John McEntee: Croke Park can be field of dreams - or nightmares

Croke Park can make players crumble - or rise to the occasion

“THIS is heaven”, said a wee boy to his dad in a thick Lurgan accent as I walked down the steps of the Hogan Stand on Saturday.

He was wearing an Armagh jersey, and orange and white woollen headband, face paint and the biggest, cheesiest smile you could imagine.

This kid was a die hard, as were his family. His sense of satisfaction was shared by thousands of Armagh fans on Saturday and thousands more Roscommon fans on Sunday, because when the pleasantly unexpected happens it lifts the spirits to make fans feel as though they can walk on water.

This boy’s words reminded me of the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. Costner’s character Ray Kinsella, an avid baseball fan, hears a voice whispering in his cornfield “if you build it, he will come” – a suggestion that if a baseball field is built, famous players of a bygone era will come and play.

Later in the film, Ray is asked by one of the players who has appeared: “Is this heaven?”

“It’s Iowa.”

“Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven.”

Croke Park is shrouded in mystique. It has an allure which draws you in, forcing you to train like a dog for months if not years on end, to live a life of devotion and dedication and perhaps never be fortunate enough to get free passage through its gates.

However, when you do walk onto that hallowed turf strange things can happen. A good player can crumble under pressure. There were many examples over the course of last weekend which illustrates this point. Down’s Darragh O’Hanlon uncharacteristically hit free and free wide. His normally shatterproof confidence was smashed. That new-found doubt can only ever be erased by revisiting Croke and performing well.

Take your pick from five of the Galway forwards who flattered to deceive or any of the Kildare forwards for good measure. The same goes for Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor although to be fair to him he has produced star performances time and again in Croke Park so he will undoubtedly return to form in four days’ time when they take on Roscommon again.

Then there are the few who live their life yearning to play in Croke Park and when the moment comes they grab it with both hands. Galway’s Ian Burke was fantastic but it was Armagh’s Jamie Clarke and Paul Hughes who really covered themselves in glory.

Paul carries a 2.5l engine inside that tiny frame which propels him up and down the 145 metres of Croke Park at maximum speed. This is a special occasion for Paul because nine months ago he could easily have turned his back on the call to Armagh and chosen to return to the States for another year, but he didn’t. A performance like last week will fuel his motivation to continue on this path.

Jamie received a lot of plaudits for his performance. He craves the big stage, the bright lights, the buzz of the big day. The bigger the occasion the more driven he is. Sure, he will roll up to a pitch opening in April if he’s not sipping coffee on the Champs-Élysées but it is Croke Park that really makes him tick. A repeat performance in the face of a terribly hostile Tyrone defence is needed if Armagh are to remain competitive on Saturday. If he achieves this feat then he can be considered in the same breath as the likes of Conor McManus, Bernard Brogan or Paul Geaney.

Speaking of McManus, his exhibition of ball striking was a joy to behold. His first six shots were from incredibly difficult positions. All six shots were scores. His seventh was a 35-metre tap over. Contrast that to O’Hanlon’s performance to demonstrate the chasm between the two men. McManus doesn’t rely solely on his free-taking ability. His honesty of effort and commitment to teamwork is an example for all young kids watching the game. He walked off the pitch with 10 points to his name – just a typical day at Croker.

The final bunch of people to visit Croke Park are those who make it their own. These are the likes of Kieran Donaghy, Paul Murphy and Lee Keegan, who stroll around the pitch as if they are playing in the village green. They are the dominant figures, the guys Croke Park is honoured to host, and who we as spectators adore, irrespective of the colour of their jersey.

These guys are the best at what they do and they do it week-in, week-out. They will do it in a pre-season cup, repeat it in the provincial final and give a polished performance on All-Ireland final day. They are worth the admission fee alone. Imagine for one second that Field of Dreams was a movie about football rather than baseball.

When Ray Kinsella hears “if you build it he will come”, the people coming would be greats like Donaghy, Murphy and Keegan – and 82,000 more will come to watch them play.

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