Lar Corbett: Defending your title is the hardest thing of all ...
AT the end of any successful season, there's always a game or a moment that you look back on and wonder "how did we get out of that one?" In 2010, it was the three points Tipperary scored in the closing minutes to snatch the All-Ireland hurling quarter-final against Galway.
Most times when you win a match, the over-riding feeling is happiness or satisfaction -- in games like the one against Galway, it's purely relief.
But once you've had that successful season, that's when the challenge really starts. You can't go in under the radar as champions; you might not fluke that lucky win because opponents know your game plan, your personnel. Your cover is well and truly blown. To do it again, you have to be extra special.
When my club Thurles Sarsfields won the county senior hurling title in 2005, it marked our first success since 1974, when captain Jimmy Doyle and his legendary colleagues strode the local playing fields. So much effort went into that year, it was impossible to win it again in '06. The club went mad, the town went mad. We thought we had arrived.
I won my first All-Ireland medal with Tipperary in 2001. It took us eight years to get back to a final.
There's something unique about this particular challenge in Gaelic games because, unlike other sports, it's practically impossible to stay focused on your sport as your sole objective. Little things like trying to hold down a job and pay the bills can divert a person's focus.
Unlike Premier League footballers, many of whom live in a bubble inflated by vast sums of money, we have a very obvious and direct connection with our supporters.
We meet them on the street; they clap us on the back and tell us how good we are. Let's hope that never changes, but it does present a situation that few professional sportspeople have to deal with as part of their daily life.
What really matters is how we deal with that attention, because ultimately, the true judgment of our standards is delivered within the four walls of our training environment, from team-mates and management.
In the Premier League, Manchester United have been the team that success sits most comfortably with. During the vast majority of Alex Ferguson's time in charge, they've known how to deal with it and, when you don't panic, your decision-making is clear and allows your skills to flourish. That's what made them slipping up in the final weeks of last season so strange.
In contrast, Manchester City almost found a way to blow it when the chance was in front of them. Like the Sky Blues in Gaelic football in last year's final against Kerry, City had waited so long that, when the chance came, it was almost painful to watch them trying to take it.
Both City and Dublin snatched their titles late in the game. That isn't to say they didn't deserve it, but, during the matches, there was no time to think about them being champions because, until very late in both cases, both were going to fall short.
That won't be the case for either this year and that brings pressure. Will the new-found arrogance of their supporters filter through to the players and make them mentally soft? Can they succeed where great teams, across several sports, have failed?
It's a mentality that marks out the great teams from the good. The tighter the corner, the better the great teams respond.
Tyrone won the All-Ireland football title in '03, '05 and '08. During that spell, they held the Indian sign over Kerry, but they still couldn't put back-to-back All-Irelands together.
I feel the reason for that is because so much goes into one year that it's almost impossible to repeat the act in the following season. When you win an All-Ireland, the party season begins and the hype explodes.
Tyrone had everything in place to win successive All-Irelands, but the mantle of champions didn't sit comfortably with them.
In the Premier League, Arsenal have won three titles under Arsene Wenger, but never managed to retain one, despite the abundance of talent at their disposal. When you're the one being shot at, it's difficult not to dive for cover.
Year in, year out, under Ferguson, that burden of expectation sits well with United's players and supporters. They believe that they're going to be in the shake-up no matter how their season unfolds. That belief is there irrespective of whether there is money available to buy players or not.
Dublin got off to an impressive start against Louth last Sunday, but it will be very interesting to see how their season unfolds.
In Gaelic games, history tells us that two teams deal with annual pressure and expectation levels better than anybody else. In football it's Kerry and their hurling equivalent is Kilkenny.
When a Kerry footballer or Kilkenny hurler wakes up in the morning, he does so with the belief that he will be in the shake-up for an All-Ireland title at the business end of the season. Defending titles suits some teams and doesn't suit others.
Most recently, Kerry did it in '06 and '07, while Kilkenny hurlers won four-in-a-row from '06-2010. Why? Because they're extra special. It's a birthright.
Kilkenny keep raising the bar for themselves, driving each other on, with one or two new players introduced each year.
When Kilkenny contested a sixth successive All-Ireland final in 2011, the team that lined out featured just seven starting survivors from the '06 decider. You must evolve. But the best currency that you can have is the freshness of young players. It's absolutely massive -- the most valuable gift you could receive after winning, or losing, an All-Ireland final.