Liam Sheedy: Control that Croke Park coliseum to make memories not nightmares

Croke Park is different. On that day, Tipp and their manager were caught in the headlights
Liam Sheedy: Control that Croke Park coliseum to make memories not nightmares

CONTROL IS KEY: Galway players make their way past the Kilkenny bus stuck in the Croke Park tunnel. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Saturday evening, August 16, 2008 — we arrive at Dunboyne Castle in advance of our All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford the following afternoon.

My first season in charge of Tipp with Eamon O’Shea and Mick Ryan could not have gone better. We are unbeaten in all competitions and have captured the Waterford Crystal Cup, National League title and Munster Championship.

Attention to detail is what I pride myself on and we had already stayed overnight in the build-up to ensure our routine was in place and nothing was going to faze us.

For the team meeting on Saturday night, I had accumulated footage of the families of every single player. I’d interviewed Tipp greats like Donie Nealon and Jimmy Doyle to ensure we were primed to perform in what I regard as the greatest stadium of all.

The hotel was a bit too busy for my liking but you have to appreciate you cannot have it all to yourself either.

Mass Sunday morning and the pre-match meal had us ready to go and we head to Croker full of confidence.

Or so I thought.

As soon as I walked out in the stadium, it felt different from anything I had experienced. The noise was electric even though the place was far from full. I found it hard to see what was happening at the far side of the field compared to in Cork or Thurles.

The game started and we were a team and a manager caught in the headlights with Waterford racing into a six points to nil lead after nine minutes. We never really recovered and although we got to parity at half-time we lost out by two points and our season was over.

I can still sense that sinking feeling for the few days afterwards with all sorts of regret running through my head. Did I have them too high on emotion with the family stuff the night before? Was the hotel too noisy and did it impact sleep?

Soon after, the healing process had to begin. To review the campaign, I spoke to all the players and a consistent theme emerged. They talked about the stadium and how different the experience was. And because Tipp hadn’t won a meaningful game at headquarters for years, negative thoughts came flooding in and we were filled with doubt rather than confidence.

As a group, we made a promise that when we got back to Croke Park we would have learned from this experience and would not be paralysed in our heads or on the pitch. There was nowhere else we wanted to be and next time we would ensure we found our flow and got in the zone.

Roll on 12 months and we got back there. I had added Caroline Currid to what was already an incredible backroom team and that helped. Players could talk to her about what they were feeling and get their heads right by getting out of their own way.

To get used to the noise, I had someone tape the crowd during the Dublin v Kerry game football game. Liam O’Donoghue come in and pumped it through the speakers during our training game in the stadium. Passers-by in Thurles must have thought we were attracting unbelievable numbers to watch the sessions.

But players said it helped and was a factor in getting us comfortable with the cauldron we would face into.

The players also indicated they’d prefer to travel to Dublin on the day. I felt anyway that was the way to go but it had to be right for the players. So we would all drive to the Midway in Portlaoise, grab a cuppa and mix with the fans before heading off to Croker.

Conor O’Mahony hated the bus so he travelled in his own car with his partner in crime Shane McGrath and I don’t know how they weren’t arrested trying to keep up with the bus and the Garda escort.

At Croke Park it is very tight getting the bus underneath the stand. Not every county does. But we had a bus where you could lower the floor and reduce the height, so we could get right in beside the dressing room.

Our team song — I Won’t Back Down by Johnny Cash — would be lined up and blasted out as we turned the corner under the stand. Nobody got off their seat until the final bar.

Hey, I will stand my ground and I won't back down. No, I won't back down.

We were ready then for hurling war.

We got over the line in four of the five matches we played in Croke Park across 2009 and 2010. But I learned so much from that first visit to our Coliseum and it stood to me every time I went in under the stand.

I often think of the film Gladiator and Maximus Meridius standing ready for battle embracing the arena he is about to enter compared to the warrior beside him who takes a leak down the inside of his leg.

You have to be prepared going into that cauldron.

On Sunday next, some guys will stride out that tunnel full of confidence on the back of outstanding experiences in there.

Others will be centre of that great stage for the first time — will they be like Maximus or the man beside him?

As a team, Clare are back for the first time in a while. Can they bring their Cusack Park best to Croke Park? I'm sure Brian Lohan will leave nothing to chance in their prep. He appears to have the knack of getting the emotional level just right. But sometimes experience is the best guide.

There has been chat all year about bringing matches to smaller venues to create better atmospheres. But nothing beats walking out on that pitch as a player, manager, selector or backroom team member as the championship reaches its climax.

Come Sunday evening the place will have made more great memories and given others nightmares.

I have very few regrets from my six years at the Tipp helm surrounded by incredible people but having won our three games there in 2019, I would love to have got back to the last four in Croke Park in 2020 and 2021. We came up short in the quarters and that was a real shame.

People tell me that Tipp’s performance in the 2019 semi-final against Wexford was as good as was ever delivered by our county — and that came after taking a heavy beating four weeks earlier in the Munster Final. That day we had to draw on all our strength of mind and body to get across the line. Maybe, by then, Croke Park held more good omens for us than ghosts. 

This weekend, even hurling folk not involved will relish two more special days at our great temple. For the warriors between the lines, I hope they can all embrace the arena and give us more enduring memories.

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