Posted by Mickey Harte
Thursday 20 September 2012
There is so much more to be considered before an All-Ireland final that you don’t have to consider for any other games.
For example, in the weeks before the decider there is an open night at training when the public can come along and meet the players. And the fans that have followed the team all year deserve the opportunity to get autographs or have jerseys signed.
But it can’t be done on a normal training night because it’s impossible to combine the two. So that means it’s an extra night that the players have to come in to the training ground.
Then there is the whole issue of tickets and no matter if you think you can leave it up to other people to take care of, there are always requests for tickets. People are wondering how many they are going to get, when are they going to know how many they are going to get, or how many more will be available to buy. That’s all very distracting.
And there is plenty of other stuff that differs from the routine. There’s the fitting of suits that will be worn after the game. There is all the gear to sort out; there are probably two or three different sets of casual gear for people to wear the day of the game and the day after.
There is also the homecoming that needs to be organised, whether it is a heroic one or a disappointing one. And as we’ve already seen in Donegal, there has been some disagreement about what town might host the event. That sort of consideration can take some of the players’ attention away even if management try their best to shield them from it.
There is so much razzmatazz surrounding the build-up and that’s something you don’t really have total control over. Players have to be aware that there will be an overload of all this stuff. The local papers are full of All-Ireland chatter for weeks on end and almost everyone in the squad will be interviewed before the big day.
In every town around the county you will see fans who have painted their county colours on cars, roofs, sheep and everything and anything. It’s a new level of fanfare that some players won’t be used to dealing with.
It will impact upon them no matter what but we always tried to fit a relaxing day into our preparations. We would have had our last session on the Thursday night and then our players always had the Friday off. We would go and play a game of golf in the morning at a local golf club.
It’s a nice stress-free morning after which we would have a meal and a meeting later on in the evening to get their minds focussed on the few days ahead.
Travelling down to the hotel is not as big a deal as it used to be because people travel a lot more these days. Maybe 30 years ago it might have upset some players’ routines because it’s not something they would have done very often. But people cope with moving around much more nowadays.
Those in charge are also very meticulous in their preparation but Armagh’s Joe Kernan was the first manager I heard of who went to the hotel the week before the final. It was a kind of rehearsal for the weekend, going through timetables setting out when the players would be eating, when they would fit in a training session, and when they would leave for the stadium.
I always found the bus trip to Croke Park to be a very exciting time. If you’re not used to it it really gets the adrenalin going because you have a Garda escort ripping up the road in front of you making sure the bus gets to the stadium at the designated time. It’s an exciting journey and something that the Donegal players will not be used to.
When you get near to Croke Park the crowds are lining the streets and they’re all decked out in their colours. It’s a major buzz and I know our players always enjoyed it. It can be a bit daunting but when you experience it once you realise it’s one of the best times of the whole day.
You have to deal with the nerves, and you do get an extra dose of them before the final. A lot of Mayo players will have experienced all this so they will be a bit more accustomed to it. It will be newer to the Donegal guys.
Some players embrace the whole occasion and love meeting the President and all the other formalities you have to go through before the ball is thrown in. Ideally, if you can realise you’re right in the middle of a special day that should be enjoyed it’s the best way to look at it.
Not everyone can handle it in the same way, though. Donegal are brilliant collectively but, individually, the players have to manage the occasion themselves. Players can feel isolated psychologically on such a big day and Mayo certainly won’t be exempt from that just because they’ve been in this situation before.
Donegal have managed everything really well to date and have been a solid outfit all summer. The only difference for them is they’ve gone from being the underdogs to now possessing the favourites’ tag. That’s the biggest challenge for them.
It’s an added pressure and Mayo are much better placed coming in without that degree of expectation. They’ve been there four times since Donegal’s last appearance in an All-Ireland final and have been disappointed each time but there is nothing like the expectation on them that there is on Donegal. As much as you try to protect players from those variables a certain amount of it leaks through.
By this stage the relevant gameplans will have been worked on, who’s picking up who will have been decided upon but the key question is which team will be psychologically stronger on the day and how the players will handle everything they will have to deal with.
Most of the evidence suggests Donegal are justifiable favourites and if you were a betting man you’d have to say Jim McGuinness’s side will edge it. However, and not to be sitting on the fence, you just cannot rule out Mayo.
Certain things are falling their way. There isn’t a whole lot of talk about them, the expectations are modest and they’ve shown over the years they can beat anybody on their day. If Mayo have one of their good days, it’s anyone’s.
Donegal are rightly the favourites but when it gets down to a two-horse race, either of them can cross the line first.
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