Tuesday 26 September 2017

'This game is our bloodline and we'll fight for it forever'

Dublin players after the match. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Dublin players after the match. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

"Do you think I'll get a seat on Hill 22?" I asked an ardent GAA fan on Friday night.

He shook his head in disgust. In hindsight, I now realise how naive that statement was.

Reporter Kirsty Blake Knox with Padraic and Patrick Kelly from Ballina. Photo: Frank McGrath
Reporter Kirsty Blake Knox with Padraic and Patrick Kelly from Ballina. Photo: Frank McGrath

But, before Saturday evening, I had only been to Croke Park once in my life - and that was to see One Direction.

I grew up with rugby and soccer and the GAA just wasn't part of my experience.

Heading to the All-Ireland replay I knew four things about GAA football: I knew that the players could use their hands and their feet; I knew that there were no hurls; I knew the ball was round and could go forwards and backwards.

And I knew who Bernard Brogan was, because I really, really fancy Bernard Brogan. And I had seen him in that King Crisps ad.

The pre-match build-up. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
The pre-match build-up. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

The rest, though, was a mystery. The terminology was Double Dutch to me and I found the points system baffling.

Atmosphere

To get a handle on the game, I did what any good investigative journalist would do to infiltrate and understand the unknown: I went on a pub crawl.

First up was Hill 16 for a pint and some peanuts. It's here I meet Elvis - aka Myles Kavanagh from Claremorris - holding a diamante-encrusted handbag and a glass of MiWadi.

Dublin’s Jonny Cooper with his father Brendan. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Dublin’s Jonny Cooper with his father Brendan. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

"You'll never forget this day," he tells me.

"The atmosphere will be mighty, just mighty."

It's early afternoon and Dublin fans are sparse on the ground. However, what they lack in numbers they make up for in confidence.

Mayo, I am told, are going to "bottle it" because Mayo "always bottle it".

"They had their chance and they blew it," David Gavin from Drimnagh informs me.

Mayo fans at the final whistle. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Mayo fans at the final whistle. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

"Mayo beat themselves when they drew with Dublin. Hope? They haven't got a bleedin' prayer."

His wife Carol is shocked when she hears it's my first All-Ireland.

"I was born and reared in Croke Park," she says proudly.

"And when I die I want my ashes scattered across the pitch."

Dublin supporters Ger Foster and Lisa Brennan, from Tallaght. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Dublin supporters Ger Foster and Lisa Brennan, from Tallaght. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Carol says the Hill is the best for atmosphere, but she won't be there today. She just got her hair done so she needs the shelter of the Davin Stand.

"Practicalities," she says.

I move onwards to the Big Tree, where everyone is sandwiched and sticking together.

Mayo fans talk about what a win would mean to them.

"The Mater will be filled with red and green jerseys," Sharon Sheehy, from Achill Island, says.

"If we win, sure all of Mayo will have heart attacks."

I learn that Dublin "didn't show up" to the last match, and today's "spitting rain" is preferable to the "heavy rain" at the last encounter.

Walking towards Gill's pub, I see more Dublin fans. One man points at his shoulder as a lady from Mayo passes by.

"See this?" he asks her. "Bone dry. In an hour and 10 minutes, it'll be wet with your tears."

Padraic Kelly from Ballina proclaims that "there won't be a cow milked in Mayo for a month if we get this".

"By God, the ground will be shook from Croke Park to Castlebar."

It's now 45 minutes until kick-off, and touts are wandering through the crowds trying to sell tickets, as fans swap seats.

Read more: 'Behind every great team, there are great fans' - All-Ireland winners Dublin greeted by thousands

Read more: The morning after the night before: Dubs stars party after epic All Ireland final victory

Mayo fans are eager to get out of Hill 16, while all the Dubs want to be part of the rumble and roar.

My requests to buy Hill tickets are met with laughter, and a sense of amazement: "The Hill? 45 minutes before the All Ireland? What world are you living in?"

I dash to my seat in the Hogan Stand just as the red carpet is kicked out for Michael D Higgins. There's a lap of the field and then it begins.

However, contrary to what the Dublin fans told me, this isn't all sewn up nicely. The Dubs aren't tearing ahead. This is tight and this is tough. A real scrap.

Full of gristle and grit, push and pull, passion and frustration.

As the scores start to notch up, the mood inside Croker intensifies.

"Do they always fight this much?" I ask a man beside me.

"Sure they're on their best behaviour," he replies.

It soon becomes rougher.

The blood is up and people are cursing the referee Maurice Deegan, who is giving both Dublin and Mayo a ride - depending on who you're talking to.

Plumes of smoke drift over the crowd and the thud of a bodhrán reverberates through the ground.

The fighting makes everything more exciting and my loyalties are divided. I grew up in Dublin, but my dad's family comes from Mayo - and, besides, they are the underdogs.

The ferocity with which they're fighting and battling is compulsive, and the energy surging around the stadium is contagious.

It's tribal - the screaming and punching and cursing and crying. I can feel my backbone rattle as the crowd roars when Cormac Costello kicks three points.

As the clock ticks down, tensions mount and the screaming becomes guttural and desperate.

Deegan blows the final whistle and Dublin have secured a historic win - back-to-back All-Ireland titles.

As Stephen Cluxton talks of the Trojan efforts and dedication, I look at the remaining Mayo players who lie defeated and dejected on the pitch. A vanquished army reluctant to leave the field.

On the street outside, Dublin fans punch the air and hug each other, as Mayo fans clench their jaws and look disconsolate.

Liam Óg Ó Reilly from Ballina holds a placard reading: "I won't last another 65 years."

But, despite the bitterness of defeat, a sense of pride emanates from the Mayo fans.

"Shattered, completely shattered," Mayoman Urlaur Phillips says.

"But we will be back again in January in the sleet and the snow, full of hope, and ready to have our hearts broken again.

"Why? Because it isn't about the final score. This game is our bloodline and we will fight for it forever."

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