FACING UP TO DEFEAT Nicola Lavin from Swinford reacts during the All-Ireland SFC Final match defeat to Tyrone at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
A Fan’s View
IT had the makings of a perfect weekend. And until 6pm on Saturday, it was. A leisurely Friday afternoon spin to Dublin, flags fluttering up the N4. Reunions with friends, in the unfamiliar interiors of pubs.
The treat of waking up overlooking Croke Park. The early morning descent of an army amidst the unexpected thrill of early Autumn sunshine. Hearts soaring with newfound freedom. Amidst the nerves, the heady suspicion, even the quiet confidence, that this was it.
The determination to savour every last second of the day we might just make history. The thrill of going through the turnstiles, thanks to the kindness of others.
And then, the game.
As always, it feels like a blur and will do, until I find the heart to watch it back, which experience tells me I eventually will so I can put it to bed and move on. But a few fleeting vignettes are seared on my consciousness even now.
That inch-perfect kick-pass from Ryan O’Donoghue to Aidan O’Shea; the ensuing block. Lee Keegan, powering through walls time and time again like a man demented, determined to, just once, not lose.
That awful, stunted penalty. The look in Cathal McShane’s eyes as he joined the play. The look in Pádraig O’Hora’s as he left it.
At the final whistle, as we fled, a man my age in a Galway jersey, Mayo flag around his shoulders, shaking his head in stunned disbelief and turning misty-eyed to walk up the steps.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all.
Where to, from here?
I don’t have an answer. No-one does right now. The morning after is the worst. We retreat. Hurt, wounded, angry and heartsore again, feeling foolish and fooled, for daring to believe that this could be different. It was different, but in the worst kind of way.
It was chaos, but not as we like it.
So again, we grit our teeth and pull the drawbridges up, as jeering poisoned arrows from tabloid journalists and social media imbeciles fly hot and heavy in our direction. Our skin is so battle-toughened now as to barely feel them, but the odd one will find its target and we will wince with its unsavoury, burning truth.
Not good enough. Not now, not in 70 years. Weak. One-dimensional. Worst of all: Chokers. Bottlers. How can we possibly respond?
We cannot. As a supporter, it is hard to find the light today. It is impossible to believe that we will ever go into a final again with any optimism or confidence, regardless of the opposition. There are only so many times you can go to the well before it dries. And many of us have been keeping the faith, like we were asked to, since 1989.
Mayo, once again, beaten by Mayo. The Tyrone supporters, so often grating, were gracious and kind before and after the game. They thoroughly deserved their day.
The pity in their eyes was almost unbearable.
The hard questions
WHAT can we do now, apart from stand around our own and acknowledge their failures, but give them the space to heal and find heart again? As fans, we are angry and wounded, but you can be certain than no-one is more distraught than those who were beaten in the arena. We can ask the hard questions, like why we did the same thing as we always did and expected a different result?
Like why anyone would insult a player by introducing him at 74 minutes when the game was irretrievably out of reach? We should have had more than one plan, it turns out. We can demand answers but must acknowledge that we are not entitled to a win. Not now, not ever, as much as we’d like to think we are.
Management, too, are human, and they will have a lot upon which to reflect, and ample time in which to do it.
Other things will rankle, too. If the crowd felt flat at times on Saturday, we need only look outside the gates to know where the ‘Mayo Roar’ was. So many who had walked the walk and put in the hard yards over the past 30, 40, 70 years were left out in the cold, and the shady, cack-handed handling of ticket distribution will leave a sour taste for a while. Those loyal fans who did get in were banished to the far ends of the stadium, spread high among the rafters and at the edges, with the cream of the seats allocated to corporates where a disinterested crowd contributed to an eerie, 2013-like silence.
The GAA may well be relying on this corporate financial support in times to come, because it will be hard for grassroots supporters to put their hands in their pockets with any goodwill after being shown they weren’t wanted on the biggest day of all.
There is no room for sentimentality within the GAA. Just ask Mattie Donnelly. If we had sense, we’d walk away.
But while we tell ourselves that being a supporter is a choice, in reality we are inextricably welded to our fate, which is to be invested in the fortunes and misfortunes of Mayo football for the rest of our days, whether we like it or not. When the league fixtures are announced next year, the dates will be written in the calendar.
The scarves and thermals will be dusted off and even against our better judgement we will wearily pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and take to the road, bearing a new layer of scar tissue on the walls around our hearts. In the meantime, we’ll find a bit of cold comfort in the memories made, and the times this year spent with the people that matter.
It’s all we can do.