The last time I woke up on the floor around the time of an All-Ireland final was in 2003. Five of us had spent the summer on our J1 in Boston where we tracked Cork’s progress through the summer in the Green Briar in Brighton, demolishing the full Irish before trying to figure out when it was socially acceptable to settle the nerves.
Half the other people we knew who had travelled to Boston for the summer were living on that side of town, but a vicious combination of naivety and tardiness saw us set up shop on 896 Huntington Avenue, right above a laundrette which ensured that, along with dollar drafts of the exquisitely poisonous ‘Natural Ice’, sleep was at a premium. Except for unintentional slumber on the train home.
We had four magnificent days there from Joe Deane’s stunning goal v Clare to the Munster final epic against Waterford and the two games against Wexford. We met our friends there, along with people who were passing through and the only time in my life that I have ever felt homesick was when I rang my father from a payphone after the Munster final.
What made it all the more special was that the players emerging were players that you would have played with and against, it just added to the buzz and made you feel a small bit closer to it all. It remains one of the greatest aspects of the GAA. The best of the best always come home to play and remain tangible, human, approachable.
With the final on the horizon, four of us cut our adventure short because missing out on a final was unthinkable, even if there was no guarantee of a ticket. It was our first final as adults and the taste of the ’99 final on the eve of our leaving cert year was fresh enough for us to long for more.
So, that’s how we all ended up on the floor in a house in Portobello, where another friend of ours was living while on work experience, deciding whether or not to open our eyes and welcome the inevitable after a night on the town.
We all know what happened in that final, and I still have flashbacks to Timmy McCarthy’s shot off the post that could have changed things and imagine what might have been. However, good times were here as the potential of ’99 looked set to be fulfilled and a glut of talented underage teams kept the conveyor belt rolling.
On Thursday morning I also found myself on the floor when dawn broke, but for very different reasons. There was no carousing after the spin home from Thurles, there wasn’t even a cup of tea. Life has just changed and the call of a little person in the middle of the night was the cause of my situation. Where did it all go?
Wednesday evening was the first time since 2005 that I was next to my father to watch Cork win an All-Ireland of any kind. It was a pleasure to be there, to savour the atmosphere, to see the crowd, to be mesmerised by the performance and to share in the joy.
The journey home prolonged that joy as we saw similar people undertaking the same journey with the unmistakable look of contentment etched on their faces as we all floated down the M8. For a moment I briefly considered the time lost and how youth had all but given way to middle age with this feeling almost totally absent from our lives.
It was all very surreal, and it was a feeling that had been pretty much forgotten. The best thing about it wasn’t even the win, it was the way they played, the way the excelled in every facet of the game, the cohesion, the inter-play, and their selflessness.
And it’s not in isolation, as we all know, it was the first of three All-Ireland hurling finals in a week. Back in 2003, I would have been at all three, no question about it, and would probably have slipped up to Tullamore for the minor football too. However, there are too many nights on the floor these days.
The upside of those nights is trying to pass on the gift that was passed down to you, to try and instil a bit of interest, a bit of colour, a bit of pride, a bit of joy and a sense of place in the next generation. There has been plenty of time to soak it all up this week as it has felt as if The Longest Day has been running on repeat.
It’s hard to think about anything else and it’s even harder to try and disguise that fact. The head is overburdened with permutations and calculations, best case scenarios and worst-case scenarios, fear and excitement, anticipation and dread.
What has changed since Cork and Limerick’s opening joust back in July? Well, Limerick haven’t really changed at all, but in the second half of the Munster final, they might just have peaked. In a team full of strengths their greatest one is the talent they possess between five and twelve, and that’s not to downplay the rest of their team.
If they get a run-on Cork early, which they will undoubtedly try to do, well, let’s not go there.
Have Cork improved since July? Absolutely. They aren’t silly enough to try and beat Limerick at their own game and have ironed out many of the glitches in their own game plan. What Cork need to do, more than anything else, is to stay in the game for as long as possible.
That will give pace the chance to trump power. I’ve yet to ever meet a defender who enjoyed being taken on, especially after an hour or so of hard toil. They proved they could hang in there in July, but never looked like taking advantage of it. If they can do the same this time, they have to be ready.
The overarching consensus amongst pundits, both expert and otherwise, is that Cork definitely can beat Limerick, but that they definitely won’t do so this Sunday. It’s hard to argue with them.
However, Cork will never be happy just to make a final. We’re not just travelling up for the day out and if they can hang in there for long enough, maybe the keys to the kingdom will be found on the bench.