MY first time in Semple Stadium was the 1990 Munster hurling final.
I’d like to say that the boy two days short of his sixth birthday retained the memory of every shot from Cork’s against-the-odds win to end Tipperary’s reign as All-Ireland champions, but in truth little of the game can be recalled now.
Most of the memories revolve around what was happening around me in the lower part of the old stand, behind the Tipp dugout. The credit gained nine months previously in taking the Premier County to a first All-Ireland in 18 years didn’t insulate Babs Keating against ferocious abuse from his own as provincial and national crowns slipped away.
Then, on top of that, my father had spotted that there was a pick-pocket in our midst but I was worst person to give such information to as I became paranoid that my Jelly Tots would be targeted.
Thankfully, the fingersmith had his sights on more valuable prizes and we made it home with our possessions intact while the victory ensured a bigger day out six weeks later as Cork beat Galway to claim the first leg of the double.
One became very familiar with the inner workings of the towns along the way as you crawled through them, but it was all part of the big-match experience. The giant pencil in Fermoy, the clever two-way signage of Dorans in Mitchelstown and that terraced house in Cashel that always had the Cork flag flying proudly were the landmarks to be anticipated as the excitement grew.
Now, the motorway takes those places out of the equation and the journey to the Thurles exit takes not much more than an hour from Cork city. Were it not for the GAA, it would likely be another half-forgotten town but thankfully the link is inextricable and Thurles is a place that Munster GAA people know nearly as well as their own home town.
In this quarter, the matchday experience is of course much different to what it was for those days out as a child, but the gratitude at being there is just as strong.
Whether the possession of parking pass for Dr Morris Park is the primary factor for this, we can’t comment, but it certainly contributes to pace of mind en route.
Without sounding mawkish, walking from there around the stadium to the new stand, the Ardán Uí Riain, is almost a spiritual experience, even if the ‘hats, flags and headbands’ merchants now seem to have reduced their catalogue to just the latter (€2 each of three for a fiver). The people enjoying pints outside the Thurles Sarsfields clubhouse, Redser O’Grady with his hurling version of a coconut shy and the way everyone and anyone can have a puck-around on the Sarsfields pitch. At the side of that pitch, I saw a father and his young son enjoying their lunch and I was transported back in time.
On Sunday, the fact that it was Limerick people streaming out the big gate where the Town End meets the new stand meant that Kilkenny had won the All-Ireland U20 decider, or were just about to.
Michael, the man at the media entrance, is a gent in the mould of the late Tom McGarry and inside in the ground, the press personnel are wonderfully looked after by Ed Donnelly and his daughter Caitlin. Even without all of those plus points, covering a game in Thurles would still be a privilege, given the history of the place, but they help to make it such an enjoyable one.