'Each and every player on that field is a leader in his own right'
Paul Flynn's focus is solely on the next game and not on past achievements, victories or defeats, writes Marie Crowe
When Paul Flynn watched the re-run of the 2011 All-Ireland final, he hardly recognised himself. The figure in the blue number 12 jersey looked like a worried man. It was written all over his face. But it wasn't the prospect of facing Kerry that caused him so much strain, nor the enormity of the occasion. It was the injured hamstring that almost ruined his dreams of playing in an All-Ireland final.
"I was having ice baths twice a day in the lead up to the game," explains Flynn. "I was doing rehab all the time. I didn't kick a football until the Thursday before the game. I was watching the lads on the sideline, trying to keep myself fresh and sharp. It was horrendous."
Flynn's injury occurred in the 69th minute of the semi-final against Donegal. He kicked the ball and his hamstring popped, throwing his chances of playing in the final into doubt.
With precious little time available, he got straight to work on getting fit and his dedicated rehab regime and hard work paid off when he passed a late fitness test to retain his spot on the starting 15. It was a relief for Flynn, but he still had worries about how his body would hold up for 70 minutes.
"It was so heavily strapped that I don't think I could run properly," he recalls. "I took all the pain killers that I could take so they nullified it.
"The key to it was the adrenaline. Once it started that got me through. I remember at half-time I came in and it seized up a bit, I was trying to keep it warm but I just went back out and it was OK."
Having worries about his hamstring ironically eased his match-day nerves and in many ways proved to be a welcome distraction. The half-forward gets very nervous before games. Whether it's a championship game with Dublin in the cauldron of Croke Park or just a five-a-side with friends, he suffers.
To control his nerves he has a routine that he follows for every game. It works for him and he rarely changes it. On the morning of the match he'll go for a walk, a short brisk one to the graveyard near his home. While there he'll speak to the people he was close to who have passed away. His good friend Alan Leetch died by suicide last year and he always visits his grave. This part of the routine gives him perspective and reminds him that there is more to life than just football.
Before games Flynn enjoys watching the crowds from his seat on the bus and taking in the scenes en route to Croke Park. Seeing so many people making sacrifices to go out and support him and his team-mates hammers home how lucky he is to be a Dublin footballer.
Against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final was a particularly special day. Croke Park was sold out and the atmosphere was electric. The game didn't disappoint: from Colm Cooper's perfect passes to Kevin McMenamon's goal, it will go down in history as one of the classics. And that didn't pass Flynn by either.
"I remember in the second half I thought to myself this game must be unbelievable to watch. I don't know why I thought it but then I got back into the bubble and starting playing again. I just remember thinking, 'Jesus Christ, this is a phenomenal game of football', end-to-end stuff. In that sense it is good for spectators."
But even though it was an amazing game, Flynn wasn't fully happy with his own performance. He found it difficult to get on the ball and that was frustrating. He has a policy not to focus on games once they're over, and that includes last year's defeat to their opponents in today's final, Mayo.
"That was a tough game for us, but being honest I don't dwell on any game whether it's last year against Mayo or any other one. I didn't think coming up to the Kerry game that because we had beaten them in the 2011 final, we were going to beat them again. I don't think like that, I don't look back on games, I just worry about what's ahead."
Flynn is the youngest of eight children, six girls and two boys. Growing up he played hurling and football with his club Fingallians, but becoming a Dublin footballer was always his dream. His chance came in 2007 when Pillar Caffrey brought him into the squad. He had looked up to the likes of Ciarán Whelan and Shane Ryan and was lucky to get the opportunity to play with them.
"I was in awe of part of it but then you realise that if you stay in awe you will be gone before you know it, so you have to get into it. In fairness to Pillar, he saw a raw talent in me, he wanted to develop it and he worked hard with it.
"Then it developed a little more under Pat (Gilroy) and it's on an upward curve. It's been a great experience and I wouldn't change it. I don't see it as a sacrifice. I see families making sacrifices, having to put up with us for half the year, but we're enjoying it. I love going training and having the crack with the lads."
He has been on the scene now for six years, and is one of the lucky players to have won an All-Ireland medal. He is an experienced member of the squad but is reluctant to call himself a leader.
"I think there are enough leaders on the team, there are some in every line. I think there were times gone by when people questioned whether we had leaders but there is no doubt about it now. We have bucket loads and each and every player on that field is a leader in his own right. It's great to have that. I see myself as one of the more experienced lads now, I'd prefer to be one of the younger lads, but that is just the way it goes."
Flynn started out his professional life as a plumber, but being on the Dublin panel with lads who were attending university or already had degrees made him aware of the possibilities open to him. So he served his apprenticeship and saved every penny he could for college, eventually enrolling to study PE and biology in DCU. While there he was a constant feature on the Sigerson team and although his home isn't too far away from the Dublin college, he still took up residence in the football house, sharing with Michael Murphy and Aidan Walsh last year.
"It was massive for our holistic development as footballers and I'm sure the other lads would agree, just to be able to live in an environment where there were lads either playing at the top of their game or who wanted to be at the top of their game.
"You're not sharing tactics or insights into what your (county) teams are doing but you are sharing ideas to make you an even better player. That was a massive benefit in my development in football and to have the gym on your doorstep.
"It was great to be able to go and kick a football if you wanted to or to have someone there who was willing to go with you or who was saying he was going and you might feel a little bit of guilt for sitting in. Bouncing off each other like that was powerful stuff and I don't know where I would be if it wasn't for DCU."
Life has taught Flynn to live for the moment and today in the All-Ireland final against Mayo he plans to do just that.