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Surviving a relegation play-off

Sport

IN THE THICK OF THE ACTION Our columnist Ger Flanagan (6) is pictured in action for Balla against Conor Diskin of Claremorris in the Mayo SFC recently. Pic: Conor McKeown

The Way I See It
Ger Flanagan

WHO remembers the South Korean Netflix blockbuster Squid Game that blew up last year?
It was a horror drama series where hundreds of cash-strapped contestants agree to take part in sadistic childrens’ games on a remote island to win the grand prize of a bucket of money or die trying in a gruesome way.
In one round, two teams face off in a tug of war match, with the losing team falling to their death and the winners being rewarded with their lives…which will be threatened very soon again.
You can only imagine the emotions of winning that tug of war – one part joy knowing you survived the drop and live to fight another day, but also the instant reality hitting you in the face knowing you’ve just cheated death and the road isn’t going to get any easier!
Well, that’s kind of what being in a relegation battle in the Mayo GAA senior club football championship is like!
You might think this year might have been easier, given we in Balla were in a similar predicament last year, surviving by the skin of our teeth in the relegation play-off final.
But — despite the fact that we managed to retain our senior status one round earlier last Sunday in Tourmakeady against The Neale — that’s not the case.
It’s impossible to acclimatise to that environment.
Surviving relegation is a mixture of emotions. There’s the over-arching joy and relief at retaining your senior status, but you also feel like you’re cheating by celebrating a situation you feel you shouldn’t have been in in the first place.
Football, and sport in general, is all about winning and we’re programmed to understand that the price of winning always exceeds the price of defeat. That’s the anticipation and hope that makes us come back every year to try again.
But relegation battles are the complete opposite; the significance of the loss absolutely dwarfs the significance of a victory from a mental perspective.
Only when the job is done do you get to feel otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong, the relief is humungous, akin to a county title win in a completely sick and twisted way.
But relegation football is not enjoyable. Everything is more rigid, more tense. How often do you hear of a player putting on a masterclass in a relegation battle?
Not very often would be my guess, because you just can’t play with the same fluidity and abandonment like you usually could. Making a mistake in a relegation battle is like jumping out of a frying pan and into a burning fire.
There’s a lingering thought in your head that that little light you see at the end of the tunnel is actually an oncoming train.
They are a war of a attrition and, to be quiet honest, nobody cares about an individual putting on a masterclass. It’s about getting the job done and ‘if that fella was any good he’d have done it when it really mattered’ and all that etc etc…
It did feel slightly unjust fighting it out in a relegation play-off this year given how competitive our performances were at times during the group stages.
With the exception of the Breaffy game, where we underperformed, we easily could and definitely should have won one of the other two matches against Belmullet and Claremorris.
But that’s both the beauty and ugly nature of senior club football in Mayo; the margins are incredibly fine and if you’re off by as little as five percent in your performance that is plenty to make the difference.
I would imagine The Neale are feeling very frustrated with how this year played out for them. They have been ravaged by injuries, none more so than Tommy Conroy, one of the best forwards in the country.
No more than ourselves in Balla, our panel isn’t huge and if we are going to compete we just cannot afford to lose important players. To lose a player like Tommy is devastating for any team and he is impossible to replace.
But even with their injury-hit squad, they pushed us to the pin of our collars last weekend and we got nothing easy. They will have a difficult couple of weeks ahead, but if they can get a couple more key players back fit for the relegation final against Davitts, anything can happen.
Personally, it was a difficult year on the field for this columnist too. An ankle ligament injury picked up in the early stages of the third round of the league ruled me out of competitive football until the first round of the championship over eight weeks later.
Going into senior championship football undercooked from a lack of games was more difficult than I thought. It’s something you could get away at Junior and Intermediate level but at senior it’s just not possible.
A stark reminder, too that I am no longer as young as I once was!
My team-mate Conor Walsh always says that football isn’t enjoyable when you’re not fit, and that’s bang on the money. It’s not, and trying to get fit during the championship weeks isn’t fun either.
But saying that, playing senior club championship is a privilege, and one that I don’t take for granted. No matter the outcome it’s where you want to be, testing yourself at that level.  
This weekend my Snapchat memories were awash with images from our Junior title victory four years ago and the celebrations that followed. It was incredible to think how fast those four years have gone and what unfolded during them.
It’s still quite hard to believe that we were playing Junior football only four years ago. It was a nice reminder as to where we came from and how quickly we managed to do so.
One thing is for certain, battling it out in a senior relegation play-off is still more appealing than doing it at the other grades and, no matter how difficult it gets, it’s where we want to be for a long time to come.

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