Alan Brogan: Arriving in Wexford with a Garda escort wasn't the best preparation for my Dubs debut
Read Alan Brogan in The Herald.
THERE’S probably not an easy way to retire from inter-county football when it’s been such a defining part of your life for the 14 years you spent doing it, just after the childhood you spent mostly dreaming about someday doing it.
But there’s definitely tougher finales than the one I got.
I say this with a pang.
Mostly, it’s left me alone until now and naturally enough, I haven’t missed the slog, the rain, the gym sessions or any of that early-season slog.
But last week, watching the Ulster Championship with the sun shimmering over Breffni Park, I felt a little pinch somewhere inside me.
The weather. The quickening pelt of the football. Big Sundays to come.
This is the time of year I loved being a Dublin footballer.
I don’t regret retiring and I don’t think I will, regardless of what this year holds for Dublin.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t miss it coming into the summer.
I met Jim Gavin in Starbucks on St Stephen’s Green last December, two days after we got back from our team holiday in Thailand and told him I was going to retire from inter-county football.
Time was up
Looking back, I’m not sure whether he knew what I was going to say but either way, he didn’t want me to go.
I appreciated that.
Jim asked me if I wanted a day or two to reconsider but I knew my time was up and my mind was made up.
Every good thing comes to an end and few enough endings, as it turned out, come as good as mine.
Yeah, I’d liked to have played a little more in last year’s final but when you can view your season in the reflection of an All-Ireland medal, it’s best not to question the minutiae.
So that’s how it ended.
How it all started is another story and probably pertinent too, in the context of Dublin going on the road this weekend.
Lots of people remember Dr Cullen Park in 2002 as our first match under Tommy Lyons and the ‘jovial’ atmosphere of the crowd that came to watch us play Wexford that Saturday evening. But I remember my inter-county debut for starkly different reasons.
The same afternoon, myself and Barry Cahill were due to sit a finance exam in NUI Maynooth.
It was due to start at 2.30 and lasted three hours. Throw-in in Carlow was 6.0.
Somehow, we managed to strike a deal that the two of us would take the exam from 9.30am to 12.30
The college only agreed to the arrangement on the proviso that in those two hours in between us finishing the paper and everyone else beginning it, we would be chaperoned by a person of authority and effectively cut off from the rest of the world.
Willie Hughes, a Garda and the manager of our Sigerson Cup team, was the man picked for that particular duty.
So Willie had to stay with us for those two hours. He performed his duties admirably.
We weren’t allowed out of his sight. We weren’t allowed access to mobile phones, presumably in case we’d pass back any of the exam paper to our class-mates.
We got through the two hours with Willie and took a police escort to Dr Cullen Park, where we met up with the rest of the squad in time for the warm-up.
Not exactly what you’d call perfect psychological preparation for a Championship debut - but there you go.
Generally, people recall that day for the number of streakers on the pitch at half-time.
I recall it quite differently; we just about got over Wexford, needing two late points from Jayo.
For some lads this week, there’s a nag of uncertainty.
Dublin had a mostly settled team for the last few rounds of the National League but there are always a handful of calls you wouldn’t be sure of until the Friday night before the match, when Jim names the team.
There’s no prior notice. Jim’s not one for soft landings if a fella is dropped or a heads-up for a surprise starter.
Everyone learns at the same time so even now, fellas will be trying to figure it out.
Paddy Andrews missed the League final and if he’s out for Saturday, now might be the time to try out Cormac Costello or see whether Con O’Callaghan is up to this level already or whether he’ll need another year or so to adapt.
There has been lots of talk about Nowlan Park and rightly so.
You can’t play all your Championship matches in one very unique venue; with its pitch dimensions, distance from the crowd, spacious dressing-rooms and well-trodden route - and then play somewhere completely different and expect it not to have some effect.
The pitch in Nowlan Park is actually a smidgeon longer than Croke Park but with the crowd so close, it won’t seem like that from the stands or on TV and for the players, it won’t feel it.
Getting Dublin out of Croke Park has to breathe optimism into Laois too.
They have players that can trouble Dublin; Donie Kingston is a handful and John O’Loughlin has serious power, as anyone who has watched him for St Brigid’s these last few years can attest.
It’s a cliché, but Jim really does treat every Championship game with the same attitude, whether it’s a Leinster quarter-final or an All-Ireland semi-final.
Every opponent is seen as a viable threat to their continued presence in the Championship. It’s just his style.
There’s no second gear, no just doing enough. It’s why they haven’t been pushed too hard in Leinster for a while – and why Saturday won’t be any different.