Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue: They’ve got it down to a tea

On Sunday, just as the snow was getting thicker and the temperature dropped another degree, I took off a fleece jumper. The press box was getting warm.

One of the best places to people-watch in the GAA is undoubtedly in the front row of the Athletic Grounds press box.

Hard-bitten fans gaze in forlornly at this collection of misfits hammering away at their laptops. Whatever comfort they gain from their polystyrene cups of soup, is soon soured by the sight of a hack drinking tea from a pristine white cup.

In the GAA, all members are equal, but some members are more equal than others.

There is no doubt that the Athletic Grounds is the press gang's favourite venue. Inside, a cavernous serving hatch caters for everyone in the central section of the seated stand and the press.

Thick cuts of currant bread are plastered with a coat of butter. The sandwiches are plentiful and varied.

If you want to be a total pig, there are caramel squares and other delicacies to follow.

And all this delivered with a most un-GAA like smile. No lie.

To the average Ulster GAA writer, every game should be played at the Athletic Grounds. Ulster club finals already are. The Ulster county final should be. And once that small step is taken, there will be a campaign to take every county final, from under-12 hurling in Antrim to ladies' football in Monaghan, to the Cathedral city venue.

Quite simply, it is the equivalent of the prawn sandwich brigade. Roy Keane would probably hate it if he ever took up writing match reports as a way of life.

Not every place is as mindful of the dietary needs of the GAA literati. That is a damn shame and we wish a plague open their houses.

It's an established fact that you cannot beat country hospitality. That may go some way to explaining why you do not receive a crumb in the two city grounds; Casement and Celtic Park.

Afraid to say there is also a broadband issue in Casement, leading many to relocate to the nearby McDonalds post-match in order to hook up to the free Wi-Fi to file copy and gorge on chicken nuggets and McFlurrys.

The redevelopment of Casement will bring a land of milk and honey, if the input of journalists to the project is heeded.

But that theory does not excuse Healy Park. Tyrone are the market leaders in so many elements of Ulster GAA, but at the first McKenna Cup game of the season, reporters were told they could have refreshments, but would have to walk half a mile to the clubhouse and get it for themselves. No doubt their young, dynamic and thrusting PRO is well on his way to rectifying that for the National League.

In Pairc Esler, trays of sandwiches will be wrapped in clingfilm and tea and coffee dispensers will be present before the first man arrives.

It's a self-service operation that runs contrary to the ethos of the association; normally when there is gratitude or thanks to be given, or a photograph to be taken, you have half the county trying to get in the frame.

In Newry it's a silent, admirable devotion to duty. Like Carson in Downton Abbey, only even less obtrusive.

Ballybofey has always been a good tea house, but was home to the lavatory without a lightbulb. When the door closed, it was pitch black inside. Some of the more hygiene-conscious scribblers gave it a wide berth until a £1 bulb was screwed in.

There is something of the Freemason's secret handshake going on in Clones and Breffni Park. You go downstairs into a cosy room underneath the main stand in each to avail of tuna sandwiches and piping hot tea.

You will not be refused entry, but I know nobody who has actually been invited down to sample the hospitality. Even bringing it up now has me fearful of the whole scam being blown and coming down around my ears.

And as tempting as it is to exhume an old joke about Cavan men, we will leave it here. Too classy, you see.

It is in Fermanagh however, that the most curious arrangement is in place. A peculiar turf war is ongoing between county PRO Johnny McManus, and Enniskillen Gaels PRO Gareth Cauldwell, with McManus adamant the refreshments is not his responsibility.

Cauldwell, who is also a local journalist, caters for the huddled masses with a plate of sandwiches made by his mother-in-law, and mother of Fermanagh captain Ryan McCluskey. Cauldwell also dips into his own pocket to bring industrial-sized packets of custard creams to the Brewster Park party.

But nothing beats the currant bread on offer from Joe Gordon in the Athletic Grounds.

Belfast Telegraph


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