Dunloy, Ballymena

© 2018 by Unit Updates.

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Throw it in ref. Championship is here.

Sunshine is heating the damp Irish soil. Club grounds are beginning to echo with the racheting rabble of pre-championship training sessions. There are elder statesmen hanging over the fence watching, wistfully reminiscing of their playing days.

There is nothing like the week running into club championship.

Location, location, location.

There it is, on the website, the WhatsApp, the Twitter, or the Instagram if your county board is particularly media-savvy, in black and white, or indeed dazzling technicolour. The venue.

This can go one of two ways. If you're happy with the venue, everyone is buzzing and the club WhatsApp group is hopping with calls to arms. If you're not, the county board never liked the club anyway and are obviously trying to shaft us, and the WhatsApp is bristling with 'we'll show the bastards' messages.

In your head, you'll pour over the chosen venue, painstakingly rating the playing surface, the changing rooms, the state of the paintwork on the goalposts, every minute detail down to how many potholes might be on the way in.

You'll replay every game you ever played there in your head, as far back as you can remember. The scores you fired over, the mammoth hits you shipped, the men you’ve held scoreless and the times you were absolutely roasted.

Or that time you were about to demolish the home side in an U16 league game and the ball held up in the puddle in front of the net. The Championship’s capacity to sharpen the memory is remarkable.

By the time the weekend rolls around you'll have a full indexed archive of information on the venue and your associated memories of it, because you can't help yourself.

No matter how many times people try to convince you that it doesn't matter, that a pitch is a pitch, it won't change.

You're a Gael, this is championship and every detail is magnified to the point where it occupies your every waking moment.

Whatever the venue, you'll be ready.

Just one more run.

A look round informs you that there's barely a space to be had. The veteran in his usual corner space has grudgingly had to budge up as every adult playing member in the club descends on the changing rooms – some holding the club membership fee that has eluded the registrar all season.

You can hardly hear yourself amid the cackling of studs on the concrete floor, the raucous laughter that accompanies the pre-session slagging match. The laughter increases as the cocky youngster gets cut down to size by the more seasoned campaigners. The nervous energy is palpable.

On the field there's an atmosphere of giddy excitement. The drills are full-pelt, there are furtive glances at how those around you are getting on, a wry smile at a dropped ball, a muttered curse when they slot a score. Every comment from the manager is analysed in thirty-odd minds.

Everyone is aiming for a starting berth and they all want the ball tonight. The captain is driving everyone along and the manager is either standing back admiring the intensity or barking that the intensity needs to be more intense.

At the end there's a rousing team talk, a reminder to think about nothing but the match, drink plenty of water, get your rest and for fuck’s sake stay off the beer lads, it's only a few days!

You'll land home that evening and devour the re-heated dinner, playing over the session in your head. Did I do enough? Am I in the plans? Should I have taken that shot myself instead of slipping a pass inside?

You'll have answers soon enough.

Duck for cover.

There's uproar. Boys are spitting blood and the county board is getting it in the neck again. Someone's had a look at the website and the referee has been named.

There's always one in the squad whose default setting is to immediately dismiss every referee as useless. He gives frees too easy. He never gives a free. He never explains himself. He’s always slabbering at you.

Is he a country or city man? That's a disgrace, sure wasn't he once in their village having a pint? He probably knows them all by name and is mates with them. What chance have we now?

Some of the more reasoned players are going over his previous displays in their head. Was be handy with the yellow cards? Did he explain his decisions relentlessly? Has anyone in the club ever called him all the names under the sun?

The wily corner back in the squad is only interested in what he'll be let away with, while the marquee forward's buzzword is protection. The captain just hopes he'll be consistent. By this he means he hopes he consistently gives your side every decision.

It doesn't matter if he's seen as the best referee in the county, if he’s been decorated with awards and taken charge at the highest level. It's championship week and part and parcel of that is complaining about the choice of referee.

If you get trimmed, it'll be his fault anyway.

Plenty of ball-work.

The most enjoyable session of the year. No running through mud, no manic screaming to dig deep, no tackle bags hammering into you from all angles as they’re manned by snarling assistant coaches or worse, injured and suspended players venting their frustration.

Just footballs or sliotars and the nervous excitement for the days to come.

You'll get your touch in, work through some light drills, maybe run through a version of the game plan.

There'll be laughter, as your competing free-takers break into a sudden death exchange, both trying to convince everyone they don't care who wins but secretly going all out to get one over on the other.

There will be men practising sideline cuts, the goalkeeper getting a brisk workout, forwards practising their shooting on the move. Players will be visualising making that block, dissecting those posts.

In their heads everyone can see the white flag going up, hear the crowd roaring their approval. You can almost feel the satisfying thunk as the sliotar lands securely in your hand, almost hear the crowd exhale as you execute the perfect hit or feel the fingers against the fabric of your gloves gripping the size 5 high in the air around midfield.

The manager calls you in one last time. The lads all huddle up. There is focus now as the game plan is discussed and a rousing oration delivered about how all the hard work is done, you're ready to go out and face the wolves.

You owe these boys after the league. After what they did twenty years ago in an U10 game. After the slobbering they did last year.

Get yourself fired up because nothing in the world matters for the next few days except beating the other shower.

Oh and lads, don't forget to enjoy it.

It's getting hard to sit still.

One more sleep. Easier said than done.

You've had your last session. By now you probably know where you're playing and you've a fair idea who your direct opponent is.

You've scanned match reports for their name, previous displays, any little clue that could give you a perceived edge. The more intense among you may even have had a gander at their Facebook page or Twitter account to see if they’ve been slabbering.

You've been throwing the water in you all day with religious fervour, keeping in mind the 'drink plenty of water' mantra you've been hearing every season since you were an U14.

Anyone you meet from a local GAA background wants to discuss your chances. You roll out your answer but you're not really thinking about the words. Your mind is already between the white lines.

Some will tell you nerves are good, some will say they're a pointless waste of energy but not matter what, they're unavoidable. The club WhatsApp is a quiet place tonight. Everyone is lost in their own thoughts and preparation.

Throw it in ref.