I always loved watching the All-Ireland hurling final, particularly when we were preparing for another shot at the football title with Kerry.
Being in Croke Park for the hurling is like being mesmerised by the gracefulness of the high flying acrobats at the circus… a couple of weeks later, and the lion tamers burst into the ring with their footballs to put on a different kind of show.
In modern GAA, you may be led to believe one act is more aesthetically pleasing than the other. That may be the case perhaps, but both ensure you can’t take your eyes off the action — either someone falls from a great height, or gets eaten by a wild animal. That’s must-see TV.
As a footballer, once the hurling was over, you knew your turn in the Big Top was close. Dublin and Mayo players will have that same feeling this week. The stage is clear for them.
I can vividly recall arriving into Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney around this time of September in years past, and players were out kicking ball maybe 40 minutes before the session was ever due to start. The physios never had it handier. Nobody wants to be seen on a treatment table during these weeks.
Dara Ó Cinnéide, Mike Frank Russell and ‘Gooch’ would be flat out taking frees from everywhere. Seamus Moynihan would be behind the goals barrelling into people to be able to get up off the ground and catch the ball as high as he could before bursting out and unleashing another punt kick right to the chest of a forward outside.
Most guys would get up over 50 shots at the posts from their sweet spot before a coach would blow a whistle.
That’s what this time of year does to players preparing for an All- Ireland final. They just want to be on the pitch with each other, fine-tuning their game as much as they can and having a laugh with guys who are feeling the same nervous excitement that they are. It’s infectious. It got so bad in Kerry before one final under Jack O’Connor he organised to keep the gates from the dressing room to the pitch locked until about 15 minutes before the start of training to stop the players getting out too early. After training, his helpers would scurry around and hoover up every ball in sight to try and protect the energy in the legs.
He was trying to find that delicate balance between rest and sharpness that both Jim Gavin and Stephen Rochford will be searching for in the next 10 days.
These are the most special times in the life of any inter-county footballer lucky enough to be involved with a group preparing for the second last Sunday in September.
Nobody will be bitching in the media this week about championship structures or any other sideshows. This time of year is about one game of ball. During this build up period, managers tend to get very paranoid about distractions. And in the two weeks before an All-Ireland, distractions can come in many different guises.
You obviously can’t win Sam Maguire two weeks out from the game, but if you’re not careful, you can lose it.
Usually in Kerry, they would have tried to get our tickets out to us a week to 10 days before the final to give you ample time to distribute them to friends and family and not to have to be sweating about them later in the week. Tickets were always a hassle. Invariably, you would forget about somebody you shouldn’t, and others seemed convinced, and would often get offended at the suggestion you did not have a personal ticket printing machine with an unlimited supply of Lower Hogans in your house.
Hardly a Kerry game goes by in Croke Park that my now father-in- law, a Roscommon man, doesn’t remind me about the one time I put him ‘up into the clouds’ as he described it — in the upper deck of the Hogan for one final. People remember.
At one point, I had a list of names for about 40 tickets on my laptop. Most were looked after in some shape or form, but they did tend to linger on into the week of the game. Of course, every phone call you got was ‘now, I don’t want to be putting you under any pressure for tickets, but…’
Eventually, after a few years, you develop the ability to say no.
By now, the suit has been fitted and tailored for the after match function, and O’Neills will have been working around the clock to produce a rich bounty of brand new gear for the build-up for everybody in the squad.
Once the team’s media day duties have been completed and you’ve lied to all in sundry and told them that you won’t ‘open a paper, or turn on a radio for the next two weeks’, then you can get back to concentrating on what really matters; being with your teammates, where you can drop the facade.
These few days will be a very different period to next week. There is no pressure now, no weight of expectation around your neck to perform. One or two guys may be sweating on a starting jersey or trying to get an injury right, but most will know their place in the pecking order by now. You can enjoy the training. Everybody you meet at work or on the street is being positive. Strangers want to shake your hand and wish you well. Your family are spending these days basking in the glow of your success, planning their accommodation, and booking off work for the Monday.
Of course, your partner is as happy as a pig in mud, safe in the knowledge that win or lose, they can start planning their outfits for the big sunny January team holiday.
Who doesn’t like spending New Year’s in Vegas or Miami? Everyone’s happy.
These really are last of the easy days, filled with the warm calm before being hit with the storm that next week will bring.
These Dublin and Mayo players have all been here before and know the circus that is an All-Ireland final.
I’m sure they have build up a bank of experience to enable themselves to enjoy the noise from a safe distance without being caught up in it.
If not, watch out for those lions, or somebody is getting eaten.
Fitzmaurice still the best man for the job
I’d delighted with last night’s confirmation that Eamonn Fitzmaurice is remaining as Kerry manager.
He has his critics and after another defeat to Dublin in Corke Park, many of those were a little more vocal in the watering holes around the Kingdom.
But eaten bread is soon forgotten down here.
In my opinion, he is unquestionably still the best man for the job.
He took a team of no-hopers set for the scrap heap in 2014 and turned them into All-Ireland champions against all odds. He is likely to have a few great servants announce their retirements soon, and for the next few years, his task will be to regenerate this Kerry squad and start to infuse it with the youth and energy from recent successful underage teams.
It may not take him as long as some are suggesting.
The next few years will be exciting times for Kerry football. The new centre of excellence will open its doors in Currans next season and our footballers will start to reap the benefits of having a permanent, top class training facility to call home.
With those impending changes to the playing personnel, and the addition of a training base, next year will be a new beginning of sorts for all concerned.
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