The best of times, the worst of times, as Rebels chase the big one
“Noel, biy,” he said, “did you ever see the heading the Echo put up the evening after I played my last game?” I couldn’t say I did, so I didn’t. “Too old, too fat, 2-2, all from play,” he responded.
CONOR wanted me in to talk to the squad, and, as always, I felt compelled to spice it up a little.
“Saturday morning, 7.30,” I said, “each man in his own club gear, on the Carrigrohane Straight. Injured players too.”
I pressed on.
“And that applies to you too Conor, and any county board official who wants to come along as well. No-one gets in without togging out – no-one, not you, not me, not Nancy, not Frank, not Donncha, not Jerry Buttimer, not Jerry Seinfeld, not anyone.”
The appointed hour arrived. My sign-writers had done a fantastic job. I put the players straight into 500-yard sprints along the Straight for a reason – I wanted them to contemplate the sign at the end of each stretch:
Sign 1: It’s now or never for Cork – 2006
Sign 2: It’s now or never for Cork – 2007
Sign 3: It’s now or never for Cork – 2008
Sign 4: It’s now or never for Cork – 2009
Sign 5: It’s now or never for Cork – 2010
After 2,500m of sprinting, they were all fleadhed, except Noel O’Laoire, of course. I could see nothing would knock a stir out of him, so I sent him off up the Lee Road for some solo-running practice with Nancy and Ger Spillane.
“So, what’s the message I’m trying to convey?” I asked.
There came a long silence. They looked at each other, and looked to the ground. There was no inspiration, and, by the by, far too much perspiration. Everyone knew, but no-one wanted to be the one to say it.
Dinny Allen had come along in the green and black, and, out of the side eye, I could see the chirp rise in his face.
“Noel, biy,” he began, “the message is that the headline-writers in the Echo need to go away off there for themselves and do an oul’ course in originality, biy.”
My, what a laugh we all had! Dinny and I have jousted before but, beyond all the apparent brashness, he has always looked up to me, not least the famous day in The Mardyke when he tried to go a step too far. I felt the penny had dropped. There was no need for further elaboration. It was time for a different tack.
“Now,” I began.
“Never,” interjected Dinny, and the gaiety returned. I thought Nicholas Murphy would tweak the back as he bent and twisted from the laughing. Young Kerrigan high-fived Dinny.
A chant of “Dinny-O, Dinny-O, Dinny-O” went up.
And, for a full 90 minutes, as we all jogged on the spot, Dinny got into his stride. I was glad to let him feel like he was dictating the pace.
“Noel, biy,” he said, “did you ever see the heading the Echo put up the evening after I played my last game?”
I couldn’t say I did, so I didn’t.
“Too old, too fat, 2-2, all from play,” he responded. Paddy Kelly – we had him out on his own to give him room for those legs – went down clutching his chest and his face turned a deep, disturbing red. I thought we’d almost lost him.
Dinny ran through his full repertoire. The one about the Cork man with the inferiority complex (“he thought the other fella was nearly as good as him”), and hearses only carrying one person while Maurice Fitz could carry 14, and how Kilkenny people are now only working Monday through Thursday because they can’t do five in a row.
The mood was light and airy, despite the physical exercise. Conor was beaming. “Look at them,” he gushed, “just look at them. I haven’t seem them enjoy themselves so much in years. This’ll set them up rightly for the All-Ireland.”
I knew where he was coming from. A team that has lost a few All-Irelands can easily turn in on itself, fixating on the prospect of defeat, and the certainty of ridicule to follow. In those circumstances, players can become mechanical, unsure, and wooden. Getting an experienced team ready for an All-Ireland final is one of the most challenging tasks a manager will ever face, right up there with attempting to get an inexperienced team ready for an All-Ireland final. As Dinny continued his patter, the tension drained from their faces, and, contemplating my novel style, you could almost see each man think to himself:
“I’d often heard of this Noel fellow, and all he’s done, and how he’s done it, but I presumed he was gone stale at this stage, like Dwyer or Keating, but, by God, how wrong I was, the man’s a legend of the ages.”
Just when the good vibes were at their peak, I told them to sprint back down the 2500m, checking the reverse of each sign.
Each sign, bar one, had the same inscription: It’s now or never for Cork – 2011?
The last one had nothing at all apart from a giant question mark.
Alan Quirke turned pale. Cadogan hadn’t a word to say. Even Dinny was knocked for six. It was a collection of quiet, humbled, uncertain men that slunk away to their cars. All the self-doubt was back. Their brush with freedom’s dance had been a short-lived affair. Conor was fuming and couldn’t look me in the eye. “You sold them the dream, Noel,” he said, “and then you took it back again.”
Exactement, mon ami, I thought to myself, wistfully, before saying, wistfully: “Exactement, mon ami.”
The penny hasn’t dropped yet. But All-Irelands aren’t won with flower power and joss sticks. You’ve got to earn the good times. We have them where we want them now.
For this team, it’s Now. And probably Never again. But who’s counting? Rebels by three, and plenty of new material for Dinny, the old rogue.
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