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Whoever handles nerves best will walk away with gold

By Ryan McMenamin

The week of an All-Ireland final belongs to the supporters. The job of the players is to jump into the bunker, get the show business out of the way and concentrate on football.

In 2003, we had everything sorted out fairly quickly. The Tuesday night after we won the semi-final against Kerry, we had a team meeting in Kelly's Inn after training. Kevin and Aidan Bowes, two brothers who own a clothes shop in Omagh, came in and measured us all up for suits and shoes. Done.

As for tickets, I had a remarkably uncomplicated system.

If someone hadn't come looking for a ticket in the first round or semi-final of Ulster, then I never went looking for them for the final. As long as my family and friends were taken care of, perhaps a few lads around the club. Apart from that I kept the head down.

I am led to believe that the Donegal squad have not done a tap of work for the last fortnight. Times really have changed. In 2003 and 2005, I was up in Stormont Estate and worked the Friday before the final. Mind you, it was hardly a Gaelic stronghold up in Dundonald House.

Donegal's training camps might have been a bit too intense for us Tyrone men, I think.

We headed away the odd weekend, and I remember going up to Greenmount College once. The rooms were like jail cells. The only diversion you had was a copy of Gideon's Bible.

The Lough Erne Resort would have been far from where we were reared, but the logic of funding such ventures has been flipped. The cash now is coming from the ex-pat community in London and America. Kerry have been doing that long before Donegal. They were always good at sending out three or four high-profile players or ex-players to America for a weekend of schmoozing.

It's been said quite a bit this week that Kerry have an established complex against teams from Ulster. I'm not so sure.

They are a younger team and they have a lack of baggage. In some ways, they are like Tyrone 10, 12 years ago, written off by everyone in all quarters. It's a bit like we were after Sligo beat us in 2002 and everyone got crucified afterwards. Within a year we won an All-Ireland.

There is an element of re-inventing the wheel to beat this Donegal side. Dublin let Donegal dictate the pace in the semi-final by getting turned over. You have to keep the ball on the move and to beat any blanket defence, the ball has to go dead after every attack.

Dublin got turned over too many times, they let their key players get dragged out but Kerry need their wing-backs to get into the scoring zone and causing problems.

Now, up front is where they really need to get creative.

I would have James O'Donoghue at centre-forward. Imagine if Kerry set up without a full-forward line; it would cause Donegal bother as their strengths lie in shutting down the inside men. If they came at you in waves, then it would cause them to think again.

If O'Donoghue receives the ball inside, then instantly he is prey. But if he gets the ball further out the field, then he is facing the goal and can shoot from distance. If he does that, Donegal are going to have to come out further. There is no point in making the same mistakes as all the other teams.

When you play Kerry in a final you know they are going to give you your hardest-ever test. Kerry have gone that wee bit extra this season. Going toe-to-toe with Mayo over extra-time will have brought them up to the pitch.

It's how you deal with nerves is the crucial factor. On the morning of the 2003 final, there was a card game of 'Dropsies' going on in Hub Hughes' room. Twenty men were packed in. There was £100 in the pot and I was going for it. Lose, and I had to double it.

My phone went off and it was my then-girlfriend, now wife, Maura. She asked: "Are you nervous?"

All I could think about was the ton on the table. Of course I was nervous!

Belfast Telegraph


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