On the road
FLOODLIGHT robbery, it was gleefully christened, on the way out of Páirc Sheáin Mac Cumhaill. And there’s nothing quite like a last-minute draw, snatched from the jaws of defeat, to shorten the road home. The flood of grinning Mayo faces contrasted sharply with the bemusement of the Donegal fans. The latter were easily read.
“How could we have let that happen again?”
Rewind a few hours to lunchtime in Mayo; time to think about getting on the road. As ever, the Mayo support likes to beat the local traffic and get all the best seats. Departing at 2pm feels reasonable, a bit risky even, for a 7.15pm throw-in, two hours up the road.
We stop the far side of Sligo for a sandwich and a coffee and meet a fellow traveller on the way out the door. “Ye won’t get a seat in the stand”, he admonishes. It’s 3.30pm.
It’s been another long winter of discontent, tarnished by tacky newspaper headlines. The news on the eve of the game that the controversy that has dogged us off the pitch seems to have been put to bed is quietly welcomed, but the focus is firmly on the team sheet which indicates that once again, James Horan will let youth off the leash.
Five league debuts - a mouth-watering prospect for a county hungry for reassurance that the good days are far from over. The craic in the car is good; the week’s podcasts are mulled over and plans for the year ahead are set in motion. The best part of this journey has always been the company we keep. There is a feeling of starting over as we park up and stroll into Ballybofey. Familiar faces emerge from takeaways and pubs along the street.
We park ourselves in one of the bars for a short while to soak it in. The referee passes through, after having the spuds out the back. With three new rules to police, it won’t be an easy year for refs.
Páirc Mac Cumhaill is cold and crisp, with the promise of snow in the air, but not bitter. The stand is cosy; even a bit claustrophic, probably not helped by the layers donned, necessary to stave off hypothermia on these nights. Floodlit nights always lend an extra bit of atmosphere and this is no different.
After procrastinating for the best part of 2019, tonight I have a new set of specs, something I am certain comes as a great relief to my companions, who I can now leave in peace when the action moves to the far end.
This game is full of ebb and flow. It’s no classic, but it has its moments; Paddy Durcan and James Carr teaming up to deliver a cheeky goal (the things that happen when you’re both going for the point, eh?), Michael Murphy wins essentially a free kick for plucking the ball out of the air in what is already the most compelling argument against the new mark (though it doesn’t prevent him from spending most of the game in the ear of the referee); Donegal inexplicably lose their shooting boots in the first half.
As they rediscover them, we’re resigned to a loss as the minutes tick away in the second half. Then the precocious James Durcan barges through for a stormer of a goal to level, leaving the gold and green shellshocked and the green and red ecstatic. In the excitement I smack myself in the face with the corner of the programme and give myself a bloody nose. I always said these games were bad for your health.
We didn’t deserve it, but by god, we’ll take it. And isn’t it a grand thing when your biggest concern on the way home is making it to KFC before it closes.
New year, same old Mayo.