Every so often you encounter afternoons in sport which seem to affirm everything you feel is true and important about playing. I landed home from training in Glasgow on Sunday with butterflies in my stomach for what was in store.
It had been an extremely busy week at Celtic. I suppose most of us at the club were excited by the prospect of Brendan Rodgers coming in as manager.
He immediately made a strong impression on us all in terms of very quickly communicating his overall vision for the first team and the club and for then putting that in practice at training.
So I spent an hour or two writing up notes on that morning’s training session and then turned on the television in time to get the build-up to Ireland’s game against France.
The game held a particular importance for anyone from Donegal because Seamus Coleman was leading the team out.
I was keen to see him walk out onto the pitch and to see him then delivering the team talk in the huddle was quite a moment. Obviously we couldn’t hear what was being said but even watching from Glasgow, it was apparent that the team was locked into that moment and were completely concentrated on what he was saying and what they wanted to do.
And it was a hair-raising moment for those of us who knew Seamus on his way up. It would make you very proud.
Seamus was a genuinely talented Gaelic football player and, like most people involved in GAA in the county, I would have seen him play many times. In a different world, he would have been playing for Donegal in Breffni Park the evening before rather than in Lyon. It's funny where your path can lead you but it was just a thrilling moment to witness.
And then, of course, a few minutes later I found myself jumping up and down when Ireland got the penalty. I was half crouched, half standing in front of the television when Robbie Brady was standing over the ball. And the second it went in, I think the neighbours knew they had an Irish man living among them.
That’s what sport does: makes you jump around your living room on your own. After that, like everyone else in the country, I was playing every second in my mind.
It seemed like an extraordinary atmosphere in Lyon and it also seemed like the Irish management got it right in terms of their personnel and the team’s willingness to get on the ball.
There was a strong physical dimension to the game and they were playing with an edge and players were looking to double up and support along the flanks. But they were keen to play ball and express themselves too.
For the first 45 minutes, Ireland were doing something we talk about a lot here: squeezing the percentages.
It’s peculiar in soccer: players can sometimes feel that by working flat out, they are doing themselves a disservice because they are perceived as “technical” players. But the very top players bring all of those attributes to their game: relentless work ethic combined with their repertoire of individual, particular skills.
It is like a cocktail which can psychologically intimidate the opposition and, for the first 45 minutes of the match, that is exactly what happened.
Ireland played from the back at times and delivered it long to Murphy and Long on occasion and pressed up and fell back and they visibly unsettled France.
And I was so impressed and excited that I was tempted to go online to see when and where the quarter-final was on and was dreaming of maybe being there.
But I checked myself. There were still 45 minutes and the seven v three day turnaround was a tough challenge. To play in that heat – and not just in the heat but at that intensity – was a punishing demand.
When you look at the two French goals; for the first one somebody switched off in the box and for the second one, somebody didn’t track a runner. And that comes down to concentration lapses. And I imagine the heat and turnaround was central to those goals.
But it didn’t diminish their will or their hunger. Even at 2-1 down, the Irish players didn’t wilt one bit in their ambition or will to win.
There is psychological warfare going on in the kind of questions Ireland asked of France. Ireland brought this intensity into the stadium in Lyon and the moment that they dipped, France sensed their opportunity. Players smell blood and are acutely aware of when there is a lull in the other team’s collective effort.
That is why it was no coincidence that the two France goals came in quick succession. I do feel Ireland did as well as they possibly could because their mentality was incredibly strong. When you take into account the heat, the turnaround, playing France there and the small ticket allocation and, of course, going down to ten men, it could have really fallen apart. And that didn’t happen. They still wanted to get on the ball and they wanted to play. There was composure to their play so even though they lost, they could have given nothing more.
It was poignant to see Shay Given afterwards. Shay has become a good friend and has been an incredible servant to the country. We were sharing texts through the competition and he was so enthusiastic.
A lot of time players get bad press but these guys genuinely care about representing their country. Of course he wanted to play but he was 100 per cent behind the project and the squad and whatever he decides to do now, he can be very proud of all he has achieved.
The point of all this is when I watched the Donegal-Monaghan game on Saturday evening, there were a lot of similar traits on display.
It is strange in some ways to now watch as a supporter on television a rivalry that was a central part of my life for a number of years. But whenever it starts, it is just about the game. What are they doing? What are we doing? How we are attacking and defending? Details, you know.
There was so much intensity of effort and players making lung-busting runs and just having each other’s back. These teams have won the last five Ulster titles between them. They say familiarity breeds contempt but it can also breed respect.
Now, I wouldn’t disagree that Monaghan and Donegal really, really don’t like each other. But they do have respect for each other as individuals now because they keep coming at each other and what they share is a mutual understanding of how hard the other side is working to try and achieve another Ulster championship.
Weirdly, they are two very closely matched teams and have been for quite some time. They bring similar traits. It is not an All-Star cast up front but they do have their All-Stars. It is built on good defence on both sides. They play an aggressive running game.
I felt Paddy McGrath did a great job on Conor McManus and Ciarán Gillespie had a very solid first start and got up the field and put himself in position to score what would have been a very memorable goal. Ryan McHugh was just all-round excellent again.
Donegal struggled on their kick-out but Monaghan’s was truly first class. Even when they went short, they managed to get the ball up to the Donegal 21 within two or three passes. Previously, they were sauntering up with the ball. Now they are attacking more directly. They also attacked with great width, which is another development from last year.
Donegal scored 0-11 again. So that fear remains if they don’t get the goal, they may fall short on the scoreboard. We just don’t seem to be able to get over that number. It was an unexpectedly open game and I felt Donegal ran the ball so well, with terrific incisions and quick hands and real intent. Their reaction to losing the man was extremely positive. They scored a goal within a minute, just as they did in the Fermanagh game. They seemed to actually raise their game when they lost Martin McElhinney. And I think that shows they have it within them to react to adverse circumstances.
And I feel Monaghan have the same stuff: they have both lifted trophies and know how to win and also how hard it is to win. So Monaghan didn’t panic when Donegal made their move late on.
Even trailing by two points at the end of normal team, they looked extremely composed and I felt Karl O’Connell, in particular, was superb in the middle of the park in this period.
Both teams were able, in a meaningful way, to threaten the opposition goal. There was a number of goals chances not taken which makes me feel the replay could be very exciting and unpredictable. The ferocity and the intensity will come even more to the fore.
I’d say Monaghan will be more defensive because Donegal sliced through them a few times. It was back and forth and there was physicality and incredible scores and that’s what people want to see. It is probably rare that you see two encounters like that back to back.
Neither Donegal nor Monaghan would yield an inch. They both are very clear in their game plan and know how to execute their respective systems. There are lot of variables in the mix. A lot of teams just get men behind the ball now but they don’t really know how to defend.
Monaghan have looked at the modern game and they have fine-tuned it and they have coached it. You can see the repetition and the discipline out wide and they keep doing what they are doing.
In short it was a proper championship match. Michael Murphy and Drew Wylie’s early collision summed it up. It was for real. I didn’t see anything comparable in Croke Park on Sunday and I was thinking, watching those games: what are people waiting for? This is what they have trained for. Whatever you have done until that point, show it.
That’s what made Saturday so special for me. Ireland put their bodies on the line against France on Sunday. But both teams did the same in Breffni Park. So once you know you are watching a contest with that kind of immersive involvement, it becomes completely absorbing.
My mother always used to say, when she’d catch me sneaking out of the kitchen as a child with a biscuit: Honesty is the best policy. You know: ‘Jim, what have you behind your back? ‘Nothin!’ ‘What have you behind your back? Honesty is the best policy.’
And she was right. There was honesty in those performances and it is all you can ask for. It was so refreshing to see. When I was growing up, championship football was absolutely raw. When you went into that environment you didn’t know what was going to happen. Players were so pumped up that they were flying into tackles. And now I look at it and I sometimes feel there are better games in the national league than in the championship. I don’t know why that is.
Are people losing sight of why they are playing and training? You look at teams taking to the field and too often the games are of a mediocre intensity. Perhaps teams believe they aren’t going to win because the gaps are getting bigger.
But clearly both Monaghan and Donegal do believe they can win in Ulster.
And Ireland knew they had to be competitive if they were going to live with France and the only way they could achieve that was with a burning desire.
There is a simple but valuable lesson there for all teams at all levels.