A FACE IN THE CROWD Mayo’s James Nallen prepares to sit on the bench after being substituted after eleven minutes of the All-Ireland Final.
Hope springs eternal
THERE’S a lot to be said for heroic failure. Heart-breaking though the
losses of ‘89 and ‘96 were, Mayo walked away with pride intact. The
fans faced into the long journey home with tears in their eyes, but
hope in their hearts. This hadn’t been Mayo’s day, we felt, but there
was a sense that it wasn’t far off. Our day would surely come. Progress
had been made.
Since then – in the three final defeats to Kerry – there has been little left to be proud of at the end. And that was the cruelest part of Sunday afternoon – that Mayo were stripped of their pride. After the heroics of the semi-final, the maturity with which they had approached the final, the togetherness they had displayed all year, the hope they had brought, they deserved - at least - to walk away with their heads held high. After a 13-point battering on Gaelic football’s most public stage, that is simply not possible.
But, if we, as Mayo people and fans, are feeling pain like we’ve never
felt before, imagine how it feels to be David Heaney, the man who led
so superbly all year, the man
who rallied his players when hope seemed lost against Dublin, the man
who put his body on the line to deny scores so many times this year
that he was in danger of losing some vital parts of it. The man who was
70 minutes away from immortality, as the first Mayo captain in 55 years
to lift the Sam Maguire.
Or put yourself in James Nallen’s shoes. Arguably the best centre-half back in the country over the last decade, he was inspiring us when many of his colleagues on Sunday were still playing Under-12 blitzes. He has lost four All-Ireland finals, and in the latest one suffered the ignominy of probably ending his career by being withdrawn after just eleven minutes of play. Whatever is owed to us as fans, James Nallen deserves more than what Sunday brought him. All the heartbreak he has endured has been endured because he cared so much, because he considered heartbreak worth it for the sake of winning an All-Ireland medal. And now he never will.
And what of Ciaran McDonald? Loved and criticised in equal measure, he’s always an easy target, and the detractors were out in force after this latest final debacle. He had a woeful second half, but honestly, did anyone throw more of themselves into the Mayo cause on Sunday? His game was riddled with errors, granted, but he never stopped trying. The anguish was plain to be seen on his face every time he misplaced a pass or landed a shot the wrong side of the uprights (compounded by the Kerry cheers that greeted his every slip), but he bounced back every time and sought to make amends. If there is a more honest player in the country, let him step forward and take a bow.
And that’s only three of 30 men who sacrificed so much to get to Sunday’s throw-in, only to be met with despair at the end of it all. Spare many thoughts for those players in the weeks to come and be kind in how you judge them, because history won’t be. That is for sure.
LITTLE can be said about the game itself. Analysis is almost wasted; how do you analyse a demolition? And if you can manage it, what purpose does it serve? Kerry were brilliant, Mayo disastrous. There’s little more to be said. Our nature makes us seek answers, but sometimes there just aren’t any. Few were being offered around Croke Park on Sunday afternoon, so why feign enlightenment now, using the distorted wisdom of hindsight?
We came into the final full of hope and rightly so. Coming back from seven points down against a vaunted Dublin side, we showed character the like of which we scarcely we knew we possessed. Yes, Dublin were over-rated, but still Mayo secured a victory against all odds. It seemed to bode well. So too did the fact that the players were guarded in their public comments, were focused to the point that nothing else seemed capable of penetrating their world.
Our faith wasn’t misplaced. We weren’t naïve to be hopeful of victory. But we met with a better team on the day, a team that had a point to prove after last year’s final defeat. Kerry are a force to be reckoned with any day of the week, on any football field. Kerry with the bit between their teeth and with questions marks hanging over their pedigree are an unstoppable force. Did 2004 not teach us that?
IT’S back to the drawing board now for Mayo. The post-mortems will shorten the winter and account for a large portion of the spring, but what conclusions will be drawn? As is the case in the aftermath of every final defeat, there will be calls for a change in management. But will they be justified and will they be heeded? A massive clear-out of players will probably be recommended by some, a change in training methods by others. There will be as many solutions presented as there were flaws on Sunday last.
Who knows what course will be taken at the end of the period of mourning, and who can tell now what the right course is? Save for the man above, no one, and none should try - not in the days to come. The only thing that can be said for certain is that now is not the time for hasty decisions. Now is the time for reflection and stock-taking, for licking of wounds, rebuilding of self-esteem and being gentle with battered bodies and bruised egos. It’s a time for unity and togetherness, a time to truly live out the ‘family’ mantra that Mickey Moran preached so consistently this year. Who leaves their family in the time of greatest need? Who kicks a family member when they’re down? We may be losers, but let us never be traitors or deserters.
WHEN you’ve failed heroically, there’s a future. There’s a defiance and a determination to bounce back. There’s resolve and there’s resilience. With annihilation, perspective is harder to find amid the debris and the tattered dreams.
But you have to keep hoping because when hope goes, all is lost. All is not lost.