REMEMBERING NATALIE McNALLY The Armagh players applaud in support of the family of the late Natalie McNally, who was murdered in Lurgan, Co Armagh last December, before Sunday's match at the Box-It Athletic Grounds. Pic: Sportsfile
A Fan’s View
IT was almost the perfect weekend.
Had we not left one point behind in the Athletic Grounds, it would have been a solid 10/10 effort, but alas, for Armagh v Mayo, a 9.75/10 rating must suffice on the ‘Mayo GAA Away Trips Leaderboard’.
Hitting the road just after noon on Saturday, we had six aspirations for the weekend.
A good, solid lunch. A good solid dinner. A visit to KFC. A swim in the hotel pool. To not lose the game. And, like all visitors to the North, a trip to ASDA. We are easily satisfied.
The lone man of the crew kindly offered to take the wheel, and was stoic in his endurance of four rowdy women extolling the virtues of Northern Ireland’s supermarkets all the way to Enniskillen. There, we got the good lunch (and caught the rugby) before letting loose in ASDA. I have never in my life seen a group of people more excited to be in a supermarket, myself included. Some of us don’t get out much, but the rest of us know a bargain when see one. And nothing beats the thrill of 49p paracetamol.
(Or, if you were the man among us, 99p deodorant. By the time we got back on the road, five of us were extolling the virtues of Northern Ireland’s supermarkets).
Later in the hotel restaurant, we ticked off the solid dinner, followed by a few equally solid drinks, where the crew expanded to seven, and plans were made for morning sightseeing.
We duly marvelled at Armagh’s fine cathedrals and beautiful architecture on Sunday before heading to the game (but would be lying if we didn’t admit the bonus Sainsburys visit was a highlight).
On 32 minutes, the crowd rose to its feet in the sun and applauded, to acknowledge 32 years of Natalie McNally’s life and highlight her family’s crusade for justice.
Just before Christmas, Natalie, 15 weeks pregnant was murdered in Lurgan.
A prominent sign facing the terrace shouted ‘Stop Killing Women’ as placards bearing her smiling face were held aloft. Hopefully her loved ones took some small comfort from the solidarity, which was another poignant reminder that sport itself is insignificant; the togetherness of sport is what is what matters.
At this point, it must be said.
We have been to a few away games in our time, but I’m not sure we ever have or ever will enjoy a weekend away from home as we did this one. It was our first time visiting both Armagh and the Athletic Grounds. Neither disappointed.
From the staff in the hotel and cafés to the stewards in the ground, the friendliness and welcome we received from the Armagh people was warm and genuine to a fault.
The atmosphere in the ground was as electric as we have ever known. It is a beautiful stadium with a reasonably-sized stand (not a pillar in sight), an extensive covered terrace, and a sensible capacity of about 18,000, though the enthusiasm Sunday’s crowd made it feel like double that at times.
Armagh supporters bring the colour and noise like no fans in Ireland; they nearly blew the roof off Croke Park last year against Galway, and on Sunday it was more of the same. And whether they were on the back foot or rampaging at the end, they were unfailingly genial.
It was a fantastic occasion, making it all the more depressing that teams are quite openly clamouring not to reach the final of the League because of its proximity to the “main” event. It does this brilliant competition such an injustice.
In summary, there are a lot of us who could learn from Armagh – stadium designers, the GAA hierarchy, tourism officials and Mayo fans among them!
There were talking points, of course, poor officiating among them. Mayo can be forgiven for feeling hard done by towards the end, but one of our own forwards was fortunate to stay on the pitch after an unsavoury – and unnecessary - incident under the linesman’s eye just before half-time. It is past time that the GAA started to address refereeing standards, for the sake of all involved.
All in all, it was a fantastic couple of days. It was a tired but relatively content carload of Mayo people that faced for home. There were a few headaches, but thankfully, there were few spare paracetamol lying around.
Until next time, Armagh.
We can’t wait to go back.