Henry Shefflin’s cruciate ligament. The most talked about body part in Ireland this week. If you’re honest you thought that the cruciate was where they held the World Snooker Championships every year, but that hasn’t stopped you speaking authoratively about Shefflin’s chances of playing in the big game this Sunday. You hardly dare to say the words All Ireland Final, instead referring to it constantly as the big game. A big game is a contest where both teams are given a chance of winning, but it seems that Kilkenny have a monopoly on All Ireland Finals. You make your way to Dublin on this sunny Sunday morning , wedged between countless more cars bedecked with blue and gold flags swaying in the slipstream of the buses packed to capacity with faithful followers young and old. You’re excited beyond words, but it’s tinged with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. This was the journey you undertook last year. Last September the Premier faithful made their way home disconsolate, heads filled with bouncing balls, moments of madness and lessons learned.
Learnt lessons will go a long way towards helping this Tipperary team achieve the impossible. But then so would having Henry Shefflin on crutches. No matter how much you’d love to see the Kilkenny talisman sidelined with injury however, you know deep down that if Tipp pip the Cats to the Liam McCarthy on a day where Shefflin doesn’t tog out, it’ll forever be used as an excuse by those of a black and amber persuasion. A thousand thoughts of hurling and the heartbreak that so often comes with it cross your mind as you cruise along the N7. The journey passes quickly and soon you find all thoughts of hurling put on hold as you negotiate the traffic that seems to accumulate from Naas as far as your destination the Red Cow Luas stop.. Its an impressive sight in this weak early September morning sun; row upon row of Tipperary and Kilkenny supporters, occasionally interspersed with the odd Clare person, here to see their minor team battle it out in the Minor decider. You’re going to be queuing for your ticket a while, but that doesn’t bother you all that much. There’s an All Ireland Final ticket in your back pocket and once that’s there then there’s little that will upset you today. Kilkenny may be going for the much talked about 5 in a row but you can’t see any reason this talented Tipperary team can’t stop them in their tracks. Last year was plain sailing all the way until September, and it wasn’t until the closing twenty minutes of last year’s final that Tipperary’s season derailed. This year the Premier had a rougher ride, Cork made sure of that back in May. There’s no denying the skill inherent in this current crop of players, and taking the long way round to this years final showed that there’s grit there too. You’re cheerful and optimistic as you step aboard the Luas at last.
On the way in you find yourself jostling for space with people from Kilkenny. You’re far from the hallowed turf of Croker, but this shoving is as close as you’re going to get to combat today. Bursts of laughter occasionally penetrate the buzz of anticipation that seems to make the carriages shake. People talk in groups, some seriously, some less so. Some play a dangerous game called predicting the result. 15 stops to Abbey Street; one for each player that’ll line out for Tipperary behind the Artane Boys band today for the parade. You think of some of those guaranteed to be on the field for the Premier when the ball is thrown in. The older players, around since the halcyon days of 2001; surely they deserve to drink from Liam McCarthy again. The young pretenders, fresh from underage success; a taste of All Ireland Senior victory will ensure they chase it again, chase it harder than ever, and that can only mean good things for the county. While you’re coming to this conclusion, Dublin has flashed by and its time to step off into the city centre.
Thurles on a Munster Championship day; as a Tipperary supporter every other city or town is unfortunate enough to be compared to this spectacle. Thurles will forever be the home of hurling in the eyes of the Premier faithful, but even so you have to grudgingly concede that Cork and Dublin each have their own special atmospheres. Dublin’s atmosphere on the day of an All Ireland is something that has to be experienced; O’Connell Street teeming with hundreds upon thousands of supporters, carefully negotiating their way past the hats flags and headbands brigade. You follow the crowds, Kilkenny fans walking with the confidence of those who have walked this path many times in recent years. The moment in which you get your first glimpse of Croke Park looming above the surrounding houses never fails to impress or excite you, and as you glance around you see that its the same for those of all ages who have made this pilgrimage today.
Throngs have gathered already on Jones’ Road, though the stadium that casts its shadow over them has yet to open its gates. Some are here early to search in vain hope for spare tickets, some in order to get a pre-match pint or two to calm the nerves. You decide to watch the minor game, and so as soon as the stadium opens its gates you make your way inside.
There’s something haunting about seeing Croke Park early in the day of an All Ireland. Its empty stands belie the fact that in a few hours time a battle of immense intensity will take place on the field. And apart from the stewards trying to stop overjoyed supporters gathering on the sod to herald their heroes, there’ll also be an All Ireland Final. The minor game takes place, Kilkenny versus Clare, and though there’s no Tipperary involvement, you find yourself secretly hoping for a Clare victory that may somehow demoralise Kilkenny’s senior players. Shouts of instruction and encouragement from both minor team’s management echo throughout the still largely empty stadium. In two hours time these shouts will come from the benches of the senior teams, but no one will hear them, such will be the noise levels in GAA headquarters.
Two hours can be a long time on an ordinary day, but All Ireland day is far from mundane. The victorious minor team disappears elated down the tunnel, carried off on a wave of applause from the couple of thousand people already in their places. No sooner has this taken place then you shouting yourself hoarse, waving your flag with eighty thousand others as the senior teams make their way around the field behind the Artane Boys Band. For the players and the supporters this journey started as soon as the final whistle shattered dreams of a Premier victory last September. All thoughts since then have been based on whether or not there’d be a chance of redemption, a chance to prove that last year was a blip in what will be an upward journey for Tipperary hurling. The national anthem plays, but no one can truthfully say their minds are on the words. Everyone in the stadium, everyone watching at home, is waiting for the referee to throw in the first sliotar. This was once the Bishop of Cashel’s job, but even though that tradition is no more you can guarantee there are a fair few prayers on the lips of the countless watching. The players line out, all keen to make their presence felt to their opposite number. Your heart is somewhere in your throat with anticipation. Your last thought before the game commences is that it’s often said that its a long way to Tipperary but with a victory today the journey homeward will feel a lot shorter. Referee Michael Wadding throws in the ball. Croke Park erupts. Time to skin the Cats.