Jackie Tyrrell: Croke Park is the best place in the world – once the result goes your way
Sporting Cathedrals: Same routine is key to keep the head in the bubbling cauldron
Jackie Tyrrell (third from left) sits with Kieran Joyce, Cillian Buckley, , Eoin Murphy and Conor Fogarty after winning the 2014 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
I always found Croke Park mysterious. I could never understand why, which I suppose makes it even more mysterious. I have been lucky enough to visit it in every stage of my life. As a nervous little boy when the opposing crowd would cheer their team and I would shudder to my core. As a 17-year-old scrawny minor Kilkenny hurler. As a senior player for 14 years.
And now as a supporter, a pundit, a hurler on the ditch - they all amount to the same thing in a way. That’s the beauty of the game. We all have our views and opinions and they can always lead on to a conversation, a discussion and a disagreement. Croke Park facilitates all that.
The mystery of the place always had me though. I could never really put my finger on why. Was it the shortness of breath you got when you saw it as you approached, this massive stadium looking down on houses and buildings in north Dublin and making them seem like Monopoly pieces? Was it the way it intimidated its surroundings with its broadness and its history, in the same way Brian Cody would look down on Anthony Cunningham in 2012?
Was it how a hostile and noisy atmosphere could cut to utter silence in a single moment, like when Joe Canning struck the ball at the end of the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final? Is it the fact that for all its size, this stadium built out of thousands of tonnes of concrete and re-enforced steel can physically shake, like it did when Stephen Cluxton kicked the winner in 2011? Is it how Jones’s roads an hour before All Ireland final reminds you of how Coppers will be 12 hours later?
When you are going to Dublin to play a big game, you have mental check-points for yourself. Kilkenny to Crowne Plaza in Santry. Crowne Plaza to Drumcondra. The first sight of the Croke Park. I always looked at it with a bit of awe. The size of it, the beauty of it. That became my time to really focus.
You could always feel the atmosphere on the bus changing once you saw Croke Park out the window. It didn’t matter how many times we played there, it had that affect. That realisation hits you. This is the coliseum. Here. Now. Today. Someone is going to be left in tatters by the end of it – it’s you or it’s your opponent.
And so suddenly the quiet of the bus would become restless. A shuffle of feet. Lads organising themselves, sitting upright. Looking out at the crowds, looking up at the stadium. Like meerkats. Alive. Ready.
The bus always came in by the Cusack Stand and drove around under the Canal End to finish up outside the Hogan Stand dressing room. But the corner where the Cusack meets the Canal End is the tightest spot for a bus you could imagine. You’re talking inches either side, like trying to get a shot off in a phonebox with Seán Finn crowding you.
Everyone on the bus knew it and everyone would sit up in their seats to see was our driver for the day up to the job. You’d be looking at each other going, “this is a new lad today, let’s see what he’s made of.” There’d be 30 pairs of judgemental eyes piercing the back of his head as he gently inched around the corner. I often wondered would we some day break out into a round of applause when he managed it but we thought better of it. It wasn’t the time to go testing Brian’s sense of humour.
I loved arriving at the dressing room door, deep in the bowels of the stadium. It felt like you were in a dungeon, meaning that when you went out onto the pitch, you automatically felt free. There was a bit of Gladiator in it for me. Down there, you had that sense of anticipation, of a battle to be won as soon as you got out to where the sunlight hit your face. That’s the state of mind I liked being in.
I clung to certain rituals. There was always a familiar face in the door as you entered the dressing room. I never got the man’s name but was reassuring to see his face. “We won the last time we played and he was on our door.” He’d give us a good luck and shake the odd hand as we passed in by him. I always sat in the same spot.
We all had our routines. I craved that normality and familiarity. The more familiar things I saw, the better and more secure I became. Same faces, same routine, same place, same boots, same jersey, same crowd, even the same boxers. Same energy in the stadium, same stadium announcer - all those things played a part in my mental prep.
I remember they changed the format of the matchday programme from teams being printed in the centre pages to random pages up the front. Such a small thing but on that day, I gave it way more time and thought than I should have. Why would they do that? What was wrong with the old way? Why the hell am I even giving it a second thought?
Brian and the management team had their own little room beside the physio room. I never set foot in there and nor did anyone else. There could have been jacuzzies and fridges full of beer and pizzas thrown on tables in there and we would never know. I doubt it but I wasn’t about to go checking either.
The physio room would be manic. Bodies and tape everywhere. The wave of Deep Heat would hit you as soon as you walked in and it would burn your eyes. TJ Reid was always the last to get a rub. I have no idea why. Save the best ‘til last maybe. Doesn’t seem to do him any harm, anyway.
The TV in our dressing room would be turned off as the minor game proceeded. As we zoned in on the game, the silence in the dressing room would be broken by the cheers and jeers of the minor match. The noise of it would seep in and I always treated it as if it was the crowds baying for us to come out.
The dressing room has a warm-up area beside it. As we got closer to the game, the vibration and thud of the ball being hammered off the wall always got quicker and louder. Just as your heartbeat was starting to do the same.
The sacred black and amber jerseys were always lifted from the black bag and left in the middle of the table in a pile. Number one on the top, all the way down to number 30. All pressed, cleaned and ready to be handed out. Read in order from the programme and handed to you by our kitman Rackard Cody. I’d peel the sticker from the chest of the number four jersey, take a look at it and stick it on my bag beside my holy medal.
The bang on the door of the warm-up area would be the signal that it’s time to go. I was always relieved to hear it. The heat from the warm up, the pent-up energy in that room needed to be released. On a basic level, you needed oxygen and fresh air at that point. But most of all, I needed the wall of noise that greeted us as we turned to come out of the tunnel onto the pitch.
I always slowed down as I turned from the corridor to the tunnel. It could be slippy there and as I wearing cogs, I was always afraid I’d end up flooring myself. But once you turn that corner and get out onto the grass, the noise and air and light and everything rains down on you. Bliss.
I always loved defending the Canal End. There was sun to deal with down there and the side of the pitch beside the Hogan Stand was always closer to Brian and our management, which gave me security. I also felt the Canal End/Hogan Stand corner of pitch played a little slower, ball seemed to slow down on that side, which helped my game.
My theory was always that because there was no roof down at the other end if the pitch, the Hill 16/Cusack corner got plenty of sun. That meant that the ground was a little firmer there and the ball delivered into the forward always zipped a little quicker. Also, it’s that little bit easier to see an incoming ball at eye-level when the backdrop is Hill 16 so I preferred to be facing it rather than have my back to it. These were small things in my head that I probably gave too much time to but they helped.
When games were over, I loved to look around Croke Park and take it in properly. There’s nothing like the lap around the pitch after winning an All-Ireland. Your mind is freer in that moment that it will ever be. You relax and you see things that have been there the whole time without you noticing.
Silly things. The position of the stadium announcer. The Nally Stand hidden down in the corner. The seagulls flocking to my favourite corner of the pitch. Plastic bags swirling around the field now that everyone has gone. It looks like a completely different place now your eyes are actually open.
Losing in Croke Park actually has a similar effect, even though it feels monumentally different. What it has in common is that you notice different things that you wouldn’t have before. You sit in the dressing room with your head in your hands, staring at every joint in the block work. You find yourself studying the lino beneath your feet, as if you’re going to find the answers in it. The shower offers a brief escape. You lower your head and let the water beat off your back and flow down the drain, wishing you could escape the same way.
In a losing dressing room in Croke Park, you feel like the four walls are staring at you. Talking about you. Analysing your performance. He missed this ball. His man got that ball. You can hear the Sunday Game pundits ravaging you in the live studio, five floors above you down at the corner of the Canal and Hogan.
You steel yourself for the walk from the dressing room to the players’ bar. It’s no big distance but it’s a walk of shame. You pass the media with the head down. Not now, lads. You don’t want eye contact. You’ll stop for an autograph or a photo with a young supporter but that’s as much as you have the stomach for.
The real killer is the sound of singing and dancing as you pass the opponents’ dressing room. They haven’t even had a shower yet. You can hear their cogs chime off the concrete floor as they bounce up and down for joy. The echo of championés, championés bounces off the walls, the last thing you want to hear.
You imagine them in there, still in their gear and war paint, arm in arm, Liam MacCarthy airborne, tears of joy all around. Ten feet away, tears of pain occupy you but you swallow them and you harden. I need a drink and quick! The bar is no escape as it’s thronged by supporters, ex-players, sponsors. You find the smallest corner of the vast stadium and you hunker down amongst your own.
Even when it rained in Croke Park, I didn’t feel like rain because you were in Croke Park. Croke Park rain was like champagne. But sometimes champagne can taste sour if the occasion isn’t right. That was Croke Park to me - the best place in the world, as long as the result went your way.