Ever wonder what it is like in the days before and after an All Ireland? Michael Rice takes us on that journey.

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Intro…….

There was only one thought in my head. ‘Come on Brian, blow the whistle will ya?’. It wasn’t Brian Cody at Kilkenny training I was looking for to blow the whistle. We all know that doesn’t happen! This was the final minutes of the 2011 All-Ireland hurling final and we were four points up against our old rivals, Tipperary. Brian Gavin was the man in the middle who had the power to call time on another serious battle. I think it was Jackie breaking out from corner back who hand passed the ball out to me. As I turned with the sliothar I heard that beautiful sound. Mr. Gavin had done what I had asked. Even though I was out of gas at this stage I just stayed running. It has to be one of the best feelings in the world. I had finished with the sliothar in my hand just like my club mate, John Tennyson, had done in 2006. Unlike John, there was no way I was launching it into the Hogan Stand. This was a precious piece of memorabilia to be heading home with. Along with the Liam McCarthy of course.

Before we ever get to the final whistle of an All-Ireland there’s the small matter of navigating the different stages of the championship and surmounting that forever tricky semi-final. My first day on the senior panel was that famous 2005 semi against Galway which we lost 5-18 to 4-18. Utter devastation. A silent dressing room. However, over the next ten years we have been lucky enough to get over the line and reach the day of days on a number of occasions. Its where you want to be. Sitting watching the All-Ireland at home is just cruelty. A far worse cruelty is going to the All-Ireland which I did in 2013 for the Cork and Clare clash. There was some brilliant hurling in that drawn match but I didn’t enjoy it. I had that gnawing feeling of wanting to be playing and the what ifs that occupy your mind. It’s all about your team being there.

The build up to an All-Ireland Final…….

The lead up to the All-Ireland final is enjoyable in so many ways. You can sense there is a buzz in training amongst the lads. There are some players, who may not have seen action in the semi or even the championship that feel if they can put two or three good sessions together that they’ll have a shot at starting the first weekend in September. Brian Cody has created that belief because he has backed up the idea of ‘places being up for grabs’ by selecting players in form. We all know the Wally Walsh story of 2012 where a young man came in for his first championship start on All-Ireland final day and left with an All-Ireland medal and a man of the match award. Dream stuff. However, this type of change isn’t limited to young guns. In 2011 Eddie Brennan hadn’t seen much championship action but hit peak form in those all important three weeks before the final. Brian started him wing forward and he created the winning goal for Richie Hogan with a lung bursting 50 yard run. What a way to finish a career.

There’s a lot of extras that need to be tidied up and gotten out of the way in the lead up to an All-Ireland. Peripheral stuff that you don’t really want to be doing but it’s a privilege to be doing because it means you’re in the final. The first thing that jumps to mind are the suits for the Sunday night for after the match. We got measured for these within a few days of reaching the final. There was always the little player profile to be done for the papers or the programme. These led to a few comical answers which again helped to alleviate any bit of pressure that players may be feeling. Reading through them in the dressing room, maybe an hour before throw in, and seeing that one of your colleagues favourite films is ‘Love Actually’  can often make you wonder if he is ready for the battle that he is about to face at 3.30! The media night comes and a number of players are selected to do the various television and paper interviews.

If you’re one of those players, the modus operandi is quite simple. Do not give anything to the media that will help the opposition. Get in and answer the questions and get back to what your meant to be doing which is preparing for the biggest match of your life. There’s no doubt it’s tough for journalist to be trying to make headlines with the answers that are given on these nights but it’s not the players concern. Dealing with ticket requests is another element that can take up some time. A long lost friend can frequently pop up looking for the middle of the Hogan and he doesn’t realise that our families won’t be even there. My approach was to pass ticket duties on to my parents. I didn’t want lads ringing me looking for tickets the day before the game. Most people would think there’s no way anyone would do that but it has happened to a number of my former colleagues.

I can see how teams preparing for their first All-Ireland can lose focus. The one percent that could be the difference can be lost on thoughts of suits, tickets and banquets. These distractions must be put to one side. The week of the match is all about getting your head right. The hard training is done and you’re either in the starting line up or you’re not. In Kilkenny our team isn’t named until the Friday night before the match. The training sessions are all ball work and drills but that doesn’t mean the trainings are just a case going through the motions for players and management. In fact, it’s the very opposite.  You can’t win the match on the Wednesday or the Thursday before but you can certainly lose it if you take the eye off the ball. Any talk of the opposition will have been done at this stage and it’s all about feeling as good mentally and physically as possible. It’s always nice to be occupied for the last few days before the match. You don’t want to spend all day Friday and Saturday thinking about the game and wasting energy on something that you can do nothing about until 3.30 on the Sunday afternoon. The few days of working the week of a match is nice to keep your mind off it.

Then Friday night comes and you do a very light training session where a half hour will suffice. Most players would love to stay out longer on the field but there’s no point. Some players will feel they need to have one more shot at goal or take one more sideline cut just to be sure they’re ready. The naming of the team is always a big one for an All-Ireland. It’s every young hurler’s dream to play in one. It’s never a formality that the same team will be sent out as the semi-final. There always seems to be two or three possibilities for change and that’s what has kept the training so competitive for the weeks leading up to this announcement. The final instructions are given and off we head to Langtons for the last supper. I’ve always found Saturday to drag before a big match. You want to keep yourself busy but not with anything too taxing that will tire you out mentally or physically.

It’s a balancing act that is hard to get right and I don’t believe there is any right or wrong way. I spend some time getting my gear ready for the next day. Boots, socks, shorts, jersey, helmet, hurls. I always wondered does every player run through this little rhyme in their head while packing their gear bag. I’ve done it since I was six or seven. It’s a habit that has ensured I haven’t forgotten the boots or helmet on too many occasions. Along with the gear bag, there’s the added extra of a suitcase and suit. Win or lose we weren’t going to be coming home on the bus that evening like every other championship match. We’d be in the Citywest so the suit and suitcase have to be prepared as well.

Throughout all this the nerves are sitting in your stomach for most of the day. Believe me though I’d always take the nerves over not playing and being relaxed. I remember being told by our dietitian, Noreen Roche, that the sleep the night before a match wasn’t vital once you had slept well during the week. This actually allowed me to be quite calm and as a result I’ve usually slept reasonably well the night before.

Match day………

Sunday morning arrives and it’s eating what you can stomach. I was always able for a decent breakfast, bit of porridge and a few slices of toast and off we head for the bus for around 9.30. Before we get on the bus we get rid of our suitcases and suits to a man in a van and he takes them to the Citywest. There’s a bit of hanging around and you do meet some fans who are wishing you well before your journey. In 2012 we were playing Galway and there was a fan whose allegiance was split. He was from Galway but had lived in Kilkenny for over 20 years. As we got on the bus he followed to inform us of this. He said ‘my heart is in Galway but my head is in Kilkenny’. One of my teammates quipped ‘your arse will be in the Nore if you don’t let us leave’. The fan took it in good spirits as it was meant and off he popped. What a perfect way to lighten the mood as we set off for Croker. And that’s what the bus always did for me. It allowed me to relax and chill out safe in the knowledge that we were going to have good craic for the next hour and a half as we followed our Garda escort to head for our pre-match meal.

The stories and craic that was on the back of that bus would often make you forget that there was even an All-Ireland final to be played. If we had spent the whole bus journey focused on the game we’d be in knots. We would chat about anything from the Premier League matches the day before to the construction of a crane and both equally enjoyable conversations. Lads that knew nothing about either would suddenly become experts which made the arguments all the more fun. And before we knew it we were sitting down to have our pre-match meal in a nice hotel away from all the action of Croke Park. This meal was never as easy as my breakfast to digest but I knew I had to consume something to ensure the energy levels would be there when the time came. After this some lads chose to have a few pucks outside the hotel, others would sit inside and watch a small bit of the minor match. Once again we jumped on the bus but this time the craic wasn’t the same. Players were starting to focus. Earphones in was the case for many. I always listened to the same song as Croke Park came in to view. I liked the routine. Every time I hear the song now I’m brought to Croke Park and our bus driver, Jim, doing a brilliant job getting in through the tight space allowed for buses at the corner of the Cusack and Davin. Once Jim got that right I felt we’d go well in the match. He never got it wrong! In to the dressing room and most of us would find our usual spot if there can be such a thing in Croke Park. Routine.

The Dressing room…….

A quick flick through the programme was enough for me. The physio table was the next port of call. This can be a busy room but to be fair to the physio’s and doctor they have it working like clockwork. Lads getting different things strapped and muscles loosened and being told that the muscle will be absolutely fine. That’s what every player needs to hear an hour before the game. The warm up area is a great tension releaser. Most popped in and slapped the ball against the wall with a bit of ferocity. You’d find two or three lads behind the net at the back wall trying to stretch without the fear of getting a sliothar in the head. Every player did his own thing but once we were all called into the warm up area the focus could be seen in everyone’s eyes. All you want at this stage is to burst out onto the field. I liken it to that scene in Braveheart where the Scots are lined up against the English. The English are coming at the Scots on horseback and William Wallace is shouting ‘Hold….Hold…. Hold’. He eventually says ‘Now’ and that’s the door being swung open for us to hit the field. Your then met with what I can only describe as a wall of noise. It’s something I doubt I will ever experience again in my life. The noise of any other championship match doesn’t come near to this explosion of sound. Of course the other feature that makes the final unique is that you’re out on the field earlier than any other match.

Before and after the big match….

Often 3.04 or 3.05. This gives around 25 minutes of warming up and waiting for the ball to be thrown in. There’s also the extra honour of meeting the President but this just comes and goes. You line up at the red carpet. I don’t think I looked up to the crowd. I didn’t want distraction. Who was in the crowd was of no concern to me. The parade behind the Artane Boys Band was a little more familiar as this would have happened for the Leinster final and the All-Ireland semi. Again I just focussed on the man in front of me who was usually my midfield partner of Derek Lyng or Mick Fennelly. I couldn’t see out over either of them so there was nothing else to take my attention. I found Amhrán na Bhfiann was a good time to have a last little chat with myself or a quick Hail Mary to hand over a bit of responsibility to a higher power. No point in putting all the pressure on myself! The seventy minutes go in the blink of an eye but on All-Ireland day you can really feel the mood of the crowd on the field more than any other. Every hook, block or score is met with a huge roar or an ooohh or an aahh. It’s in the background and it’s not something that ever bothered me but it is certainly different than any other day.

I’ve played in winning and losing All-Ireland teams and there’s only one of them worth doing. I’m going to remain positive and stay with the aftermath of a winning All-Ireland final. Once the cup is lifted it’s followed by the lap of honour. Now I can look to the crowd and see the faces. Many of these faces are familiar and often someone important who is one of the reasons your hurling with Kilkenny. A club coach, a teacher who trained you in school, a club mate who has played with you since underage. It can be emotional to meet your family because they know how much work you have put in to be out there. But also you recognise the amount that your parents and loved ones have sacrificed to give you the opportunity of representing your county. You’re not just there in isolation. There’s a story behind every player and there’s people behind every player’s career. To meet those people in Croke Park or back in the Citywest or in Kilkenny City on the night of the homecoming is a special part of the whole occasion and to see them so happy is a really satisfying part of the whole success.

The Celebrations….

Back in the dressing room is a moment in time that I’d like to freeze. It’s one of the few occasions that we as a group are together with no one from outside the panel, management and backroom team. Songs are sung and there’s an incredible feeling of achievement. The player’s lounge is right across from the dressing room underneath the Hogan stand. We tip across there for about a half an hour and meet with our better halves. The opposition will be in there as well and you can have a chat with lads you’ll know from maybe college or you may have met at a championship launch. There’s definitely a mutual respect with regard to these few minutes. I think both sides realise they gave it everything and there’s never much sign of bad blood between the teams.

Around 6.30 its time to head for the Citywest. Back to the bus and I don’t care if Jim can fit the bus out the other end of the Hogan or not because the craic is always mighty. The adrenalin is still pumping and you do feel that there’s no place you’d rather be. If that bus did a tour of Ireland, I’d have been happy because I was with a bunch of lads that I wanted to be with. Onwards to the Citywest and a quick change into the suit. The Sunday Game is broadcast from the winning hotel so we are on a bit of a schedule. Again it’s a night where you meet lots of supporters and to see how happy they are is beyond belief. Like all things you enjoy, the night flies by. Bedtimes vary and not everyone makes breakfast the next morning but no matter how tired we are we’re looking forward to meeting up again. We used to get the train home but this has changed to a bus which just means a quicker journey home and no trip to Houston station. Once we arrive back in Kilkenny on Monday evening it’s on to the open top bus for the journey up to Nowlan Park.

We’re introduced to the supporters who throng the streets and the stand. We return to Langtons for a well needed meal after a long but brilliant day. It’s funny because the last time we ate in Langtons previous to this we were All-Ireland finalists with no idea if we would win or lose. Now, we knew. No dietary restrictions at this stage. Goujons followed by brown bread ice cream. That’s my recommendation especially if you’re looking for a savage dessert. The Tuesday is a day for players to relax as there are less people around and it’s mainly the lads together again. This is a great day that finishes with a trip to the captain’s home club. Every club have been exceptional in the welcome that they have given to the players as long as I was involved and it’s a nice way to finish a few great days.

I don’t think it’s a journey that any player takes for granted. We all recognised that there were no guarantees that we would be making the same journey the following year. The two squads that take to the field next Sunday have a fantastic opportunity. Even if both teams are back there next year we can be sure that the personnel will not be the same. Some players may be dropped; others might be injured.  It really is a case of winner takes it all. You have to take the opportunity when it presents itself because who knows what next year holds.

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