Tomás Ó Sé: Build-up to All-Ireland final is always something to be cherished, not feared
Another Kerry-Dublin All-Ireland final on the horizon doesn't make it any easier for an old soldier to close his ears to the sound of battle.
Just when you thought you might be coming to terms with it, these weeks go and tug the heartstrings that bit tighter.
Winning an All-Ireland final brings relief most of all, satisfaction at a job well done. The dust settles very quickly though in the days after as normality kicks in and fellas go their separate ways, almost too quickly.
Winning a semi-final triggers something different, however, an excitement, a giddiness even, at the prospect of the three or four more weeks you have ahead of you in each other's company with the prize in sight.
From the moment that last semi-final whistle goes your head is filled with blissful thoughts, the buzz around the county, the early evening autumn chill and sinking sun over Killarney as you train, the wisecracks, just the general rapport between everyone from players and management to county board officials is always that bit better.
Briefly, you feel a weight lift.
It made the task of returning to school a lot less onerous too! Once I knew I had an All-Ireland final to look forward to, it broke those first couple of weeks being back.
For me, even the journey from my home in Cork to training was different and always felt shortest at that time of year. I'd be through Macroom before I realised where I was, my head consumed with all the little sideshows and story lines around the camp.
Over time, with the experience of being in a few finals, I learned how to enjoy that build-up more, what I needed to be focusing on and when I needed to switch off.
Some players like to sell the lie that they view All-Ireland final is only another game, that all they're thinking about is the football. It's not. And never can be. Once the semi-final was out of the way, I always let my mind wander ahead freely, never afraid of where it could take me.
I'd try to build a snapshot of everything surrounding the match and get comfortable with it - the crowds, the atmosphere, the journey in, even the few days afterwards relaxing with the lads.
I'd think ahead to the nights guaranteed to produce comic relief, when the gear would arrive and we'd get our suits. Some teams like order and regiment for such detail, for us it was a chance for a little mischief. Who'd be up to what?
The gear sent just about everyone into a frenzy! No matter how much of it you had, you always wanted more. Nothing like a whipping a fresh-smelling new top out of its wrapper for the first time.
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I gave most of mine away over the years. I loved giving it away to bring a smile to someone else and I was often taken to task for not having the right top on.
In more recent years it got stricter and you made sure you were colour co-ordinated.
One thing I always made a pitch for was an extra pair of boots. If everyone else was getting one pair, I'd make it my business to get two. Greed wasn't the object of the exercise, just a little challenge I liked to set myself.
It required discreet diplomacy. Vince Linnane and the current county chairman Patrick Sullivan looked after the gear. I'd sneak in at a quiet moment and play one off the other. Be the cute west Kerry hoor and make hay while the sun was high in the sky! "God, no Vince I didn't see the 'Bag' around at all. Wasn't talking to them," I'd tell him as he handed over a pair of 'World Cups'.
They don't know this - at least I don't think they do - so, in advance of meeting them after telling this story, I convey my apologies!
Sean Hussey, the tailor from Tralee, would measure us for the suits and he knew the drill so well. "Put us down for the same size as last year, Sean."
One year Tadhg Kennelly was home from Australia and the county was ablaze with talk of him making a drive for the team at the 11th hour.
Páidí was manager and Tadhg was invited in for an A v B game. It was a big deal because even then, just a few short years after leaving Kerry, he was high profile and cutting it in AFL.
The gates were open to training back then - Jesus when you think of that! - and there must have been 700 or more in to see the young 'Horse' pitch his case. As it happened, I was marking him and that ramped up the pressure a little bit.
If he could come from Oz and clean me out where would it leave me, I wondered to myself? So I was extra vigilant. To be fair, he would have had to shoot the lights out to make the panel, never mind the team and, on the night, I did well.
Still, we wondered if he'd make it. Tadhg was left wondering too.
Anyway, we adjourned to The Gleneagle for food and shot up to the room where the suits were ready. Páidí landed in and was in great form, pulling on his pants and shirt like a child on Christmas morning.
Next thing Tadhg came through the door to get measured for his suit. Anyone who knows Tadhg knows he's not short on a bit of confidence but we never expected him up those stairs.
I looked to Páidí to catch a reaction that might betray his thoughts.
"Watch in the door, the small 'Horse'," he said, laughing.
We're all waiting for the next move like it's a suspense thriller. All eyes are on Páidí now for the moment of truth. Then he makes his declaration.
"Measure him up, measure him up!"
Tadhg didn't make it but Páidí was never going to burst his bubble in those circumstances. He would of course return seven years later and the suit fitted snugly as he fulfilled his lifelong dream in fine style.
But it was those moments that broke the ice in these weeks and makes it such a special time. Diversions helped us balance the serious business of analysis, zoning in on tactics and getting the homework done on the player you were likely to be marking.
I'd mind my body, train hard and prepare for war but I always made sure to enjoy it. You have to. You can't let it wear you. Dublin and Kerry are well used to it now. They'll enjoy it.
If these weeks are the most exciting for finalists, I can't help feeling that Mayo are facing their longest winter yet. Twice now they've let decent second-half leads slip in Croke Park semi-finals.
Last weekend's replay had just about everything after an indifferent championship: brilliant scores, heart, bottomless reserves of fitness. All it missed was great fielding. It cracks me up the way both sides were going with their kick-outs.
That said, Mayo went long with the one they lost for the first goal but, overall, I felt they should have targeted their middle eight more. Their policy on Dublin's kick-outs didn't change much from the first day, neither did the quality of delivery into Aidan O'Shea, who never looked like having the support beneath him if he did get his hands to it. I thought it was ridiculous what they did.
The sideline will take heat over these issues. I don't want to be coming down hard on them but I think Mayo would benefit from someone who has been there before in recent times - Jack O'Connor or Jim McGuinness - to provide something different to get them over the line.
It's a tough task but I think they can still find more with better direction.Dublin showed bottle and better discipline to come through two ferocious battles. The more I see of Cian O'Sullivan operating the way he does at centre-back, the sounder their structure appears.
They'll have no fear of Kerry, they have their calling card from their last two meetings and, after coming from four down, are now in a strong place psychologically.
But Kerry will be a different proposition than Mayo.