I loved that rush but I’ve also seen final day break some fellas

When the mood takes me, I’ll often head back to the Atlantic Ocean in west Clare for a dip. Living so close to the sea gives me that luxury and I have any amount of options; the Pollock Holes in Kilkee, Cappa near Kilrush, White Strand in Doonbeg, Spanish Point in Miltown Malbay. Beautiful spots, every one of them.

I loved that rush but I’ve also seen final day break some fellas

When I’d hear the lads complaining about the cold, I’d joke with them that Sellafield across the way had warmed the place like bathwater.

Come down to our side of the country,” I’d say to them, “then ye’ll find out what iced water really feels like.

The minerals and nutrients in the seawater are a great cure for any physical ailments and pains but I find it provides balm for my mind as much as anything else. The hardest part is getting in so I just get it over as quickly as possible; take off at a high pace before flinging myself in head-first, the cold water instantly jolting my senses and coursing through my body like an electric shock. ‘WHAAAAAAAH.’

In a funny way, the ritual often reminds me of that charge from the dressing room before a big game, especially an All-Ireland final.

Maybe that’s why I do it so often. I had the privilege for eight years of leading the Clare team on to the field and charging into that wall of noise and orb of light was always some adrenaline rush.

Doing it for an All-Ireland final though, was the greatest buzz imaginable. Leaving that dressing room was like the sprint to the ocean; entering the field was like hitting the cold water; the crescendo of noise and the absolute electricity coming at you from every angle, jolting your senses like an electric shock. ‘WHAAAAAAH.’

Those first 25 seconds almost pass like two seconds. You nearly feel like you’re running on air, that your feet don’t even touch the ground. It’s a surreal feeling, a fusion of magic, elation, excitement, and absolute pride.

I loved that rush in the bloodstream but I also appreciated how lethal that injection could be on All-Ireland final day. It broke some fellas. Their legs went to jelly because they suddenly realised the magnitude of the occasion and the colossal pressure that it instantly landed on their shoulders.

Mayo players run onto the field ahead of the 2017 All-Ireland football final
Mayo players run onto the field ahead of the 2017 All-Ireland football final

No matter what you have done beforehand, no matter how many big games you’ve played, or huge occasions you’ve experienced — Munster finals, Harty finals, All-Ireland Colleges finals, All-Ireland minor and U-21 finals — nothing can prepare you for that moment for the first time.

Galway aren’t Kilkenny, who were so used to All-Ireland finals that it was just another big game, but most of these guys are playing in their third All-Ireland final in four years. For Davy Burke, Joe Canning and Johnny Coen, this will be their fifth (if you include the 2012 replay) decider.

And that huge bank of experience, which Limerick don’t have, could be priceless.

There has been a lot of talk about how much better Galway were going last year, which equalises that greater experience to Limerick’s inexperience. But I don’t fully buy that. Galway didn’t play well in last year’s final. That might sound like a contradiction considering they hit 0-26 but Galway almost played within themselves and were kind of lucky on the day that Waterford didn’t perform as well as they could have.

If Galway had won that final in swashbuckling style, playing champagne hurling, I’d nearly be more confident of Limerick’s chances now.

All-Ireland finals are for winning, not performing, but Galway will be anxious and motivated to deliver more of a performance now than what they produced last year. And, despite their form-line, I think Galway are almost more set up to do so now, especially when they don’t have anything like the same over-bearing pressure resting on their shoulders.

Galway have that one All-Ireland. We had our first too after 1995 but over the winter of 1996, our ears were reddened from listening to the same tune from Ger Loughnane.

Good teams win one All-Ireland,” he would say. “But great teams win two.

Loughnane would embellish that core line with every kind of garnish. “They’re saying ye’re a fluke. The general attitude is, ‘Ye got yere one All-Ireland, now ye’ll disappear back to yer music.”

We had to win that second All-Ireland and you get the impression Galway are driven by the same deep motivation too, that quest for absolute respect.

You got that sense from Joe Canning after the Clare replay when he spoke about how the public — including their own people — weren’t giving them the credit they deserved.

Joe also rightly made the point that, despite Clare going toe-to-toe with them over two games, Clare only led once during those 160 minutes.

Cathal Mannion in possession against Clare
Cathal Mannion in possession against Clare

Galway want to quieten the doubters because there have been plenty of them. I was even one of those before the two Clare games, not out of loyalty to Clare, but I felt that Galway were running out of gas. Galway’s tank may not be as full as it was this time last year but they’re still the only unbeaten team in this championship.

As Loughnane said, great teams win two All-Irelands. But really great teams win two-in-a-row.

Kilkenny were the exception but over the last 25 years, the only other county to do so was the great Cork team of the last decade. I’m sure Galway are keen to enter that pantheon and to replicate what the legendary Galway team of 1987-88 managed. That is the kind of legacy this crew are trying to create. And when you get that close, as Galway are now, you’ll stop at nothing to try and manage it.

Galway will be drawing inspiration and motivation from every angle and their league game with Limerick in March, when they coughed up an eight-point lead, will be a key starting point.

Promotion was on the line that afternoon and, while Galway may not have been too perturbed to spend another year in Division 1B, it was their first defeat in league or championship in 13 months. To make it worse, it was in front of their own people in Pearse Stadium.

That afternoon was where it all really started for Limerick in 2018. They had been impressive in the league up to that point but beating Galway at home, under extreme pressure after trying to break out of 1B for so long, and having to come from eight points down to do so, really lifted their confidence to another level. And they will completely draw on that experience tomorrow.

Limerick players celebrate Kyle Hayes’ goal in the League clash between Galway and the Shannonsiders in March
Limerick players celebrate Kyle Hayes’ goal in the League clash between Galway and the Shannonsiders in March

Limerick may not have won the league, or reached a Munster final, but there is still a strong sense of this being a breakthrough season. Winning the 1995 Munster final was our breakthrough, and I felt completely liberated afterwards. I just could not wait for the All-Ireland final because I felt the pressure was off.

The difference with all of this for Limerick though, is they still haven’t have had that breakthrough final victory, which is something a Munster title would have given them. Of course there is always anxiety and tension in trying to end a 45-year famine but the pressure is almost increased now that this really is all or nothing. A Munster won’t satisfy a Limerick supporter like it would a Clare one 23 years ago.

It’s Liam or nothing.

I have no doubt that if Limerick don’t win tomorrow, that they will get more chances to win an All-Ireland in the coming years. Yet this might still be their best opportunity.

We’ve all seen how hard those precious pieces of gold are to secure. Munster is such a bear-pit now that there are no guarantees Limerick will be in the top three next season. A raft of injuries in your first game — as happened to Waterford this year — and the roof can easily cave in on your season.

Limerick have processed everything very well during this championship and I’m sure that will have governed everything about their approach over the last few weeks. The process is even more important when you get to the biggest day but Galway know all about this stuff too. And they know how to handle it.

Galway’s resilience was really impressive against Clare and nobody showed that more than Joe Canning on both days. With Declan Hannon trying to offer as much protection as he can to the full-back line with Johnny Glynn inside there, Limerick will have to make a huge call on what to do with Joe. Do they man-mark him with someone else? Is it too much of a risk to let the midfielders pick up Joe when he is in their orbit?

A lot of has been made — and rightly so — of Limerick’s bench but Galway have plenty of depth too; Jason Flynn and Niall Burke turned the All-Ireland last year when they came on and Paul Killeen and Sean Loftus provide sold defensive cover. Loftus is still young but he’s a quality player and both he and Killeen have got significant game-time this summer.

Davy Burke had a huge final last year. He has always struck me as a big-game player and if Burke can hit a similar level of performance, it would give Galway a huge platform in that crucial sector. Limerick will need to establish a foothold in that middle third to supply their inside forward line but they’re meeting a different animal now to the Cork full-back line.

Daithí Burke is imperious while Adrian Tuohey has been playing much better than last season. Seamie Flanagan’s form has dropped off since earlier in the championship while it’s a big step up for Aaron Gillane if he has to try and break down Daithí Burke. John Conlon was in the form of his life and, while he got some joy out of Daithí in the second half and in extra-time of the drawn match, Daithí hardly gave John a ball in the replay. Much of that was down to the poor quality supply going into Conlon but Daithí was all over him like a rash.

Apart from the Clare game, Limerick have faced down every challenge this year.

Although they lost the league semi-final to Tipperary, they took Tipp to the brink that night and narrowly lost in extra-time. They have been in every possible scenario imaginable this season. Those experiences will give them huge confidence now and, if they can embrace the occasion, and just cut loose like Clare did in 2013, they’re fully capable of winning.

I’ve been racking my head all week deciding who is actually going to win. Something inside me feels that it’s Limerick’s year but you always have to reroute to rationale and ask what is that view really based on? I’m not taking away from what Limerick did late on against Cork but you’d still feel it was more down to Cork imploding, especially in normal time. On the other hand, Clare threw every punch they could at Galway, and they still couldn’t knock them down.

Galway can draw on that resilience again now. And if they can marry that steel and experience with that motivation to really prove themselves as a great team, the fusion of all those elements could turn Galway into a seriously dangerous weapon.

I can still picture that absolute drive we had in 1997 to win that second All-Ireland, a desire to prove to everyone else that 1995 was no fluke.

Galway will be powered by that fuel and if they perform, I don’t think Limerick are quite at that level yet.

Galway will have to produce a consistent 70 -plus minutes, which is something they haven’t done in their last four matches. But I think it’s in them. And I expect Galway to shade a mammoth battle.

Ger and Dalo’s All-Ireland Final preview part 2: Wildcards, huge gambles and dropping the hurley

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