You never forget losing an All-Ireland final. You never forget winning one either but you might have to be prompted to think of it. You might get asked about it or come across it in something you’re reading or it might be on TV some night. But nobody needs to remind you of the ones you lost. They stay with you and come to mind far quicker.
That shapes the person you are to a certain extent. For example, anytime someone asks me a general question about my time playing for Kilkenny, I know they’re not asking me about the finals I lost. Why would they? And yet those finals are almost always the first things that pop into my head – 2004, 2010, 2016.
The heartbreak of those days will jump straight into my mind – along with all the great days, obviously. It leaves my mind mixed and cluttered at times. I find myself wishing that it was only the thoughts of clear blue skies I had, the sun shining, all happy days of winning All-Irelands in Croke Park. But instead, it is laced with hurt and it means you can’t fully luxuriate in the years we won. That’s the best way I can describe what losing a final does to you.
Of them all, I think about the 2010 final the most. I remember every little detail. Down on my hunkers on the pitch as the Tipperary players went up the steps of the Hogan Stand to claim Liam MacCarthy from us. The gold streamers raining down from the roof. Michael Rice standing about five yards in front of me. Staring at the number 19 on the back of his jersey as Eoin Kelly lifted the cup and the roar exploded from the Tipp crowd.
My jersey soaked through from the wet day. Pat Kerwick belting out The Galtee Mountain Boy. Wishing I was anywhere else in the world bar here. Trudging down the tunnel to the dressing room, body shattered and feet on fire. I had worn cogs that day and they're a killer on the hard surface of Croke Park. But I never took a chance with boots when it rained – I would rather have a few days of sore feet than risk slipping at a crucial moment on a wet surface.
Back into the dressing room. Even worse in there. Silence. Dead silence. Tears. Lads’ heads buried in their hands. Devastation. Questions. How did that happen? Where did it all go wrong? What if I had made that move, or ran there, or hit that ball softer or harder? What happens now?
I remember Liam Sheedy’s speech. Very often, those opposition-manager speeches go in one ear and out the other. You’re half-listening, half-concentrating, going in and out. Not out of disrespect, you’re just preoccupied. Everything is a fog.
But I remember Liam that day. He spoke about how Tipp had been where we were on the same day 12 months beforehand. “We said that if we bottle this hurt that we are feeling right now, and come back stronger next year, we’d have no doubt about winning it when we got back.”
And he was dead right. Liam had been through that journey of hurt and had come out the other side and he could see how useful a tool it could be, once harnessed in the right way. That hurt was actually tangible, looking around the dressing room as he talked. Lads were broken, lying out flat on benches and tables and on the ground.
I hung onto that word ‘bottled’ for the next few months. It wasn’t that you wanted the hurt to stay with you every day and every night until you managed to come back and win. It was more that you wanted access to it, like a bottle you could take out of the fridge and have a drink out of every once in a while.
But that was all to come. In that losing dressing room, you are looking for some release from this badgering of the mind. Heading to the showers doesn’t help. Getting dressed doesn’t help. A bellyful of beer, the embrace of loved ones, of team mates – none of it helps.
You go to the function even though you’d rather just get on a bus with the rest of the group and head away to somewhere nobody knew any of you. But there’s a comfort in going out to Citywest too. Your family is there, your friends, the people who know you best and who have shared the last few months with you and understand what you’re feeling. And as the night goes on, you loosen out and it starts to get better. But there’s a long way to go.
Even waking up is different depending on whether you won or lost. I remember some years the morning after we won, checking the time and deciding there was a long day and night ahead and rolling over for another hour’s sleep. And it was easy sleep, dead to the world in no time. Pure contentment. But when we lost, once you were awake, you were awake. There was nothing you could do about it.
Losing in 2010 stuck with me longer than losing in 2004, purely because I knew the other side of it by then. I knew what it was to win a final and everything that went with it. For the rest of that week, it would occasionally pop into my head what the Tipp lads would be doing now. They’d be in Mullinahone on the Tuesday night, bringing the cup to the captain’s club. They’d have their GOAL match on the Wednesday and all the laughing and messing that went along with that. Meanwhile, we’re in the corner of a pub somewhere, putting a brave face on everything.
That week afterwards is hell. You were so close and now you’re as far away as ever. And there’s no way to avoid it. Everywhere you go, every person you bump into, every paper you open, it just feels like the worst day of your life is being relived over and over again. The hurt erodes with each passing day but it’s a slow process.
I always hated the second week. You go back to work and real life takes over. And you realise that you’ve been hiding from it all this time. I always cocooned myself in the week running up to the final so between that and a week on the beer after losing, you haven’t seen anyone outside the bubble in a fortnight. So you’re back to work and you’re meeting customers and workmates and they haven’t seen you since the game so of course it’s all they want to talk about.
It was hard to bite your lip at times. You’re in an emotional state anyway and for most of that week there’s usually a drink swimming in your system to heighten those emotions that little bit more. Sometimes, it was the really nice things that people would say that sends you over the edge.
A few times after that 2010 final, people would say something like: “Lads, ye’ve been great servants.” And in my head, I’d be going, “Great servants? Do you think I’m finished now, is that it? I’m only 28! Are you seriously writing me off to my face two days after an All-Ireland final? And after I gave my heart and soul for this county . . .”
I never reacted outwardly but I often felt during those conversations that I was only ever one remark away from breaking down in front of these people and bursting into tears. It’s a very emotional time. I clearly remember pulling the car over and crying on the side of the road, just to let it out. Sometimes, I would pull in and just think it out a bit, try to process what was bubbling in my head. And if tears came, so be it. I always felt better after it.
If you thought about it logically, you might wonder if it was all worth it. Looking back at it now from the safety of retirement, I can see what a risk it is to invest that much emotion in something that can ultimately end up making you feel so bad. But never once when you’re in the middle of it does it cross your mind not to do it.
Even in the worst of the days after the 2010 final, the foremost thought in my head was to do everything possible to get back and have another crack off Tipp in 2011. That was what gave me the biggest kick in life. That, to me, was living.
The first sign of a step forward was when you went back to your club and began to release the toxins from your body and mind. Just trying to feel normal again. It was a psychological change and a small attempt to look forward. Being back on a hurling field helps you deal with the defeat. Getting one leg back on the horse.
Not that you're much good to anybody in that state. In 2010, we played a challenge match the following Sunday against a club from up north. I can't remember who they were and actually I'm not sure it would have even registered with me on the day. I was hungover from seven days on the beer and anybody watching me could tell it a mile off. Brian Cody was there watching, I remember that.
My body was shot and my mind was all over the place. I was playing centre-back but I was all over the place, totally at sea. There were puck-outs coming down on top of me and I couldn’t even see the ball. Missing catches, not marking, fumbling everything that came my way. After 20 minutes of this, I got the curly finger from the sideline. And rightly so. I was no good to anybody.
I knew I should have been ashamed but I wasn’t. I just wanted to get out of there. I wasn’t in mental or physical place to be able to hold my own. Getting taken off in front of everyone helped me snap out of the lull.
“Right Jackie, time to let this thing off,” I said to myself.
From that point on, I started to move on from it and began to harness the hurt. To bottle it, as Liam Sheedy said.
It was a huge driver all the way through 2011. No doubt or question about it. All the way along, you wanted to get back there, you wanted to make amends, you wanted Tipp to make it back as well. Just to try and fix that hurt.
What I found though as time went on is that you can’t actually fully fix it. You draw various lines under it but it’s still there. You go back to work, you draw a line. A couple of months after the final, you get the group text saying it’s time for the end-of-year assessments and you do that and you draw a line. You win the following year’s All-Ireland and you draw the biggest line of all.
But still, even this week thinking about what the Waterford and Galway players are facing next Sunday, the 2010 final popped into my head and I felt a pang.
I know I will always carry it with me. That’s how much it hurts.