It’s been too long.
When the tickets went on sale on Thursday I wasn’t even planning to go to the match. We were down in Clare for a few days at the time and were returning to Dublin on Friday, with the start of a working week looming on Monday so I felt I could do without a round-trip to Castlebar on Sunday thrown into the mix as well.
But then I clicked on the link, saw there were tickets available and, before I knew it, I’d bought two of them. I would be going to the match after all.
Match-day routines used to be second-nature to me. But, then again, getting up and going out to work was a hard-wired daily event for so many who now, following a year working from home, would be hard-pressed to locate their shoes on any given morning.
In a sense, Sunday was, for me, akin to learning to walk all over again. The day was a kind of voyage of rediscovery, a return to a faraway place once so familar but now strangely alien.
So much has changed in the sixteen months since I was last at a Mayo game. We drove west today in a different car to the one I owned when I made the same trip for the Kerry game in March last year. Back then my teenage son was a few inches shorter than me, now he’s taller than I am. I’m now sporting a Covid-era beard.
The road to Castlebar was, though, still familiar, as was the sheeting rain that fell heavily most of the way. Our tickets were for the uncovered part of the ground and while we’d taken the precaution of throwing the umbrellas into the boot we were still hoping that they wouldn’t be needed.
Our tickets were in Zone 1 and, now with our masks on, we were directed by similarly masked stewards towards our allocated section.
Two thoughts struck me about this part of the day. The first was how calm, efficient and well-organised the stewarding operation was. The second was that this was no accident but was instead the product of plenty of hard work in the days leading up to Sunday. This is the kind of thankless, voluntary effort we take for granted all the time but, you know, we shouldn’t.
Because there were a few thousand of us supporters ringed around the ground, there was a decent enough atmosphere at the game. The diffident urgings from the fans couldn’t, however, compete with the staccato shouts from the players on the pitch nor indeed with the more guttaral promptings of James Horan that boomed with frequency around the ground throughout the game.
The game itself was, of course, an utter mismatch. Perched high on the bleachers at the Albany end we got to witness in rather grisly detail the way in which our speedsters repeatedly tore holes in the Leitrim backline. Not even the heavy shower of rain that tumbled from the leaden sky for much of the opening half could dampen our mood as we feasted our eyes on Mayo’s incessant attacks.
The contest was well over before half-time but the day was never really about the game itself. It would have been a shock of seismic proportions – even accounting for Mayo’s recent Covid travails – if Leitrim had prevailed but there was never any sense that this would happen.
No, this game was, for me at any rate, a taste of the world we’d once enjoyed before Covid struck, as well as a glimpse of the new normality we’re inching towards in the second year of this pandemic era we’re all living through. There may only have been one team in it on Sunday but, for those of us who made it to MacHale Park, it felt, for the first times in ages, that we were all back in the game.
This piece first appeared in this week’s edition of the Mayo News.