Posted by Daragh Ó Conchúir

There is nothing like playing in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day

2012 DonegalCiaran Whelan never played in an All-Ireland final but the former All-Star midfielder is very familiar with lining out in front of packed houses at Croke Park.

As Mickey Harte says, the Dubs bring their own atmosphere but Donegal and Mayo contributed to a mighty occasion last year. It's an All-Ireland final, after all, and last year gave us a very fresh pairing.

Generally, it is a new experience for most counties and players. Much of what happens on All-Ireland final day is familiar to the Boys In Blue though, starting with the journey.

“It’s one of the great buzzes of playing with Dublin” enthuses Whelan. “Usually we got the coach from DCU and there was a great buzz, great colour and a great atmosphere. It’s something you have to become accustomed to. Some people rise to it and it can affect others.”

Travelling is different for teams coming from outside Dublin. Colm Cooper always embraced that part of the build-up.

“We would get the train up on a Saturday, leaving Killarney at lunch-time” says the Kerry star. “People seeing you off at the station, family and friends wishing you well; I really enjoyed that.

“I really enjoyed getting on the train with the players. You felt you were amongst your own ahead of a big battle in Croke Park the following day. Enjoying each other’s company going up on the train and staying overnight. That definitely benefited us. It probably brought us closer as a group as we had to do that a lot of times. Hopefully we’ll be able to do it another few times.”

No other county has Kerry’s experience of All-Ireland final day. For the Donegal camp last year, it was completely new, so they opted for routine.

“We met at the Abbey in Donegal but it was beyond our wildest dreams the number of people there wishing us well” smiles victorious captain, Michael Murphy. “It was hugely flattering.

“We met there at Saturday at 10am and once we got out of Donegal town, it was our usual routine after that. But we were thinking ‘if it’s like this when we’re leaving, imagine what it’s going to be like if we come back with the cup?’”

Donie Shine has an understanding of the dangers of getting caught up by the intensity and celebratory mood of the supporters from his best day in a Roscommon jersey, seven years ago.

“It can add to the nerves, particularly when there is a bigger crowd” declares the Roscommon marksman. “I remember when we played in the All-Ireland minor replay against Kerry in 2006, the replay was on in Ennis and there was a massive crowd. The town was jammed and we were actually stuck in traffic ourselves trying to get to Cusack Park. It’s important not to get distracted.”

Harte believes that there is an electricity at Croke Park on All-Ireland final day that cannot be replicated by any other occasion in the GAA.

“Players are lucky in that they have more opportunities to be there for quarter-finals, semi-finals, league semi-finals and finals” says the Tyrone manager.

“But even for people used to it, there’s nothing like All-Ireland final day. It’s any other day to the power of five. Especially when Dublin are there. There will always be a big atmosphere in the final but when the Dubs are there, it’s extra special. They bring a colour, they bring a noise, they bring an atmosphere like no other and that’s what’s gonna be part of All-Ireland final day this year.

“Obviously Mayo have fanatical supporters as well and they’ll be out in huge numbers too. So I think it will be a really wonderful and colourful affair.”

Kildare stalwart, Johnny Doyle has played in three Leinster finals and an All-Ireland semi-final and emphasises the value of maintaining a straightforward approach early in the game.

“I haven’t been lucky enough to play in an All-Ireland but from the big games I’ve played, you normally forget about the crowd once the ball is thrown in” reveals the Lilywhites’ leading scorer. “Then you’re looking at the flow of the game, what way it’s developing, seeing what’s not working, what’s not working.

“Getting the early touch is always good to calm the nerves. Keep it simple. Win your ball and offload, or if the shot is on, take it on. But don’t take it into contact and get turned over. It puts doubts in the mind. You have to keep positive no matter what way the game is going. If you’re caught in the frame of mind that ‘this is going away from us’ the chances are it will.”

If Cooper was in either the Dublin or Mayo camps ahead of Sunday’s blockbuster, he would advocate treating it as any other game.

“Final day is different in that it’s a bigger build-up than normal, you’re meeting the president of Ireland, but by and large it’s another match and you can’t treat it any differently” insists ‘Gooch’.

“Obviously there’s a big prize at the end of it but you have to just soak it up and enjoy it I think. Some players love it and some guys find it hard to deal with but the most important thing is try to embrace it and that’s something I’ve always tried to do.”

Murphy recalls trying to steel himself mentally for what lay ahead.

“You brace yourself for it because you know it’s going to be near a full house, and there had been big crowds at the quarter-final and semi-final” says the Glenswilly man.

“You plan out your whole day because you know that there is a long time between going out on the pitch and the ball being thrown in, in terms of meeting the president and everything else. Then afterwards when we won you’re looking out into the crowd trying to pick out people you know and it was fantastic.”

One set of players will know that feeling at 5pm on Sunday. One set will just want to get the hell out of there.

Let the games begin.

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