Co-Commentating in Drogheda with RTE last Friday allowed me to interact with both managers during the nervous pre-match period that under normal circumstances is beyond the pale. Television is a demanding medium that recognises few boundaries and is such a powerful entity that we have become accustomed to accepting its avaricious personality as a constant aspect of modern society.
Indeed, it is undoubtedly true that viewers accept it, as a right rather than a privilege, that every piece of information or gossip is passed on to them and statistics - thankfully the domain of the commentator - are now a prerequisite for every programme.
I have always loved those pre-game nerves that play such an important part in the build-up. For the manager especially it is a time of tension because in effect the bulk of his work is essentially done. When “The Gaffer” finishes his team talk he may have quiet words with individual players but after that I always think it best to leave the players to their own devices. Most players have their own pre-match mental routine with some liking plenty of noise and others withdrawing into their own private world and a busy manager can be the last thing they need.
I always vacated the dressing room for a while until the players went out for the warm-up when I returned to ensure the set piece board was arranged properly to enable me to do a quick final once-over on the set plays that had been practised through the week and perhaps rehearse the final words of encouragement to the players that can be of much consequence before a big game.
There is always a distinctive organised-chaos atmosphere in the dressing room when the players are outside warming up. The walls are almost covered by the hanging clothes; the table is filled with drinks, biscuits and sweets and an almost eerie sense of expectation fills the room while the external drone of the stadium announcer and hum of the crowd filing into the main stand seem to somehow belong to another world. This is always the most nervous time for the manager. His own thoughts fill his head and any lingering doubts or uncertainties can try to push their way to the front of his mind.
Commentator Stephen Alkin and I spoke to the respective managers, Mick Cooke and Stephen Kenny, about their team selection and some of their tactical priorities- individually and of course, in complete confidence - and I spoke to both managers about certain players that might have big parts to play in the game. In these moments filled as they are with nervous tension, it is quite engaging to have this type of quiet conversation, and most managers are open and honest about what lies ahead. I have often pondered on the merits of this type of tete-a-tete even when I was managing.
It could be that managers are in some subliminal manner- re the last sentence of the previous paragraph- almost seeking verification for selection or tactics with a person who understands the uniqueness of these moments of solitude.
For Drogheda, missing six players who would probably have been in the starting line-up, it turned out to be an evening of promise rather than one of fulfilment. Running the much more vaunted eleven of Shamrock Rovers close but not close enough, Drogheda supporters can realistically assume that the presence of the Brennan brothers, Paul Crowley and Fabio O’Brien will generate a more penetrative persona to a team that on the night provided a fully committed and well organised display without ever really testing the young opposition goalie.
For the Hoops the opening twenty minutes or so was really good and the three points gathered made it a successful venture across the Boyne. But in truth, the lack of definition in the team during what was a scrappy second period will surely have given Stephen Kenny much food for thought. Man for man, Rovers are a far better equipped team but while recognising that no team will have an easy visit to Hunky Dorys Park this season, one would still have expected a little more consistent quality from the visitors although we must also accept this was only the first game of the season.
I could not finish this piece without mentioning the excellent hospitality you always receive when visiting Drogheda United. From Trudy in the downstairs office to Bridie and the girls above in the tea room there is always a wonderfully warm welcome. But the best part undoubtedly, is the hot mug of tea and a slice (or two) of the best apple pie in the Airtricity League.