Thursday 18 January 2018

Peter Canavan on All-Ireland final build-up: You could hear a pin drop until Chris Lawn stood up to speak and the place erupted

A dejected Owen Mulligan, Tyrone, leaves the field after the game
A dejected Owen Mulligan, Tyrone, leaves the field after the game
Standing over the free to win the All-Ireland final in 2003 fell into the ‘expect the unexpected’ category for me

What a privileged position Dublin and Kerry players are now in as they look forward to the biggest day in the Irish sporting calendar.

Croke Park on the third Sunday of September is what any young Gaelic footballer grows up dreaming of.

With that in mind, what will be going through these players' heads for the next week? This is what they can expect:


Nothing beats the feeling of knowing you are taking part in an All-Ireland final, that you are one of the only two teams still training in mid-September.

All those long, cold nights in the snow and rain, the countless training sessions, the sacrifices made, the disagreements you may have had, the club games missed - they have all been worth it.

And unlike some previous finallists, these two teams know how to relax and enjoy the build-up.


The supporter comes in various forms. From those that want to talk to you, pat you on the back, to those who ask, 'You wouldn't just sign this jersey/team photo etc. . .' Others will be more sympathetic and leave you to your own devices.

You might find yourself inundated with religious relics and lucky charms by people convinced it will bring the best out of you on the day. A kindly neighbour once presented me with a St Jude medal. I was grateful of course until they whispered to me that he is the patron saint of lost causes!

And then there is the question; "Are you going to win?"

Players by now will have an answer learned off by heart - positive but non-committal. A cheerful response to all those supporters waiting on the answer they want and know well is coming.

On supporters' nights, the level of encouragement can be almost overwhelming as thousands come through the gates. Players are delighted and proud to see it, but for some it can be a long and tiring evening.

I recall one night Owen Mulligan (pictured below) and Mickey Coleman had to be disguised and smuggled out the back of Healy Park, such was the attention they were getting from young, female followers.


The All-Ireland final day suits are a constant source of friction, if you excuse the pun.

Inevitably, managers place this responsibility on the players. In as fashion-conscious a county as Tyrone, this led to disagreements.

In 2003 as captain, I left this task to Sean Cavanagh and Kevin Hughes; 2005 was a complete disaster as then captain Brian Dooher enlisted Enda McGinley's help. His style proved wildly unpopular.

On one occasion, a player had to get his suit cut to measure, as he didn't trust those carrying out the measurements. It wouldn't be right to identify this blond-haired, tattooed Cookstown man by name.


In some cases there can be as much as a month between the semi-final and the final.

That leaves a lot of column inches to fill and reporters will naturally be looking for (and prompting for) more than the usual soundbites. While players will expect to receive a lot of calls, they will be very wary of saying something out of turn.

Some counties are better at the media game than other.

A Kerry player, for example, never puts a foot wrong prior to a big game.

I have no doubt Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jim Gavin will have reminded their players once they had won their semi-finals that a comment made in the immediate aftermath of a match might well be held onto for a few weeks and used as a motivational tool by the enemy.


This involves a dress rehearsal for the day itself. You stay in the team hotel, have team meetings, attend mass, all at similar times to familiarise yourself with a routine.

Sleeping arrangements can be a source of great debate and can prove a logistical nightmare for management.

As I was recognised as a sound sleeper I was sent to room with Collie Holmes. It appeared I was the only man on the panel who could withstand his impressive snoring techniques.


In those last few days leading up to the final, adrenalin levels would rise and in the course of one of those energy-charged team meetings somebody would take to the floor and deliver that emotional, fervent call-to-arms.

In 2005 with Tyrone, this happened the night before the final, with Gavin Devlin holding the floor. Despite being one of the younger crew, Gavin or as most call him, 'Horse', was a fantastic motivator and a popular member of our squad.

However, although he added so much to team morale, he was struggling to regain his place.

Answering the question of why we were going to win the All-Ireland, Horse suggested we would win it for myself and Chris Lawn, two of the elder statesmen of the team, as it would be our last-ever All-Ireland final in Croke Park.

Then Chris stood up and you could have heard a pin drop - he thanked Gavin for his kind words and suggested we should also do it for Horse himself as in all probability this will be his last ever All-Ireland as well.

The place erupted and with it Horse's genuine sentiments were ripped to shreds.


Just prior to the final, the usually-overworked team physio all of a sudden becomes a lonely figure. Injuries have a miraculous way of clearing up as players try to impress a manager by training rather than lying on a treatment bench.

Prior to many games, there will be one man struggling with bad luck. We had Adrian Cush in 1995 when he went over his ankle, having been flying in training.

Ten years later, I experienced it myself. I couldn't enjoy the build-up and was totally consumed with recovery, doing what it took to get back on the pitch.

Richie Hogan's recent injury and subsequent performance in the final highlights the power of positivity and determination but will certainly have lessened his enjoyment of the build-up.


In the build-up, they will make themselves busy providing gear and boots. Travelling expenses are miraculously paid on time. Everything becomes ultra-professional.

From my own experience, one man stands out; Mickey Moynagh, aka 'Pappa Bear.'

During the winter, you would stay on after training, practising hitting a few frees. You might have four or five kicked before Mickey would run over, bagging all the balls, in a panic to get home.

Retrieving footballs in January and February can be a difficult chore, but now with an All-Ireland final on the horizon, he would stay to midnight if need be and would run through a 'shuck' backways in order to get the balls back.

And even at that you might get handed a Club Energise drink with the odd one as well.


For the single men, the All-Ireland final banquet is their chance to punch above their weight, an opportunity to use their profile for their 'plus one'. Lo and behold, they would be sitting beside a beauty on the night.

These romances would last for a few months, but would sadly fizzle out shortly after that (usually a week or two after the team holiday. I'll say no more.)


There is always something thrown up in the gap between the semi-final and final that leads managers to try something different.

This could come in a surprise selection or a formation change. The best managers will judge what will work on the day, and what will not. Both Brian Cody and Mickey Harte weren't afraid to make the big calls before All-Ireland final Sunday - over to you Eamonn and Jim.

Irish Independent

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