As we continue the countdown to Sunday, it’s time for some more recollections on previous outings to Croke Park, this time in the company of my erstwhile Mayo GAA blogging colleague No One Shouted Stop whom I’m delighted to welcome into the guest slot for the first time.
It’s kind of hard to remember it all now, 1996 was 15 years ago or a little more than half my age at present. But some things have stuck with me through the foggy years of college, beer, girlfriends and most importantly football from that day and even a good few years of semi-finals before it. Snatched memories and half-remembered events mostly. Even more faded memories of 1988 when Liam McHale netted a goal that was disallowed against Meath and we wore red jerseys. The emotional swell of being in the lower Hogan stand in 1989 when we beat Tyrone in the semi-final. The feeling of this being very special and not really knowing exactly why. Then onto 1992 and little men from Donegal slipping the ball around as if they were the Harlem Globe Trotters and we were the Washington Generals, paid to be the patsy night in and night out for the slick hand-passing of the men from the tip of the land.
Then 1993, the less said about that probably the better. It was the first time that I can consciously remember the frustration, heartbreak and faith of a the Mayo football supporter in full Technicolor. I remember the game finally, finally being called to a conclusion and us being put out of our misery. While thousands had all departed the scene, we waited around ’till the players had left the field, battered, bruised and in as much shock as the faithful, I’d imagine. Much to my confusion as to why the hell were we not getting out of Dodge and still sitting here, my grandfather explained to me along the lines of, “We were well beat, but you still have to show your support for the players, because the effort that they put in every year is something that no one really understands and it’s not going to be an easy night for them.”
I can recall casting my eyes away in youthful ignorance and seeing a man two or three rows back. His face was red, you could see the stress in his forehead as the veins bulged with anger and frustration. He had two of those headbands they sell on Jones’s Road on either wrist. The two for a pound ones, you know the kind with two bits of wool intertwined on some kitchen table in Marino or down near the Botanic Gardens. I imagine now that they were tied tightly on that morning, sitting in the boot of a car somewhere off Dorset Street, over weak milky tea, with ham and cheese sandwiches which were carefully packed into the wrapper of the loaf of bread that was used to make them. This football feast I assume was devoured over a copy of that day’s Sunday Independent or Sunday Worlddepending on the tastes of the man, which was purchased after a breakfast in Harry’s in Kinnegad at some ungodly hour of the morning.
Going back to the incident, I can remember watching entranced as he struggled to rip the headbands off as the frustration got to him as he replayed each Cork goal going in one after another through his mind over and over. He finally struggled to get the first one off and threw it to the ground in anger, then the same routine the on the other hand. He collected his jacket, his paper and his programme and turned to walk away. Then, I don’t know did he see me, with my chin resting on a Mayo flag tattered from the wind after holding it out the back window of the car on the long road to Dublin through every town we passed on the way. It certainly wasn’t tattered from the effort of waving once the parade was over in Croke Park. But he stopped in his tracks, looked behind him and picked back up the headbands he had so violently tried to expel from his skin only moments ago and slipped them into his pocket.
Now, he may just have been a thrifty man, holding on to them for next year rather than part with a pound. But to my young eyes at the time, it encapsulated the love and hate relationship that I and so many people have with our team. They frustrate us, they anger us, they make us hate them for a split second. But we’ll always love them and we’ll never leave them no matter how often we threaten to walk out the door and not come back. The summer may end in July or in the middle of Autumn depending on the way the wind will blow each year, but bar death, come January or at least the start of the league in February, we’ll be back on the road again.
With the Kingdom in front of us this weekend as it was in 1996, a couple of memories came back to me over the weekend as I started to look forward to this Sunday’s game. The old Hogan Stand was still the spot to be in despite the fact the new Cusack had been built in all is shiny glory. I can actually remember that there was a couple of pages in the programme about the redevelopment and its dizzy ambition at the time. I was seated two-thirds of the way down towards the old Canal End with the mass of advertising hoarding on the back that gave it a bit of Times Square vibe, but it was for companies that would never be as in vogue to be lit up in neon in the heart of Manhattan.
I was in one of those old wooden seats with a bit of copper in a half-loop to divide you out from the person next to you. The appointed seats were a well back under the concrete floor of the upper deck, so if the ball went to high you had to struggle to catch the flight of the ball over the bar. James Nallen’s dash upfield to lash the ball to the net in the first half is still as fresh today as it was that fateful day. But James Horan’s goal is the one that will live long in the memory. As he hoisted the ball from out on the wing over the heads of the Kerry defence, I lost the flight of it in the dark shadow of the concrete above. While it was probably only a couple of seconds it seemed like a lifetime ’till the arc caught back up with my eye-line and and landed in the back of the net.
A great end to a great day, which made the long trek back home in the back of a Nissan Sunny all the easier as we raced back home to watch it all again on a VHS tape that had been recorded over one too many times as the white jittery lines that flashed in and out of the recording danced over the pictures. But I didn’t mind. More of that on Sunday will do nicely. And the flag was well and truly tattered when we reached home this time in celebration.