The All-Ireland final may be the goal that consumes Gaelic football’s elite but the likelihood is that most, if not all, of those Dublin and Mayo men due to play a part in Croke Park on Sunday will spend the next two days trying to forget all about it, writes Brendan O’Brien.
Training sessions have long since morphed from the penance of boot camp to pampered spa break. DVDs on the opposition have been diced and dissected, tactical meetings all but ended. It’s nearly time now to dim the lights, sit back and let the day come to them.
Cian O’Sullivan has it all down to a tee.
At some point today the Kilmacud Crokes defender will wander down towards the famous Forty Foot for a dip and he’ll follow it up with one of his mum’s home-cooked feeds and an evening watching the box with his girlfriend Danielle.
It’s a trail he follows for pretty much every big game and O’Sullivan has seen a few of them. He’s started all four of Dublin’s All-Ireland finals this decade and their five Allianz League deciders. Two All Stars would suggest it works just fine for him.
But this is the third Sunday in September we are talking about here. Dublin is a big city where Gaelic games is just one among a plethora of distractions but it can still take effort, ingenuity and sometimes assistance to escape the hype and the madness.
When Dublin and Kerry reached the decider two years ago someone in RTÉ decided that it would be a good idea to do a piece for Up For The Match on O’Sullivan’s parents. Both are from Kerry: John from Kilgarvan and Noreen from Ballyhar.
“I didn’t know that they were going to be on it because I would have gone mad,” said O’Sullivan. “Danielle had control of the remote control and she was very keen to make sure we didn’t go past RTÉ 2 when we were flicking through the channels.”
It was only later that he found out the extent of the “espionage” with camera crews having called around to the family home and his parents making sure that he was none the wiser, which he wasn’t, until after the game.
“You talk about distractions: That would have been one.”
In truth, little enough of the usual build-up stuff bothers him any more. The surprising layers of admin, the perennial ticket dilemmas and the media obligations are familiar staging posts that cause less grief now that he has passed through the storm so often before.
Athletes lucky enough to experience more than the one Olympic Games or major tournament have often remarked on how beneficial the first was as a learning experience. That foundation manifests itself in the most minor of details.
When O’Sullivan first started playing with Dublin he spent the bus journey from the team hotel to Croke Park with his head down and earphones on, encased in his own thoughts and determined not to be cajoled into the carnival atmosphere outside.
“Now I’ve found myself looking out, trying to take it in and enjoy it because I know how special a place it is to be. I’m trying to savour those moments because I know, with the experience of playing in the last number of All-Irelands, how to deal with those things and they don’t distract me.” He’s learned to take everything as it comes.
O’Sullivan is one of those whose job it is to secure the spine of this Dublin team. He has lined out at midfield and at centre-back and there have been a few games this summer when the nature of the play has seen him migrate all the way to full-back.
“If a team’s going to go six players up on us, we’re not going to have an extra body there to mind the house so a lot of it depends on how the opposition sets up. But I personally wouldn’t have thought that teams have really targeted it as a ploy.”
Enjoyment is a subjective term when it comes to high-profile sports, particularly when teams feel obliged to set out their stall with an emphasis on numbers at the back, as Monaghan and Tyrone have done in Dublin’s last two outings.
It’s not something that enters his thoughts during a game but when he looks back over the contours of his championship career it is the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry in 2013, when the score was 3-18 to 3-11, that stands out.
Ultimately, it is the experience of winning that never gets old.
“No, definitely not. How could it when you’re going out to play in an All-Ireland final? As soon as you picked up a ball that’s what you dreamt of doing. Back then I probably wouldn’t have expected to be doing what I’m doing now.
“It’s such a massive honour to be in this position and playing on this team,” he added. “And to be sharing these moments with some of the guys on this team. Definitely the appetite is still as strong as it always was.”