Jackie Tyrrell: There is one game in my career I will never forget
Next week’s draw revives memories of an unforgettable occasion in Nowlan Park
A section of the packed house at Nowlan Park watch Henry Shefflin in action: “It was two teams facing off in a battle in a desert heat, testing themselves to the last drop.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
It’s fair to say the qualifier draw on Monday morning will be the most anticipated one since 2013. So many of the pre-summer favourites are in there and we’re nearly guaranteed to see a big clash.
Those teams don’t want to be there but it’s up to them now to embrace it and go full-bore for it. When it happened to us in 2013, it resulted in one of the most memorable games I have ever been a part of.
We weren’t actually drawn straight out against Tipperary that time. We had drawn with Dublin the day before the draw was made and so all our focus was on beating them in the replay and leaving Tipp to be their problem. But once we lost the replay in Portlaoise, it was only when I was sitting in the dressing room that it hit me.
Tipp next Saturday in Nowlan Park. Jesus.
We had no frame of reference for this. Other than replays, we weren’t used to seven-day turnarounds for games. Usually you would have three-to-five weeks to get ready, time to analyse the opposition, get injuries rehabbed, test each other in training and prepare for the game.
But in the qualifiers you are going in blind to a certain extent. It’s sprung on you. You thought your season was headed in one direction and now it’s gone in the other. New opposition, no time to prepare. Just do it.
In that respect, it helped that it was Tipperary. We knew each other so well at that stage. We had played each other in three All-Ireland finals in a row from 2009 to 2011 and then in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2012. Throw in a few epic league finals and there was nothing we didn’t know about each other.
Familiarity had definitely bred contempt by that stage. There was no problem finding motivation. Maybe we would have found it hard to rise ourselves after losing the replay if we were facing some other team but it was easy when it was Tipp. They were the old enemy for us by that stage. You couldn’t lose to them. Especially not in Nowlan Park.
The build-up that week in Kilkenny was different to any game I’ve ever been involved in. It had all the nerves of the week of an All-Ireland final but none of the joy. For an All-Ireland, people are full of chat all week about travel arrangements and tickets and ‘are you staying up?’ and everything else. A final is something to be savoured.
But nobody was savouring this. The dominant mood in Kilkenny was fear. There was no joy in it. People were worried. We could be out of the championship next week. And worse, it could be Tipperary who put us out. It was like a cloud that followed us around for the week. You were anxious the whole time.
The team that had won those All-Irelands was obviously getting older and time was clearly catching up with us. You got the sense that people were generally okay with it all coming to an end, as it eventually had to. But they couldn’t live with it ending with a defeat to Tipp in Nowlan Park.
None of us could. We were backed into a corner and we had to come out and face it. We didn’t train seriously all week because there was no time. We did a couple of recovery sessions, had some meetings and basically prepared our minds for war.
We had a heap of injuries. My quad was killing me. Henry had a screw in his foot. Paul Murphy and TJ Reid were doubtful all week. But that was irrelevant, really. I know in my head, I was definitely playing, come hell or high water. I presumed the rest of them were the same. All bets were off.
Everything was different, inside the squad and outside it. I had a small group of family and close friends who would always text me to wish me luck before a game. Those texts were always very straight-up – one line wishing you all the best and leaving it at that. On that Saturday though, every text that came through in the early afternoon had an extra line.
“Best of luck, Jackie. Some crowd around Kilkenny already.”
“Good luck tonight. Some atmosphere building around town.”
“All the best. People are queuing and there’s still four hours to the game.”
I was sitting at home in my house counting down the hours. I was trying to stay calm and relaxed but these texts weren’t making it easy. I was already nervous because of the quad and because it was Tipp but this was just making it worse. It was only a small departure from the norm but even that can have an effect when you’re as wound up as I was.
I decided that the best way to settle myself was to head into town. We were meeting in the Newpark Hotel three hours before the game and, from where I live, I could have gone 10 minutes around the ring road or five minutes through town. I knew I probably shouldn’t but the devil inside me wanted to see what all these text messages were about.
I wanted to keep the windows up and the head down and I pulled the visor across in case anybody would spot me. But it was so hot that day that I had to let the windows down to get some air in. It meant I could hear all the slagging and the roaring and the messing as I drove through the city. The crowds were massive, spilling out of pubs onto the streets. Tipp fans, Kilkenny fans, all going at it. The place was just mobbed.
We got a bus from the Newpark to Nowlan Park. Anyone who knows Kilkenny will have some laugh at that – you’re probably talking about a drive of three minutes. But you couldn’t risk lads getting swamped by the crowds so we had a Garda escort and everything.
The heat was oppressive. We arrived and dropped our bags in the dressing room and went out onto the pitch for a few pucks. Not a warm-up, just a bit of a puck around to settle in. After a few minutes, our dietician Noreen Roche came out and hooshed us all back into the dressing-room. “It’s too hot, lads. Ye’re losing fluids. Get in, get in.” She was right. My t-shirt was stuck to me. Unfortunately, we always wore black.
The place was packed to the rafters – this was over an hour before the game. I’ve warmed up in that stadium for matches since I was a teenager. I’ve never warmed up to a packed house before. There was no game on before ours and still everybody was sitting there ready to go. You could feel the hum and the buzz growing as the game came closer.
The only time they went quiet was when the teams were being announced. All week there was a rumour that Henry might be ready to play some part. You could see the whole stadium was hanging on every word to see would his name be called. In the end, I’d say hardly anybody heard his name. All the announcer had to say was, “There is one addition to the Kilkenny subs...” The place erupted.
The game started at a frantic pace. I had sweat constantly dripping into my eyes. I was marking Bubbles O’Dwyer. My quad was okay but I felt it tighten every time I tried to turn sharply. I forgot it very quickly each time because the action just kept going and going. The first half passed in a matter of minutes. Every score was cheered as if it won an All-Ireland.
You forget yourself in games like that. I went over to take a sideline cut at one stage and as it happened, it was exactly at the moment Henry was coming into the game. The place went nuts for him. He came on for Mattie Ruth – we slagged Mattie afterwards that he got some send-off leaving the pitch.
Henry was standing right beside me, about to go on. And for some reason, I gave him a slap on the back as he was crossing the sideline. I have no idea what made me do that. I had never done that in my life. What was I thinking?
This wasn’t some young lad going out for his first game. This was Henry Shefflin. Did he really need a comforting slap on the back from me? What was I expecting? Him to turn around and go, ‘Ah Jesus, thanks Jackie – I was waiting on that all day, it means a lot’? That’s what I mean – you forget yourself.
We got ahead and we always had a small cushion. The crucial moment came when Eoin Kelly got a goal chance in the second half and JJ Delaney just threw himself at it. Somehow he got a bit of his hand in the way and the ball deflected out for a 65. Eoin actually missed the 65 as well.
A game of inches. Only for JJ, I could be sitting here writing about a day filled with regret and hurt. Instead, all I think of now is an amazing game and occasion that I can look back on with huge fondness. The nerves of the crowd filtered onto the pitch. I was out on my feet with 15 minutes to go. the heat was cruel. But we defended our goal with our lives and cleared every ball that came into us. You couldn’t feel more alive than that.
At the final whistle, we went bananas. We reacted like we had just won an All-Ireland. But this was, in an odd way, something more than that. It was a unique occasion, a game that would live forever just by itself.
It was two teams facing off in a battle in a desert heat, testing themselves to the last drop and finding out what they had when it came right down to it. My quad was like a rock after it and I had lost half a stone in fluids but I didn’t care. I knew I had been part of a magical experience.
Afterwards, I did something I never did after any other game. I went down into Kilkenny city to meet my family and soak it all up. We were playing Waterford the following week so I didn’t have a pint or anything. I just wanted to live that couple of hours, to get a feel for an atmosphere I knew even then could never be repeated.
The walk down to Langton’s for the grub after the match was like a homecoming. Everywhere was rammed and people were coming out of pubs to applaud us down the street. After the food, I went on to Harkins, our local, to meet my mam and dad. They were all still buzzing from it. They were giving out that because they’d all worn shorts with the heat, their legs were stuck to the plastic seats. The things you remember.
After a couple of hours, I went home and went to bed. Call it adrenaline or whatever but the game was still pulsing through me well into the early hours. I was still sweating buckets a good four hours after the game finished. I lay there staring at the ceiling, replaying the whole experience in my head.
I’d say it was close to three o’clock in the morning before I finally drifted off to sleep.