All-Ireland final replays: The second time is never the same

Teams, prize, venue may be identical, hardly anything else resembles All-Ireland final

Kilkenny’s JJ Delaney leaves the field as the sky turns dark after the All-Ireland hurling final replay between Kilkenny and Tipperary in 2014. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Kilkenny’s JJ Delaney leaves the field as the sky turns dark after the All-Ireland hurling final replay between Kilkenny and Tipperary in 2014. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

On the Friday evening of September 25th 2014, Eamon O’Shea got into his car outside work at NUIG and pointed it into the rush-hour traffic. There wasn’t much juice left in the sun and he was trundling along absent-mindedly enough, his mind everywhere and nowhere. “And it sort of hit me,” he says. “Here, we have a match tomorrow.”

The match was the All-Ireland final replay against Kilkenny. Three weeks had passed since the draw, one of the greatest finals in history – Bubbles, Hawkeye, all that malarkey. But because the humdrum of daily life had kicked in again in the meantime, just for that fleeting moment it nearly had to tap him on the shoulder to get noticed. “In one sense, it felt like going into just another Saturday,” says O’Shea. “But so many things were going to happen on that Saturday.”

Replays are different. All-Ireland final replays profoundly so. The teams are the same, the prize is the same, the venue is the same. But really, nothing is the same. It’s like a sauce that has been slow-cooked and reduced down, leaving only the concentrated flavour of the game itself. Everything else evaporates.

There’s no build-up. No open night with supporters. No selfies, no gaggles of kids looking for autographs. There are no songs, no local radio, no painted cars or sheep (no new ones, at any rate). The shams who came home from America for the first one went back on Tuesday and won’t be around again till Christmas. So there’s less madness around the place. It’s still the most important game of the year but hardly anyone is in final mode.

Ordinary game

“It becomes more like just an ordinary game,” says Mick Dempsey, Kilkenny selector for replayed finals in 2012 and 2014. “Okay, we know it’s an All-Ireland but there’s a normality about it that you don’t get the first day. I remember walking up to the Clare v Cork game in 2013. I parked the car away downtown and headed up to Croke Park and the feeling you got walking up to it was, ‘Well, this is just another game. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.’

“Whereas with the All-Ireland final day, there’s a huge sense of anticipation. Players have been caught up in the tension and there’s the scramble for tickets and there’s hype everywhere. By the time the replay comes around, all that is gone.”

Dempsey and O’Shea both work in universities so in the normal run of things the turning of the hurling season is a glove-fit for them. September comes, the final happens on the first weekend and by Tuesday, the new academic year is demanding you knuckle down. A good half of every All-Ireland panel is made up of students and/or teachers so they’re in the same mode. By replay time at the end of September, intercounty life is supposed to be done for the year.

“Just the nature of being involved at that level, you postpone a lot of things until it’s over,” says O’Shea. “I was ready to go headlong into work on the Tuesday morning. I had planned out loads of things that I had to do, including a good bit of travel. And everyone has that sort of stuff to attend to. Lads were going back to student life, other lads were going back to real life. So when you’re looking at a replay, all has to be redone in your head before you even get to the training pitch.”

First, you have to get through the Sunday night. All teams are due at a banquet – and nearly all teams go. Tipperary did, Kilkenny did (both times). Galway didn’t in 2012 and instead headed back west. Mayo and Dublin both did last Sunday. There is no right, there is no wrong. What everyone agrees on though is that everyone needs a night to decompress before turning their attention to the replay.

Flat atmosphere

“It’s an unreal situation,” says Dempsey. “We went back to the hotel. The meal goes ahead but there are no speeches and it’s a flat atmosphere. You’re trying to figure out the match and it’s very difficult to do so because your head is not in a great place. Some of the players would have done a bit of recovery work that night when they got back to Kilkenny.

“We had made no arrangements to go to a swimming pool to start that process but some players would have just taken it on themselves to go and do that. Some would have used ice baths when they got back that night. How beneficial that is, I don’t know. There’s probably as much psychological worth to it as physical worth. It gave those players a focus and started that process of resetting for the next day.”

“I don’t think we ever considered not going,” says O’Shea. “A lot of people had put a lot of work and effort into it so I think we were always going to go, regardless. But it was low-key. The following morning, we would have trained on the way back down to Tipp. Well, not trained but just stretched and that kind of thing.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes with a final. You can’t just come back Tuesday night and say, ‘We go again, lads.’ You have to grade that and link it to what has gone on. You have to get everybody back on an even keel again.”

Easier said than done. In 2000, the last time there was a replay of the football final, Galway and Kerry had to jointly endure the traditional post-All-Ireland lunch on the Monday. Skipping it wasn’t encouraged but a few players on either side muttered something about having to get home “to work” all the same. These days, a far more pressing matter is when management can push the button on replay prep.

“On the Monday in 2012, we did a recovery session and had a meeting,” says Dempsey. “We organised training again for Wednesday and we had hoped to get a reasonably good session done. But when we spoke to the players and looked for some of our KPIs [key performance indicators] to gauge their readiness to train, we cut back on that session significantly. Players just weren’t ready to get stuck in again.

“That was the main thing we learned for 2014. You have all sorts of information but your best guide is the players themselves. People will tell you it’s an exact science but it is actually more complicated. There is an instinct involved. I would imagine the two teams will be more cautious than anything and will do less rather than more.

“The work really is getting the heads right and getting the tactical aspect right. These weeks turn into a private time for the two teams. There isn’t the same interaction with the press or the public or anyone really. It nearly feels like going back to pre-season and a block of training earlier on in the year when the outside world isn’t as tuned into what you’re doing. The physical work is minimal enough. It’s more about mindset and tactics.”

On the day itself, teams make small tweaks from what went before. Logistics change. Getting a bus through Dublin city is more difficult on a Saturday than on a Sunday so you have to leave for Croke Park a half an hour earlier. The lights came on before half-time last Sunday – they’ll be on for the warm-up next week. Neither side has played a game under lights since March; Mayo’s last one was against Dublin in Castlebar in February. Adjustments, adjustments.

The place is empty

“The other thing,” says O’Shea, “is you arrive at the pitch on a Saturday about 90 minutes or an hour and a quarter before throw-in and you go out onto the pitch and the place is empty. There’s no minor match, so there’s no crowd in watching it. That feeling of an event that is there on All-Ireland final day isn’t there the first time you walk out.

“They’re just small things. On their own, if you’re prepared for them, they shouldn’t bug you.”

Small, but different. No point pretending otherwise.

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