August 8, 2008
Joe Kernan’s Armagh are Ulster Champions for the seventh time in ten seasons. However, with just one All-Ireland title to their name, there’s a feeling of last chance saloon as they rock up to Croke Park to take on Wexford in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
The Orchard County are heavy favourites and the game seemed to be going to plan until Mattie Forde, who had been quiet until that point, turned on the style down the home stretch hitting 1-2 to send Armagh packing.
There was a sense of finale following that defeat and in hindsight, it was the finale. Armagh haven’t won an Ulster title since and a second All-Ireland has never looked further away.
It wasn’t the only finale that day because that defeat brought the curtain down on a travelling companionship that had shaped a love for Gaelic games.
For ten years summer holidays consisted of making sure the jersey was washed, the sandwiches were ready, the boot was stocked and the car pumped full of diesel.
The journey to Croke Park took on a life of its own and opened your eyes to another existence.
Scowering North Dublin for a suitable parking spot, making sure to keep four wheels firmly on the ground in case of clamping (northern problems).
“Hats, scarfs and headbands… Hats scarfs and headbands…” rang around the city as you walked to the ground, haggling with every salesman and woman who are ready to cut you a deal but adamant you aren’t getting the exchange (not that it would matter anymore).
They’re great days but more often than not the best part of those trips was the journey itself.
From north to south, sat in the back seat with the cousin and the brother listening to the grandfather and his best friend spinning yarn after yarn about the various games they’d been to and played in down through the years.
That wet August day in 2008 (FYI, we didn’t hang around to see Michael Meehan shoot the lights out in a heroic defeat to Kerry) marked the end of an era, not just for Armagh but for that travelling contingent who had followed the county from pillar to post through a golden era of football that brought unprecedented joy.
However, it wasn’t the regression in our fortunes that put to bed our little group, but age. As we got older the allure of party buses and sinking cans down the M1 took over as a trip to Dublin to watch Armagh became more of a day on the lash as opposed to a day out supporting your team.
You don’t live with regrets, though, because it’s all a part of growing up. And besides, the grandfather and his friend had a new band of youngsters (on the opposite side) waiting in the wings ready to get their eyes opened to the wonderful world of the GAA.
September’s drawn All-Ireland final was a special day for many, many reasons. Dublin v Kerry, the drive for five and the ghosts of ’82 filtered through the air as seasoned veterans and bright-eyed kids made their way to Croke Park.
Despite the narrative that Kerry would give Dublin their fill of it before the Dubs pulled away with ten minutes to go (which was very plausible given the evidence), the feeling around Croke Park that day was one of tension, excitement and a feeling that this was to be special.
It proved every bit of it as the two rivals gave spectators a game for the ages. Kerry’s defensive performance was heroic while Dublin finally showed signs of cracking under pressure.
The atmosphere only grew and grew as the game went on until the point that it became so tense inside the stadium, you could feel the place shake.
Kerry had them on the ropes but couldn’t strike the killer blow as Dublin showed all the characteristics of true champions battling back before nearly snatching it at the end. A draw was the fairest outcome.
Hearts continued to race long after the final whistle had blown as fans came to terms with having to do it all over again.
Later on, it was the match-day programme that provided an opportunity to relive the day’s events. It was filled with tales and anecdotes of All-Ireland’s gone by. One piece that stood out was Martin Breheny’s recount of the ten best finals from 50 years of memories.
Fifty years! Mental stuff. Fifty years of memories and special moments that will last a lifetime.
With 49 left before being anywhere close to that level, it’s already clear the first time covering an All-Ireland final will remain the most special.
Not because of the epic encounter, not because of the tension and not even because it was the first time.
This was special because after all the years and all the memories the journey to Croke Park was spent sitting in the back seat listening to the grandfather and his friend (one who is now 80, the other who is quick to tell you they aren’t) spinning yarn after yarn about All-Ireland finals’ of years gone by.
Eleven years on from our last journey and here we go again. You couldn’t have scripted it!