Sunday, October 10th. Coimbra, Portugal.
7.30am Wake Up
All the signifiers of the day of big finals are here, all so familiar and still stressful. The stiff, aching muscles, the soreness in all my body from the previous two days tournament. The tight shoulders after a restless night’s sleep. I wish I’d slept more but I can’t change that now. The feeling of anxiety in my stomach. A quiet breakfast, nodding to people, nervous joking among some of the players. I keep my head down in my muesli, in my thoughts.
A lot goes back for me to the Senior Mixed Final in 2016. The start of the bad times. I felt I played terribly. And we lost. I remember getting on the plane the day after and someone asking me if I’d got over the disappointment yet. ‘No,’ I said. And added quietly, ‘This may take months.’ It did. In my blog at the time, I made a list of twelve great sporting or literary traumas to compare it to.
It still came out top.
8.30am Team Meeting
Sprawled over chairs in the hotel lobby, the words are laid down by Rory the coach and Frank and Baggo the team leaders, setting the tone. I can’t remember any of it apart from, ‘You’re mature men, we’re not going to say too much…’ That we are.
I allow my mind to wander and start imagining a list of 12 great sporting triumphs to compare to if we win today. There’s plenty of time to fill for thinking on days of tournament finals. Anything to distract you can help.
12. Mayo dethrone six-in-a-row winners Dublin, 2021
I’m not sure this would survive long on this list as Mayo failed to go on and win the All-Ireland final against Tyrone but watching them in a drafty marquee, eating dodgy burgers, off the N7 with friends from Carlow I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic made it memorable.
11. Alex Higgins wins the World Snooker Championship in 1982
I wouldn’t like him much looking back but at the time he was so charismatic. I was sent to bed before the final ended but allowed to sleep downstairs on the pull-out sofa. When my dad came home from the pub, he woke me up to tell me Alex had won.
10. Eamonn Coughlan Wins World Championship Gold, 1983
Coughlan had finished fourth in the Olympic final in 1976 and 1980. This was his first win in a major championship. Irish people were a bit uneasy about his showboating in the final lap. I wrote an essay the following week in school about the imagined conversation Coughlan and the Russian Dmitriy Dmitriyev had after the race in which I defended Eamonn staunchly.
9.10am Trip to the Grounds
The nerves are building but at least you’re on the move now. That helps. The streets are lined with adoring fans. Sort of, well, one. That helps too.
10.20am Semi-Final vs Scotland
Scotland beat us 9-8 on the first day. There’s some scar tissue here, not going back years, but going back to our first two days of play in this tournament, the losses, the poor play. Who knows how we’ll play?
We are playing them on the artificial surface which holds the heat in like a glove. I’m playing my best game so far. I set up scores on the right and left with long passes, then a scoop and pass, then my first properly executed quickie of the tournament. We go a couple of scores up. I’m feeling comfortable. But they come back into it.
It’s a free-for-all physically. The referees let a lot go. It suits us here because we’re winning and it slows the game but still they come back. We’re holding out, making it hard because it is hard and they’re good. There’s only one score in it. The final hooter goes. We just about do it.
I’m worried if we play like that in the final, are so physical, with stronger refereeing, we’ll lose. At least we’re in the final. That was far from guaranteed.
9. Manchester United win Champions League, 1999
I loved this team mostly for the two Irish players, Roy Keane and Denis Irwin. I watched it in a flat in Madrid after rushing home from teaching an English class. I was with a German lad who didn’t care too much and a Liverpool lad who was so distraught at the end, he didn’t leave his room for two days.
8. Federer beats Nadal Australian Open 2017
Federer back from a long injury. Thirty-five years old. Dominated by Nadal for much of the previous decade. Roger wins from a break down in the final set. There is no logic to me caring so much about who wins this game.
7. The O’Donovan brothers win Olympic silver
I rowed back in the 1990s and trained alongside some of the rowers who finished fourth in the Olympic final in 1996. I’ve followed the sport ever since and knew only an Olympic medal would make Irish people realise how good Irish rowers were.
We go for a coffee to pass the time. As Samuel Beckett said, the time would have passed anyway. I love and hate these moments. The stomach churning, the worrying about what lies ahead. Is it going to be like all the last times? At least we’re here again. Savour it. I look happy.
As before all the big games these days, don’t you know, there are media duties. My first appearance on Portuguese TV. (22 minutes in.)
I sound so much more interesting when I’m subtitled in Portuguese.
6. Sonia O’Sullivan wins silver, 2000 Olympics
I loved Sonia as the whole country did. This was her comeback after the disaster of Atlanta in 1996. It was as she said ‘almost a dream come true’. She’d be even higher if it was gold.
5. Padraig Harrington Winning the British Open, 2007
Watching it in the family house. My brother Shane said he was welling up at the end, glanced across at me and saw I was staring hard at the ground. He thought we’d be better not to make eye contact with each other for a while. ‘Can we put butterflies in it?’
4. Munster European Cup Win 2006
It felt like the first time an Irish team had actually won something, the whole competition, not just a moral victory along the way. I got off a train in Florence five minutes before the start, sure that my Italian friend Nicoletta wouldn’t understand the importance of me seeing this. She did thankfully and took me straight to an Irish bar.
13.50pm Warm Up
Fed leads us through a meditation and breathing exercises as part of our warm up.
We lost to Wales 4-1 on the first day. They hammered us. It’s hard to be confident but I am.
‘One minute warning…’ The hooter sounds.
14.20 Final vs Wales
I should have made a try on our first attack. The old simple move, scoop at the touching defender on our fifth touch of a drive.
The second attack.
A dump and split against the grain, with the touching defender over-committing to his corner. Openside defence shuts and a pass to the wing.
A score for Ger. This is looking good. I should keep doing this for the rest of the game. But it’s about to get uglier.
Welsh score. 1-1.
A ’21’ set up by Jono in the corner and pass to Damien.
Welsh score. 2-2.
We’re already getting too drawn into arguing with the referees, becoming too fractious. I got drawn into the franticness too. I know I’m not attacking as well as I could. I could be doing more for the team. I just try to stay at it.
A good drive, a pass from Paul to Barry before the defence can get set.
I set up a quickie with Jono.
I think the score should be given but I know a moment after I should have just dived outside the defender and there is no doubt.
In the middle of the action, I know when I look back it will be obvious to me where the places to attack are that I’m missing in the moment on the pitch.
14.40pm Half-time. 3-2 Ireland.
There are some good words spoken but I can see in some of the faces that we’re still over-hyped up. I’m spending an increasing amount of time in the box between plays trying to calm us down, get us efficient again. I need to do it myself as well.
3. Sean Kelly Wins The Tour of Spain, 1988
‘1988’ is the passcode for my milkman delivery account if you’re wondering and probably a few other things. This is the reason. King Kelly. A classics rider, this was him winning a major tour for the first time. My ultimate sporting hero growing up.
2. Ireland Beat Romania On Penalties, World Cup 1990
I watched it in Maggie Bolgers pub with my best friend Andrew. At the end, everyone went mental. Someone tried to climb up the half car sticking out of one of the walls. The barman called us a disgrace and kicked us all out blinking into the afternoon summer sunshine.
1. Six Nations Grand Slam Win, 2009
So used to losing for so long. The penalty at the end, I was already rationalising the defeat. And then it wasn’t a defeat. The surreal feeling stayed with me for weeks.
I think of how I’m playing as like New Zealand in the rugby World Cup final in 2011. So much pressure to finally achieve something that you tighten up, your focus becomes narrowed, you resort to hard work, doing the simple things well. That’s good up to a point.
Welsh score. 3-3.
I have a chance to reply off a scoop and should execute it better to get us back in the lead.
That calmness which I’m trying hard to exhibit. Frank exemplifies it soon after. He scoops through, passes to Denis.
Welsh score. 4-4.
I’m on the pitch for their score. Our defensive system breaks down. I can see it coming. I don’t want to slide early because I know this player likes to throw a dummy and slide in. He’s done it once already in this final and he did it to me in the Euros in 2018. I don’t feel that Dave, my other middle has recovered yet to cover my left shoulder. I could have been harder off the line in the shut down but I expect Damien to be there on my right shoulder shutting with me. He’s read it differently and stayed out.
I’m frustrated, desperately searching in my mind what I could have done differently, better, quicker. I know how important this score is.
We’re back level half way through the second half. The old feeling of helplessness as if it’s slipping away. I’m watching from the box.
We’re giving away so many penalties. In the last few minutes, we give them attack after attack on our line. Frank makes a great last gasp touch on the line.
There is a dive over the line on the final hooter. I don’t see it because I’m looking away. The referees are in discussion. I’m waiting, expecting them to give the score and it’ll all to be over.
They don’t. We haven’t lost. The agony continues.
14.45pm Drop Off
4 vs 4. Each team goes down to four players for two minutes.
I’ve been here before. Two lost drop offs in European finals. Somewhere in my head, I’m already rationalising what it’ll feel like when we lose this.
I’m on first in the defensive pod. I make four of the six touches. We hold them out and drive to the box. Get the attackers on.
It’s harder to keep the bigger picture in moments of stress, that’s the bravery Baggo and Frank show on the pitch as they come on. I don’t even see our attack. I am bent over double in the box getting my breath back.
There is still time for Wales to come back and score. I’m straight back on the pitch to defend again. We make three touches, four. I’m thinking about nothing but make the touch, get back onside, get off the line. The referee gives them a penalty. I don’t know why. I don’t argue. I’m too exhausted. I just get back on the line and defend.
The hooter goes. There’s one last play. I’m shouting ‘Push left, push, push, PUSH!’ It’s in slow motion now in my mind.
It’s made. The whistle goes. The touch is made. I turn away and every emotion rises up inside with the hugeness of a whale cresting, exploding through the surface of the water. My throat is constricted. I’m covering my face, ‘Arrrgghhh…. arrrggghhhh… arrrggghhhhh.’ My body is wretching. Fed is the first to me. It’s all happiness from him and big Argentinian smile. I can’t speak. I keep sobbing. I’ve never experienced anything like this.
I say sorry as I shake hands and commiserate with the Welsh players still crying. ‘I’ve never won anything in Touch. In over a decade. Sorry.’ I laugh self-consciously. ‘This is ridiculous.’ The other thing I say over and over is ‘I’m so happy. I’m just so ****ing happy.’ I’m laughing at myself because I can’t stop crying.
A decade of caring about something you probably shouldn’t care so much about.
14.47pm – 3.12am
There is the prizegiving and presentations after, beers after, standing around in the sun, stupid conversations, embraces with members of the opposition wearing wigs and with referees. I’m in love with the world.
The night. The intense reliving of moments with teammates, of what we just did and what legends we all are. ‘You’re radiating happiness,’ somebody says to me. ‘Yep.’ Big talks. Big emotions. Big smiles. There is no footage of it but I believe I do some of my best dancing in a long, long time.
10.00am October 11th – Now
After the tournament, my gums hurt, my nose is running even though I don’t have a cold, I’m coughing, my nostrils hurt, everything hurts. I’m exhausted and don’t really care.
What have I learned?
Like New Zealand, winning this doesn’t dull my enthusiasm, it frees you up.
Like Samson, my strength lies in my hair and I should never shave it again.
I love being in Portugal and part of this tournament. I love how much it means to Portuguese Touch to run it well.
I love being part of this team. How the coach and the leaders led. How everyone contributed. There are reasons people in this team have been so successful.
I’ve spoken to a couple of teammates who said they still haven’t come down. ‘Don’t,’ I said. ‘Stay up there a while longer, as long as you want.’
After the Euros in 2016, I took months to get over it. I’m giving myself two solid weeks to enjoy this. Week 1 has been pretty good so far.
Finally, I think about the new little O’Malley on the way and that I’ll have some video to bore her or him with of me actually winning something. That’s a nice thought.