The Beautiful Game

Morning ritual on All Ireland Final morning is always the same – you wake up decently hungover from your “I’ll just have one or two watching Up For The match” antics. Thankfully, it soon gives way to the comfort of smelling your mother’s fry wafting up the stairs to lure you out of the leaba.

It’s hard to beat the buzz of milling a few pieces of white pudding, with Luke Kelly and the Dubliners belting out and knowing you’re only a couple of hours from making the pilgrimage to Croker again. Of course, there are those that’d be quick to point out that for a Tallaght-bean, the journey to Croke Park is far from a journey and that “those poor unfortunate souls who reside outside the pale – they’re the boys who knows the real meaning of taking the journey to GAA HQ – sure ye Dubs have it all your own  way”. Well to those people, I say feck off. Any self-respecting gael knows that whether you travel by pushbike or horseback, by Uber or Luas, the September journey to Croker is the most scared of the year, and anyone lucky enough to make it, is truly blessed.  And all this before I’d even touched my rashers!

Slap some Bagatelle on after my shower and slip into a nice blue and navy number (jersey, dress, hijab – it doesn’t matter, all you care about is that you are a true blue today), kiss the mother goodbye, sprinkle holy water on my forehead and off I go praying for three in a row.

Catch the next bus and join the legion of fans high on hopes and excitement and via Crumlin make our way along the Camino del Croker. “They will win today, they have to win today”. Palms are sweating now and there’s no sitting still.

March up O’Connell St and past the many Mayo men gathered outside the Gresham waving Kelloggs box signs in the hope that the miracle of Knock will gift them an apparition of a ticket before half three.

Fall into step with the couple of hundred excited patrons circling around beside Gill’s pub and almost have to climb a lamppost to find my ticket-man. Finally find him and the ticket crosses my palm. Endorphins sky rocket and I give the quiet Kildare man an almighty hug for his efforts. “Good luck to the Dubs”, he shouts back as he wanders down Jones’s Road. There’s no way he means it, but he’s courteous as ever. There are only two non-Dubs in the entire country rooting for the Boys in Blue today and they are both sitting in Murtagh’s in Kingscourt. Apart from the two lads, the rest of the country is hoping for Sam to go West.

The Dub’s will do it, please God they’ll do it. The panic has set in. Last year’s battles still raw in my mind.

So on into the Hogan and up to the top tier. A cold beer is in order – to settle the nerves, or so you’d hope. Maybe the second might do a job on the nerves. No such thing, so it’s off to your seat to have a read of the programme. Decent view, a Dublin calilín sits either side of me and beside them Mayo folk, behind me a row of Dubs – a good mix. We’re all bricking it.

It starts, it doesn’t look good, it’s dicey as bedamned. Poor McCaffrey! Is this the Dublin team that beat Tyrone so convincingly? Jaysus wept. Bricking it has graduated to having a minor heart attack. No messing, the legs are shaking, I’m rattling in the seat. This is torture. Please God, please help them.

Second half looks a bit better, Gavin’s changes are taking seed. Still though, it’s far too close to even think of breathing normally. It’s heartache, heartbreak, joy, elation, terror, fear, hope, prayer and pure anxiety all at once. The legs are shaking so much that one of the girls beside me checks if I’m ok. “I’m fine,” I say, and then ask her if her fingers are ok. She has bitten off some nails and one or two fingers are bleeding. “I’m fine,” she replies. “Please God,” we whisper quietly, not intentionally together but I heard her and she surely heard me and I know that there’s strength in numbers so maybe God might pay us a bit more attention.

How much extra time? Dear Lamb of Divine! Interminable. McQuillan keeps it going. I think I’m going to die. In fact, my heart is knocking loud. Then… that free! Christ, let him get it.  I can’t look! But though gapped fingers, I do and I see Rock stand solid, cool as you like and send her right where she needs to go.

I think I knew then, that that was it, though the ref still played on and for a few seconds, time stood still. When time was finally called, the shaking stopped, the tears flowed, Mayo hands were shook with the genuine respect for a county that had played their hearts out. There was a stunned silence in Croker. A peculiar quiet fell over fans who felt like they’d just played the game. Our beautiful game.