The first barrier beyond which ticketless mortals cannot venture is at the mouth of Clonliffe Avenue opposite Quinns on Dorset street. Traffic slows down as easy going Gardai marshall the throngs of hurling fans who congest the usually busy Dublin thoroughfare. There is a babble of noise. Shouts and guffaws. Laughter. The cries of street hawkers and ticket touts. The excited chatter of rival fans. Tipp gansaí's mingle with the black and amber of Kilkenny and the emerald green of Limerick minors.
Its the same down at Gills corner and other entry points to Croke Park. It is the All Ireland Hurling Final. Me and my older brother Paddy slip through the barrier at Gills. The huge shoulder of the Canal end of Croke Park looms into sight. A duo of street musicians rent the air with traditional ballads. The street is filled with an epidemic of hurling fans. There is a sense of expectation. Of hope. A palpable expectation of being witness to a feast of sporting and cultural magic.
Then through the turnstiles and into the Hogan Stand. We take our seats. The minor game is already underway. Kilkenny is edging ahead of a brave Limerick side. The stadium is rapidly filling up. Our Paddy turns to me as he does at this point every year during our annual pilgrimage to the best stadium in the world to watch the best players in the world playing the best game in the world.
' Aren't we lucky to be here? in Croke Park? isn't it great to be a Gael?'
We study the Match Programme. Pore over the clár. Soak up the atmosphere. Discuss the pros and cons, deplore the absence of ground hurling. Debate tactics. check how the winds is blowing the national and provincial flags. Chat with other fans in neighbouring seats. Shake hands with old friends. Applaud the Minors as they conclude the game with a victory for the Cats. Commiserate with each other at the sight of the dejected Limerick lads lying despondently in the background while the jubilant Kilkenny victors celebrate at the plinth in the Hogan Stand.
Then the atmosphere builds. The Tipperary All Ireland Champions of 25 years ago line up and are introduced. Heroes. They beat Antrim that day. I am disappointed that the Antrim team don't get to parade. I was looking forward to applauding them as well. Heroes also.
Huge banners representing the All Ireland Senior teams are carried aloft on to the field by throngs of young people. The Artane Boys Band assemble below us. Then the Cats take to the field as Croke Park explodes with a roar of rapturous approval from their supporters. Tipperary follow soon afterwards.
The red carpet is rolled out. We rise to greet the President as he and The Uachtaran of Cumann Lúthchleas Gael meet the players. The teams parade. Then Amhran na bhFiann. 82 thousand proud Irish voices raised in rousing chorus and conclude in a united roar of support for their county. The Artane Boys Band exits off the pitch.
The hurlers shake hands with each other and with the ref and the linesmen. The ref throws the sliothar in. The midfielders draw on it. The Hurling Final begin. The fastest field game on the planet is underway.
It's over to the hurlers now. This is their arena. Our arena. Their game. Our game. They are warriors. Gladiators. Magicans. Wizards with camans. They will not disappoint us.
They didn't. It all went by in a flash. Point for point. Goal for goal. To and fro. Up and down.
Acrobatic high fielding. Precision passing. Long diagonal pucking of the sliothar. Long distance point scoring. Quick as a flash hand passing. Side line cuts. Great clearances. Tight marking. Great goal keeping. Great goals scored. Inspirational solo runs. The ash clashing in close combat dunting. Courageous blocking. Not a malicious stroke the whole game.
' It's a pity it will soon be over' our Paddy says at half time.
'Liam O Neill predicts a draw' I tell him.
'Now wudn't that be something' he says in wonderment as the second half starts at break neck speed, 'A draw?'
And it was. The best game of hurling I ever saw since our school beat Saint Galls in 1958 and I got the best player award.
The sport of heroes.
Kilkenny and Tipperary?