GAA Football

All-Ireland final day on Hill 16 - it's different for sure

Where's Wally? Picture by Seamus Loughran

“COME…on…you…boys in blue, come on you boys in blue.”

If there were to be the production of an album of GAA sounds, it would be the title track.

When you sit in the Hogan or the Cusack or the Canal End and you listen to it from afar, the unison of the clapping hands, the strained voices fighting over the top of each other, it’s almost orchestral.

But what’s it like to be inside that bubble?

Recent events had turned my head. I no longer wanted the view from the magnificently positioned press box seats in the upper Hogan Stand.

Slap bang in the middle of the field, the perfect height to see it all at a glance, it’s the place to be for sterility and analysis.

But not if you want to really live.

And 13 years after I’d first come out through gate 306 at the bottom of the Hogan to see Derry lose an All-Ireland semi-final to Kerry, the curiosity finally got my better. I decided to head to the Hill for a day, to see what it’s like to be a needle in the big blue haystack.

It’s amazing how used you become to a certain environment. I could drive to the College field with my eyes closed. Take you to Quinn’s and dander down in perfect time through the crowd.

But when your ticket says “Green Zone” and you get to the gates at the end of the Jones’ Road and realise you have to leave your Hogan-bound press companions there, it becomes a whole different world.

”Which way’s Meagher’s?” I say to the first Garda I see. “Just down der,” he says in a thick north Dublin accent, pointing to his right. Half a mile later, no sign of bar nor people, I stop with a second officer.

“Can you tell me where Meagher’s is?”

“You’re going the wrong road fella.”

There’s still time for some mingling before I head for the Dineen end with four clubmates. We’re 15 seconds late and as we clamber up the steps, David Clifford has already unleashed on the Derry defence.

There are dots of red and white around, but they’re already silent. And so the first half of the day passes with a disappointed ciúnas.

A morning of such optimism becomes a long stand but slowly the concrete disappears around you, the bodies flowing casually in, the anticipation drip-feeding its way back into your system.

Right behind the goal, three steps down from the back wall, this is very much the Blue zone. But you look right and see that the Nally is an unusual green and red. So too the opposite corner that touches on the Cusack Stand.

It looked very much like Mayo supporters actually outnumbered the hosts in total.

As Mayo drive out of the tunnel, one fella at the very back wall behind us takes off for the day. “Scum. Scum!”

He was keen to voice his displeasure at pretty much everything until around about the 76th minute of the match, even declaring at one stage: “Cluxton, you’re useless.”

The defence rests its case on him.

But everything negative you’ve heard about life on the Hill, everything you brace yourself for, none of it materialises.

It’s a bit cramped but never uncomfortable. There’s very few Mayo bodies in our eyeline but the chants of “Hill 16 is Dublin only” are much more in jest than in antagonism.

The Dubs that surrounded us were knowledgeable on their football, and humourous on top.

”Neutral me arse,” laughed the fella on the step in front of us, who made for good company throughout and who bode us all safe home with a gleeful handshake when all was said and done.

The atmosphere found new decibel levels in the parade and off goes the first flare right in front of us, choking up the lungs and the eyes both.

When it clears, the Hill offers a great view of whoever is attacking it. Everything in the minor game had been so narrow and central, while the senior game offered greater width in attack.

Con O’Callaghan’s early goal offered up the fear that it might go like the Tyrone game but by half-time there was a sense of panic in the air, particularly on the uncharacteristic breakdown of their own kickouts.

The wall of sound was enveloped by nerves on both sides for the most of an absorbing second half. You turned your head and you see is a sea of furrowed brows and scratched heads. Two down with time whittling away, panic briefly set in among the supporters.

But not the Dublin players. Never them. Back level and then the free in is given. The ball sails goalwards and they take their lead from the Canal End. The cheer goes up there, and pandemonium briefly ensues here.

It is brief, though. The place is a ball of angst the last two minutes and when Jonny Cooper stumbles on dead legs as they play keep ball, you wonder will Mayo get one final shot.

But Cluxton keeps his head and finds McManamon, who fires the ball into a space that you know there and then will never close. And when Joe McQuillan sounds it, even the eejit at the back is drowned in elation.

It sounds different in the bubble. Rather than experiencing the atmosphere, you are the atmosphere. And it is different.

The celebrations? Perhaps a bit more low-key than you’d expect. The Stretford End of Old Trafford for Paul Scholes’ volley against Barcelona in 2008 is maybe the best I have to compare it to and to be totally honest, Scholes wins hands down.

There was just something a bit too blasé about the Dublin supporters’ reaction to such history on Sunday. It just didn’t feel like emotionally this was Cluxton v Kerry 2011 all over again, even though the circumstances were identical.

That comes with five All-Irelands in seven years, I suppose. Or maybe it’s the Perspex keeping them enclosed.

But the boys in blue do have something special at their backs, and it’s a massive part of what’s driving this wave.

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