A few years ago, I saw Ireland play Mexico in Giants Stadium in New Jersey. In Croke Park on the August Bank Holiday, it was hotter, more exciting, and the surroundings were grander.
I haven’t been in Croke Park since Donegal played Dublin there, back in the 1993 National League Final. Every Croker game I’ve seen since then, I’ve seen on the telly, at home or on the big screens beamed via Setanta.
Even the Big Screens make things smaller though, and it wasn’t until I was inside that I realised the scale of the changes that have gone on there.
Some things never change though. The one thing that unites every fan in the country, for instance, is the opinion that the referee is against their team.
Part of me wanted to grumble along with everyone on the decisions that went against us, but then I think of the speed at which the players were moving, and I’m amazed he manages to keep up at all.
Everyone insists fitness levels are at levels unknown a generation or two ago, but no one ever stops to wonder about refereeing standards over the years. Their forebears never had to put up with the pressure of instant television replay and analysis.
The Hill is still the same too. I’d heard the GAA split up the tickets so every county got the same number of Hill 16 tickets, but it was still a Dublin reservation on the day. I did spot a few lonely souls in Donegal and Cork jerseys up there, but for the most part it was a sea of blues.
They’re still in as fine a voice as ever they were, and still as fickle as ever. The Hill went quiet whenever Donegal drew level, never mind when they went ahead. Donegal fans often seem to cheer louder when the team goes behind. I’m sure this helped lift their hearts on the field when they needed to pull back those points in the closing minutes of the game.
Mercifully, as the heat fried our brains in the Cusack Stand and we lost what was left of our voices, and the roars of “take your f@#&!% point” replaced with simple incoherent roars, the boys on the pitch kept their heads. With a clock running down, the temptation to try for a goal must be enormous. Games are lost that way, and won by those with the discipline to tot up the points patiently.
We didn’t get the win, but we lived to fight another day. I only hope it rains next time. I’d almost rather the heat in Giants Stadium to the sitting in the ovens in the lower Cusack again.
Provided I can get my hands on a ticket of course.