Three All-Ireland senior finals in a week. Women’s football, men’s football, camogie – all in the space of seven days.
For those of us who have never and will never get there, we’re fascinated by the experience of All-Ireland final day; we still ask for tidbits of information about the day that only those inside the wire could tell us.
“And so, after a walk on the beach in the morning, what did you do?’”
“You slept for an hour after breakfast – wow!”
The players involved this week and last weekend have told us how important it is that it be treated as “just another game”, but no one ever really accepts that, and that’s not how it looks on the field.
Meath certainly didn’t play like it was any other game last Sunday. They played like it was going to be the last game of football they ever played, and in doing so gave what might be one of the most deeply satisfying team performances on All-Ireland final day that I’ve ever seen.
Think for a moment of what Eamonn Murray would have asked them to do in the weeks before the final against five-in-a-row-chasing Dublin. And then think about the players themselves, in their private moments, and how they dared dream how it might go.
The dream is supposed to distract from the process, but one happened because the other was followed to the letter. It was in stark contrast to their semi-final performance against Cork – as if the occasion was a release, not a burden. We could watch Gaelic games for the next decade and not watch a more fulfilling final day performance.
Maybe it’s a point worth making that Meath really weren’t supposed to be there. It was their first senior final, they were just promoted from the intermediate grade eight months ago, no one really gave them a chance. It was closer to that damnable, never-true phrase – “a shot to nothing” – than any other team involved this week.
For the other four, the pressures are rather different. Mayo... well, you know about Mayo – 70 years, and after 12 final appearances, they finally go in as favourites. Will that have any impact? “The process” demands that it won’t. Does everyone listen to the process? Can the process blot out the lived reality of the last four weeks?
For Cork and Galway in the camogie final, it’s the ongoing pursuit of excellence. They have six wins between them in the last eight years. They are regulars at the final hurdle. They expect to be here. Hard luck stories are for the other crowd.
The wide-eyed, almost disbelieving celebrations of last Sunday won’t be there this Sunday. For the vast majority of players who will have experienced the day before, this All-Ireland final day is about burnishing legacies, about proving something to yourself more than anything else.
Which leaves us with Tyrone. Doughty, indecipherable Tyrone. Their Ulster neighbours report that they are supremely confident. Every pundit in these pages has been saying this week that it will be a squeaker, that it is a very, very tough game to call... before saying Mayo will win.
Not alone are Mayo the choice of the chattering classes then, they are also the sentimental favourites. It’s safe to assume that the other 30 counties will be rooting for them,which casts Tyrone as the party-poopers, a position they are not unfamiliar – or unhappy – with.
Room to improve
And yet, and yet. They’ve already beaten Kerry. Dublin are out. It’s safe to say those two will still be around for the next little while, and they have plenty of room to improve on their 2021 showing.
This is not anything close to a “shot to nothing” for Tyrone. This could be their best chance to win one of these things for the next decade, which means the best chance any of these players will probably experience in their careers.
Pádraig O’Hora and Darren McHale aside, every other Mayo player likely to start on Saturday will have experienced this before – in the case of some of them, many times before. Darren McCurry wasn’t there, but the vast majority of this Tyrone team also played in 2018.
But the finals of 2018 and of 2020 were very different to this one. Dublin were almost untouchable in 2018, Tyrone were lauded afterwards for making a game of it for 20 minutes. The build-up, the nerves, the expectation before that game was coloured by that reality – there’s no way it couldn’t have been.
Mayo stuck doggedly to their task last year without ever really looking like they were going to win the game – and remember, that was in front of an empty stadium. The experience will be rather different on Saturday evening for the one-third of the Mayo team experiencing an All-Ireland final with a crowd for the first time.
Meath showed how it was done on Sunday. Who is inspired by the moment this weekend will determine where the garlands go.