An Englishman in Croke Park: The Parnell Opener.

AS A KID I hated Gaelic sport. Well, at least as much as you can hate something you really don’t understand. I was eight. On my ninth birthday I forgot all about it.

It was an Aston Villa boot bag that changed things. Delivered by a relative as a less than subtle reminder of English Midlands loyalties, it was probably the most profitable bit of cheap merchandise the club ever sold, at least in the long run. Clutching my logo-adorned prize, my sporting interests took a multi-decade diversion into a world where gravity functions differently: mediocre top division English football, and season tickets at a club that last won anything significant just after I turned twelve. Before that, the logic-free bitterness I directed at Gaelic sport existed on a level only a child could sustain. I had a bookcase full of Eye Spy books, a game that revolved around the geekily mundane world of ticking boxes next to things you’d spotted through car windows, or whilst flicking between three channels on a Saturday afternoon. I’d ticked off the lingering issue the was lacrosse in my sports book, having spotted a time filling scene in a particularly forgettable Hollywood blockbuster, but no corner of rural England was about to reveal an Irish sport staple from behind another park soccer match. Those days, YouTube wasn’t about to save this nerdy kids brain ache.

My dad wasn’t about to help either. Having spent six months of his military career stood on a wall in West Belfast, his general passion for all kinds of physical activity comfortably extended to wandering the moors of Devon with just a tent and an army ration pack, but it would be a few more years before he’d stop associating Ireland with the daily need to search for bombs under the family car, though thankfully that change was long complete before my wedding. At school, despite Eye Spy’s pictures suggesting otherwise, my ‘worldly wise’ friends remained convinced that hurling involved muscular men throwing telegraph poles.

My second exposure to the sports wasn’t a whole lot more positive: a friend recommended Ross O’Carroll Kelly as a way to get to grips with the split city cultures of my new home. In one book, the fictional toff breaks into Croke Park to play the stadium’s first game of rugby before the national team gets the chance. Throughout the ball achingly funny series I can’t recall him ever referring to the GAA games as anything other than stick fighting and bog ball. But then he is supposed to be a “west Brit”.

It was the St Patrick’s Day club final that finally sold Gaelic football to me. My (at the time) nearly wife, too hungover to emerge from beneath a blanket on the couch and take her tourist/ resident almost-husband to a decent viewing point for the parade, flicked on RTÉ Sport as a compromise. Hurling made my head spin, but football hooked me from the start.

Four years later – and broke as the rest of Ireland – my live experiences with my ‘home’ county Dublin have been restricted to cheapies on Hill 16, a place where my reward for paying only a tenner to get in is the need to say as little as possible. Or at least that’s what I thought, until an insensitive German colleague nattered his way inanely through an entire Leinster Final, forcing me to speak, too. The source of my fear – a local GAA pub where I once tried to order a pint in my indisguisable English accent and nearly got lynched – turned out to be far more intimidating that the HIll itself. I learnt that being able to name at least three of the Dublin starting fifteen is enough to excuse your place of birth. Just. So I did what anyone else would do under the circumstances: bought a season ticket.

Which brings me to now, a freezing January early-season, and a new commitment. I’m not sure if I’m a Dublin fan or just someone who watches the team, yet, but I make my first trip to the spot half of GAA would like to see more of (even this Englishman’s heard the ‘why do Dublin always play at Croker?’ line), for the ‘hardcore fans only’ O’Byrne Cup. Freezing my extremities and listening to the chunky woman next to me scream “you’re better than that Bernard” in a deep husky tone every time the notorious Mr Brogan misses a forty yarder by a foot or two wasn’t, until now, what Januarys were all about.

Parnell Park
Parnell Park

I’m sat halfway up the main stand, and unlike Croker, I can smell the wet grass when the players skid and crumble under a long ball. Clontarf local Jack McCaffery stands out on the pitch – he ‘s the Gaelic football equivalent of the pint-sized soccer midfielder, sneaking around his opposite number with a low centre of gravity; a pocket rocket who loses the ball almost as often as he wins it, but plays with double the energy of anyone else on the field. Goalie Shane Supple stops a few crackers in the final ten minutes, but it’s probably for the best: I don’t know a lot about Gaelic football, but slinging your goal kicks off the pitch so consistently doesn’t seem an obvious strength.

The students are better than I expected. It’s only a Baggio-esque penalty, a late red card (for gurning at the referee, as far as I could tell) and a strong last five minutes that mean Dublin win by as much as they do, and my pre-league season virginity – like the days of irrational hatred – is gone forever.

For me, Parnell Park’s charm is in making GAA seem amateur in a way Croker never had. There are team sheets printed on a single side of A4 (but still an eccentric €2 a pop, but hey, it’s for charity), kids invading the pitch with hurleys at halftime and grabbing the players for autographs at the end, and the odd noticeable grimace from the sky blues as comments are flung from the crowd. Are we looking at 2013’s All Ireland Champions? A moustachioed lad in the chipper post game thinks so. He asks about the accent, too (a mix of Wiltshire and Midlands, hopefully minus the farmer, since you asked), and mumbles with a certain respect through his chip filled gob when I pull out my season ticket as a convincer. “We’re gonna win it again lad, you wait”. It seems – for him at least – you can learn from watching shambolic winter sport in a foggy freezer.

Dublin 3-16

DCU 1-11

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