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IT’S funny how much the senior championship in Mayo reflects the prevailing situation in the All-Ireland championship. A couple of teams way out in front in terms of championships won, a few more attempting to break into double digits and now and again a resurgent old power or a new kid on the block asserting themselves.
Ballina are without doubt the Kerry of Mayo, sick and all as many of their current players must be of the sight of the green and gold. Well over thirty titles in the bag and after a nightmarish 19 years without a title from 1966 to 1985, they are getting back to their average of two or three titles per decade.
It is almost impossible to see them ever entering such a fallow period again, not least because of their perennial achievements at under-age level, in the same way that one cannot imagine Kerry going eleven years again without Sam, as they did from 1986 to 1997.
As with our friends down south, when you remove Ballina from the championship equation you have staked a major claim for the big one. Of course, last Sunday’s encounter between themselves and Crossmolina was very much a meeting of equals with the Moclair Cup count over the last eleven years reading 5-3 in favour of the Deel Rover’s men. And an All-Ireland championship each to boot. Nothing much between them there then.
And when you throw in problematic conditions, and both teams possessing several men desperate to dilute the memory of 9/13 some little bit with the help of another county medal, then you had sufficient ingredients for a stand-up fight to the death. Metaphorically speaking of course.
Team sports have been likened to chess played out in a more physical environment. And chess is analogous to war. So we shouldn’t be too surprised that when the stakes are at their highest, i.e. when pride and the determination of superiority are as much at stake as the baubles of victory, the will to be the one to survive and thus, the emotions, take over.
A player puts himself and his character so much on the line when he takes to the pitch. The values that define the team player are ones of self-sacrifice, hard work and unflinching resolve to do whatever needs to be done for the cause. It is perfectly understandable that the line between what is acceptable and what is thought necessary can sometimes become blurred in the fierce battle for supremacy.
The reality is that, thankfully, more often than not the players and the team that remain outside of their emotions, or at least more so than their opponents, come out on top. Much easier said than done of course. But it can be done and it is usually a trait of the really great players.
So it was that while a good many around them were losing their heads on Sunday, enough in the Cross’ jerseys retained their cool and went looking, calmly, for a way out of the predicament they found themselves in with thirty three minutes already gone in the second half and God knows how long more left. As so often in these situations over the past six or seven years, a couple of their county men stood up and were counted.
Ballina will be kicking themselves a lot over the winter months. They had put in a tremendous second half resurgence after appearing to lethargically allow the game to drift away from them in the first. But they haven’t achieved what they have without being a really serious team.
Their strength lies in their outstanding teamwork and support play, their ability to retain the ball under all kinds of pressure until they chisel out a scoring opportunity, often from a free-kick situation. They appeared to have done enough to have at least earned a draw, as Ciaran McDonald prepared to take the free that led to the game-breaking goal. And there is no way they should have allowed their year to be turned upset down by a the most basic and crude of plays, a fist being thrown at a ball dropping in the goalmouth.
But we have all been there and have had that done to us. (In 1985, for instance, in a first round match, knockout of course, Liam McHale did something similar to Aghamore, and Ballina went on to end their 19 years of famine. You don’t forget those moments too easily!) It shouldn’t happen but it does. There’ll be one or two men who will, now and again for the rest of their lives, think ‘Why did I let Gardiner go?’
That’s football, as we all say when our mouths are dry and our hearts sick with crushing disappointment. A draw would have been a fairer result but who says sport should be fair? If it was we wouldn’t need to play games at all; a simple computer programme would work out who deserved to win based on commitment to training, ability to defend, creativity in attack and so on.
We’re human, we make mistakes, we do great things, we let ourselves down, but invariably we pick ourselves up when it’s all over and go again. Crossmolina are back in their comfort zone of a county final once again; Ballina will regroup and will have to be beaten by anyone with pretensions next year and the year after and…
And meanwhile the young Turks from Ballagh, the talking team of this and a couple of years past, prepare for a massive step into the wondrous unknown. Are they about to become the Crossmolina of the next ten years? Fascinating times.