Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. There is not many places a Gaelic Football fan would prefer to be. Whether it is in August, September or even December of any given year, the GAA fan will always want to be in attendance.
Every year - until recently - for obvious reasons I won’t go into today, just over 80,000 people get to be in attendance on the biggest day of the GAA calendar. These are the lucky club members and volunteers, season ticket holders and people with contacts the length and breadth of the country, who get through the turnstiles to support their county.
I have been lucky enough over the years to attend every All-Ireland final involving Mayo since the 1996 replay, except for the 1997 “Maurice Fitz final” against Kerry. I even managed to be there for the 2008 final when the Mayo minors were in action and Tyrone defeated Kerry in the day’s main event. So, of this Saturday’s two teams, I have seen one lift the Sam Maguire in person - but it hasn’t been my home county!
That day I saw the full force of the Tyrone army in action. On the field they were as tough as nails and not shy about letting the much-vaunted Kerry team across from them know about it. While in the stands and the terrace they were as vocal and raucous a crowd of football fans as I had ever seen, outside of Mayo fans of course!
The 1996 replay was my first experience of the big day, all nine years of me took it in that day and wanted more. The disappointment of not being there in 1997, (instead I was carted off swimming in Kilmacud Crokes by an oblivious relation ), turned to elation seven years later, as I received a ticket to the big game and the obligatory night in CityWest.
The game didn’t go our way, as many didn’t, but CityWest was great craic. Substitute 2004 for 2006 and you have the exact same experience!
Then came the turn of the decade, the defeat to Longford and, unbeknownst to us all, the beginning of the greatest journey by any Mayo team since the 1950/1951 side which picked up Sam Maguire.
I got used to the big days out; to being surrounded by thousands of Dublin fans on Hill 16 in 2012 as we dethroned the All-Ireland champions – a day I’ll never forget - as one of only a handful of Mayo people on the terrace that day with the Red & Green on display. Talk about standing out in the crowd!
So many big days out in Croke Park over the decade. So many good days in the famous stadium. Unfortunately, though, none of them on All-Ireland final day.
That famous day in the sporting calendar has not been good to Mayo or its supporters. We dreamt in 2012, believed in 2013 and hoped in 2016 and 2017. Those of us lucky enough to have been in the stands on those days will always remember them, despite the results. We remember the heart palpitations, the ups and downs too many to count over the course of two hours.
They say family members kick every ball with their sport-playing son or daughter. I think in Mayo we have all kicked every ball with the county team over the last decade.
The primal roar that we let out when Mayo enters the field of play always seems to be louder each time and Saturday will be no different, as we return to the big stage for the first time since 2017, last December being the aberration in it all - that still doesn’t feel like an actual All-Ireland.
But there will only be half of us there. That half will undoubtedly shout and roar and cheer loud enough for the rest and maybe, just maybe, all those years of disappointment and despair leaving Croke Park will give way to celebration.
The famous ‘Plan B’ may be needed once again come 7pm on Saturday!