I’ve been blessed down the years. Spoiled rotten. So many big games in Croker.
As a 12-year-old, I was there when Séamus Darby scored arguably the most fabled goal in Gaelic football history. The law of unintended consequences meant many a street trader outside that day was left gnashing his teeth when no one wanted to buy the Kerry five-in-a-row T-shirts.
The following year I saw the Dubs, the whole dozen of them, beat Galway in a game of some notoriety. And so it went on. I was at two of the four Dublin-Meath Leinster Championship clashes in 1991. Lots of other times when the Dubs came up short, like when Ray Cosgrove hit the post against Armagh in the dying seconds of the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final.
I made it on to the Hill when they finally reached the promised land in 2011. Loads and loads of amazing memories.
But the best games I ever saw in HQ were two Cumann na mBunscol epics . . .
However, before I get into that, and I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging here, there are loads of other fabulous sporting occasions I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.
Soccer brought me to places I’d never otherwise have seen. I first fell in love with Lansdowne Road in the spring of 1981 when I went to a friendly against Czechoslovakia. I’ve no idea what the score was and there were barely 10,000 people there, but I was enchanted by the old stadium.
That October, on my 12th birthday, I was one of 55,000 packed inside to see Ireland beat Michel Platini's France 3-2 in an amazing World Cup qualifier. Brady, Stapleton, O'Leary, Lawrenson, Langan, Moran, Hughton and Whelan. Class players.
Those afternoon kick-offs, in the time before floodlights, were a thrill. Dublin at a standstill on a Wednesday afternoon for the Boys in Green.
Despite some magnificent results in a group that also featured Holland and Belgium, we didn't make it to the fiesta that was Espana '82.
As a kid, it seemed to me we would never qualify. Dodgy decisions and dastardly antics by opposing teams ensured I often went to bed in tears. Our hopes of going to a big tournament dashed again.
But of course all of that was to change when, in what seemed like a lifetime later, we made it to Euro '88 in West Germany.
Then Italia 90. Jaysus, the glamour and romance. Some of my mates made it there but I wasn’t working long enough to finance such a jaunt.
But when we qualified for USA 94, nothing was going to stop me from being part of Jack’s Army.
Even the exorbitantly priced tickets I had to buy from an 'official ticket agent' in Cape Cod. I paid $360 for the Giants Stadium opener against Italy. (In fairness, they threw in a T-shirt which I still wear from time to time).
Ray Houghton’s goal was a thing of beauty that seemed to sail over Pagliuca’s head. Well worth every cent.
In 2002, I went to Japan. To paraphrase Fawlty Towers, don't mention the Saipan. It turned out to be a mind-blowing cultural experience. Niigata, Ibaraki (pick that out of the net, Mr Oliver Kahn) and Yokohama are forever etched in my memory.
The craic was mighty on the tram in Poznan after losing to Croatia at Euro 2012.
Bringing the young fella to the Stade de France for the match against Sweden at Euro 2016 was yet another highlight. We love those 1-1 victories.
When it comes to rugby, I'm a spoofer. But I saw Ireland seal the Triple Crown at Lansdowne in 1982 and 1985. I was there for Gordon Hamilton's moment in the sun at the '91 World Cup. The day we beat England at Croke Park is right up there. Respect, emotion, history and a thundering Irish performance. After all, an ancient foe is an ancient foe.
As I said at the outset, I’m a lucky boy. So many great days and nights of sport and craic at home and in far-flung destinations around the world.
But back to Cumann na mBunscol. Finals day is a wonder, one of the many things that make the GAA such a towering and important part of Irish life.
They open up the cathedral and let the kids run riot on a real field of dreams. And if your son or daughter, or niece or nephew, or grand-daughter or grandson, is out there, you get to bask in the sense of occasion, if not always in the reflected glory.
There might only be hundreds there to witness the games, but the atmosphere is every bit as electric as on a Sunday in September. My son Seán’s school, Scoil Bhríde, made it there twice in 2018. First up was a hurling final against their next-door neighbours in June.
Scoil Bhríde and Lios na nÓg are two Gaelscoileanna situated right beside each other in the Ranelagh outpost of Beechwood. And it's fair to say, the rivalry is intense. So you can imagine, a final in Croke Park meant a local derby to match El Clasico for intensity.
Scoil Bhríde stormed into a commanding first-half lead. Lios never got going but after the break it was a different story. Thanks to a goal blitz, they ate into the deficit until there was nothing in it. Pure heart-in-the-mouth stuff. Lovely hurling produced by two sides from a place not noted as a heartland of the old game.
Bhríde rallied a little but Lios came again. When the final whistle blew no-one – not the supporters nor the players – was sure who had won. In a game of growing drama, we’d lost track of the score.
The players from both teams crowded around the ref to learn their fate.
The suspense only ended as the boys from Scoil Bhríde turned, giddy with joy, and bolted towards their dazed and delirious parents, and cheering schoolmates in the Lower Cusack. Corn Pádraig Mac Giolla Bhearraigh was going to Bhríde – the oldest Gaelscoil in the world – on a scoreline of 3-11 to 5-4. The first hurling honour in the school’s history.
How do you match that? Well, fast forward to October and Bhríde were back for a football final at HQ against Swords Educate Together. Playing into the Hill in the first half, the boys in green and white from the southside took a grip on proceedings.
However, it turned into another game of two halves. Swords had a mini magician who started running the show. He was everywhere, dancing around his opponents, inflicting damage.
Suddenly, Bhríde were behind and chasing the game. They won a free in the Swords half. Too far to go for a point but a bit of quick thinking and the ball was quickly transferred to a lad in a decent position who sent it soaring over the bar.
The Bhríde boys were back in the game. Inspired by that score, they attacked down the left, towards the Canal End, and netted the decisive score. To quote Niall Scully in the Herald the following day, it was "a goal for all seasons. A thunderbolt". The final score was 3-8 to 2-9 and Sciath An Chéid was added to the trophy cabinet back in Beechwood.
Now, despite a list as long as a piece of string (I think I forgot to mention Man U in the Nou Camp in 1999 and beating the All Blacks at Lansdowne), that is my favourite moment.
Please forgive the proud father routine. Scoil Bhríde, with a young Hanley playing his part, savouring a hard-fought win over Swords at Páirc an Chrócaigh.
The sporting gods have truly been kind.