Saturday was not, in any sense, a day that dreams are made of. We confirmed that we are the second-best team of the last decade but, oh, how we would trade that accolade for one All-Ireland. It was, once again, not to be.
The whole day felt like an anti-climax, long before the result. Fulfilling a promise, there was a morning stroll by me down to Jones’s Road with my flag. Now, being a season ticket holder, my entrance to Croke Park on All-Ireland Final Day would always be via the Cusack Stand. But while I step aside for no one in my devotion, that side of Croke Park is where the Covid testing centre is located. And so, courageously, my re-enactment was carried out on the Hogan Stand side.
This fine flag, coffee stained and battle-hardened from many a previous campaign, was given a few defiant waves. But that was as good and energetic as it got, and there was no uprising or outpouring of support in response to raising the standard. On a near deserted street, a kindly man whose mother was from Kilmovee greeted me. Given that connection, he told me a story about Sean Flanagan, which I thought promising. His mother had ultimately crossed county lines, and my storyteller himself was from Roscommon, but he wished me well, and I believed him.
Then a few cars beeped me – with good intent, I think. A couple asked me what the flag was – it is the big city, after all, even on All Ireland Final Day.
Jim McGuinness walked along heading in to do his punditry. There were a few from TG4 heading in for the U20 final. Other than that, there was me, and my (and your) flag. On All-Ireland Final Day in 2020, this is what we – or more accurately, I, on your behalf – have been brought to by Covid. The real cheering on that needs doing in 2021 is for the vaccine.
Then it was home to watch the actual match. As a veteran of match-day attendance, I have decided that watching on television, a process which has now been as well tested as those vaccines, is of limited effectiveness. Watching the build-up was absolute torture, so much so that the game itself was – unbelievably – more relaxing. The only advantage of watching on TV is that you are at home by the time the whistle blows. There is a crackle in the air in the stadium on All-Ireland Final Day that acts like a sort of steroid: it is performance-enhancing. You don’t get it watching an empty arena on television, no matter how high the stakes.
We got a lot of things very right. Our team hunted in packs like tigers, and there was a tremendous amount of courage shown by our boys. But courage as we know is not enough, and not for the first time we were short in the luck department, with the loss of Paddy Durcan at half-time a terrific blow. Overall, the underwhelming score can be traced to a lot of little things, which when you add them up all become the small cuts that pulls you down. And then we were blown apart in the last 20 minutes by too much firepower. And that firepower is quite something.
Dublin have won eight of the last ten All-Irelands because they have an ever-evolving squad of 26 All-Ireland winners. And one of them is the quite extraordinary Brian Fenton. This wealth of riches is a challenge that bewilders every other team and ultimately overcomes even us. You master most of their starters and then they bring the subs on and they blow you away. Nobody – not even our brave, fine boys – can match them.
Last year we got to half-time, this year to the second water break. It’s progress, but not what we hoped for, and dreamed of. But we will pack away our dreams and come again, as we have every other time.
I’m not going to use this piece to tear at old wounds, going back over each of those other times when it could have gone differently. To look at it across the decade, though, we haven’t won because this great Dublin team showed up just as we put our amazing team on the field. No one else has proved able to go toe to toe with Dublin like we have and there were, truthfully, greater contests in the past. This latest defeat was painful, but not like 2017. Nothing was as painful as 2017, with perhaps the exception of Limerick. And if we had won one of those titles the performance on Saturday night would be more clearly hopeful and encouraging, a new chapter in an engrossing story.
Notwithstanding all that, these days, following this team, have been amongst the best in my life. The procession of good days and bad have been their own fabulous journey. It is painful to reflect that many of the great heroes of that journey over the last ten years will now almost certainly hang up their boots, with no All-Ireland medal, which any fair reckoning would have said was their due. I hope those men will reflect instead on a career of great endeavour, proud of their starring role in thrilling matches. They have done us honour day in and day out.
But we know enough to know that even without them, our Mayo journey begins anew each year. We continue our task of rebuilding. Many of the new young lads found it hard going on Saturday but they will have learned a lot and their day will come. We have unearthed many fine footballers who we need to develop and there are more coming.
We go again. We will always go again. That’s not in question. The real worry from Saturday is wider: where does our game go from here? Dublin’s overwhelming dominance is certainly not their fault, but it is a fact and it is not a one-off, or the product of one generation or golden team. Whatever the cause, the game of Gaelic football at inter-county level now has a serious problem. This story is not primarily a sporting one: it is the story of Ireland, with the gravitational pull of Dublin sucking in young people. Whatever levers the GAA try and pull now, those great social and economic forces are not going to change anytime soon.
Amidst all the difficult debates about this reality, the simple fact is that if wasn’t for us in this last decade the game of Gaelic football as an inter-county competition would already be on life support. A few more years of Dublin winning, and with the gap potentially getting wider, Jones’s Road on any match day will start to feel like it did on Saturday morning, pandemic or no pandemic.
But no matter what, we will never give up. Not last Saturday, and not ever. We start into 2021, into a new world, and with the words of Ted Kennedy in our ears: