Ciarán Murphy: no place in an All-Ireland final for ordinary men

The fitness level needed in the All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry was scary

I have, of late, been reading quite a bit of George Plimpton, and his various misadventures in the world of professional sports. For anyone who has seen When We Were Kings, that magnificent documentary on the Rumble in the Jungle directed by Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford, Plimpton is the tall, angular Manhattanite with the extraordinarily plummy accent, who blathers on amusingly about, amongst other things, the succubus that finally took care of big George Foreman.

He wrote a series of articles and books that could broadly be filed under “participatory journalism” – where he would endeavour to understand a job by throwing himself into it entirely. To that end he acted in a Western, performed a comedy set in Vegas, and played in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, but his best-known forays were into the world of sports.

In 1958 he pitched an exhibition game at Yankee Stadium, having been enthralled by the view from just over the dugout at a baseball game – the ensuing book was called Out Of My League. And he spent a pre-season training with the American football team the Detroit Lions, from which came his most famous book Paper Lion.

Reading both of those books in the last week, it’s not too difficult to appreciate where my mind has been. I watched the All-Ireland hurling final from the front row in section 308 in the Cusack Stand, as close to “over the dugout” as you can get in Croke Park.


What you lose in overall perspective when sitting in the front row in Croke Park, you get back in the tiny details of up-close action.

Before the game began the Tipperary goalkeeper Darren Gleeson spent 10 minutes pinging 50 yard puck-outs on to the hurley of his No 2 standing on the sideline beside us – we watched the ball fly back and forth between the keepers as if it was on a string.

Making the ball talk

In the second half we were given an audience with Noel McGrath as he glided around the field – working hard, tackling feverishly, and making the ball talk when he gathered possession.

And then there was John O'Dwyer's goal – from our position on the Kilkenny "45" in the second half we were able to experience the exact moment when he decided to attack Paul Murphy rather than loop around for his point. I'm there in the background of one of the camera angles on replay, clapping my hands furiously as if sensing the coming turning point.

It was intoxicating enough to try to imagine yourself out there but an All-Ireland final would be a rather different gig for Plimpton, for a number of reasons.

The idea of a mere mortal taking part in an All-Ireland final is pretty much the attraction of the All-Ireland final in the first place.

There was a time when the gap between the best club players and the best county players was not so great. Given three or four weeks of intensive preparation, your average club player even today still might not embarrass himself if thrown into the midst of an intercounty training session.

Exhibition games

But exhibition baseball games, intra-squad gridiron scrimmages, and A vs B games in MacHale Park are one thing – what we will see on Sunday is another thing altogether.

Once it might have been something to seek solace in – that there, but for the grace of God, goes one of us on All-Ireland final day.

There was once room for the slightly overweight, the short and stocky, or the tall and rake-thin. But the level of aerobic fitness needed to survive in the All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry a couple of weeks back was scary. It was a level above anything I'd ever seen in a GAA game . . . and in the end it broke Kerry's resistance. As has been stated plenty of times since, Mayo should be better able to handle the pace. But an All-Ireland final is no longer a place for a man in our condition (ie, that of an ordinary human being).

And in the end, after all that we’ve seen from our intercounty players over the last four months, why would you want this to be easy?

Plimpton wrote of his surprise to hear applause as he wandered off the field in Paper Lion after his abject failure as a real-life quarterback. "Most of it [the applause], even if subconscious, I decided was in relief that I had done as badly as I had; it verified the assumption that the average fan would have about an amateur blundering into the brutal world of professional football. He would get slaughtered. If by some chance I had uncorked a touchdown pass, there would have been wild acknowledgement – but afterwards the spectators would have felt uncomfortable. Their concept of things would have been upset. The outsider did not belong, and there was comfort in that being proved."

If Sunday lives up to expectations, it will be brutal, and brutally paced, and brutally close. It may no longer be a place for the likes of us – and as an audience for that we should be thankful.

Ciarán Murphy

Ciarán Murphy

Ciarán Murphy, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a sports journalist. He writes about Gaelic games