FACES IN THE CROWD Some cardboard cut-outs of ‘Mayo supporters’ are pictured in the Cusack Stand at Croke Park during Saturday evening’s All-Ireland SFC Final. Pic: Conor McKeown
A Fan’s View
ALL good thing must come to an end, and despite all its intrigue, the 2020 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship petered out on Saturday night to its inevitable conclusion.
It’s probably the least newsworthy thing that has happened this year, and while the lead-in allowed for some mirth and dreaming, you’d have to travel far into fantasy land to find anyone who gave Mayo more than a ghost of a chance.
The build-up was quite novel, and without the pressure of previous years, almost enjoyable. There was reading and listening, and group texts and voice notes aplenty. But it was certainly never more muted. Was it because of the circumstances – no crowds, no travel – or was it the time of year? Or was it because it felt futile from the outset?
A little from column A and a little from column B, I suspect, but it was, nevertheless, heartening to see Mayo still well in the game after half-time.
As planned, I watched in a friend’s; a tiny gathering to mark Christmas and the end of a tough year, as much as anything. It was food for the soul; a first household visit in months, and as responsible and safe as it could have been.
It has been such a long and empty year without the connection of friends. We’ve lost loved ones since we last met; we’ve had big, life-changing events. There were chats long into the night, songs sung, beers drunk, tears cried - of sadness and mirth - memories recalled, and plans made. As we’ve so often realised on this journey, it is the friendships built around Mayo football that make it so very meaningful.
I imagine that the noises emanating from our house for the first 45 minutes were replicated elsewhere across the county, or at least, I hope they were.
After the stunned silence, 15 seconds in, to the defiance of the recovery, to the absolute outrage of two desperately poor refereeing decisions, that probably had little bearing on the result, but still felt too familiar and unjust.
When it started to slip away, so too did our enthusiasm.
There was no devastation as in previous years, simply a grim acceptance that Saturday’s result means that another few of our lads will hang up their inter-county boots without ever getting their hands on a Celtic Cross. Such is life and sport.
There is no deep despair in Mayo; we were simply beaten by a far better team, and therein lies the rub. We must uncomfortably acknowledge our failure to take real chances in the past, as in this era of monotonous Dublin dominances, those opportunities are unlikely to re-emerge any time soon.
And looking at Sunday’s Covid-19 figures, with 70 cases confirmed in Limerick a week after their win, you’d have to wryly acknowledge that if nothing else, losing this game was probably the safer outcome.
There is little doubt that both Mayo footballers and Mayo fans recognised a long time ago what is important when it comes to GAA. Winning, of course, is important. Else, why would our players continue to try so hard, to perform so consistently well, to learn and improve? Why would our fans travel in such large numbers and commit in such a heartfelt way to our team? But we also appreciate the importance of resilience.
Youth is on our side too. there is some promise.
The Championship this year was a joy in many ways. The knock-out nature of it threw up surprises that kept even the most cynical among us daring to dream. But very rarely does sport deliver a fairy-tale ending and now, there are ominous signs on the horizon for the GAA itself. As we face into another year of restrictions, will the 2021 championship, which already feels like a fait accompli for Dublin before a ball is thrown in, hold the same level of appeal?
This week, it feels like we are not just grieving the loss of an All-Ireland Final, but the loss of our premier competition, the Championship. And worse, the slipping away of the hope and belief that has been at the core of our own journey for the last few years.
There is a massive day of reckoning in the GAA’s immediate future. Brave, bold, and unpopular decisions need to be taken as a matter of urgency. Visionaries created both the GAA and the Blue Wave. And now, those who wield power and influence within the Association – at national and local level – need to exercise some humility, look at what they could have done better in their own patches and take swift remedial action.
In the meantime, it’s a ‘Blue Christmas’ in Mayo, but in a fit of wild optimism, the hotels are booked for next July. If our boys are there, we’ll be there with them if we can at all.
What other choice do we have?