The bobble-hatted, compression-trousered, protein-guzzling, crispy-faded player of today would struggle to believe the half-stag-do-nobody-cares-anyway attitude that accompanied almost half of the National Football League.
Before the switch to a calendar year with games being ran off from the start of February to the middle of April, the league was a sprawling jamboree with the first game played in mid-October, with two more to follow if and when pitches and commitments allowed prior to Christmas.
It led to some bizarre circumstances.
On October 8th, 2000 Kerry beat Galway in the All-Ireland final replay.
Just three weeks later, they were back out for the first round of the league, at home to a Louth team in top-flight football for the first time in 29 years. They lost 1-12 to 1-11.
“The day before, they were just scrambling to field a team. There was no get-together,” recalls Eoin Brosnan, who was starting his first game for Kerry that afternoon.
If he was looking around himself for guidance, it was thin on the ground. Just five of the All-Ireland winning team started. Two of the starters weren’t even named on the programme.
Perhaps it was the wind and rain. Or the International Rules game on the same day. Or the fact that Divisional and Club Championship games were being run off in almost blitz format to clear the backlog of fixtures. There was also some bright spark’s idea of a Millennium Cup that had to be played off in Kerry.
Either way, just 1,500 came through the turnstiles that evening. Most stamped their feet, endured it, and said it was a nice day for Louth.
“The reason I wanted to play was that it was my first game for Kerry,” says Brosnan. He had a wonderful apprenticeship in being on the wider panel the year before, experiencing the two All-Ireland finals, and two tussles with Armagh in the last do-or-die Championship.
“I did well enough inside in training, but I was a young fella, I was only 20 years of age and had an opportunity to go along to the game above in Dublin. So they were really, really struggling for a team at the time because we still had a lot of club games to play. There was an awful lot of football being played.
“All those things would have taken precedence over the county really because the team was after winning the All-Ireland, there was a good bit of celebrating afterwards and the league games before Christmas were not taken seriously, it was an outdated system, really.”
And yes, it was. But it also gave Louth goalkeeper and captain Colm Nally one of his favourite and most treasured memories in football. Arguably, his save on the diminutive Genie Farrell sealed the win for them, but his day began with an argument with manager, Paddy Clarke.
“Paddy wanted us to applaud them onto the pitch, as All-Ireland champions. And I didn’t want to,” he chuckles.
“So there was a stand-off between us and I was captain of the team and I remember saying, ‘Paddy, I’m not clapping them on.’ “Anyway, we had to do it but I was hopping around the edges, not really engaging in the applause as they ran out.”
When the game ended, Louth players and management felt very good about themselves, as they should. But what really impressed them was Kerry manager, Páidí Ó Sé. He went into the guests’ dressing room to invite them to the popular Killarney pub, Tatler Jack.
“He was so gracious and came round to all the Louth players congratulating them and inviting us back. We had a great time with them, they were so accommodating to us and Páidí was full of praise for us beating them.
“He was so engaging. He spoke to everybody and was great fun. My wife came down with me and she was pregnant, but she still had great fun sitting at the bar and having a laugh.
“Those were great times to play football. It wasn’t as serious in terms of your diet, your nutrition, your recovery, all that sort of stuff.
“You’d be horrified to see a team drinking after a league match now. It just wouldn’t happen but back then, management allowed that. It was about mingling and socialising with the players and opponents.
“That doesn’t happen anymore. You never get a chance to mingle with your opponents at any time. So it was a really great occasion and experience to be part of.”
For sure, there was a more relaxed atmosphere around those games.
“Your club season by then was well over, especially if you didn’t have a run in the Championship and at that stage, a lot of the Championships were knockouts. So you were long finished, college football wasn’t as intense, those few games before Christmas, nobody really went mad with effort and teams could enjoy a few drinks afterwards,” says Nally.
Meath’s Ollie Murphy could have been forgiven for putting his feet up at the end of 1999, when his goal proved the difference in the All-Ireland final win over Cork and he claimed his first All-Star.
All the same, he didn’t want to miss a game against his father Benny’s native Fermanagh that, after being called off through weather and clashing with other games, was eventually played on December 12th.
A curious afternoon, Fermanagh bounced back from an All-Ireland ‘B’ final defeat the previous week to Antrim to win by double scores, 0-14 to 0-7.
It took until the 48th minute for him to emerge from the sub’s bench for Richie Kealy and by then, the game was gone. The year was wrapped up in their heads anyway.
“I remember that alright,” he laughs now.
“We went into the bar afterwards and had a bite to eat and we all had a few pints. You would be arrested nowadays if you done that!
“Twenty years ago… I mean times are just so different now. Everything is so serious, you can’t be seen to be wasting time and everything is so compressed and compacted now.
“Tell you the truth, I find it hard to follow nowadays, I don’t know what is going on. Maybe I am old-fashioned and I have a vision of the past in my own head, that they were better times. But it felt more relaxed without a shadow of a doubt. Nobody cared about playing a few games before Christmas.”
While the supporters might have got themselves excited about certain elements – Liam McBarron dominating Trevor Giles in the air for one – the Fermanagh management weren’t kidding themselves.
“Let’s be honest,” said the late Pat King, then in charge of his adopted county, “We didn’t beat the All-Ireland champions. We beat a team that came up from Meath.”
As a measure of how serious Meath felt, well Sean Boylan wasn’t even there with them.
Sometimes, it wasn’t always as low key though. In 1996, Meath were also All-Ireland champions and their first round of the league was fixed for Navan against Cavan. Over 10,000 landed in.
“But I suppose those were the glamour days when you were after winning an All-Ireland,” says Murphy.
“There mightn’t have been that kind of crowd for other fellas. Though there might have been a buzz between us and Cavan too.”
For Nally, there was always something in the devilment that could be milked out of those days that he misses now. He was coaching Meath last year and has taken up the job of managing Silverbridge in Armagh now. The modern player finds it hard to even fully believe the stories he tells them about his own playing days.
“It used to be about the ‘going out’ clothes,” he laughs.
“I used to joke about that with the Meath players last year, that you never see the ‘going out’ clothes hanging on a peg. It’s always a tracksuit and compression tights and so on.
“Colin Kelly and I would be great friends and Colin used to wear pink shirts after the matches! He would have them hanging up before he got togged out and the craic used to be great to see what shirt he would hang up.”
The league made the switch to the calendar year, and suddenly the focus became sharper. Time management became a factor. The better schedule warded off intercounty fatigue and crowds grew as the games themselves became an immeasurably better product.
But oh, the fun we had…