Making a point of enjoying the thrill of Croker

IN HIS role as guest speaker at a Derry supporters’ function some years ago, Anthony Tohill revealed one of the best tips he ever received in a changing room.

After one of his first training sessions with the county senior squad, Tohill was sitting beside an established player who observed the rising star had an aerosol can of deodorant in his kit bag.

“Never use the spray stuff, Ant’nay,” said the veteran. “Always bring a roll-on. No-one ever borrows the roll-on.”

Some players never bring deodorant. Others never bring shampoo. Jarlath Burns once told me about one of his team-mates who devised a clever system for avoiding the cupped-hand merchants. Rather than even taking one bottle into the shower, he didn’t take any.

Instead, he squeezed a portion of shampoo into his hand from the kit bag.

Then he walked into the showers.

But when you play at Croke Park, no-one has to bring any shampoo. There are soap dispensers in the showers. I know this because I had the privilege of playing there on Saturday night. Martin McHugh organised a charity match in aid of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. A motley crew of mostly journalists, pundits and ex-players took on an equally motley group of TDs and senators.

I travelled from Belfast with Joe Brolly. Despite the fact Joe has actually played in Croke Park, I think he was just as excited as me. We were meant to be at the Cusack Stand changing rooms at 4pm for a 4.30pm throw-in. Joe pulled into Croke Park before 3pm.

A quick word on the changing room. Forget the broken two-pronged clothes hooks. Every player has a separate cubicle with three coat hangers. There was even a fridge stocked to the gills with complementary bottles of Powerade.

My favourite detail is the warm-up area attached to the changing room. A hall about the size of a tennis court with an artificial surface so players can get a feel of the ball.

As I soaked up the surroundings, the panel started to arrive. Pat Gilroy. Gerry McEntee. John O’Leary. Paul Earley. Jarlath Burns. John Joe Doherty. Last year the Donegal manager. This year, the manager of his club’s U10s. The McEnaney brothers, Seamus and Pat.

The banter started when Seamus McEnaney spotted Brolly. “Can I switch teams and mark Joe?” asked Banty in that thick Monaghan brogue. Martin McHugh was asked if we would be playing like his native county with 14 defenders.

And so it went on until the two teams were announced and Martin informed us there were physios available.

“Aye, but do you have a defibrillator for Banty?” enquired Brolly.

The stadium seemed huge. It must be some feeling to emerge from the depths of the Cusack into a colosseum of 80,000 fans.

We had about 200 spectators, which was plenty.

My main objective was to score. I wanted to kick a point there and go home happy. However, after a few shots during the kick about, I had little reason for optimism.

Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one harbouring the same ambitions.

Burns confided in me that he was on the same mission. Despite various appearances in Croke Park with Armagh, he never managed to raise a flag.

At it turned out, the challenge of scoring a point proved to be a hell of a lot easier than the near impossible feat of getting a pass from Burns.

Utterly shameless in his bid to put the ball over the bar, Burns point blank refused to part with leather until he succeeded.

Listed at centre half-back, he spent so much time mooching, Brolly told him to stay at full-forward.

Incapable of doing anything straight, the Oireachtas played with an extra man in the first half, but their numerical advantage made no difference.

When Brolly declined to come off at half time to make way for our second team of 15, the imbalance should have been rectified, but the politicians kept putting on more players. At one stage there were about 35 on the pitch.

Despite the mass, there was still plenty of space for anyone fit. But speed was in short supply. When Martin McHugh’s son, Ryan, came on he looked like a Ferrari in a field of tractors. But while the ex-players lost some of their pace, they still showed plenty of craft.

TG4’s Macdara MacDonncha discovered a different world from the Waterford IFC for a short kick-out from John O’Leary.

“The ball didn’t go over the sideline. It didn’t go to my man. It went there,” said Macdara pointing to his chest.

After two periods of 20 minutes, which succeeded in exhausting all but McHugh and senator Eamon Coughlan, it was over.

In the hospitality suite, the plan for next year’s event was hatched. Using Railway Cup format, a media/pundit team will represent each province. Two semi-finals and a final on one night. I have started to pick the Ulster team. Benny Tierney in goal. Peter Canavan in one corner, Joe Brolly in the other, and maybe even Jarlath on the edge of the square, if he promises to pass.

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