AN ALL-IRELAND final is different. Ultimately, a win is all that counts but anyone who has ever been involved in one will find it hard to articulate the surreal nature and all that goes with it.
One thing this Cork side have going for them in that respect is experience. In the last few years at Croke Park, Cork have beaten Galway, Donegal (twice), Sligo, Meath, Kildare and Tyrone. In league finals at Croker, they have overcome Monaghan and Mayo. The routine of going up and down for games is something all the players will be familiar with. This experience would normally count for quite a lot against relative Croke Park novices, but in this case, it’s lessened by the fact this Down side appear to have carried forward the traditional Croke Park swagger of previous teams. Nonetheless, an All-Ireland final is just different.
For starters, there are the ticket issues. While annoying, they’re pretty much unavoidable as the initial allocation of 20 per player is taken up with family, friends, etc, with the potential extra allocation only ever becoming available on the Thursday night of All Ireland week. Who’s going to refuse a ticket to their boss who allows them the flexibility they need, an important customer or the masseur that sees them at 8pm in the evening after work, etc?
So like it or not, on the Friday you will inevitably be trying to sort tickets. The most annoying aspect for many, however, is the fact that you may have been providing tickets for a regular fan all year, a guy who’d go to Ballybofey in winter and then you might struggle to get him his dues for Croke Park on account of relatives or friends deciding they want to go.
Most people you meet will want to talk about the game. Everyone you know is well-meaning but players will mostly value the company of those who don’t talk football during that time.
The management will try to take as much out of the players’ hands as possible. The suits, for example, will be measured at training a couple of weeks before the match. The next time you will see them will be when they’re hanging in your room at the Burlington on the Sunday evening after the game. The players don’t know exactly how they got there, but that’s probably the point.
Traditionally, Cork teams would travel up on the Saturday at lunch time. From about 2007 on, the train trips – now to be replaced by a coach trip – became characterised by a quiz. Informal at first, these competitions morphed into intense battles. Each team was made up of four or five lads and everyone had their phone confiscated beforehand. The worst job in the world was to be nominated as pre-arranged quiz master. Objecting, heckling, arguing and tormenting ... only strong-willed characters could do this job.
Another tradition for Cork teams was to stay in the Burlington Hotel. The Burlington was a hive of activity before big games, and at times it could get a bit hectic if you sought a bit of peace and quiet.
In 2008, the lodgings changed to Enfield in Meath. This was the opposite end of the spectrum. A big expansive country hotel with pitches and a leisure centre. The players stayed in lodges around the back and the space was a nice change.
Saturday can be a long day waiting around. Too much thinking can be a bad thing. The hotel would have set up an area with lots to keep people occupied – PlayStation, pool, and most controversially, table tennis. Cue intense competition No 2. Quiz scores were settled. Winner would stay on and the likes of Colm O’Neill would hold onto a one-point lead all through the game, just to toy with you until he felt like pulling away in the last few shots. Leaving the table, you’d swear never again. Eventually, he’d goad you back into it.
SLEEP, contrary to what one might think, doesn’t tend to be an issue with many players on account of the fact that the routine and body clock are pretty much in sync at that stage of the season. Everyone would be up around 8.30am on the Sunday morning. The timeline to the game would be planned out to the nth degree and up on the flip chart in the common area for everyone to see.
One of the trickiest things can be carb loading and eating a meal at 12.30pm when breakfast is at 8.30am. No one wants to be too full but no one wants to lack energy. Before leaving the hotel, there won’t be much talk or tactics. The work is done.
The bus journey to the ground on All-Ireland final day is different to anything you would have experienced before. The streets are lined with people. Supporters screaming encouragement at the bus, opposition fans giving the thumbs down – it says a lot about the genuine nature of the GAA fan that a thumbs down is all they’ll resort to when the opposition bus whizzes by.
The fans’ happy-go-lucky mindset is a million miles from the atmosphere inside the bus. Arriving at the ground, players would be left to their own devices for an hour or so. Some read the programme, watch the minor game or listen to music; others head to the internal warm-up area. Everyone will do what they feel they need to do to get themselves to the optimum level.
Having been in enough dressing rooms with them, it’s amazing to watch guys like Graham Canty gradually zone in to an intensity you know won’t be matched, while Nicky Murphy would have the serenity of a Buddhist monk. The warm-up will begin formally at about 2.45pm. Selector Peadar Healy will take charge here. The tempo has to be controlled in the warm-up in the internal pitch area because players still have 20 minutes of parades, the presidential line up, etc, when they go out on the pitch. There is no point being all hyped up in the dressing room when you have to stand around for half an hour afterwards. Just another difference from other games at Croke Park.
When the warm-up is finished Conor Counihan takes over and says his few words. There will be a knock from the steward and then it’ll be time to go. Guys will find it hard not to get pretty pumped up at this stage and often the steward is best advised, whether it’s time to go or not, to let the team out when they want and just avoid their path.
The roar when you hit the pitch in a full Croke Park is deafening. Peadar Healy will take over the pitch warm-up again. Anything you had in terms of communication to the man 10 yards away is now completely redundant. It’s not so much of a problem, however, as the warm-up routine will have been rehearsed over and over again in the weeks before, from lining up for the photograph right up to throw in.
First halves, whether you’re watching or playing, tend to pass pretty fast. Before you know it, it’s half time. This will usually take the form of quietness and rehydration for eight or nine minutes while the stats guys read out their data. Conor Counihan will then put some structure on things before heading back out.
When a final ends, it’s either agony or ecstasy. Watching finals I would have been a fan of pitch invasions for the sheer colour, but one never really envisages them occurring as a losing team. Having experienced them in 2007 and again last year, they can be hard to take. Some opposition fans can be drunk and a bit triumphant. No one blames them but players are in a difficult place at that stage. Reactions can be explosive.
WHAT was learned from 2007 and 2009? The 2007 defeat to Kerry revealed Cork were still a bit off the top tier. Last year was harder to take in ways because the side was good enough to win. In fact, we were certain we would, and we were equally certain that nothing else mattered.
Guys learned very fast that being so absolute in terms of victory and defeat is almost counter-productive and dangerous in ways, psychologically. Balance can be lost, relationships can suffer. Everyone took it very personally in 2009 and felt they had let the next guy down.
After losing an All-Ireland, the emotional wreckage is played out very much off Broadway. The cameras have gone home, the newspapers have stopped writing, about your team at least. In the days after defeats like that, I got the impression the players wanted to be in each other’s company more than anyone else, as if no one else understood. It’s a difficult time. Random people or even some you know well will come up and offer their opinions, attributing blame in all the places they see fit. It’s amazing how strangers think it’s okay to cut the legs from under your team-mates, close friends. You learn to leave it just go over your head.
The players as a group would be extremely close, and while that doesn’t always lead to ultimate success – not least when compared to other successful teams who seem to care very little for each other socially – it has undoubtedly helped the panel get over the ‘07 and ‘09 defeats and come back this year. Not many teams who lose two finals come back for a third.
Alan Quirke got married the Saturday after last year’s All-Ireland final defeat. Being mature and making the effort for him and Christina was important insofar as no one wanted to turn their wedding into a wake. In fairness, guys like Derek Kavanagh made the day by acting the eejit and forcing guys out of their sulks. Noel O’Leary had unknowingly contracted swine flu the day before but only acknowledged there was something wrong with him when he asked me to take him to the hospital during the meal. He spent the next few days in Cork University Hospital.
This is the personal side that no one will see or hear. No one cares about this really and being honest, they shouldn’t have to. People may say that Cork deserve a win on Sunday. The players will know ‘deserve’ has nothing to do with it. The All-Ireland is judged in absolute terms. Winning is a wedding, losing is a wake. All-Ireland finals are different. The team who handles the occasion best and plays the better in spite of all the sideshows will be the team who is ultimately successful.