Heat of battle masks warmth deeper than any arena

The value of sport in the lives of people involved therein or – in the case of this corner – on the periphery thereof due occupational circumstances or even from spectator perspective can often be incalculable. Impacting on a level which vastly transcends the significance of what transpires between the lines.

Rightly or wrongly, often, relationships with sport and the happenings therein become so passionate that the realms of acceptability are exhaustively elasticised and occasionally trespassed upon. While driven intensity is in ways an essential component in what makes the best of sport so attractive, as an erstwhile Irish soccer manager once imparted during an infamous episode, “There’s a line you don’t cross”.

Familiarity breeding contempt is unfortunately regularly part of baggage which accompanies some of sports greatest rivalries. And the more often familiar foes meet, the more tempestuous and vitriolic the encounters tend to become. Whether that be in the case of Meath and Cork in Gaelic football for a period or any of the old derbies in soccer such as Liverpool-Everton or Celtic-Rangers.

Indeed, it would appear such scenarios have now invaded the entertaining though often maligned game of darts. You don’t exactly foresee Michael Van Gerwen and Peter Wright exchanging greeting cards, now do you? Nor James Wade and Adrian Lewis. Yet, regardless of which sport it happens to be, the heat of battle often masks a warmth deeper than any arena.

There are some examples that often supersede any sporting matter and, mostly, the most poignant often the most powerful. For a time, the rivalry between Tyrone and Armagh was the most venomous there was in any code. However, if ever evidence was required that some form of bond exists between all sports people, it manifested itself as the GAA united and rallied around Tyrone in the wake of each of the unimaginable tragedies which have befallen the county over the years. The same principles apply no matter what strife strikes anyone in the sporting community. Outside it as well, you’d hope.

Recollection of the often rancorous renditions between Meath and Cork of more than a quarter century ago are these days tinged with poignancy as much of what generated all the ire years ago is digested against a large dollop of perspective necessitated by acknowledgement that two members of that great Cork side – John Kerins and Mick McCarthy, have passed away. And, as if to emphasise the words which title this piece, it’s worth recalling that Meath’s Gerry McEntee was central to the care of the late Cork goalkeeper.

Human nature dictates that at times of greatest strife barriers are broken down and norms go out the window. Two cases known to me personally again underline the fact, and I would hope that the two lads concerned won’t mind their inclusion here. On hearing that Blackhall Gaels and Meath footballer (I refuse to use the word former) Alan Nestor had overcome his cancer battle to courageously, inspirationally play a part in Blackhall’s league win last December, the point was made that there are times when rivalries must be put aside. Indeed they were, so many very people will have will have been touched by Alan’s strength. Not least in his championing of the importance of taking the first step and seeking help.

To that end, the story of Kilmainham referee Pat Nelis struck even more of a chord close to home as the battle which Pat found himself embroiled in can be related to all too readily. I’ve always had a tendency to cling to whatever slivers of positivity pertains to a given situation and seeing the Tyrone native back actively involved on the refereeing circuit further underlines that there’s always a way past potholes in life’s journey. Recognition of said obstacles and mere acceptance of their existence is usually the first and most difficult step in circumvention thereof.

Temptation would be to flag the GAA as singular in their sense of togetherness in occasions of difficulty. But here’s the thing, in any setting – sporting or otherwise – anybody will surely put all considerations aside to support someone known to them in times of need. Or indeed in some cases people not known to them at all but whose story they have been touched by.

Yet, given the toxicity which often appears to malign relations between football clubs in England, there was something pleasantly surprising and wholeheartedly reassuring about the announcement that Everton are to put in place a memorial to those lost in the Hillsborough tragedy. Of course, that’s only as it should be. However, there are still things in life that surprise you.

Aspirations that all such tragedies should be similarly commemorated – while realistically unattainable – are profound. Especially given that the Everton announcement actually coincided with the 57th anniversary of the Munich air disaster – in which many members of the Manchester United team lost their lives.

My mother and I happened to be in Old Trafford forty years after the tragedy and though from my own perspective the experience was an embarrassing disaster, the hope would be that someday the chance to go again will arise.



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