There's an alternative GAA map of the country which doesn’t take in clubhouses and playing fields. The landmarks are entirely different.
The Maldron in Oranmore, Galway. That narrow access lane to the Cusack Stand behind Croke Park.
Or Silver Springs on the outskirts of Cork. The narrow streets surrounding Walsh Park in Waterford.
These are spots well known to the select bunch who drive the buses ferrying inter-county teams all over Ireland. Usually, they’d have a couple of thousand miles under their belts by this time of the year, but last week’s fixture schedule means the buses will roll again soon enough.
Cronin’s Coaches have ferried Cork GAA teams to games for years. Derry Cronin says matching the driver to the task is one particular challenge.
“We do a lot of tour work in the business, and that generally means a vehicle is out for seven to 14 days at a time, so you’d be trying to align a driver and a vehicle so they’re available for a team.
“There’s a pride of place involved, which is a hallmark of the GAA as a whole, and in our case, the driver — and the whole company — would take huge pride in being part of that, pride in how professional you can be.
We’d be aware of how much these players are giving in terms of training and sacrifice, so if they’re going on a long journey to represent their home place, that’s a big deal and for us too. We take pride in being part of that.
“We take people from all over the world all over Ireland, but as a business we have deep roots in Cork, so representing it is very important.
“The bus, first and foremost, has to be in absolutely perfect shape.”
To that end it must be adapted for purpose. The increasing personalisation of technology is just one of the lessons learned by Cronin’s along the way.
“Obviously having the bus in pristine condition, absolutely clean, is part of that. We also put tables in the team buses because some people really want to have that space. Management teams differ, the players are different, but it’s a good option to offer them.
“For the management team, they may want to use the travel time, the entire group is together and they have good privacy. Having the facilities for them to use that time is important, obviously enough.
“We’ve always had a high-quality fleet, so we had toilets on board before other companies.
Nowadays that’s even more important than it ever was, given how hydrated these players are: those toilets are really needed.
“We also had video players on board very early on, then we had DVD players, and now the key thing is to have a USB charger at every seat so they can all have the very best experience possible.
“WiFi was something else that became non-negotiable, in the last few years, even though most people have it on their own phones now, which shows how things move on again.
In that sense the charger at every seat is probably more important now than WiFi for the entire bus.
A few years ago Cork changed from train to bus for trips to Dublin. The improvement in national infrastructure had a dividend for team focus.
“There was a time we’d have a coach bring the team to Kent Station in Cork for a game in Dublin,” says Cronin.
“They’d get the train up, and then they’d be met at Heuston Station by another bus which would bring them to the team hotel.
“Now the motorway makes it far easier to get the bus directly to the hotel. Cork teams can meet at the Rochestown Park Hotel or Silver Springs and then get off at their Dublin base.
“Having them all on the bus together for that trip, they have the privacy to chat away among themselves or if someone wants to address them then they have that time to themselves. Or if they just want to unwind over a game of cards together.
“There’s no hold-up at the train station getting bags and organising everyone again onto another bus, so that’s another big change.
“That helps the players, too. If they’re in the zone then they can stay in the zone, they’re focused — there’s no interrupting them to get them off the train and lined up to troop onto another bus.
Don’t forget that if the Cork footballers are going to a game in Dublin, the west Cork players have a fair journey done before the bus even leaves for Dublin.
With all that in mind the personality of the driver is key, surely?
“That’s very important,” says Cronin.
“There are times when the driver has to anticipate things — whether he needs to open the locker doors a little earlier, whether the kit man needs a hand with the gear — so he needs to know his role.
“Everything must be right at that level, and the logistics are very important. The driver has huge respect for the players and management and the task they have ahead of them — and the players and management invariably treat the driver with respect as well.
“For instance, the driver gets a hotel room with the team if they’re staying overnight — a room to himself, too, which is common sense. He’s the one driving the whole day, after all.”
Mike Darcy echoes Cronin’s remarks. Driving the Galway hurlers’ team bus was a dream posting for Darcy (“I was immersed in my own club in Moycullen, so I was always an avid follower anyway,”), even if there weren’t too many short trips involved.
“Being involved in the club scene I knew Micheal (Donoghue, former Galway manager) well as a player and a manager, he was so professional, as was his whole backroom team — I had a great relationship with all of them.
“Given where we’re situated in Galway, every game is nearly a 12-hour day, other than Tullamore.
“Thurles would be close to a 12-hour day, and Dublin certainly would be. For a game in Dublin the pick-up point at the Maldron in Oranmore would be around 8.15 am, Loughrea, Ballinasloe, and you’d be lucky to be back by 10pm.
That’s just the duration of the day. But a lot of people don’t see the length of the day when it comes to the performance of players in a game.
His counterpart with the Waterford hurlers, Ken Begley, also drew on his background in the GAA (“If you weren’t interested in the games it’d be a long day”), even if the two men didn’t quite sound the same note on Difficulties Faced By Bus Drivers.
“To go in under the Hogan Stand in Croke Park is hard,” says Begley.
“There’s a narrow entrance, the height... the height is the same as the bus.
“One of the worst pitches I found for parking wasn’t Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but Páirc Uí Rinn.
“Trying to find parking near the stadium there is very difficult — because of where it’s located you usually end up parking the bus away down the road, parking facing town, but you’re away from the stadium, the players could be 20 minutes walking down afterwards to the bus.
“Somewhere like Cusack Park in Ennis is better, even though it’s in the middle of the town. The shopping centre across the road means you can park in there by the supermarket, while Nowlan Park (Kilkenny) is ideal - there’s a big open area behind the terrace where the bus can come in, it’s always very well organised.” “Kilkenny is brilliant,” Darcy agrees.
“There’d be lads there to help you reverse in.
“Thurles is fine, Páirc Uí Chaoimh is fine, Wexford has a wide open space behind the main stand, so that’s good, too.
“Walsh Park in Waterford was a nightmare. Nowhere to park, up the side of the street and then behind the goal at the dressing-room end all the TV companies would have their trucks parked. No room at all.”
Darcy found Croke Park challenging as well: “The one issue we had there was that getting into it, getting in the little road that brings you around the back of the Cusack Stand, you go down underneath there and it’s tricky.
“We had a bus with an air-conditioning unit on top, and I couldn’t turn left at the Davin End because that unit was too high.
“The clearance was 3.6m and the bus measured 3.9m, so I’d have to stop there at the back of the Cusack and let the players off to stroll around.
“They probably didn’t mind because it loosened them out after sitting on the bus for a while. I’d drive the bus back out then to the back of the Cusack.”
The journey to a big game can be fraught, though. Darcy stresses the need to avoid adding to the tension on the bus.
“Everything is timed, and you have to work with the manager to make sure you’re working to his timetable.
I remember saying to Micheal, ‘remember you’re driving a BMW all day that can do 120 no problem — this bus isn’t the same, you’ll have to allow an extra few minutes’.
“The reason I’d bring things like that up is the last thing you want is to have the team under pressure for time, because uncertainty about time or being late can spread through the bus very fast.
“Say a big game in Dublin, we might stop in Carton House for some food and a bit of a stretch. When the players get back on the bus afterwards they can see the Garda outriders pull up.
“And that’s the sign. The game is close. They’re switched on then.
“I’d have picked them up back in Oranmore and have a chat with them, a bit of banter — until Carton House.
“When I got back on the bus there I wouldn’t even look them in the eye as they got back on the bus. They were getting themselves right mentally for the competition, they’d snap on the earphones and be concentrating.
“That’s the change. The atmosphere would be relaxed on the journey first, lads chatting away, until they had the food beforehand — then it was serious and there was a lot less chat on the last leg of the journey.”
Begley agrees: “He’s right. That’s the sign that the game is coming up fast, the quiet in the bus.
“If Waterford were playing in Dublin we’d probably stop in the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel on the way in for food, and then the garda escort brings you in the rest of the way. It’s a lot quieter then.”
Darcy would watch “most” of a game in Croke Park, but “afterwards it was a choice — get the bus out early, before the game actually finished, or leave it ’til later when the crowd dispersed, particularly if it was a big game. I’d have to bring the bus out around and up Clonliffe Road for the players.”
The teams aren’t in as much of a rush as the spectators, obviously.
“I’d go in to watch the match, have food with the players beforehand,” says Begley.
“To be fair to the managers in Waterford, they all made me feel part of the group.
“After a game — in Thurles, say — I’d walk up after the final whistle to where the bus was parked, maybe Dr Morris Park, and then bring it down to the stadium.
“The crowd would be dispersing all the time while the lads are having showers or giving interviews, and then it’s off home.”
At that point the game’s over, of course. Win, lose or draw the tension’s broken. The driver’s challenges may not be quite over, however.
“You don’t go straight home, usually,” says Begley.
“Some years we’d have gone to the Horse And Jockey for something to eat after a game in Semple Stadium, but Liam (Cahill, Waterford manager) prefers the Anner Hotel inside in Thurles itself.”
Convenient after a game, obviously.
“Not with a bus, it can be tricky to get in there. But there’s a fine wide footpath outside it where you can park up, in fairness.”
The bus driver always finds a way.