ME? I’M A SEETHING CAULDRON OF INTIMIDATING, RED-CLOAKED NOISE

So many have mused this week ... ‘if only the Thomond Park pitch could talk’. Now, with the help of Diarmuid O’Flynn, it can.

“AND NOW, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain. My friends, I’ll say it clear, I’ll... ‘Aagh! You shouldn’t creep up on me like that! Frightened the life out of me! Just singing to myself — you know, the time that’s in it. It’s nearly all over for me, isn’t it, the game almost up. One game to go, this game.

The world-renowned Leicester Tigers — no team more worthy to finish this era, no team more deserving of a final chance to end Munster’s fantastic Heineken Cup record inside these hallowed walls, before those walls come tumbling down.

The end came for me last May — or the beginning of the end — with a short announcement.

“The Thomond Park Re-Development Committee is delighted to unveil the design for the re-development of the Thomond Park rugby stadium. The design has been created by Murray O’Laoire Architects of Limerick and Stadia Architects AFL and provides for a 26,000 capacity at one of Ireland’s most famous rugby grounds, at a cost of €40m. Completion is anticipated in 18 months, for a scheduled re-opening in autumn 2008.”

And there it was, in cold print. I knew it was coming, of course. Stupid I’m not, and the writing was on these same walls for some time. It could be viewed as an irony that the very success of Munster here has led to the situation where those same terraces and stand are no longer big enough to hold the growing Munster support. It could perhaps be viewed as even more of an irony that the announcement came just days after Munster had finally reached their holy grail, won the damned competition after years of heartbreak. But I feel no sadness, no melancholy even. I’ve had my time and now — just one more big day remaining — this Saturday that time is done.

Liam McCarthy will come in as usual on the Friday evening, unlock the main gate, start his routine.

Unlock the door under the stand, start to bring out the seating for the media, the signs, get some of that work out of the way. I love to hear that gate being opened, love especially to see the big tv trucks start to roll in. That’s the first sign — this is a big one. Could be the Setanta trucks, signalling a Magners League game, but today it will be the boys from Sky, Stuart Barnes and the lads.

I like Stuart. He’s earthy, well rooted, would very easily have fitted in with this Munster set-up. Stuart? He loves me. And he’s not alone. You don’t have to be beautiful to win hearts, and I most certainly am not beautiful. When Liam walks in here, when the tv crews are rolling out there miles of cable, setting up their camera positions, I look nothing at all, a penny ha’penny place.

And yet I’ve won the hearts of some of the most famed rugby people of every era, of every gender, every age, every rugby and political persuasion. It’s character, you see — character will always win out.

Saturday morning, Liam will be back.

Liam came to me in the 70’s, never left. That’s the effect I have. Liam will check the stiles, make sure everything is shipshape. He has an assistant these days, Colm O’Regan. Colm will set up the zappers in each of the stiles, so the barcodes in the new-fangled tickets can be read. Cuts out the fakes, cuts down on the numbers, makes sure that my new Health & Safety-dictated capacity of 13,600 isn’t breached, not by much anyway. You see, even though Liam has handed over responsibility for such things to the Guards, a few enterprising souls still make it over the wall for every game.

After Liam comes Gerry Moore, another whose presence I find reassuring. Assistant Administrator is his fancy title, with the Munster Branch; I just know him as Gerry, the guy who sorts things out up around the gate, keeps everyone happy as he arrange tickets, passes, the last-minutes mix-ups that are part and parcel of days like these.

It’s still over three hours to kick-off, but already I’m beginning to feel the buzz. It’s coming off the city, from the various hostelries near and far — I can hear the slagging coming up from Clohessy’s Bar down by the river, two sets of mirror-image fans getting into each other, all in the best possible spirit. From Dolan’s, further up the Dock Road, I hear the laughter from the Supporters’ Club after-lunch debate, reinforcing the crackle coming from Smith’s next door. All over Limerick the thirsty thousands shake the rafters, rock the rooftops, and I can feel it all, building, building, building. Even outside the gate, it’s starting to grow, families gathering, always the kids wanting to be in first.

5.30pm kick-off, so at about 4pm, an hour and a half beforehand, the gates are due to be opened. The chip vans are in place just inside, the aromas from the cooking inviting, tempting, familiar. On the occasions when the build-up outside spills onto the road, the gates will be opened a little earlier, to avoid any kind of dangerous situation; I have no doubt, this will be one such occasion. In they come, and straight off those kids head for my walls, my low, cold, concrete perimeter walls around the pitch. Cold, did I say? They don’t give a damn.

Over the next 90 minutes the remaining thousands make their way in so that gradually, I become what I am now renowned world-wide to be — a seething cauldron of intimidating red-cloaked noise. All around, the logistics have been taken care of. Liam has put out all the flags, the wraps for the posts, the advertising signage — Heineken on this occasion, Magners when it’s a league game. The TV cameramen are all in situ, the commentators in their specially-erected gantry at what I like to call the Popular side, opposite the stand, down at the North East corner. For some time I’ve been lit up, the music has been blasting, the atmosphere building.

Ah yes, I’m ready; one last time, I’m ready. For that last time, a visiting team will take the field. As is the custom, they will be greeted with applause; no boos, no abuse, just respect. And then come Munster.

I should be used to it by now, I know that. But I’m not. The roar that greets the team when they come down that tunnel — it’s primal, alive, electric, something that comes from deep in the soul.

When it comes to the great rugby men who played here over the decades, there were fewer men harder, fewer men cooler, than Mick Galwey; even he never quite got used to it. “The bottom line is the crowd,” he says, “They’re the ones who create the atmosphere. Look at Thomond Park when it’s empty, you’d think nothing of it, but on the big nights, the Heineken Cup nights, it’s fantastic, and anyone who gets an opportunity to play in that should really appreciate it. I was lucky enough to have captained Munster many times here, I was the one who first heard the cheer as we came out. I don’t know how many times I captained Munster, over 70 anyway, but every time I led the team out onto that pitch, the hairs stood on the back of my neck when I heard that roar.”

Just something that happens, and happens, and happens, every time, without fail. Then comes the game. How will this one go? I hope, I pray, for a Munster win. I have this unbeaten record, I want to preserve this unbeaten record. There are ghosts here, spirits, shades, call them what you will, but they are good ghosts, good spirits. I will call them up, every last one of them, the living and the dead.

When this final game is on the line, as it surely will be, I will ask the ghosts to give inspiration to the players, to the supporters. I do not want to lose this record, not on this day.

It will fall, some day, this citadel. When it does, due accord will be paid to our conquerors — they will be applauded off the pitch. But not yet, Lord, not yet.

Five minutes after the final whistle, the players will be back in their dressing-rooms. The pitch will be invaded, yes, and welcome, but Liam and his stewards, along with the Guards, have devised their own after-match player-welfare system — a swiftly-formed human tunnel off the pitch. “With the players gone, the crowds won’t hang around,” he explains. Some will linger, behind the stand, where there is one dressing-room exit, around the front also — the south end of the covered stand — where there is another.

There will be banter, between fans and fans, fans and players. There will be no trouble. “Never,” says Superintendent Pat Connolly, “Not to my knowledge anyway, apart from the occasional streaker, and we handle him — or her — (pardon the expression) with great care and discretion. On a scale of difficulty one to ten, this is down there at about one or two — we never have any difficulty getting people for duty on that day!”

The lights are left on, to enable the tv people gather up their gear, but 90 minutes or so after the final, final whistle, they will go out. Darkness will envelope the pitch, the crowds will start to drift away. Liam will finish closing everything down, and a long-standing agreement will come into play. “I’ll leave one main gate open, and the last one out locks up — myself, or whoever is left in the Shannon or UL-Bohs clubhouse.”

That will be it. Not the end of an era, just the end of this episode. I will be gone, but a new Thomond Park will take my place, a new bigger, brighter, more comfortable, stadium. A new louder stadium. 26,000 fans where now there are 13,600, the atmosphere preserved by the fact that 11,000 of those will be practically pitch-side, on their feet. Regrets? No, none. I enjoyed every minute of it, every minute. Anyway, I’ll not be gone. Those ghosts? When the new place opens, there I’ll be. Pause, let your heart feel for me. We’ll be waiting. All of us.

In conversation with Diarmuid O’Flynn

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