This is the piece I wrote for the post-match All-Ireland final supplement in this week’s Mayo News.
This one won’t be as easy to accept, I fear. It could, indeed, become the most difficult one of the lot to live with. We left an All-Ireland behind us back in 1996 – when we also lost by a point, though only after a replay and in far more controversial circumstances – and it’s no coincidence that up ‘till yesterday this was the only one of the six that most of us would, I think, have had any real sense of self-reproach about. But now it’s seven and we’ve got a whole new collection of regrets to pick over at another painful near-miss with Sam.
We lost this one for a variety of reasons and it’s only fair-minded to acknowledge up front that Dublin’s stamina in the unseasonably hot and heavy conditions – where they kept coming at us as we began to wilt visibly the longer the second half went on – had a fair bit to do with it. They also seemed to be able to juggle their resources throughout the game to far greater effect – we may bemoan the loss of Alan Freeman after half an hour, for example, but they lost Paul Mannion to injury only fifteen minutes in – and from my vantage point high in the Cusack Stand they seemed to hold their shape far better when the contest was really up for grabs.
But much of the regret from our perspective will surely focus on the simple fact – which James Horan readily admitted after the match – that we committed far too many mistakes ourselves. Time and again we shot ourselves in the proverbial foot through handling errors, misplaced passes – some intercepted, some just poorly directed – and a failure to keep targeting their areas of strength, in particular Cluxton’s kick-outs.
In order to win this All-Ireland, we needed to have kept our finest performance of the year for the final. This showing was, sadly, some way short of that and it never came close to the coruscating displays the lads put on over the course of the summer, in particular the manner in which we so comprehensively dismantled the likes of Galway and Donegal.
There were hints early on – when we settled into the match right from the throw-in and when it was obvious that Dublin were nervy and scrabbling to gain a foothold – that we might see a similar shock-and-awe first half. We had the chances then to do a good bit of damage on the scoreboard but the greatest damage was done when Bernard Brogan goaled at the Hill end for them, completely against the run of play.
The goal, like the defeat itself, was wholly preventable and when generalised regrets about the day turn to match-altering specifics, that moment will, I fear, live long in the memory. On a more positive note, so too will Andy’s calm-as-you-like finish into the same net in the second half – when, in an instant, I began to believe again that we might be able to push on across the winning line – but sadly that one was quickly overshadowed by the fatal blow of Dublin’s second goal soon after.
Overshadowed too as we trudged out wearily into an incredibly still-balmy late September evening was the bright and brilliant glow that the minors had created at the outset of the day. Their All-Ireland winning performance was far from perfect – they were a bag of nerves early on and then sat back far too defensively in the last quarter and lost most of an eight-point lead in the process – but the crucial difference between their day and the seniors’ was that when they got on top they moved in swiftly for the kill. They also showed commendable coolness to grab three late points, which gave them vital elbow-room coming down the closing stretch, and were worthy champions at the finish.
Last year’s final loss for the seniors felt like a missed opportunity but one we could take energy from and which we could use as a kind of launch pad for a redoubled push for the summit the following year. I don’t sense that this year’s defeat will carry within it the same positive properties – in many ways, too many perhaps, it felt more like an end rather than a setback to a work in progress. But the minors’ great success – a win that will grow in significance for us as the days shorten and the winter closes in – surely carried with it the sense of a new beginning. After a day of otherwise crushing disappointment, that has to be seen as something tangible to focus on and which, when we rise again (and we will, in time), we’ll be able to point to as the genesis of our renewal.