Like all washed-up former players, I look forward to All-Ireland finals far more now than I did when I was playing. During my career, if I wasn’t involved in a final, I didn’t care about it. And if I was, I cared too much. Either way, I didn’t enjoy them. I couldn’t.
But sitting here, 12 days out from Dublin v Mayo, I can't wait. Just talking to a few people around the place, I get the feeling that I'm giving Mayo more of a shake than most. The Dubs are obviously in a great place after the semi-final but I don't see this as the blow-out some people are expecting.
The thing with finals is that there’s so much nonsense talked about them in the build-up. As soon as the hurling final is over, we face into it and start cranking it up but two weeks is a long time to chat about 70 minutes of football that hasn’t happened yet. So people find themselves saying silly things just to keep the chat going.
One to look out for is this notion that it’s now or never for Mayo. They have to win on Sunday week or they’ll fade away and just go back to being one of the middling counties again. Or they have to win because they got rid of the their management over the winter and it’ll all be for nothing if they don’t deliver an All-Ireland. I don’t buy any of it, really.
If Dublin win, what will happen to Mayo football? Nothing. It’s that simple. Everybody will go away, lick their wounds, curse their luck and come back again in 2017. It’s not now or never. It’s now or next year or the year after or whenever.
Football is part of the fabric of Mayo and it will always be. You see some counties where there is a rise and fall of interest but Mayo is never one of them. Football is big in Dublin now but it isn’t all that long ago since you heard people saying that the GAA needs Dublin to win an All-Ireland one of these years to keep the game going. Nobody has ever said that about Mayo.
They’ve lost finals in each of the last four decades and football has only gotten stronger all the way along. What are they going to do – not play? They wouldn’t know how.
They’ll go away and the club championship will get going and rumours will go round all the rural nooks and crannies about who fell out with who and all that stuff. And soon enough it will be January and it’ll be time to go again.
Mayo are like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. If they lose, they'll be back again next year saying, "You never got me down, Ray. You hear me? Never got me down." There is nothing surer. They have the players, the management and the experience to beat 90 per cent of counties and to be neck and neck with the others on any given day at worst. So ignore the now-or-never talk.
The Mayo players will. Or at least I would hope they will. It takes them into a dangerous area because when you're going down that road, you're bringing too much emotion into it. You have to walk a very fine line when it comes to an All-Ireland final. You have to be prepared to give absolutely everything you have to it but also be able to do it in as controlled a way as possible.
Put it this way. Dublin don’t care about Mayo winning an All-Ireland. It’s totally immaterial to them. All they care about is winning another one themselves. And you will find that the way they go about doing that is to treat the final in as cold and calculating a way as possible.
Think of how they finished Kerry off with those last three points in the semi-final. Croke Park was hopping, the atmosphere was electric but the coolest people in the stadium were down on the pitch wearing Dublin jerseys. They played with no emotion. Mayo won't beat them with heads full of now-or-never talk.
That isn’t how it works. You have to try as best you can to understand what got you there in the first place. If you go into an All-Ireland final with the attitude that that you have to play like it’s the last game before the end of the world, you will get found out. The reason is simple – a team needs 15 players playing as a unit, not 15 players starring in their own movie.
There’s always a huge danger going into a final that you build it up to be the day when you show the world what you’re capable of. You can easily fall into the trap of telling yourself that because it’s such a big stage, you have to be bigger than normal to fill it. But the reality is that you got there by being yourself. If you get obsessed with playing out of your skin, you’re not being yourself.
In my first All-Ireland final, I went for everything bald-headed. I was 22 years old and for all I knew, this was my only chance. I drove into every ball and every tackle like it was my last day on earth. I remember saying to myself beforehand, “I don’t care what happens here, I’m throwing the hammer after the hatchet and that’s it.”
When I looked back on it afterwards, I realised that was a very dangerous thing to do. I watched it back and I was jumping for balls I shouldn’t have been jumping for. I lost the run of myself at times in the game. I was young and I was careless. I was playing on emotion. That’s not what the team needed from me.
From that point on, I always became more cautious when it came to an All-Ireland final. My whole attitude was that this wasn’t a day for shooting the lights out. It was a day for being conservative, for being frugal. We don’t do anything flash today. We get through it by being tuned in and doing the right thing at the right time.
Everything you do on All-Ireland final day, you do for the cause. Don’t deviate from the cause. I’m not saying you go into your shell – far from it. Don’t hold back in any way but use your energy properly. Don’t try and save the world. It’s not a day for suddenly deciding to be Batman.
But too much emotion can do mad things to some fellas. I’ve seen players turn up on the third Sunday in September and try to win an All Star. In all teams, different players have different ways of filling their role.
It might not be obvious to people looking in from the outside when somebody goes beyond that role but the rest of the team can tell it a mile off. And I can tell you that the stink off a guy trying to win an All Star on All-Ireland final day fairly lingers in the air.
I know people would find it hard to believe that any player could be that foolish on All-Ireland final day. Believe me – not only is it possible, it happens most years. It gets lost in the fog afterwards because all anybody talks about is who played well and which poor unfortunate made a few mistakes that cost his team.
But hiding away in the middle of it all, there will be one or two guys who are sitting at the banquet that night knowing that they tried to do something different and it didn’t work. They listened to too many voices in the build-up telling them that this was their day. They got into a conversation with their father on the Wednesday night who told them to take the game by the scruff of the neck because it’s too important to just be cagey about it.
What is an All Star anyway? It's a nice thing to have at the end of the year but really it means very little. Who's the best footballer in the country at the moment? It's Diarmuid Connolly. How many All Stars has he? One. Which Kerry player from the last 20 years would walk into the best Kerry team of all time? Seámus Moynihan. The years he was playing, there should only have been 14 slots available on the All Star team. How many has he? Three.
Connolly and Moynihan are totally different players with totally different roles but I would say if you sat down and watched their performances in All-Ireland finals, there would be plenty of similarities. No deviation from the cause, no trying something they wouldn’t try in an ordinary game.
This is where I think Mayo’s age profile is a huge help to them. You look around that Mayo team and it’s very hard to pick out a selfish player. Maybe a few of them were when they started to reach All-Ireland finals but those days are gone. They are mature and battle-hardened and selfless nowadays. They’ve been through every kind of big day together. They know what works and what doesn’t.
Most of all, they know better than anybody that emotion doesn’t win you an All-Ireland. If and when they finally win one, it won’t be because they paid their dues or because it was their turn. They won’t be lifting any curse or fulfilling any destiny. They won’t win an All-Ireland because they wanted it more than everyone else – whatever that means. Now-or-never has no bearing on it.
The day they lift Sam Maguire, they will be stone-cold and clear-eyed and focused on the gameplan. Whether that day is coming on Sunday week might not be up to them – the Dubs are not going to be ruled by emotion either and there's a good chance that they're just better than Mayo, plain and simple. And if that's the case, so be it.
But whatever happens, they’ll be back again next year. Never got me down, Ray.