With a whole host of road trips in the coming months for both the Laois footballers and hurlers, we've decided to start a somewhat regular travel blog as we follow our county teams over the early part of the season. In our first article, it's off to Greystones for the O'Byrne Cup clash with Wicklow, a slightly surreal evening with included odd cat names, a sceptical man on the gate, and Thai food.
O'Byrne Cup games have taken on a familiar pattern for me over the years. Having enjoyed an extended spell off over Christmas, you are settling into a wonderful daily routine which is free from needless, everyday trivialities, like work.
You've reached the point where you have had enough days off in a row to forget exactly what day of the week it is. This is a truly intoxicating feeling, and you find yourself having serious internal conversations about the prospect of taking early retirement at 31, and living exclusively on turkey sandwiches and tins of Celebrations. It almost seems irresponsible to go back to work, given all that you could accomplish while lying down on the couch at home.
But then, you make the mistake of looking at the calendar, and the illusion is shattered. Reality makes its return to your life, and at that stage you'd rather listen to a Climate Change lecture from Danny Healy Rae than accept your holidays are over. But resistance is futile, the real world is awaiting, and it'll meet you in Crettyard.
Once you shake yourself free from this early January stupor, of course, you remember that the real world isn't all that bad, and that you like hitting the road once again. Perversely, I have always enjoyed the road trips more than the home games, for the simple reason that something interesting is far more likely to happen when you're out and about and meeting new people. This is especially true when you cover games in Kerry, where you're likely to meet at least one person who is, in some form or another, mad.
So, it was with this spirit of adventure I set off for Greystones. With a throw in time of 7.45pm, I left at about 5.15pm, ridiculously early I agree but fuelled by my absolute hatred of getting stuck in traffic. I think this can be traced back to my father, who left most of the games we went to during my childhood early, so we could get out ahead of the traffic. It took me a long time to get used to hanging around after matches to do interviews, but I'm ok with it now.
Naturally enough, I arrived in Greystones way too early, so took a friend's advice to get a takeaway from a Thai restaurant, the Mango Tree, just off the Main Street. With dinner in hand, or in a bag at least, I headed for the grounds. Seeing floodlights in the distance, I pointed the car in that direction, only to find myself at the local soccer club.
A quick U-turn later and I was back on the road, chasing more floodlights, which brought me to the rugby club. The next set of floodlights led to another U-turn in the gates of the tennis club, before I eventually found the GAA grounds, as I contemplated just how much money the ESB must be making off the sports clubs in the town.
It's fair to say the people you meet on the gate at GAA matches can be varied and colourful, but the guy in Greystones was a sceptical sort. Once the car in front of me was waved through, I pulled up and produced my press pass, but this lead to a problem.
"The lad in the car in front of you had a press pass" I was informed, a statement which hinted at either a quota on journalists allowed in, that he thought my pass must have been forged, or that he couldn't understand why more than one reporter would go to a Wicklow game.
"I'm from the Leinster Express, in Portlaoise" I informed him. "I'm up from Laois for the game." This was met with a moment of silent contemplation, before I was eventually granted access.
Once inside, I parked up and tucked into a delicious Pad Thai, a surreal experience in truth, and one I hadn't envisaged at the start of the night. How many people will be able to look back on 2017 and say they ate Thai food in a GAA car park while waiting for an O'Byrne Cup game to start? Not many I'm guessing, but maybe it'll catch on now.
Before the game began there is the usual formalities of checking that the teams in the programme are actually correct, which threw up an interesting conversation with a guy from Wicklow.
"Are there any changes to the Wicklow team in the programme?" I asked the man with the clipboard.
"No, we've no changes."
"That's grand, thanks very much"
"I'll give you my number."
"I'll give you my number, just in case."
"Well, I'm actually from a paper in Laois, I don't think I'll need it."
"Take it down anyway."
So now I have a new contact in Wicklow.
The game itself was fairly typical fare for this time of year, laboured in parts, as both teams took a while to find their second wind. The highlight of the game was Ambrose Doran's pass to Ruairi O'Connor for Laois's first goal. You knew from the moment it left his boot that the corner-back wasn't going to intercept it, barring a conveniently placed trampoline. O'Connor made no mistake.
Doran would eventually see red for an off-the-ball incident with Brendan Kennedy, a Wicklow corner-back who tried to stop Gary Walsh tying his laces in the first half.
The only other memorable moment, for me at least, didn't actually take place on the field. It came from the two girls stood next to me on the sideline discussing a cat, which had the rather incredible name of Cindy Claw-ford, which I decided was a great name for a cat.
With the game over, it was back to the car, which, thanks to the empty takeaway containers on the front seat, smelled of Pad Thai. Entertainment for the drive was provided by Bruce Springsteen's Desert Island Discs episode, and I was enjoying a lovely journey home when a sudden realisation hit me as I passed Monasterevin.
Cindy Claw-ford is actually a terrible name for a cat.
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