Jackie Tyrrell: Cody taught us to block out All-Ireland noise
Waterford and Galway players have to get into a routine that shrinks their world
Waterford’s Kevin Moran, Mikey Kearney and Stephen Bennett celebrate after the semi-final victory over Cork. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
I always found this week of an All-Ireland run-in strange. You’re floating. You’re in limbo. You have qualified for the biggest game of the year and now it’s the biggest game of your life. You have your head half-tilted back, looking backwards, admiring what you’ve done. It’s normal, we all do it. But there’s that voice in the back of your head all the time, telling you to snap out of it. You know you should have your head fixed firmly forward.
Don’t look back too long or it will be too late. You can only win this All-Ireland. And only you can win it. Every other team has fallen away except you and the opposition. Every minute you spend thinking about the great semi-final you just won is a minute you’re not thinking of how to beat the only other team left. It’s wasted energy. Dangerous, lethal territory.
But it’s so understandable. Especially when it’s your first final. Imagine the Waterford players this week.
Other than Brick Walsh and Kevin Moran, none of them ever won an All-Ireland semi-final before last Sunday. In 2016 and 2015, the semi-final was the point at which their summer ended. This week last year, this week two years ago, they were drowning their sorrows. Those are hard weeks in any player’s year, full of regrets and despair.
So you wouldn’t be human if you got to this point and weren’t tempted to look back and enjoy your achievement a little bit. Even for the Galway lads who have been to finals before, this is still the best thing you’ve done in your career so far.
The message has to be very simple, very direct. That game is gone. It’s not worth anything other than the matchday programme you’ve thrown in a box under the stairs or bed. When you take that programme out in years to come, what will that game mean to you?
Was it a great win that drove us on to win that unreal All Ireland? Or was it a game we won in a year we didn’t finish the job off? Deep down, everyone in the panel knows that’s how they should be thinking but it’s no harm driving it home. Leave nothing to chance.
I always liked to be on the team that won the first semi-final. It’s only a slight advantage but it is an advantage. You get an extra week to get the semi-final out of your system. An extra week to recover the body and refocus the mind. Beyond yourself, it gives all the backroom staff and officials an extra week to sort out logistics. Nothing is rushed. You get to take your time and do it right.
The flipside of that is you can be a bit too unhurried. Things can drift. The weeks go by in a flash and all of a sudden, the final is there, whether you’re ready or not. That’s why this week is so strange – the final is still far enough away to not feel totally real yet but too close to ignore even if you wanted to. You have to get the balance right.
This is where the management takes charge. I’ll never forget the training session in Nowlan Park on the Tuesday night of this week in 2007. It was two nights after Limerick had beaten Waterford in the second semi-final and we were out having our puck-around before lining out for a 15-on-15 game.
We had been doing this for about 10 minutes or so, just going through our usual drills, when Brian Cody blew his whistle and called us in.
“Right lads, head back into the dressing room there,” he said.
Oh-oh. Straight away, we knew he wasn’t happy. He had never done that before. Come to think of it, I never remember him doing it again. We went inside and he closed the door behind us. Just him, us and the selectors. No physios, no county board officials. Nobody watching in from the stands seeing him reading us the riot act. Only us.
And he laid it out, very simply. He didn’t like what he saw out there. Our body language was all wrong. We were still in limbo, even though it was nine days since our semi-final. Limerick had upset Waterford in the second semi-final and it was as if we just assumed we were going to beat them handy in the final.
Straight away, that snapped us out of it. It reshaped our focus. It might only have been 48 hours since Limerick had won their semi-final but as soon as we left that dressing room, we were zoned in on what we had to do. Okay lads, limbo is over. No bad habits, no cruising through these weeks.
That was one of Brian’s great strengths. As soon as he got a sniff of complacency seeping into the team, he was on it like a dog with a bone. We hadn’t even started playing a match yet, we were just pucking around. But even in that, he sensed something was off. Bang. Blow the whistle. Get these lads in and stop the drift before it starts.
When you’re getting ready for an All-Ireland final, there’s no easing yourself into it. This is something you want more than everything else in the world – either start acting like it or you’ll be bypassed by someone who is. Be relentless, from here until the final whistle. Foot to the floor. Focus forward.
The big job is avoiding the noise. Suits, ticket orders, sports gear, boots, media days, player profiles for the programme. Distractions and noise. This is the week to get all that done. Get done and get rid.
Especially tickets. Do not get caught up in the circus that exists with them. This is the week I always got the orders in and the money collected. After that, I was able to bang out a simple text or give a simple answer to any request – “Sorry bud, I have the tickets got already and given out”. I’ve seen lads carrying around the guts of €3,000 in their bag the week of an All-Ireland final or messing around chasing fellas for the money.
No way. Not for me. A fortnight out, I was done with tickets. No point even asking me – the answer would get shorter with every passing day.
No distractions. Everywhere you go people will all talk about the match. Work, gym, shopping, in town, outside Mass, you name it. I got into a routine of just doing enough those few weeks and limiting my life’s exposure to the outside world.
I only went out when I had too. I did one big shop or got someone else to do it. My girlfriend or family did the coffee run for me. And when I did head outside I pretended to be on my phone most the time. Why? So I didn’t have to listen to idle talk about the match. Potential teams, injuries, opposing team players, this lad said this and that pundit said that. I couldn’t care less.
It was a habit I got into. I shrank my world for the duration of three weeks – work, training, the gym. Outside of that, very little. Coffee stops, walks in the park, all gone for these three weeks. And this is the week to get that habit regimented. Get used to it, embrace it, normalise it, don’t resent it. Love it, even.
Like everything else, that comes with experience. I look back at the build-up to my first All-Ireland final now and I can’t believe how naive I was. I didn’t take steps to block out the noise. I fell into the trap of thinking still as a fan rather than as a player. I saw the buzz going on and I wanted a part of it.
The day before the 2006 All-Ireland final, I went down the town in Kilkenny to take in the atmosphere. Part of it was just blind curiosity, part of it was nearly wanting to be stopped by people. I was enjoying being seen out and about 24 hours before the final, enjoying the buzz, enjoying the fact that people knew who I was.
The Kilkenny Supporters Club had set up a stall on the back of a trailer selling flags and colours and I, like an eejit, was standing there chatting away to anyone who came over. God, I cringe when I think about it now.
In my defence, it was pure nerves. I was awake at the crack of dawn that Saturday morning and I was lying there thinking, “How in the name of God am I going to fill the hours from now until 3.30 tomorrow? How am I going to punch in the day?” And it was early enough when I went down the town. But still. Ludicrous carry-on.
There are two ways of learning. Either you do it wrong the first time or somebody else does it wrong and they tell you about it. That night, before my first All-Ireland final, I left my phone on the locker beside my bed. Never thought to put it on silent or even just turn it off altogether. So with every text that came in wishing me good luck, the phone pinged and vibrated. Kept me awake half the night. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
And here’s the thing – I had experience all around me. I had All-Ireland winners, All Stars, Hurlers of the Year, no end of lads who knew the score, who had all been through their first All-Ireland final before. And I still made basic, thoughtless mistakes. That’s what an All-Ireland final can do to you.
So this week, it’s important for management on both sides to have made sure that there’s no sense of drift. Get out of limbo, start zoning in. If you’re a player, don’t build it up too much, don’t become consumed by it. If you’re consumed with anything, get consumed with making it just another game.
If you hang out with your team-mates outside of training normally, keep doing that. But don’t feel like you have to do recovery sessions and gym sessions together now to build that unity for an All-Ireland or go ringing each other every other day. You don’t have to live in each other’s pockets to know you’re ready. Relax, trust the process, it’s got you here so far.
The trick is to treat it as just another game, even though it’s not like any other game. That takes a bit of work and the work starts now. It makes this week just as important as the week of the game.