Wednesday 13 December 2017

Eoin Liston: Nerves make your throat so dry you can't even sing the anthem

The Mayo team stand for the National Anthem
The Mayo team stand for the National Anthem

The build-up is over. No more time for training or tactics now. Everything is done. The last few weeks will have been hugely enjoyable for the Mayo and Dublin players.

They are part of the big game. They're the ones everyone is talking about and that everyone wants to be. The camaraderie in the dressing-room will have gone up a notch since the semi-finals. There's the craic of the player profiles for the programme and getting fitted for All-Ireland final day suits.

There going to training knowing that you have achieved the primary goal of getting to a position where the ultimate prize is only 70 minutes away. The hard training and running is long forgotten and managers will have to be pulling their players off the field such is the appetite for football.

Now though, the intensity, the focus, will be going up a notch. Mayo will be saying goodbye to their families and loved ones as they head for their Dublin hotel, trying to keep themselves entertained on the bus. The Dubs will all be sleeping in their own beds after a meeting at some stage today, no doubt.

Some will sleep, some won't. Personally, this was never an issue for me, I could almost sleep standing up! Lads will all have their own little routines and the key will be to ensure that they do nothing different, given it has taken them this far. Why change now?

There will be little worries of something going wrong. Mine was the dreaded migraine. I suffered with them when I was younger and the fear of getting one on All-Ireland final day was never too far away.

I shared a room with Ogie Moran. The wake-up call would come and immediately we'd both jump up and run to the window. What was the weather like? Will I need to wear gloves? Will I need to rethink what boots I'd put on?

Down for the breakfast. There was no such thing as hydration in our day – a cup of tea and maybe even a fry, then a few sandwiches two hours or so before throw-in.

We'd all be desperate to get to the minor game, but not to see who was winning. We wanted to pick up some little thing that might help us. Was there a particular area of the pitch lads were slipping in? What way was the wind swirling? How did it affect the kick-outs?

Back to the dressing-room. It's getting intense now. In 1981 we all gathered around for Mick O'Dwyer's speech. He was in full flow when his false teeth fell out, but nobody flinched. It's no time for laughing. Out to the field and sense of anticipation immediately hits you – 80,000 people with eyes fixed on only one place. Then comes the worst bit – the national anthem.

The nerves swell inside your belly as the band belts out the tune. You want to sing along, but our throat is too dry. The heart beats out through the chest and a million and one thoughts run through the head.

Time to shake your marker's hand now. What way does he walk up to you? Is he nervous, pale even? Does he say something to you? Does he try and give you a dig? Do you dig him back?

The ball is thrown in, but still those nerves from Amhrán na bhFiann are doing laps in your stomach. You try desperately to get involved and finally you get your hands on the ball. It's just like any other match now and it's time to get the job done.

Thankfully, my first final in 1978 was a positive one – I scored a few goals after an indifferent first half. People often ask me what I did at half-time to change it around, but there was no magic involved. It simply boiled down to belief.

We hadn't played well and were still leading. Without being cocky, there was just a firm confidence among us that we were better than Dublin and it was now or never to go out and show that.

Inevitably, All-Ireland finals come down to the forward line that clicks on the day. This is where the jury is still out on Mayo. Yes they have racked up big scores, but in the first half against Tyrone, my concerns about the ability of their inside men to cope under pressure rang true.

Too often the wrong decision was made and it took two defenders to come up and kick three vital points between them before half-time to get the Connacht champions out of a real tricky situation.

Dublin, meanwhile, have eight genuine potential match-winners. On any given day, a team only needs three, maybe even two, to click and they can win the match between them. And it is for this reason that I suspect Mayo will have to wait at least another year to erase decades of heartache.

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