‘The journey up the steps of the Hogan Stand is the nirvana of the fortunate few’

Former Cork boss John Allen recalls what it’s like to be involved in an official capacity on All-Ireland hurling final Sunday

The players are, at this time, in the team room. Many are semi-togged. Some are on the masseur’s table having a final rub down. Photo: James Crombie

The players are, at this time, in the team room. Many are semi-togged. Some are on the masseur’s table having a final rub down. Photo: James Crombie

Sat, Sep 7, 2013, 01:00

For those lucky enough to be involved at this level, All-Ireland hurling final Sunday is a special day, ending a unique journey that began years before in the backyards and local GAA fields of many of the exponents of this sacred, ancient game.

To be involved in an official capacity is an enormous privilege indeed. I had that honour on numerous occasions and in various roles, the last few as team coach and manager.

For the followers who travel to the capital the previous evening, there’s the added bonus of a night out in Dublin.

For the team there’s another night in. The players are well used to nights in though.

The life of Ireland’s professional amateur hurlers is indeed a Spartan one. It’s a life of matches, training, recovery sessions, stretching, core work, fields, gymnasiums, swimming pools, personal eating plans and many, many nights indoors.

For most of these elite athletes, who dream of being part of a McCarthy Cup-winning team, the year ends in failure. Only for one squad of players does the season have a happy ending. The journey up the steps of the Hogan Stand is the nirvana of the fortunate few.

But there’s another journey that both teams get to experience on All-Ireland final day in which there aren’t any losers. It’s a journey that never failed to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. The power one felt on that particular journey gave one a sense of what it must be like to be the president of Ireland, or a visiting dignitary.

That special voyage begins about two hours before throw-in from the team hotel.

Given that the players have spent the previous night and the morning of the game in a bit of a bubble, away from the madding crowd, it’s only when the time arrives to head to the stadium that the seriousness of the occasion really kicks in.

The arrival of the Garda motorcycle outriders means there’s no turning back now.

The players are, at this time, in the team room. Many are semi-togged. Some are on the masseur’s table having a final rub down. The team medics are buzzing around like pollinating bees. The water and hurley carriers are busy ensuring that all the necessary equipment makes their way onto the team bus. High-decibel battle-music invades the tension-filled air. Most players have their own iPods with their personal choice of inspirational words and music. Conversation is scarce.

Soon it’s departure time. The physios’ tables are hurriedly folded. The room is silent.

Everybody is on board the coach at this juncture. The doors whoosh to a close.

There’s no turning back now.

The outriders’ lights begin to flash. The sirens’ high-pitched wail announces the beginning of the journey to the coliseum that is Croke Park. The bus is silent until the battle-music decibels invade the air.

It’s not unusual to have a group of loyal fans waving off their heroes as the bus pulls out onto the Dublin streets.

On the last September Sunday afternoon that I sat on that bus, the Southside streets were quiet. Traffic-light colours were ignored, as they always are by these elite motorcyclists who lead the charge. Traffic began to build as we crossed Samuel Beckett Bridge onto the city’s Northside. That power sensation returns again, as cars pulled off right and left to allow these heroes through.

Soon, as on every All-Ireland final Sunday, the hats, flags and colours begin to illuminate the footpaths. Attracted by the sirens, many heads turn. The stadium is in sight. There’s no turning back now.

The crowds are milling outside various pubs as the bus whizzes past. The applause is heart-warming. The area is now a sea of colour, excitement, activity and heightened expressions as we approach the back of the Cusack Stand.

We slow to a stop. A Croke Park official boards, and as team manager I greet him. The final leg of the journey begins, deep into the bowels of the stadium.

Soon, the dressing-room door is visible. The name “Corcaigh” jumps out to meet the eye.

The select welcoming media party, for many years now, always included RTÉ’s ever-friendly Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh and Ger Canning. “Hello, lads. Everybody’s fit and ready?”

“Any changes?”

There’s no turning back now.

This unique journey is over, but blood, sweat and tears will be shed before it’s time for the next unique journey up the steps of the Hogan Stand.

Tá an-áthas orm an corn seo a ghlacadh…
(First broadcast on RTÉ Radio in 2011)

Taken from September Sundays: As Heard on Sunday
Miscellany
, edited by Clíodhna Ní Anluain and published by New Island Books &
RTÉ priced at €16.99