us any good in 2007. So bring on a Dublin win in Leinster, a fitting reward for the efforts of those faceless drones that have dragged Dublin hurling up from the mire over the last decade. And when the capital joins the rest of us in embracing the joys of Gaelic games, you will all be grateful for what they did.