The darkest hour is the hour before dawn. The calm before the storm. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. The mantras will be well polished and learned at this stage. Maybe a wristband or two in place. The county jersey new and ready to wear. Kitbags packed, tactics rehearsed.

 

The media are getting the headlines ready. In battle soldiers have complained of an eerie silence before the order to attack. They can hear dogs bark, birdsong. The sound of another man coughing. An engine misfiring in the far off distance, discordant like the supporters outside the ground, late and not knowing there’s a minute’s silence inside for a deceased Gael.

 

It’s a strange time, the weeks before the championship starts in earnest. Last week the traditional curtain raiser was played out in Gaelic Park in New York. There have been criticisms of the fixture that pits Connacht against the Exiles, but giving the game space to breathe allows the GAA to take stock and rightly gives players living overseas a day in the sun. Much was made of the New York opportunity last week but Sligo followed the form line. Sooner or later the New York side will record a famous victory and will ignite the championship in its own way.

 

One of the criticisms of the championship is that with some teams pulling away from the pack, there are too many mismatches in early rounds. Bar Ulster and Munster hurling this general statement is true. But it is unfair to every player that sees themselves in the county jersey on championships. Emerging from the tunnel into bright sunlight, the smell of fresh cut grass, the blast of heat and the roar of the crowd.

 

A glimpse of mam or dad in the crowd, nervously hoping their lad will do well. The well rehearsed warm up, ball moving fast through the hands, the routine never quite extinguishing the last minute nerves. The knot in the stomach, the dry mouth. A sip of water, a few good luck points and then out into position for Amhrán na bhFiann and the ref starting the game. After that it’s a blur of colour, hard hits, the gasping for air, lungs screaming for the second wind you know will come.

 

For the supporter the clamour for tickets. I know people that clamour for tickets even if the game isn’t all ticket. Once the championship fever strikes, the mind goes into overdrive. Must get tickets. It becomes all consuming.

 

The sights and sounds of the championship. We grew up with them. Hawkers selling the clichéd hat, flags and headbands. We still buy one to tassle round the wing mirror after the match to let it fade in the summer sun long after our championship dream has died. The smell of burgers frying, white flesh turning pink - and that’s the supporters, not the meat. A chance encounter with folks we haven’t seen in years, well since the last time we played this crowd in the championship.

 

The search for the seat or a gap on the banks of terrace. A programme to check the team and shield the eyes from the burning sun. Young ones in their new county jersey and every type of county gear. More styles than ever, boys and girls in a parade of fashion and colour, looking at one another. Oul lads in a suit and tie, they’ve always dressed for these days. Maybe the odd one still sets off on the bicycle. The anticipation before the ball thrown in.

 

With a whistle its underway. The craic. The roars. The giving out. Experts to the right and left, in front and behind. The usual calls and the usual craic. Sure where else would you be in the Irish summer? Hail, rain or shine. This week, will be just the start of it. We’ll be there. Will you?

 

O’Neills. In the Championship since 1918.