Monday 16 July 2018

What happens when your final dreams become a nightmare

The 2008 decider should have been the biggest day of our lives - but we were humiliated by a Kilkenny juggernaut

John Mullane holds his head in his hands as Waterford are engulfed by a Kilkenny avalanche in the 2008 final. Photo: Sportsfile
John Mullane holds his head in his hands as Waterford are engulfed by a Kilkenny avalanche in the 2008 final. Photo: Sportsfile

John Mullane

On the Friday before the 2008 All-Ireland senior hurling final, work brought me to a school in Tramore.

This would turn out to be no ordinary work call because, unknown to me, the principal there had filed all of the pupils into the main hall to wish me the best of luck before the game.

I remember thinking to myself that this was a lovely thing to do but it was something that should be reserved for the aftermath of winning a trophy, and not before the chase for one.

I needed to clear my head after that and I ended up walking the beach in Tramore for half an hour.

I was still ready for what lay in store on Sunday and I'd visualised our captain Michael 'Brick' Walsh climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand and bringing the Liam MacCarthy Cup back to the Burlington Hotel.

I'd also imagined the scenes back home on the Monday night and after a light training session on the Friday, I went home and put my feet up.

Derek McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile
Derek McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile

The Late Late Show was on TV and the first of a new series was coming live from the Opera House in Wexford.

The show featured Seanie Flood and his Wexford hurling song - Dancing at the Crossroads.

My mind drifted back to 1996 when the Slaneysiders won it and it struck me that we were just 70 minutes away from achieving what they did.

Naturally, people in Waterford were enjoying the build-up to the final but the players were cocooned away from the local media, newspapers and radio.

It was still hard to get away from it completely but what's uncontrollable now, and what wasn't a major player back then, is social media.

I'm not a social media user myself and so, even though I'm not playing inter-county hurling now, it would be one less distraction if I was involved.

But this is an element that a manager can't control, with so many hi-tech devices and access to Twitter and the like just a touch of a finger away.

I would still have bought a couple of newspapers on the day before a game, not only to pass an hour or two but also to get a feel for it.

Sometimes, you'd pick up on one or two little things to give you an edge. Many players will say they don't go near a paper but I never had a problem reading the opinions of former players or GAA journalists.

With plenty of time to pass over the weekend, newspapers are there if you want them but it's very much a player's choice.

We got the train up from Waterford on the Saturday - and we were booked into a hotel in Ashbourne.

The night before a match can be horrible as every minute feels like an hour. From 9pm on, nervous tension turns to the worry of whether or not you'll get a good night's sleep.

I'd always bank on a quality Friday night kip because the chances are that you'll be tossing and turning if you're in unfamiliar surroundings.

The Munster championship games were fine because I always slept in my own bed the night before. But in the latter stages of my career, if we were away, I'd always ask for my own room.

I remember the night before a League game in Galway, when I was rooming with Brian 'The Bull' Phelan, and here were the two of us making make-shift beds on the floor because the main beds felt too hot.

There was another occasion on the night before the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final, when we were holed up in CityWest, and one of the lads slept in the bath because his room-mate was snoring so much.

Deposit

A good night's sleep goes a long way towards setting you up for a good Sunday but five or six hours will do, if you have that Friday night deposit in the bank.

There's another decision for players in their rooms. Do they watch 'Up for the Match' or avoid it? I watched bits of it, while flicking over and back to 'Match of the Day.'

Some lads will stay awake until they're ready to drop but because you're hydrating so much, a toilet break or two during the night is inevitable.

After breakfast, it's a long wait from 10am until you're ready to board the bus to Croke Park after 1pm.

This is the killer time for some. Some lads went back to the room for a lie-down, others were reading the Sunday papers, more opted for a walk.

The Sunday papers were never for me but what I was really good at was switching from having the banter to getting in the zone.

You're willing those three hours to pass and then it's time to get on the bus and prepare for what some call war.

Our manager at the time, Davy Fitzgerald, picked out every player's favourite song and played it on the bus as we made our way to Croke Park.

Mine was the Lighthouse Family's 'High', incidentally, and I'm sure Derek McGrath (pictured) and Micheál Donoghue will have something planned for the bus journey, a touching video or music to stoke the fires.

Approaching Croke Park was incredible, looking out at a sea of white, but our bus was too big to fit under the Cusack Stand entrance and we had to walk a few minutes to the dressing rooms.

That threw me a little and the dressing room felt more rushed and under pressure for time compared to other games there.

There are so many protocols that must be adhered to but we still went through the usual pre-match routine - flicking through the match programme, stretching, hitting a few balls off the wall in the warm-up area.

Pat Flynn was county board chairman; he said a few words and then it was left to Davy for the last rallying cry. Running onto the pitch, everything seemed good but the warm-up felt long.

I looked up the field and caught a glimpse of the Kilkenny lads pucking balls to each other. The atmosphere was building but I felt nervous tension, with balls being fumbled and missed at our end.

You meet the President, parade behind the Artane band and then it's show-time. I wanted to get on the ball early and put the Kilkenny defence under pressure from the start, but we were quickly snowed under by a Kilkenny avalanche.

I remember thinking that I should drift out, go against the grain and try to get on a ball or two, but we were quickly on the back foot.

Kilkenny had their half-forwards and midfield playing deep. That allowed their half-back line to sit on top of their full-backs, providing a real comfort blanket and suffocating any space for us forwards.

I managed to get ball in hand once or twice but I felt like a fly caught in a black and amber web.

There was nowhere to run, and no air to breathe. Henry Shefflin had popped over a wonder-point early and the nature of his celebration suggested that this might be a long day.

Eddie Brennan hit two quick goals and the game was over as a contest at half-time, with Kilkenny ahead by 2-16 to 0-5.

We knew our dream had died and we were now living a nightmare.

The dressing room was in shock. These were faces you'd only see when someone close to you has passed away.

Davy pulled himself together as best he could and tried to galvanise a ship that had already sunk.

Bernard Dunne was a friend of his and he said a few words too, as did Peter Queally and Maurice Geary, Davy's selectors.

But their words were falling on deaf ears. I thought of what my father had always driven into me - that you keep going to the end no matter what the score was.

And so I would. I'd get on as much ball as possible but I'd go looking for it, rather than waiting for it to come my way. That might sound selfish but that's what I felt was best at the time. I was playing for my own personal pride.

I managed to pop over a couple of points in the second half but the final whistle was a relief. Some of our lads decided to head for the dressing room rather than watch Kilkenny lift the cup but I stayed out on the pitch.

I could understand that some guys would want to get out of there, given the result, but when we won in Munster, our opponents stayed out.

We'd been on the receiving end of a complete All-Ireland final performance, from the greatest team of all time, at their peak.

They had three lads that day on the subs bench that would go on to become future Hurlers of the Year - Michael Fennelly, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid.

We were overwhelmed, no excuses. If half-time was the funeral parlour, the dressing room after the game was the burial.

Some fellas couldn't talk, others were shedding tears of hurt. And then we had to go back to the Burlington, tails between our legs.

Going through a banquet is hard enough when you lose but imagine what it's like when you've been humiliated.

Not even a few drinks could ease the pain. The following morning was worse again, back on the train, questions asked but no answers.

We had to carry ourselves with a sense of dignity but that was difficult.

And do you know what? I even wondered if we'd got what we deserved after the player heave against Justin McCarthy earlier in the summer.

Was the man above punishing us for that?

So while the All-Ireland experience was memorable in so many ways, it's true what they say.

Croke Park on All-Ireland final day is no place for losers.

Irish Independent

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