People often used to say to me that it must be great playing in Connacht as you get trips to London and New York. It never failed to make me laugh. Such games are far from a holiday.
Hundreds of dedicated Leitrim supporters (and some less dedicated ones) will travel to London for Sunday’s game and will rightly make a weekend of it. Some will sample a few beers in Dublin airport on Friday or Saturday to make sure they start as they mean to continue; some will use the trip as an opportunity to catch up with family and friends who now call London home; others will bring herself along and kill two birds with the one stone – a city break in one of Europe’s finest cities and a good old championship match out in Ruislip.
Even the County Board boys will be able to relax somewhat once the lads make it to Ruislip in one piece on Sunday morning, complete will all the necessary gear and equipment and they can have a bit of banter with their London counterparts (some of whom are old friends and neighbours from back home). They deserve to be able to do so. Bringing an entire panel, backroom staff and medical team to another country for a game is an operation that requires military planning and execution.
Now let me take you through what the weekend involves for the players. Friday night will have been spent checking and rechecking gear, drinking copious amounts of fluid and doing anything possible to avoid having to watch The Late Late Show. They’ll rise at silly o’clock on Saturday morning to either get the bus at a pre-ordained destination or to make their own way to the airport depending on where they live or what was agreed upon as a panel in the planning of the trip.
There’ll be a bit of craic at the airport as the County Secretary gets everyone checked in, and some opportunity to relax on the plane for those that enjoy flying. Because flying dehydrates you so much you are constantly trying to keep yourself topped up with water.
When you land its more coordination and organisation to get all the gear sorted then it’s into another bus to the hotel where a meal is usually waiting before the pre-match chat and the naming of the final team if this hasn’t been done already. (This could also take place the next morning but most managers preferred to get it done the night before so lads can consider their roles and duties for the game ahead and make sure the game plan is as well digested as the meal.)
Then comes what I always found to be the most tedious period of the trip: the killing of those eternal hours between supposedly sleeping, getting up for some breakfast, and finally getting on the bus to head to the grounds. The hotel is usually abuzz with the afore-mentioned fans enjoying the merriment of the occasion and while it’s lovely to see and appreciate all the people who forked out their good money to come over and support you, it’s not a good idea to get caught up in any pre-match small talk. Some of the boys will find a room where there’s a card game going on or maybe catch a movie.
I always hated over-night stays before games because I am an animal of habit and loved my pre-match routines. I still tried to get a really good stretch in but couldn’t stand sleeping in a stuffy hotel bedroom in a single bed. I always tried to room with Gareth Phelan as we are best mates and I could fully relax with someone I knew inside and out, but Dermot Reynolds and I roomed together a good bit too and there was no better man as we had identical attitudes towards game preparation.
If there wasn’t an extractor fan/boiler/full blown rave outside your window (which you had to leave open because the room was so warm) you might get a couple of hours of fitful sleep (inevitable interrupted by, 1. a rowing couple, 2. an overly amorous couple, or 3. a couple of drunkards falling and singing about the hallway.)
At breakfast you could usually gauge the mood of the camp for the game ahead and a bit of slagging was always a good sign. You fuelled the body as well as you could and got the hydration levels up again. Depending on the throw-in time there’s either more time to kill before another small snack or just get your stuff together and finally get on the bus.
A pitch, is a pitch, is a pitch, no matter where it is located, but results, as we well know, can go either way. Thankfully during my time playing for Leitrim we always came away from London with a win. I like the fact both teams eat together in Ruislip and it was always great to see old friends and respected supporters in the clubhouse afterwards. It’s a rare privilege to actually get a chance to have a few relaxing drinks with your team mates after a championship game.
Inter-county players usually only meet in the highly pressurised and time-precious scenarios of training and pre-match dressing rooms and the opportunity to really chill out and talk and laugh together is to be cherished.
The next morning its back to timetables and deadlines for buses, planes and cars as the homeward journey begins but at least you have the match and the night’s revelry to trawl over to pass the time. But it could be all hours before you get home. I recall reaching Kinlough at 1.30am after one trip to London and had to be at work in Letterkenny the next morning for 9am.
The reason I’ve gone through all this for this week’s column is to try and give the supporter a little taste of what the weekend involves for those lads that will pull on the Green and Gold in your name in a small, cramped and crowded changing room in Ruislip come Sunday. Think about the pressure these lads carry and think about what they sacrifice for their county in order to do it proud. If you meet one of them before Sunday’s game think about that and tell them you appreciate it; if you’ve in the stands at Ruislip think about that and cheer them on with gusto; and if you see them after the game think about that and tell them they did you proud. Every one of them will be aiming to do just that.