GETTING BEHIND THE TEAM Mayo supporters watch on during Saturday’s All-Ireland SFC Qualifier in Newbridge. Pic: Sportsfile
Stay down Champion, stay down...
- Tall Saint, The National
*DISCLAIMER: do not read this article if you are already in bad form. If you are in good form, be prepared to be in bad form pretty soon. There is one moderately funny line in the final paragraph. There is nothing about the match; sorry Kildare, it’s not you, it’s me.
The 1951 novel ‘Walkabout’ tells the story of a brother and sister stranded in the Australian desert. With nothing but the clothes on their backs, they face a slow but certain death at the hands of the merciless elements. An aboriginal boy, on his eponymous walkabout, happens upon them, and amid much mistrust, fear and no little curiosity directed toward him, he guides them to safety.
But, something happens the boy. He gets sick. Perfectly healthy, he decides he is going to die. His psychological euthanasia confounds the children – they plead with him to arrest his spiritual slide toward the mortal abyss. Their efforts are futile. The aboriginal boy – as if realising that the children’s safety was his prompt to exit this mortal melee – was not for turning. He had seen death, the destroyer of worlds, and he was ready.
Mayo commenced their most recent walkabout one wet January day in 2011. Many miles have followed, many tears shed, bones broken. Even so, to the naked eye at least, they too looked the picture of health, many of them only approaching their prime. But appearances can be deceiving. Just like the aboriginal boy, they saw death. Who knows where, but it came for them last Saturday night in St. Conleth’s Park Newbridge, the unlikely place where great teams go to die.
Forgive me please this grim analogy, and while you are at it spare these players your pity. They don’t want it. Your respect, maybe. Pity, no.
These guys are the lucky ones - the rare and beatified few who have been a vessel for our hopes and dreams for nearly a decade. Just as playing for Mayo is a privileged and precious thing for them, losing is not something we should pretend to understand, but perhaps we should try to.
The American author Gay Talese once wrote an essay on the great Joe DiMaggio titled The Silent Season of a Hero. For any of us trying to understand what loss must be like for The Player, this is a must-read. The story lays bare the fickleness of the human condition, not least in DiMaggio, the most macho of men. I thought of that essay in the aftermath of Saturday night, and one line in particular: writing of Marilyn Munroe, whom DiMaggio married - and who broke his heart worse than any Red Sox pitcher - and her morale-boosting trip to US troops in Korea, Talese tells: “She appeared on ten different occasions before 100,000 servicemen, and when she returned, she said, “it was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.”
“Yes, I have,” he said”.
The writer presented this without further comment. It has stayed in my head, and maybe a little in my heart, ever since I first read it, and I’ve never been too sure why.
Maybe, it’s the realisation that only The Player can possibly know what it must be like to live through and lose games like Saturday night. To stand there in front of 10,000 people one week, 80,000 the next, and, although part of a team, be completely and utterly isolated, vulnerable, exposed, nauseous and utterly out on your feet, all the while executing skills few of us could manage in the sitting-room. And though they walk amongst us, they are outliers, as much for living these moments as for their talent.
As for the rest of us? We followed them through the desert, from watering hole to watering hole. They nourished us as we’ve roared with thirst. The relationship ebbed and flowed and was often fractured, but ultimately anchored on a reliance of us on them.
There were times they needed us, sure, and Christ we fairly patted ourselves on our backs on those occasions, but we were there and oh, so happy to be. Our pain yesterday, today, tomorrow, is just different to that of the players, but no less important.
Because, all of this IS important. This matters. For thousands of us, it is Mayo football that has been the glue that has kept some childhood friendships intact or provided the spark that has rekindled others. Mayo football has kept the most difficult of filial relationships from crumbling just by the mundane observation of the ritual of travelling to a game with a family member you love but you can’t bloody well say it because because because...
How many of us would sacrifice every material possession we have for one more trip to Croker or Castlebar with a loved one we’ve lost. Mayo football has served as a conduit for connection to people and to places that is nothing if not important. It is not exclusive to Mayo, I know, but we’ve put a very fine blás on it.
What of tomorrow?
Too soon for such thoughts.
Let us all take a breath and finally accept we will absolutely have to attend those August weddings we have for so long avoided. There have been enough good days for us to accept this one bad one. Everybody deserves a break - from Stephen Rochford to the mum who drives her kids, and her neighbour’s kids to games across the country. Just remember not to despair too long, pretty soon, we go again.