herald

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Feeling the heat of a full house in Croker

Tipperary’s Ciarán McDonald, here celebrating the quarterfinal success over Galway with Mark Hanley (21), doesn’t feel pressure to deliver a result, unlike the players who will be lining out at Croke Park this Saturday.
Tipperary’s Ciarán McDonald, here celebrating the quarterfinal success over Galway with Mark Hanley (21), doesn’t feel pressure to deliver a result, unlike the players who will be lining out at Croke Park this Saturday.

If you searched the GAA website yesterday, in the blithe presumption that you could buy a couple of 'lower Hogans' for Saturday's double-header football feast, you were in for a rude shock.

"Tickets not available online any more," was the terse explanation to ruin your Bank Holiday Monday.

So there you have it: the week has barely started and already the Tyrone/Mayo, Dublin/Donegal double-header looks like it's heading for a full house.

After a summer marked by attendance dips in Leinster and Munster, this is belated manna from heaven for the Croker accountants.

But it also got us thinking about the burden of great expectations now placed on our elite amateurs.

Tyrone, Mayo, Dublin and Donegal are four of the best supported counties in Ireland, teeming as they are with football diehards as well as summer 'bandwagoners' along for the ride. Reaching the last-eight is a base requirement; anything less would be construed as a war crime demanding urgent investigation at The Hague.

But even to falter at the quarters won't be good enough for many of these fans. Dublin have reached six semi-finals on the spin and won three All-Irelands in the process, so Sam or bust is now the benchmark.

Mayo are seeking to reach a sixth consecutive semi-final; but last autumn's player heave against management, their wildly erratic form thus far, and the fear that time is running out for this group, have all conspired to heap further pressure on a squad that has enough historic 65-year-old baggage to deal with.

As for Tyrone, they are the 'coming' team of 2016 and Red Hand obsessives won't be too sanguine if Ulster deliverance is followed by a HQ flop, especially given Mayo's current vulnerability and with the prospect of facing a Division 3 rival in the All-Ireland semis.

Which brings us to Tipperary.

The attendance for Sunday's first two quarter-finals was just 29,251. That can be viewed as (a) a sign of the times; (b) a manifestation of Kerry hubris and the fickleness of Galway folk; and/or (c) the relatively lowly football fan bases in Clare and Tipperary, two counties far more consumed by small ball.

Maybe the people of those counties didn't really, truly believe; Kerry's prosaic yet routine victory over Clare confirmed as much.

And yet the Tipp footballers then went out and, after a nervy opening when they missed plenty of chances, they exploded into vibrant, high-velocity life. They played football with a compelling blend of passion and total focus while also conveying the sense of not having a care in the world.

Afterwards, their long-serving corner-back, Ciarán McDonald, was asked about the fact that Tipperary people still hadn't bought into the team. His answer was revealing.

"It doesn't bother me now in the slightest," he said. "All the people were there that wanted to be there, so there's not much pressure on us in terms of performance. No one thinks we're going to win anyway.

"It's great not to have that pressure. The hurlers are under constant pressure. Wherever they go they're monitored, they're observed, they're well recognised. It's very difficult for them to have a normal life.

"For us, I think it's a lot easier and we're happy with our football supporters. And fair play to them for coming all the way up here today, because they've been coming to games for the last nine years while I've been playing. It's great to get them a result."

On August 21, a lot more Premier 'diehards' will ditch their hurleys for a day and come to Croker. It will be intriguing to see how their long-forgotten heroes handle the new-found pressure of it all.

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