Pre Match Build Up
I drove into Parnell Park in my TDi company car, the same as every other Championship game. It was a grey day, an end of August blah. The Malahide road was quiet enough. I sped along, listening to a thumping Techno Mix by Billy Nasty. I felt good, focused and energised.
I passed Clucko (Stephen Cluxton, Dublin Goalkeeper) on the way, walking down to the ‘Nell, as was his tradition. I rolled down the passenger window and hurled some obscenities at him. He didn’t flinch or take any notice, eyes straight ahead, calm and impervious.
I laughed and turned into the car park.
The keepers arrived almost an hour before the rest of the squad. Ankles, fingers and wrists needed to be strapped. We got into our gear and got warming up.
Many people think goal keepers don’t need to work hard. The reality is you have to train even harder than any other position. The kicking leg needs to be warmed up slowly. The rhythm needs to be perfectly in sync.
After our kicking drills, our keeper coach Gary Matthews would take over and get a good sweat going. Repetition of simple handling drills – Quick feet. Quick hands. Limbering up a little then reflexes and high balls. Quick hands and then some low shots, long range shots and some more limbering.
After half an hour we would have a great feel for the ball. The energy levels would be up. The limbs supple and the heads focused.
We went back in to the dressing room and joined up with the rest of the squad. There was always someone telling some story. For some reason I normally sat near the mercurial talent of Mark Vaughan.
“Vaughny” was always good for lightening the mood. He was not the kind of player who intentionally told stories to make people laugh. He just couldn’t help himself. Words just kept tumbling out of his mouth.
I loved that contrast he provided in a GAA dressing room full of hard lads and serious men. His irreverent D4 tone provided the kind of pressure release which all dressing rooms need.
The Bus into Croker
We got on the team bus and I sat beside Conal Keaney as I had for every championship match I was involved in. Keaney was always calm and confident. No other words describe him better. We would just chat briefly about music or women or about how good we were feeling.
Honestly, there is no better place in the world to be than on the Dublin team bus heading into Croke Park.
As the bus took off and we took the fifteen minute journey into Croke Park, we would listen to music and most lads would sit quietly going through their match routine in their heads – or maybe just shitting themselves!
As a sub keeper you have a different mental preparation than most. I would visualise Clucko getting a red card in the opening few minutes for punching someone in a moment of madness. I would hear the announcer go “Substitution for the Dublin team, Ray Cosgrove off for John Leonard”. I would hear the crowd roar approval and I would jog into goal and take the next kick out.
Other times I would imagine him breaking some fingers as a shot came in or tearing his groin in his first kick out. Again I would hear my name being called and I would run on and give, without exception, one of the greatest displays of goal keeping ever seen on a Gaelic football field.
Unfortunately none of my visualisation ever came to pass.
As we drove along Fairview strand behind the police escort you would get the feel of the crowd. Tens of thousands of people would stop and cheer and beep horns and dance and throw cans of bulmers in the air.
I would always think of my Dad and remembered old days when we were out there watching the team bus drive by.
I remember how it felt to be out there and it filled me with love, gratitude and fierce animalistic determination to succeed, now that I was on the inside.
The team bus can drive right into Croke Park, under the stadium and drops you right outside your dressing room door. We all went in and some lads went out to walk on the pitch, get some air and watch a little bit of the minor game.
Under the Stadium
As kick off time approached, the rumble under the stadium would gradually increase. As eighty thousand people filter into their seats and began exercising their right to scream their heads off, a slowly reverberating crescendo would build and build.
In the dressing rooms there are all kinds of medical rooms, tactic rooms and a large room which has astro turf to warm up in.
This is where you will find Clucko, going through his second warm up of the day. I take more of a back seat here as Coach Matthews drop kicks balls into his guts, working on his hands and quick feet and allowing the feel of the ball to become instinctual again.
We head back into the main dressing room and get our match jerseys on. The mood is serious and calm. Players sit according to position and number and there are hushed conversations going about the place. I calmly group myself and there is no thoughts of the occasion or otherwise.
Our Coach, Paul Clarke takes the time to talk to every man in the room…reminding them of their history, their ability and their chance which they will go and take.
Big Match. Big men. Big jobs to do.
The March to the Hill
Defenders and forwards are called for their last tactical talks. Final adjustments are made for boots and gloves. As a whole squad we are called into the astro turf room, where as a group of fifty or so, we huddle together shoulder to shoulder.
The energy begins to lift. You feel the strength of the men beside you. Our manager, Pillar Caffrey, takes to the centre of the circle and tells us to look each other in the eye. The last words are spoken and the subs and backroom staff make their way out to the corridor which opens up to the pitch.
The noise from the stadium is incredible. Mental octaves higher than anything I’ve ever heard. The first fifteen and Pillar stay in the room for a few last minutes. We hear a crescendo of noise coming from our team. Outside in the stadium the roars and shouts are relentless.
A panicked looking official comes running towards us
“Mayo have gone down to the Hill, Mayo have gone down to the Hill”, he shouts, eyes frantic and sweat bleeding down his mush.
[The Hill is the part of the stadium that our team, Dublin, have always warmed up in front of – no other team in recent history warmed up there….it is packed with 20,000 of the most fanatical Dublin supporters]
The word gets to management. Everyone is in agreement in the two or three seconds they had to make a decision.
“Fuck ‘em, let’s go.”
And with that the squad run out into Croke Park and down towards the Hill where 40 or 50 men from Mayo are going through their pre game routine.
Thunder and Lighting
I have been to many clubs, matches and music events, but nothing has ever compared to the sheer depth of noise which erupted as we ran towards the Hill. It was thunderous madness and it was impossible to hear yourself think.
Both sets of supporters were on their feet – monumentally braying and chanting.
We went through our routines as best we could. There were four goalkeepers and two keeper coaches as well as about eight defenders from both teams around the goal. Balls were flying everywhere. I kicked any Mayo balls I could high and mightily over the netting and into the gleeful arms of the Dubs supporters on the Hill.
Bodies were clashing and I shouldered into David Clarke the Mayo Keeper a few times. We went through the final warm up with Clucko as per normal and as one or two bodies fell from an equal and opposite force, the referee blew his whistle and called the captains down to the middle.
Mayo gave us no quarter, but we had asked for none either.
The adrenalin was surging and if anyone ever needed a final burst of motivation to play their hearts out, then this was it.
The crazy atmosphere settled a little as the National Anthem came on, and by the time we got over to the subs bench, the fervour had receded to normal levels. Much was written about the effect this had on our team at the time, but the honest explanation is that it made no difference except to pump everyone up just a tiny bit more than usual.
Subs Bench – All Ireland Semi-final
I sit there watching the game unfold. I am present to the fact that something might go wrong with Clucko at any time. I am ready to come on. I try to prepare myself and as we jog up and down the line keeping limber during the first half, I repeat to myself that the game is on and I am a part of it.
The crowd becomes one giant fuzz in the background. The noise becomes like white haze as I watch who is winning kick outs. I watch to see if they have picked up on Shane Ryan’s ability to create space for kick outs. I see who is winning primary ball or who is hungrier for breaks.
I catch every ball that comes near Clucko in my head and I will over every point that our forwards get.
It is end to end and there is not much time on the ball. The pace is frantic and every part of you is wishing on your mates to win.
Being a sub keeper is lonely. There is little chance of ever coming on. But you always have to be ready. You never feel like a spectator, but you don’t feel like a player either. It is a completely different feeling and mindset.
Imagine being a substitute for a great team, but you never get to play. That’s what it feels like!
After half time we came out and scored some great scores and at one stage were seven points up. Then Mayo scored a lucky goal which deflected past Clucko via a Shane Ryan block and their tails were up.
In the last minute the volume levels blew the roof off and that Mayo legend that is Ciaran Mc’ Donald breezed down the wing and launched an incredible point, which angled right between the posts, on the run, from his wrong side, from out on the sideline, with the pressure of a nation watching on.
Give credit where credit is due and this was an impeccable score, deserving of winning any game.
Wind down blackouts
As the final whistle blew and it became known that Mayo had beaten us by one point, the high pitched white noise surfaced. Everything slowed right down. Life became flashes… bright lights… echoes of words… bursts of emotion….
Silence tumbled and dry throats spoke little. The dressing room was empty of any noise. The absence of life. Heads low. Eyes bloodshot. Fast forward dvd style to dance floors and empty pubs. Lock ins and lock outs. Disco balls and slingshot strobes.
Edgy ramblings and wired out drunkenness. Giggling girls and pints of porter. Voiding life. Work sick. Skelter helter. Smokey mornings. Sunday game was someday gone. Malahide Mondays. Mournful stories. Oul wans laughter.
Backs slapped. Mother comfort. Blasting madness. Tetchy smiles. Sore souls. Drink more. Drink more. Drink more. Pounding eyes and slurry legs. Dead weight heads roll away in disgust. Lost chances. Inches taken. Solace gained. Not really.
Days rolled into days. Nights crawled and somehow songs were sung. Spirit fled but came again. Words read in tabloids spoke nothing. Ignorant blood wrote. Laughs took hold. Life moved. Flash forward on VHS to the car park, staring at the company car, five days later… keys in hand.
Been there done that
Character is built in those moments. You learn about yourself, your heart, courage and willingness to come back and do it all again. It is that strength and courage you gain in the dark times, that drives you on to succeed.
This is for all life. This is for love. This is for football. When I saw Brian Cullen lifting Sam Maguire (name of the Champions trophy) some five years later, I cried unadulterated tears of joy.
For it is through losing that you appreciate what it means to win.
Roll on Sunday. Roll on the Dubs. May the best team win (that being the Dubs)