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Reflection on a journey’s end

Sport

THREE’S COMPANY Mayo’s Kevin McLoughlin is pictured with his three children, including recently-born twins, on the pitch at Croke Park after last Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final defeat to Kerry. Pic: Conor McKeown

A Fan’s View
Anne-Marie Flynn

IT was the stuffed dinosaur that did it for me.
The days of emotion or tears after a Mayo loss have long been consigned to the past, as disappointments have mounted up over the years. If there is one thing we have become good at over the past decade, it is taking a deep breath, and leaving our setbacks behind as we face the road ahead again with grim determination.
And each year, the road has meandered on until it has run out, often into late summer. The journeys have been scenic and enriching, but no oasis has ever awaited us at end of day, only devastatingly arid dead ends. Our shoe leather is worn, our feet ache. It is time for us all to rest before plotting a new route. Now is not the time for emotion or histrionics.
Those days are gone.
But it was the sight of an older couple, walking wearily down Clonliffe Road on Sunday evening, green and red stuffed dinosaur dangling under an arm, that left me with a lump in my throat and blurred vision I was not expecting. A tiny passing moment, it summed up the child-like hope and jollity of this journey over the past decade, three decades, seven decades. How many days in Croke Park has that stuffed toy, that wholesome, innocent symbol of a county’s dreams, seen? How many times flung in the air with joy?
How many quiet journeys back west on a bus or on the back seat of a car, regret hanging in the air? We are as far away now as we have ever been, and time continues relentlessly, merciless in its march. Some of our fellow pilgrims have fallen along the way.
Others have not yet been born.
Where will we go from here? No-one can know the answer today.
For now, we draw breath. We rest.
Sunday had gotten off to a rocky start for some of us; after a late-night drive in relentless torrential rain the night before, it wasn’t the alarm that woke me but the knock on the door at exactly the time we were meant to be hitting the road. The speed of the turnaround would have put Oisin Mullin to shame; we left precisely eight minutes behind schedule, but as I was walking into Croke Park, my mind was only arriving at Swinford and the rest of me was a holy show. It set the theme for the day; most of the usual car journey slagging was wasted on someone who didn’t really wake up until Armagh scored their second goal.
We were just driving past the Phoenix Park on the way home, dreaming of the consolation feast awaiting us in Eddie Rocket’s in Mullingar when the alarm that had been meant to get me out of bed twelve hours earlier went off in the back of the car.
For anyone in Croke Park, the so-called “curtain-raiser” will live long in the memory.
To add to the day’s discombobulation, I’d been displaced from my usual vantage point in the Cusack Stand to a under the roof in the corner of the Hogan, where every earthy Armagh roar was magnified as it bounced off the concrete. It was incredible.
It was a game that will go down in the annals of GAA history for all the right reasons and many of the wrong ones, and it left most of us exhilarated and exhausted before our own game even threw in. I was seated beside two Derry girls; relaxed from their game the previous day, and highly amused to see my fervent support for the Northern team.
They were celebrating Galway’s win, but with no small degree of nervousness.
Reunited with the crew in the Cusack Stand for our game, the surroundings, the trajectory, and the emotions of the second game felt familiar for all the wrong reasons. It has been analysed extensively elsewhere on these pages by people more qualified than I.
The emptiness of that walk up the steps afterwards was rueful, not painful, but was laced with sadness, that so many of our great servants did not get the day, or days here that we wanted so badly for them. Undoubtedly, unspoken farewells were being bade around us; the inevitability of further changing of the guard.
Now, we have reached a crossroads, our energy reserves dry and the map so worn we can no longer make out the path. Our neighbours have just sped past us through the junction in a shiny bus, laughing out the window, leaving only dust and bitter regret in their wake. They know the way. It remains to be seen whether their tyres will withstand the rocky road ahead.
In Mayo, we rest. We reflect. We regroup. This week is not the time for recriminations.
Our muscle memory is strong; our resilience is beyond question. We have been through far worse. We know only this: that before we embark again, we need to rehabilitate, refresh, rebuild and re-inspire to ensure are better equipped to take on our next attempt at the journey. Both on and off the field. That the next day we go to Croke Park, we do so with confidence, not trepidation. And that the stuffed dinosaur will again be flung into the air with joy.

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