Let me set the scene
Two teams. One trophy.
Sunday 17th September 2017. Croke Park, the third largest stadium in Europe, at full capacity with 82,300 people viewing the game from inside the ground. The President of Ireland comes out to shake the hands of the players of the two teams fighting for the title of All-Ireland Champions. The national anthem is sung, the teams line out, the whistle is blown and the ball is thrown in the air. The game begins.
History will be made in Croke Park this day. Either Mayo will win the All-Ireland for the first time in 66 years, or Dublin will win the Sam Maguire for the third year in a row.
The Beautiful Game
There’s a reason they call it ‘the beautiful game’ and it’s one of my favourite things about the GAA. The players that we see on our TVs and in newspapers, and who are idols to the young Gaelic players of the future, don’t get paid for their playing. It may not be an aspect that the players themselves favour, but to me it’s what drives the passion in the fans. These footballers and hurlers are playing to represent their county, their clubs within that county, and the people of that county. Not for a pay-cheque at the end of 70 minutes.
In Mayo’s situation, they had the weight of 31 counties supporting them on Sunday. The whole country was behind them (except Dublin of course) and hoped they would prevail.
Most of these players have their own day-time professions. They are not classed as ‘professional footballers’. They are teachers, they’re accountants, labourers, bankers, students. It’s out of free will and love for the game that they dedicate so much of their time to training and preparing for these huge games.
I may be from Armagh but on Sunday I was sat in the Davin Stand of Croke Park in my Mayo jersey beside a guy from Antrim who was also donning a Mayo jersey. As one of the RTE commentators put it, ‘The stadium shook when Mayo scored that goal’. The Mayo fans without a doubt, outnumbered the Dublin supporters 1000:1. The atmosphere was electric, and they’re 100% right when they say ‘Nothing beats being there,’ because absolutely nothing does.
Mayo don’t have a great history of winning All-Irelands. In fact, the last time they won the competition was 66 years ago, in 1951. The team that the county has now, are one of the best teams they’ve ever had. With stars like Cillian O’Connor, Lee Keegan, Andy Moran and Aidan O’Shea all standing out the past few years. The skills of these players along with the management of Stephen Rochford and the rest of the team are what have brought Mayo to the forefront of the Irish Championship, proving themselves as one of the best teams in the country.
Dishearteningly, Mayo have reached the All-Ireland Final four times in the last seven years. And have lost all four times.
Some believe there is a reason for this, which comes in the form of a curse cast by a priest in 1951. The story goes something like this;
The Mayo team of 1951 had just won the All-Ireland Final for the second year running and were on their way home to their county with the Sam Maguire to celebrate. As the players were all very excited, the bus journey home wasn’t a quiet affair. However, the team bus happened to drive past a funeral but didn’t slow down, quieten down or show any signs of respect for the deceased. It was then that a priest (or some say a woman) who was in attendance, cursed the Mayo team of ’51 and said that until every member of that team had died, Mayo would never lift the Sam Maguire again. Only two members of that team remain alive today, and Mayo haven’t won an All-Ireland since this ‘curse’ was cast.
The old tale rings true today as the team still haven’t managed to win the trophy, despite having tried their hardest and played in eight finals since 1989.
The worst possible way to lose
Sunday was the closest they have ever come and may ever come to lifting the Sam Maguire, leading by two points at half time and drawing until the 77th minute. It was perhaps the most cruel way to lose by the margin of one point and I’m sure a lot of players are kicking themselves over wides and thinking ‘If only I had made this pass,’ or ‘If only I had been a little bit quicker’.
Last year, in the 2016 All-Ireland Championship, the line-up was the same, with Mayo competing against Dublin once again. The first play of the final ended in a draw, giving Mayo fans another day to cheer on their team to victory. Two weeks later, the game ended with Dublin winning by one point. This year, history repeated itself with Mayo losing again by only one point. Not due to Dublin’s superior playing, but the ‘Mayo Curse’.
The whole nation of Ireland felt for Mayo at that final whistle. With Cillian O’Connor kicking Mayo’s last free kick of the game and hitting the post, it would seem that they truly were cursed to never win the All-Ireland.
However, with eight minutes of injury time played, some would have to question the Alex Ferguson type tactics of the referee. A draw would have resulted in another trip to Croke Park and another day for Mayo to try their hand at the trophy, but the referee didn’t seem to want the fuss of a replay, much to the annoyance of the GAA board I’m sure.
Another Dublin tactic that was annoyingly obvious was Jason Sherlock clearly missing his time as a Dublin footballer and wanting to come on as the 16th man. As one of Jim Gavin’s right-hand men, Sherlock was the ever-present ‘water-boy’ making his way onto the pitch on numerous occasions to pass on messages from the management team. A few times on and off the pitch would have been ok, but he must have made his way on about twenty times throughout the match and at one point there were about ten ‘waterboys’ on the pitch with some of them even trying to rile up the opposing players.
Not on form
Dublin’s captain, Stephen Cluxton was very much not on form on Sunday, with almost all of his long kickouts being won by a Mayo player. Being one of Dublin’s longest standing players and their captain, I definitely expected a lot more. I also thought he would have been given the last kick of the game when Dublin had won a free kick in the last minute. But that privilege was given to Dean Rock who had, although starting off quite shaky and missing a few frees, regained composure and scored some great points throughout the game and made his last free kick count by slotting it over the bar to secure Dublin the victory.
On the day, Mayo were the better team (in my opinion obviously, not that I’m biased or anything…). Their dispossessing, passing, catching and wide playing strategy worked well. They just didn’t get the scores that they should have. With Dublin scoring a goal in the first minute to open the game, it could have been all over from there, but Mayo came straight back with three points of their own.
A psychological mind field
I really don’t know how Mayo can come back from this defeat. Lee Keegan was clearly distraught after the final whistle, as were a lot of Mayo fans. For them to play so well, be in front a few times and play the best they ever have against Dublin, to then go and get beat by one point from a free kick in the last minute of the game, was just the most cruel ending to a promising game.
I thought they had it. Up two points at half time. Then came the goal in the second half. The entire stadium were cheering Mayo on the whole way through. But the extra time at the end killed the game. Once Dean Rock put the ball over the bar, it was all over.
How many times can Mayo gear themselves up for a final, just to lose every time? To go through so much training, so much hard work, yet always come up short at the final whistle.
The psychological impact must be severe. To fall at that final hurdle every time. When will they finally stop saying ‘Ah, sure there’s always next year’? When will it be the year that they’re actually given a break and win?
I just hope that I’m alive to see the day Mayo lift the Sam Maguire.
My favourite city
I was super lucky to be able to watch the game in person on Sunday as tickets for the final do not go on general sale. I also got to see my favourite footballer (Aidan O’Shea) play for the second year in a row (see close-up picture below for evidence). Complete with an amazing three days in my favourite city in the world, it’s always good to get to Dublin with a trip to Croke Park added in.
Dublin, I’ll see you again at Christmas. Croke Park, I’ll see you same time again next year. Sam Maguire, I’ll see you in the hands of Cillian O’Connor next August.