Donegal: Sober Or Be Judged
Sunday evening, in the Abbey Hotel, Donegal Town. The Donegal senior football team, the elation of their victory in that afternoon's National League final still evident in giddy banter, are gathered with team management, friends and loved ones.
"Right lads, what yiz havin'?" pipes up a county board member, his shirt untucked and his face a battleground between happiness and fatigue.
"Club Orange for me," shouts Kevin Cassidy; "Just a pinta blackcurrant Seamus," adds Neil Gallagher, the captain. "Me 'n' all - blackcurrant," agrees ace marksman Colm McFadden.
"Jeez a cup of tae would hit the spot," posits old-hand Adrian Sweeney, to nods from fellow veterans Brendan Devenney and Brian Roper, "Aye drop of tea, Seamus; milk, no sugar, good man."
"Britvic 55"; "Cidona, please"; "Apple juice"; "Eh, Ballygowan please"; "Coke, Seamus".
Eyes turn to Eamonn McGee, the big Gweedoreman, whose languid, raking point from distance had put Donegal two clear in injury time. "Pint of Heineken please!"
Suddenly all is deadly silent. McGee's teammates stare at him viciously; supporters gathered at the bar turn their heads in the direction of the last order. A fat man telling a profane joke stops in his foul-mouthed tracks.
"Jeez only messin' lads - my usual Seamus: Miwadi orange!"
Reading the coverage of Donegal's participation in the National League Final often felt like leafing through a brewing industry trade journal. At other times, it seemed like extracts from a Shane McGowan biography had found their way into the sports pages. I haven't heared of such censorious scrutiny of young men's drinking habits since my time staggering home from school discos, munching Polo mints, attempting to evade parental sentry guards.
One can imagine the in-jokes and references to the matter in the Donegal camp at this stage; presumably the experience of having the sober gentlemen of the press documenting your alcoholic excesses provides a fertile ground for ironic humour.
Of course, if it's irony you're after, most of us are a bit guilty of playing the thin-lipped Presbyterian in our attitude to our amateur sporting heroes, while worshipping Dionysus on our own spare time.
In the days after the announcement of the GPA/GAA Joint Grants proposal, it seems only more likely that the idea of GAA players' off-pitch lives being subject to the same loose discipline as our own down-time will become even less plausible than it currently is. Until now, we have allowed ourselves to pour righteous indignation on county players with tendencies toward the occasional boozy bender because of our expectation of a return on an investment that was intangible: the emotional support of a county, the bolstering local pride an suchlike.
Now, with taxpayers money set to trickle into the pocketbooks of county stars, players who refuel unwisely will need more than a packet of Polo mints to escape the wrath of the cold eyed Mammies of public opinion.
Here's hoping that the Donegal players had more than Miwadi to celebrate on Sunday evening; their achievement was a real and worthy one, deserving of being toasted and sufficient to circumvent any suggestion that League honours merit little acknowledgment.
Emerging as the only unbeaten team in all four divisions, reeling off a list of the vanquished that included Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo (twice), Dublin, Cork, Fermanagh and Kildare, Donegal's form so early in the year was almost unbelieveably free of the sort of teething troubles and preparatory problems that the League is supposed to be there to sort out.
Also pleasing was the cool-headed determination that they deployed to win so many of those games, especially the final. As injury time commenced in Croke Park on Sunday, there was a palpable sense of desire evident among the Donegal players, an indignant vow that, actually, this is our competition, thank you very much.
Maintaining that belief and feeling of superiority through the summer will be crucial - particularly with their bete noires, Armagh, awaiting on May 27th. For what is the decision to abandon focus and resolve and turn to the celebratory realm of booze but an acknowledgement of contentment at what has already been achieved, a self-reward at a goal attained.
If Donegal can switch the drive that they brought to their League campaign and direct it towards the Championship, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
And no-one will begrudge them a shandy afterwards.