Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Wednesday 19 September 2012
People from counties who judge success by trophies won’t get this and will probably snigger about the ludicrous nature of it.
But as a Kildare boy back in 1998, myself and my father had the oddest of habits. The night before we played our opening encounter of the championship, we took to the back lawn and played out the next day’s game.
After a coin toss and a tantrum, I was Dublin. I won and when Kildare drew the actual match, we were relieved and satisfied enough for a tradition to begin. So it continued across the summer and into September until we suddenly found ourselves kicking the ball around the night before the All Ireland final, believing it would keep the streak going.
I was of course Galway, and when my Dad went for a high effort I lofted up, his leg snapped and as he lay on the ground in agony, I know we were both thinking of how he'd get to the game.
Somehow he managed and the next day we both cried in the old Hogan Stand beside a pair of crutches he had spray-painted white. We tried to remind ourselves that a friend’s father had died in that same stand after a heart attack during the 1959 All Ireland hurling final replay but such is the power of Sam Maguire, it brought no perspective and the tears continued to flow.
All Ireland finals do the strangest things to people. Across the road, a neighbour wore the same pair of socks to each game and refused to wash them for fear it would remove the luck.
The morning of that Galway game we saw him outside his house painting his good pair of jeans white. He probably cried that evening as well and as we made our way home we decided we all knew about hurt more than anyone else and we understood what an All Ireland would mean more than anyone else too.
We were wrong on that count though. Our house of pain is a mere spa and even as Kildare people we’ve never been able to get our heads around what it must be like to be from Mayo.
Any good journalist will point out that this is a new team who must be allowed create their own history free of the dead weight of the past, but any human will look at Mayo people and wonder how they keep coming back believing, their spirits still flighty and passionate despite the torture they've endured. We only had to suffer one All Ireland final loss and that was enough for a lifetime.
Back in the Sunday Tribune days, a colleague from Mayo endured a couple before our eyes. In both 2004 and 2006, he hung a small red and green flag from the back of his computer screen in the build-up but by the time we returned to the office on the Tuesday morning it was already gone.
He suddenly looked old because of those two games and as he sat there working, his face white and haggard, the few words mentioning it could have been plucked straight from a funeral scene. “Sorry about that, Pat.” “It’s really terrible Pat.” “Are you okay Pat?”
Another colleague from that same office, Kieran Shannon, is now the Mayo team psychologist and it can’t be an enviable task. James Horan’s own managerial philosophy has been to learn from his playing days and improve the skills he believes were lacking and were behind the county’s downfalls in 1996 and 1997. But there is a thick and smoky desperation in the air in the county that’s unavoidable.
You can be sure the players have been told this is just another game and they’ll be the best prepared Mayo team to head for an All Ireland in generations, but even so, maybe some of them kicked a ball around the back yard with their dad’s the night before the Kerry game 15 years ago and maybe they cried at the final whistle too.
Besides, All Ireland finals are about more than just the players and the managers and the backroom staff. On this site and everywhere else, every possible scenario will be analysed this week and rightly so. But we can’t forget those people already unable to sleep who make it the occasion that it is.
Of course it’s great to be there and there are 30 other counties who would give up so much to be scrambling around for tickets over the coming days and to be painting everything and anything from gable ends to sheep.
But there are few counties who know what it’s like to lose what you’ve never won. And there are no counties who know what it’s like to be Mayo. Only David Clarke and Keith Higgins were a part of the last All Ireland final and too often analysts make the mistake of bringing continuity to a sport where only the jerseys remain the same. But most of the county has been here on this occasion and don’t deserve any more suffering.
All these years on from that Kildare-Galway game, myself and my father have never been able to watch the tape of the game as it still haunts us. So even as a neutral you’d hope this won’t be the latest in an ever-growing line of DVDs that grows dusty on a shelf in Mayo and makes the owner think someday they'll be able to sit through it and move on with their lives.
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