Tomás Ó Sé: 'In my final Croker game, we were sh*t. Corofin were sh*t hot'
My last hurrah in Croke Park turned into a disaster but memorable times with Nemo have taught me the GAA's treatment of clubs has to improve
I've been a bit of a bear with a sore head since St Patrick's Day, hard to live with, hard to penetrate.
Nemo have had some year - beat Dr Crokes against the odds to win Munster; beat Slaughtneil in the All-Ireland semi against the odds. The final? Was it a step too far to think we could have won it? I don't think so. Maybe I was chasing a fairy-tale, an All-Ireland winner's medal in my last game of football, but everyone's entitled to dream.
So the defeat by Corofin drilled a hole in me. Not only did we lose, we didn't even show up. Worse, I didn't show up. And that's galling to me now, embarrassing. Old habits die hard and I was gone out the back door of the dressing-room before most of the lads had even togged off. Into the car and straight down the road to Cork.
Nemo would have been just boarding the 6pm train out of Heuston as I was putting the key in the latch.
And I stayed in for the night, watching Kerry beat Kildare in the league while trying to process the idea that a way of life for me had just ended. I'm 39 now and I've been playing senior club football for 23 of those years. The simple thought of leaving that behind sickened and scared me in equal measure.
Stephen O'Brien rang a couple of days after the game and we shot the breeze about the match. He was part of the management team and I enjoyed working with them. I told him it was time I took to the high road. There's a new management due for appointment and it wouldn't make much sense, either to them or me, investing any more faith in a footballer who's been foot-to-the-floor since around the time Michelle Smith was making a splash at the Atlanta Olympics.
So it was a tough way to finish it off. But where else would you want it? Dublin, All-Ireland final day.
I never wanted to grow out of that environment you see, never wanted to leave. Even at this age, I fully expected to perform in Croke Park. And that's all that was in my head coming away after. The bottom line. "You f****d up today!"
Demons You just have to live with the demons of not performing on a big day. Of losing a final. Honestly, I still beat myself up with regrets over An Ghaeltacht losing by a single point to Caltra in '04. That stuff never leaves you. I'd say you take it to the grave.
Believe it or not, I took grief from certain quarters in Kerry last week; fellas questioning why I would play in Cork… why shouldn't I play in Cork? Hand on heart, I wouldn't be able - logistically, physically or mentally - to do what I have done for the last three years if I was having to commute to Kerry.
I might only have heard the grief third hand but, honest to God, it needled me.
Don't get me wrong, I got some lovely messages of support from Kerry too. But it bothered me that some people were almost measuring me as a Kerryman here. Asking how could I play with a Cork club? And it struck me that these same people hadn't a clue about what I'd given over the years, about all the things my family had sacrificed because of my commitment to Kerry.
I mean I've been in Cork since 2001, but I'm a Kerryman to the core.
An Ghaeltacht will always be my club. I was absolutely gutted when they were beaten in this year's All-Ireland intermediate final by Moy. I'll always back them. But Nemo is my club too and I'll be a Nemo supporter for the rest of my days. Because nobody will ever know the support that those fellas have given me these last three or four years. The allowances they've made for me.
And I've grown to love the culture of the club, the way former players keep stepping in to contribute. I love the fact that, at underage, they don't field 'A' and 'B' teams. They mix it up. They give everybody a chance. Personally, I can't figure out why Cork don't tap into what Nemo have more than they do.
In Nemo, the message that rings out loud and clear is that how you conduct yourself off the field is every bit as important as how you do so on it. I've won two county titles and a Munster club with these fellas, got to an All-Ireland final with them. An unbelievable club and a great bunch of lads who believe anything is possible.
The way they behaved themselves after will forever leave a lasting impression on me. Because they recognised the importance of losing properly. Of not sulking. That point was made immediately afterwards in the dressing-room, that that much at least was owed to the five or six hundred supporters, people who'd backed us all year long.
You know on the Friday before the game, our wing-forward - Colin 'Tucker' O'Brien - buried his dad, Tommy. A Nemo man to the core, he got on the bus straight after the funeral, came to Dublin with us and played the full game the following day. All of us had turned up to the removal that Thursday night, formed a guard of honour outside the funeral home in Turner's Cross.
And 'Tucker' didn't show any of us what he was going through, though we all knew it had to be tough.
I went through something similar with my own father and the sense of hurt doesn't go away in a hurry. He'll need his friends now more than ever, but rest assured he has a load of them in Nemo.
Shocked The team didn't perform and I certainly didn't perform. That shocked me. When something like that happened in the past, I couldn't wait to get back out on a football field to rinse the experience away. The mantra was always that you'd learn from your mistakes, take some kind of mysterious strength from the bad days when you just didn't show up.
But that option isn't open to me now. The boots are put away.
You know you can do everything perfectly in your preparation for a big game, but the truth is you never really know if you're ready. You'll think you're in the zone, but the one thing you can never control is the opposition. And Saturday's final could be condensed into a single sentence.
We were sh*t; Corofin were sh*t hot.
People complained after that we played too laterally. Trust me, we went out with the intention of playing exactly the way Corofin played. The problem was they turned out to be as good a club team as I've come across. They ripped us apart. They were tough, physical, in our faces, but they also played the kind of football I love watching.
They played four dangerous footballers in attack all day long and the speed of their transition play was phenomenal. The Farraghers, Sice, Wall, Burke ... outstanding players. Galway will surely draft five or six into their squad because if you strip back tactics and physicality and everything else, what Corofin have in abundance is top-class footballers. And, once you have those, a game-plan is so much easier to implement.
Well done to them, a special group.
You can torment yourself afterwards, wondering if you just weren't tuned in properly. Did you over-train? Under-train? It's a pointless game of second-guessing. In my opinion, Nemo's preparations were perfect. We trained as hard and as well as any team I've ever been involved with. Everybody put it in.
We just forgot to turn up on the day.
And still the experience re-iterated to me the sacredness of the club. There's a lot of talk in the GAA about the new president and the soon-to-be new director-general. What or who will they represent? Well, as I take my leave, the one thing jumping out at me is how we're still a million miles away from getting things right for the club.
Páraic Duffy did his best, but Mother Nature has quickly made a mockery of the idea that April could be ring-fenced away from inter-county activity.
The daft thing is the season is, more or less, starting again for Nemo now. They'll be playing county championship again in a few weeks.
I won't, but I'd like to think I'll always have some involvement with the club in the future.
For most of my adult playing career, I found it hard to look beyond the Kerry jersey and what I wanted to achieve in it, so I'm late to this side of things I agree. I was an inter-county footballer from the age of 18 to 35.
But these last few years with Nemo, my attitude on where the club lies has totally changed. It's right at the core of the GAA and we need to show that as an organisation.
Consider this: Nemo's journey started out in April 2017 and took until March 2018 to complete. That's crazy. Four months to play our last two games? There's something categorically wrong about asking players to train like dogs in the muck and the snow, setting extraordinary standards, when the calendar is still a guessing game to most of them.
Useless We need that to change. Give the club four to five months of the year and give the county six, preparation time included. Get rid of useless pre-season competitions at club and county level. Devise the best way to structure league and championship and condense it. Let it all come down from Croke Park and demand that everyone follow it.
The club/county situation is the biggest problem in the GAA.
Nemo prepared like an inter-county team of ten years ago. Every club sets those standards now, but they don't have the funding. They rely on handouts.
We stayed in Meath the night before Saturday's final and I roomed with Stephen Cronin. A great bit of stuff and one of the few fellas to put his hand up the following day. It reminded me of so many All-Ireland weekends I'd spent with Kerry. When game-day broke, I got that familiar knot in my stomach. The same nerves I never liked, but always welcomed.
Over breakfast, on the bus, in the dressing-room. That same old psychological roller-coaster.
And one thing I've learnt across the years is that there's no one-size-fits-all in terms of pre-match behaviour. I've always gone quiet myself, internalised things I suppose.
Others can be full of beans, laughing, joking, even taking the p**s. It signifies nothing. I've seen lads almost doing stand-up in the dressing-room before going out to play a blinder. Everybody is different.
I remember Paul O'Connell making that very point, that his pre-match routine might be poles apart from Simon Zebo's. But if it works, who cares?
Anyway, it's time for me to stop chasing lads two decades younger than me now. I'm proud of what I got from my body this last year, but I have to have a bit of sense too.
I was only thinking about this in the last few days. For 25 or 26 years of my life, I've been playing senior club football. And I think I underestimated what that meant to me, what it did for my health, physical and mental. Football, basically, has been my life. Now I've to set out on the journey to start a new one.
And, first and foremost, stop being a bear with a sore head.