All-Ireland final replay a whole new ball game
Players who have played in them see Dublin’s previous experience as an advantage
Dublin players warm up before the All-Ireland final replay against Mayo in 2016. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
It was shortly before 4pm on the first Saturday of October in 2016. The Mayo team were out on the grass in Croke Park, sauntering around like teams saunter around, looking up into the stands and seeing very little only the stands looking back. The biggest game in Irish sport was little more than an hour away and there was barely anybody in the place.
“You could hear a pin drop,” says Lee Keegan. “Normally when you go out to have a look at the pitch for the final, you’re doing it at half-time in the minor game and there’s always that bit of an atmosphere.
“But for the replay, I remember walking out and it was like you’re going out to play a Saturday night league game. There’s nearly nobody in the stadium, the atmosphere isn’t building in the same way. You nearly feel a bit more uptight. Like, ‘Is this game going to happen here this evening or what?’”
Games come and games go and all of them find their level. But an All-Ireland final replay lives on a mezzanine floor all by itself. In a world of ultra-professionalism and uber-preparation, it’s an almost philosophical anomaly. It’s there in the calendar but it’s written in invisible ink. It doesn’t exist and then suddenly it’s the only thing that exists.
Ahead of a final, you can visualise how victory might feel and you can steel yourself for defeat. But a replay isn’t a thing until circumstances make it so. It occurs in the context of a drawn game that hasn’t happened yet and whose particulars can’t be predicted. Nobody prepares for a replay until they have to. Problem is, by the time you have to, it’s not a replay anymore.
This is not just an extra game, it’s an All-Ireland final. You’ve played the biggest game of your life. Good for you. Now play it again. The prize is the same, the teams are the same. When it’s over, somebody will be standing on the Hogan Stand making a speech. If you’re not in the right frame of mind for it, you’ll be standing on the pitch looking up, a cold soup of bitter thoughts.
This, it should be stressed, is an unusually fruitful era for the final replay. Between football and hurling, Saturday night will be the fifth one this decade. When you consider that there have only been 20 in total in the history of the GAA, you get the idea of the sort of glut we’re living through. This will be five in seven years. You had to go back a span of 53 years for the previous five.
Brian Hogan was around for two of them. Played in one, got dropped for the other (of which more in a bit). In 2012, Kilkenny led in injury-time before Joe Canning’s free bought Galway a second day. They filed back into the dressing room and sat in cranky silence, annoyed at the last free, annoyed at not closing it out, annoyed at it all.
“I remember Brian [Cody] calling us into the warm-up room, as he does after every game, for a few words before we got back on the bus. And he presented it in a positive way. He just said?: ‘You guys are here at the height of your careers. You’re at the pinnacle of your sport, you’re playing the game you love. And you’ve just been given another three weeks together with another final at the end of it. Most people never get to play in one All-Ireland final – you lads have been given two in the space of three weeks.’
“It was like he was saying there’s absolutely no room for feeling sorry for yourselves. You’re the luckiest group alive. Straight away, the mentality switched. We were getting on that bus delighted that we were getting another crack at it. You could feel sorry for yourself and let it hang over you for a couple of days or a week and before you know it, you’re staring down the barrel of a replay. Brian wasn’t letting that happen.”
Thing is, an All-Ireland final is no small thing. Win, lose or draw, you don’t just hop in the shower and wash it off. Different teams do different things. In 2012, Galway got on the bus and headed west, Kilkenny stayed up and showed their face at the banquet, gathering for a recovery session the next morning.
Last Sunday night, Kerry stayed up while the Dubs dispersed through the city. Stephen Cluxton’s wife tweeted from the popcorn counter at the cinema.
“Not exactly how I was planning to spend my evening . . .”
In 2016, the Mayo players went to the banquet, feeling duty-bound to those who’d made the effort. Keegan went for about an hour, happy enough to let a bit of harmless soft talk swirl about him for a while. By the second hour, though, he was gone up to his room. They did a pool session together in Dublin on the Monday morning and met up again back west as the week went on. All the while, the job was to empty his head of the final and to make space for the replay.
“You’re involved in such a crazy day,” Keegan says. “A final is such a whirlwind. You have your mind prepped so thoroughly in the weeks leading up to it. Nothing else matters in the world. This is what the whole year has been about. This is everything you’ve dreamed of. Your body is in the best shape it can be. You’re playing well, you’re starting in an All-Ireland final. You’ve trained through the slog and the crap weather and you’ve arrived at the day where you want to express everything.
“And then you’re back in on the Tuesday night. It’s very hard to just pick it up and go again. You’re going, ‘I was supposed to be on my holidays!’ But you will get there soon enough. Sometimes, you just can’t plan for these things and you have to allow them to come around naturally.
“It would be very easy to dwell on the drawn game and forget that if I don’t get right this week, I’m going to struggle to get ready for next week when it really matters. Next thing you know, the game is on and it’s passing you by. That’s what you can tell when you you’re looking at a game and a player looks jaded or tired. Physically, he’s probably not as bad as he thinks he is. It’s just that the mental baggage is weighing him down because he didn’t sort through it all properly beforehand.”
For players, it’s a tougher ask than it sounds. In the weeks running up to a replay, it hardly ever feels like a final. All the extraneous stuff gets stripped away. There’s no open night for the fans, no signing sessions, no selfies. The tickets are gone to the same people they went to for the first game, nobody’s measuring you for a suit. There’s no press night. There’s nothing only the game.
“Little things change,” says Hogan. “We were used to the All-Ireland final being the first weekend of September and there’s still a feel of summer in the air. Three weeks later, it was autumn. You could feel a bit of cold. There’d be a bit dew on the pitch when you went training.
“You’re coming back into Nowlan Park on a Tuesday night when ordinarily at the time of the year, I’d be taking the right turn into my club. You’re in the bubble, the suits are already hanging in the wardrobe from three weeks ago but little fleeting things keep reminding you that this is a little bit different. And that you have to keep focused and go and get it done.”
None of this matters unless you let it. By 2014, Hogan had bigger worries. Tipperary had scored 1-28 in the drawn game. Brian Cody was always going to deem that sort of largesse unacceptable. Hogan was in his final year and had been playing for Cody for a decade. He’d been in and out of the team all season, often needing injections in his back to train and play. It didn’t take him long to read the landscape in the days following the drawn game.
“I got an inkling towards the end of the first week. There’s never a talk or an arm around the shoulder or a discussion. You start to notice it, the way the teams are laid out, the A and B teams. You got a sense it was going that way. The first night back, it was clear there were going to be changes so you’re immediately going, ‘Shit, am I going to be the one?’
“I was going home to the wife and saying, ‘I think I’m gone here’. Then as the week goes on it’s – ‘The position’s up for grabs’. But you know yourself. You know in your heart of hearts the way things are moving. And when the team is named, sure look, it’s devastation.
“I knew myself. Certainly in the first half of that final, I wasn’t great. I came into a bit stronger in the second half and I suppose you’re probably trying to justify your own form then to yourself. I was saying to myself, for where I’ve come from I did okay. I was coming out with a few balls near the end and hopefully, hopefully.
“Ultimately, the lads looked at it and they made a decision. What I thought was irrelevant. They made the decision and we won the replay. Kieran Joyce came in for me and had a super game – he was man of the match. So I just had to suck it up.”
As it happened, Hogan never played for Kilkenny again. Along with Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney and Aidan Fogarty, he retired over the winter. The run up to the 2014 replay was his last time in Kilkenny camp, the days after it his last hurrah. Five years on, he’s broad-minded enough to see it as two contrasting things in one. The joy of winning another All-Ireland can live alongside the galling disappointment of sitting in the stand for it.
“I knew from the start of the year that it was going to be my last one. And I knew then that was my last game. It was a tough time, no point saying otherwise. There was a bittersweet taste to it. We’ve always said it, the greatest feeling is that five minutes after the game sitting on the pitch with the lads knowing you’ve given everything. There’s nothing can replace playing.
“The few days after it are great. There’s so much emotion involved, you know it’s the last time with that group of players. You’re trying to enjoy it. But there’s a bit of a personal thing there, a sadness that you couldn’t finish it the way you wanted. But then, not many people get that anyway.
“I can’t complain – I finished my career winning an All-Ireland. You have to catch yourself as well. Five of us walked away. Doesn’t everyone want to walk away doing an iconic hook to save a goal? But look, we’re not all JJ [Delaney]!”
As for next Saturday, both Hogan and Keegan see an advantage in Dublin’s having been here before. Kerry may or may not have had a contingency plan in place ahead of last Sunday but you can be certain Jim Gavin did.
The two teams will adapt well but the past experience will stand to Dublin
Of the Dublin players who featured in the drawn game, only Niall Scully, Brian Howard, Eoin Murchan and Paddy Small weren’t in the squad in 2016, while Con O’Callaghan was a non-playing sub. This is nothing new to most of them. Meanwhile, 15 Kerry players played in their first All-Ireland final last week.
“Dublin have a little bit of an advantage here,” Keegan says.
“The core group of that team have played a drawn All-Ireland against us and they learned marginally more from it that we did, hence why they won the replay. They know how to do it, how to handle it. Jim Gavin has been around a long time too and they’re not going for five-in-a-row for no reason. I think the two teams will adapt well but the past experience will stand to Dublin.”
It won’t decide the game. But it will be part of it. All-Ireland final replays are different. No point pretending otherwise.
You don’t always strike oil in the obvious spot. An odd quirk of the four All-Ireland final replays in football and hurling this decade is that the Man of the Match in each of them didn’t start the drawn game.
2012 Walter Walsh (Kilkenny v Galway)
Not alone did Walsh not start the first game, he’d never started any game. This was his Kilkenny debut, a 21-year-old man-child coming in for Aidan Fogarty at corner-forward. He was rampant all day, scoring two points in the first half as Kilkenny took hold of the game and hammering down the final nail with a goal on 57 minutes to put them nine ahead.
2013 Shane O’Donnell (Clare v Cork)
Having featured here and there in the earlier rounds, O’Donnell was smuggled into the Clare team in place of Darach Honan for the replay, with Davy Fitzgerald not even telling him it was happening until after the team meal a couple of hours before the game. His impact was rapid and deadly. He had three goals on the board inside the opening 19 minutes and finished his day with 3-3 from play. Dream stuff.
2014 Kieran Joyce (Kilkenny v Tipperary)
After Tipperary had rattled up 1-28 in the drawn game, Joyce came in at centre-back from Brian Hogan (see main story). Joyce had played a minute since the Leinster semi-final against Galway almost four months previously but he came in and held the centre of the Kilkenny defence to take the statue.
2016 Mick Fitzsimons (Dublin v Mayo)
Fitzsimons had come off the bench in the drawn game but hadn’t started a championship game for two years. He replaced David Byrne for the second game and put in a brilliant defensive display, tackling and shadowing Cillian O’Connor to huge effect.