There were about five minutes to go in the game against Spain when the Irish fans in the PGE Arena Gdańsk started into the rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ that was heard around the world.
It lasted well beyond the final whistle and as I watched the Irish players – heads bowed, apologetic, embarrassed – applaud their still-singing supporters after the Spanish team had already left the field, I knew their pain. In my championship debut in 1998 in Pairc Sean, Galway gave us an almighty hammering to end a season that brought with it much hope and expectation.
As a group of players we felt we were perfectly prepared to produce the shock of the championship on foot of a solid league campaign that concluded with a great win away to Louth. Additionally buoyed by some fine performances in challenge matches resulting in wins over Fermanagh and Armagh, we felt Galway were there to be taken. Instead they took us to the cleaners with a team that would go on to win the All Ireland that year and again two years later.
The writing was on the wall at half time – we were struggling to win any possession at midfield against the twin towers of O’Domhnaill and Walsh and their movement in the forward line was pulling our well-drilled defense asunder. Up front we were making little headway either. On the field we didn’t have time to communicate to each other bar the odd shout of warning when someone’s man got away from them.
Communication from the sideline was non-existent too as our management team appeared as shocked as we were at the way the game was progressing. It was like being caught up in a whirlwind. When the final whistle went I was shell-shocked. Some college friends had travelled from all over the country to come and support me and their adopted Leitrim that day and they tried to offer (what I felt was misplaced) congratulations on my efforts afterwards.
All I wanted to do was crawl into a hole. I couldn’t find one big enough so I went for a walk down the then-dilapidated boardwalk across from where the Landmark Hotel now stands to try and figure out what had gone wrong. I needed time alone.
It would take me more than the length of this column to outline the manifold reasons why we didn’t perform to our capabilities on the day, and it has taken me many years of experience and reflection to come to those conclusions. But the basic truth is we were outclassed by a team of better players. For a lesser team to come out on top in such a game it’s not enough to excel individually and collectively, you must also stop the opposition from playing their game. We achieved none of the above.
All these parts need to come together for our lads in Castlebar on Sunday. This requires more effort than most people will ever have exerted over 70 minutes of their life. I know this because I have played on teams that have achieved this feat. It is worth all the effort. Not just the effort of the 70 minutes of the game, for that will not be enough. It requires a gathering of the effort they have put into the six months of training that preceded this game. If one individual is found out, the team will be found out.
I have always said that underdogs have a greater challenge than any team full of experienced and talented individuals. All 15 players on a so called weaker side must perform above and beyond on any given day if they are to overcome the favourites because one weak link will be brutally exposed. A team of top class players can afford one or two to have an off day for the rest will be able to provide cover.
And at times I played on teams that achieved all I mentioned above and we still lost. Sport is not a place for those looking for an easy route or guarantees. But no matter what happens on Sunday let’s take a leaf from the supporters in Gdańsk and sing for our Boys in Green (and Gold) regardless of the score.