One of the things most that I miss about playing county football is the drive into Croke Park on the team coach. The thought of playing in the best stadium in Ireland in front of thousands of supporters. The butterfly feeling in your gut getting more and more intense as you drive down Jones’s Road behind the sirens of a Garda escort. Looking out at the thousands of supporters lining the streets and knowing that you could potentially do something great in the next couple of hours that could well make their day, their week or even their life. That is satisfaction and that is why county football is such a drug to many.
This weekend we approach the business end of the championship and I for one am jealous. I would love to be there. We have four teams that totally believe in themselves and have complete confidence in their team’s ability to kick on from here and win the Sam Maguire. This type of confidence is not easy to instil in a team but a lot of it comes from the experience that they have gained by playing at this particular stage.
The confidence is also instilled in them by their high-performance management teams. The confidence that a manager can instil in a player gives you a real sense of total belief that can’t be understated. On a personal level, I always loved it when Joe Kernan or indeed other managers told me how good I was. It didn’t always have to be the truth, of course, but it built me up as a player and made me feel unmarkable as an attacker. I would have heard Joe in particular telling me that I was the best forward in the country and that no direct opponent was capable of stopping me if I was on form. No doubt the same was being said to Oisín, Clarkey, Paddy McKeever & Diarmuid Marsden but that’s exactly what a player wants to hear.
Our teams confidence and collective belief came from winning matches on a more consistent basis, tough nights on the training ground where we never shirked the competitive edge, coming up against some of the most talented players in the country during these sessions, team meetings where management and team leaders would discuss game-plans and certain scenarios that might take place during a match, group discussions among the players depending on their position on the field and, of course, the bigging-up process that would come from the team management and the ability of the players that were in the room. It’s all part of the masterplan and ultimately any team that wins championships must have that confidence and air of invincibility about them.
When you look at Dublin, Mayo, Kerry and Tyrone, it’s no secret and certainly no coincidence that the four most professional teams and best prepared teams find themselves in the last four of the championship. I have absolutely no doubt that these teams have gone to extreme levels to prepare themselves for this particular stage. Peaking at the right time of the season can be hard to gauge but these teams master it regularly. Like ourselves when we were in our prime, we used the rivalry we had built up with Tyrone and Kerry to raise our standards.
Confidence , believe it or not, can also come from defeat if you channel defeat in a way that improves the side. The teams left have all faced heartache at this stage of the competition in recent years and now they find themselves back again because they are prepared to learn from these defeats. Back in 1999, we faced a Meath team in the All Ireland semi-final and if truth be told I’m not convinced that we truly believed we were going to win that match. It was all new to us and none of the team had played at semi-final stage before. In a game where we had Meath on the ropes, it was their experience and confidence from playing at that higher level that led them onto All- Ireland glory. But 1999 was a great learning curve for that Armagh team and it was the last time that particular Armagh team went to an All-Ireland semi-final doubting ourselves.
Mayo have played in the last seven All Ireland semi-finals and have got through to three finals during this time so confidence certainly is not and should not be an issue for them at this stage of the competition. If they get through their semi-final though, they must play with the same freedom and ambition as they quite often do in semi-finals and forget about curses from the past. There are no All Ireland champions decided for 2017 yet. It can still be Mayo if they play in the now and not in the then.
All-Ireland semi-finals are not always going to be the best games of football because they are about winning by any means must but the teams left have been involved in some of the best games of football at this stage in recent times so they will be going to Croke Park safe in the knowledge that they can perform now. Think of Armagh v Tyrone in 2005, Dublin v Mayo 2006, Dublin v Kerry 2013 and Kerry v Mayo in 2014. These have been some of the greatest and most intense semi-finals we have seen and I am looking forward to what lies ahead. Mayo and Kerry both fancy their chances against each other and the exact same can be said for Tyrone against Dublin and obviously vice-versa. Luck might play its part as well but to be lucky in these games, you have to believe you are going to win them. Let the games commence.