Posted by Daragh Ó Conchúir

The All-Ireland final could be lost before the ball is thrown-in if preparations aren't right

Dublin supporters

Most All-Ireland final analysis understandably centres around the game itself. Potential match-ups and tactical manoeuvres are teased out in minute detail.

It is a fact though that the game can be lost before the ball is thrown in, even if nobody knows it at the time. The build-up to a major occasion is different, even if people involved try to deal with them like they’re mundane.

The demand for tickets, people stopping you on the street and ramped-up media coverage all contribute to a raging hype that can be completely draining. There are plenty of examples of the negative effect of the build-up in not just All-Ireland finals, but FA Cups, Champions Leagues, world boxing fights and so on.

You run out, you’re ready to go, you’re trying your damnedest, but you’re flat. Heavy-legged. Drained. There is no energy.

Mayo have suffered in this manner before. So did Waterford hurlers. It is a remarkable testament to the Donegal management and players that they flew out of the traps last year.

Michael Murphy was captain of the team and he reveals that they got the balance just right.

“The hype was massive, there was bunting everywhere” Murphy recalls fondly. “The schools had just started back and there were songs out.

“We weren’t used to it like maybe the Kerrys, Tyrones, Dublins and Corks but we had a happy medium. We weren’t totally shielded or cocooned from it but we didn’t overdo it either.”

Mickey Harte is three-from-three in finals so he clearly knew how to deal with the many distractions.

“The good thing from the perspectives of Mayo and Dublin is that they have been in All-Ireland finals in recent times so it’s not as if it’s a first exposure they’re going to have to it. But certainly for some individuals within both teams, it will be their first exposure at a level where they’re actually playing” says Harte.

“There is the whole issue about the hype around the county and that needs to happen. The people of the county need to enjoy the build-up to it because that’s what makes the All-Ireland final so great; allowing the general public to enjoy and soak up the atmosphere.

“The players can’t be unaware that that’s going on but they’ve got to detach themselves from the real enjoyment of that because they’ve got to focus on what they’re doing. It is a challenge.

“The tickets need to be sorted as soon as possible; there’s what might happen after the game. There’s gonna be a banquet. Is it gonna be a winners’ banquet or a losers’ banquet? There’s gonna be a homecoming. These things will all be in the subconscious of the player.”

Roy Keane referred to the energy-sapping effect of dealing with ticket demands in his autobiography. Most organised players now hand their allocation to a family member to deal with. That doesn’t stop the phone ringing, or a player feeling bad about not being able to help out the guy who cuts the grass in the club. But the players just have to be selfish.

“Tickets can most definitely distract you” insists Colm Cooper. “Especially the first time. It can become a bit of a circus if you allow it to. For me with the tickets, I never let it control me. It was never something I’d get involved in.

“The week before the game you just want to be totally relaxed, not getting phone calls on a Thursday night from someone saying they’re short a ticket. That shouldn’t be an issue for players. You might have to get selective about what phone calls you answer but by and large, people would be sensible and let you go into your own little bubble.”

Cooper does a lot of walking in the week before a game, often with his team-mates, to get his mind right. Johnny Doyle never got to play in an All-Ireland but has had three Leinster finals, two All-Ireland semi-finals and five quarter-finals to prepare for. For the Kildare marksman, it’s all about keeping it simple.

“Just because there’s a prize at the end of it, should it be any different preparation to the first round? Not really. There will be a lot of distractions all around but you have to keep your thinking on your job. Set your goals for what you want to achieve during a game and focus on them.

“The nerves will be there anyway and you have to control them. I always think nerves are good, they keep you focussed, but you can’t let them eat away at your energy either.

“Nobody knows what way the ball is going to fall. Some days it will fall for you, other days it won’t but don’t try something just because it’s an All-Ireland final. You’re not going to be kicking balls over the bar from the corner or anything like that.”

Harte has seen players turn around poor starts in finals but reckons it needs a very strong character to manage that.

“For a manager, you plan as best as you can and you try to have people’s frame of mind in the right place, but you can’t account for everything they have to deal with in the build-up.

“Even the first two or three engagements a player has on match day are very important. It takes a really good player to maybe not start the game as well as they’d like to, to manage that and carry on.

“That actually happened to us in 2008. The first two or three balls Brian Dooher was involved with, they didn’t work for him. He fumbled the ball, he nearly kicked a pass away, made two or three errors. If that had been a young novice, he might have crumbled. That being Brian Dooher and the man he was, it didn’t bother him and he scored the best point ever scored in Croke Park afterwards.”

So will there be a Dooher on Sunday?

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