Lost and found

Photo: RTÉ

One way of thinking about how individuals live their lives – it’s certainly a method I often use to frame my own existence – is to parcel the single contiguous existence into discrete chunks. Childhood and adulthood are obvious divisions, the individual decades are, of course, a handy means for carving up bits of what might be a long life into more manageable episodes. But a simple linear apportionment doesn’t lead me to the point I’m getting at, which is that at certain points in everyone’s life, different priorities come to the fore and consume more or less of a person’s time and often it’s these concerns – rather than the time itself – that come to denote particular periods in life. College years, time spent in a particular job, becoming a parent for the first time. As the major events in each of our lives unfold so too do the interests that we have wax and wane, as issues that were once of enormous concern to us no longer merit a passing thought while others appear out of nowhere to occupy a predominant place in our thoughts and in our actions.

So it was for me in relation to my attitude towards and my support of the Mayo footballers, my adherence to which was never constant or undying. My love of the Green and Red was always conditional and for quite a long period of my life – more than fifteen years – I fed that desire on extremely meagre rations. I recall only a few anecdotes from my school years but I do with precision remember a Religion teacher once make the point to our class that the opposite of love isn’t, as is widely assumed, hate but is instead indifference. I don’t remember when the teacher said this or what year I was then in but her words still echo around my mind, because what she said that day had the unmistakable air of truth about it. It’s also a way of illustrating the conditionality of the affection I felt – or, more properly, didn’t feel – for following Mayo in those years after I emigrated in the late Eighties, a state of mind which continued to persist long after I’d returned to live in this country. While I liked seeing Mayo play – if it suited me, given everything else I was doing – and would have loved to see them succeed, in those years how the county fared on the football field wasn’t close to being of central importance to me. I was, in short, rather indifferent about the whole business.

It may surprise you – and it did, to an extent, startle me at the time – that when we returned to Ireland and put down firm roots in Dublin that I didn’t become more emotionally invested in the cause straight away. But we cannot – none of us – retrace our steps precisely. It’s impossible to jump into the same river twice. Time moves on and we – unbidden or not – move with it. So it was with me and my interest in the Mayo football team.

The rather lengthy lacuna that exists for me between when I first followed the team with passion and then resumed doing so again several years later serves quite a useful purpose for me in recounting my story. For this is not my life story, still less an autobiography, but instead a tale of how my own story has become so hopelessly tangled with Mayo and football and the long pursuit of Sam and all that. Central to this is how, in early middle age, my interest in and devotion to the county team was piqued anew and, when it was, where it led me. The journey towards this destination – following that traumatic replay loss to Meath in 1996 – contains as staging points three further All-Ireland final losses, all to Kerry each of them worse than the one before. Mercifully, though, there’s no need – and it would serve little purpose – to delve too deeply into the pain I felt, and I did, albeit briefly enough, following those final losses to the Kingdom in 1997, 2004 and 2006, nor is it necessary to describe any of those campaigns in great detail. They were bad, deflating defeats, the final one the worst of the lot but, strangely, by then the course I was soon to embark upon was one I’d already staked out, even if I hadn’t yet taken a single step in my intended direction.

   *  *  *

As the county’s fortunes on the football field declined leading up to and in the first few years after the turn of the Millennium, so my already skin-deep interest in following them waned still further. When they managed to get to Croke Park – as they did for the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork in 1999 (which they lost), the League final against Galway in 2001 (which they won, the first national title I’d ever seen a Mayo senior team win and the only one until the team managed by James Horan repeated the trick in 2019) and the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork in 2002 (which they lost) – I’d bestir myself and would go and shout for them. But I’d do this in a half-hearted way, without really knowing much about the players or what they might be capable of. It was a stretch to call the tepid backing I gave the county in those years support at all. I may have been there at those few games in a physical sense but I wasn’t there at all emotionally.   

I can, with certainty, identify the day when the bug finally began to bite anew. This was on 27th June, 2004, the day that Mayo unexpectedly defeated reigning Connacht champions Galway at the semi-final stage in that year’s provincial championship. The match was played at MacHale Park and, needless to say, I wasn’t at it but it was a match I was looking forward to in the days leading up to it and one I was relishing watching on television. John Maughan was back at the helm, and in its match preview the previous day, the Irish Times suggested by that another Maughan-inspired “long and emotional summer” might well be in prospect for us. That was a good call.

Mind you, five minutes into the game – one that I watched on TV from home while also keeping an eye on my two small daughters – this seemed far from the case. We suffered a nightmare start, falling 1-3 to 0-0 behind, and it looked then that we might suffer a right pasting. In fairness, though, the team – a blend of experience, in the form of David Heaney, James Nallen, Ciaran McDonald and David Brady (who joined the fray from the bench after half-time that day), and youth, including the likes of Ronan McGarrity, Alan Dillon and Conor Mortimer – never panicked and by half-time, only a point in arrears, they were nicely positioned.

Up until that juncture, I’d adopted a relatively stoic demeanour as I watched the action unfold on TV. From half-time onwards, though, my manner became increasingly unhinged as point after point flew over the Galway bar at the bacon factory end of the ground, the same end into which Ger Feeney had curled that game-clinching score in a Connacht semi-final between the same two counties all those years previously. My two little girls alternated between giggling and staring in open-mouthed wonder as their father underwent this strange metamorphosis, one that seemed to be related in some fashion to the spectacle being shown on the television. My eldest daughter clapped her hands, enthusiastically joining in the fun, the younger one – still only a babe in arms – looked on askance at this unedifying performance. As the final whistle sounded, signalling victory for the home side by 0-18 to 1-9, I let out a full-throated roar. Mayo were back and, after a fashion, so too was I. 

The above extracts are taken from a chapter entitled ‘Lost and Found’, which forms part of a book I’m writing that lies unfinished and untitled, as it awaits the perfect Mayo GAA-related ending to happen.

18 thoughts on “Lost and found

  1. I remember when Mayo were going through lean times but I never ever gave up following them I remember having the paper red and green hats and when it rained the red and green dye would be on our foreheads but I didn’t care I was following Mayo

  2. Fantastic words WJ. So much emotion coursing through the prose. All visitors to this blog will recognise that emotion – it’s a passion that extends way beyond football – intertwined with all our life stages.

    The book (with that sweet happy ending) will be a bestseller. Hold firm. The ending may write itself in 2021.

  3. So well put WJ ,could well be written for many on this blog I’m sure. Enthusiastic follower as a child & teen if mostly for the craic and the after-match shenanigans.
    Then reality dawns,living to be earned,marriage, mortgage, kids. Wouldn’t get away with traipsing around the country, spending money we don’t have.
    But eventually when everyone is being fed & watered we escape again. This time with one or two in tow and the journey continues….until that Happy ending WJ.
    I’ll buy that book.

  4. Good luck with the book. There is a lovely honesty that comes through in confessing that the fanaticism for the team takes the hills and dips on the road of life.

    It won’t be in the romantic section of the bookstore but it’s a love story none the less. Matters of the heart bring great joys and great heartbreaks. There’s no doubt you have celebrated and suffered both as we all have.

    In a way Mayo football are the champions of a competition that maybe doesn’t exist. Reaching almost true perfection at times. True perfection in the free flowing sense.

    Who wants to be the King of systems when you can be the Jimmy White of excitement. Who wants to know how the game is played before the game is played at all.

    Do we even want an ending, even a happy ending ? Following our footballers is akin to sitting in to a hap hazard multi directional carnival ride. We don’t know what direction we’re going or what speed we’re moving at or when it will all stop.

    I don’t much care to watch the big cat feasting on the gazelle on the animal channel but I do marvel at the chase, the hunt, rooting for the gazelle to fight another day.

    The very best of luck with your book WJ. I would certainly have it on my shelf and thank God for the wild excitements and even the heartbreaks that our footballers have treated us to over the years. It’s only through the dark depths brought about by our near capture of Sam Maguire that our times of greatest excitement and hysteria are made possible.

    Long may we continue the hunt and when we do land Sam may we do it with flair and brilliance.

  5. When Mayo do win Sam, when they do, nobody will be more entitled to write the book outlining the story than yourself, Willie Joe. There will, no doubt, be lots rushing to get to the shelfs first.

    Was that game v Galway in 2004 the one where Colm O’Rourke et al [Spillane and probably Brolly] spent part of the half time interval mocking Mayo, suggesting that if they, particularly Conor Mort and McDonald, put as much into their football as into their hairstyles Mayo football would do better. The smile that day was on the other side of their face at full time.

  6. Reading that piece about our 2004 win against Galway brought my mind back to other happy days, against Galway in particular. Ignoring the pouring rain in Tuam in 1999 as we knocked them from their perch was one such day but even better was a roasting hot day in 1967 when we ended 10 years of torture against them and brought an end to their three in a row joy.
    I wasn’t there to enjoy it and had to make do with the radio but it was a happy day. In particular I recall the commentator [it must have been O’Hehir] describing Seamus O’Dowd’s solo run and goal. Looking back on the team on your archive I see that J Langan was listed twice and I presume that the second J Langan was Jimmy, who I understand was Joe’s brother. He had, I think, a short career with Mayo with the only appearance I can recall a game v Australia on their first ever tour to Ireland. Anybody able to confirm that? I think I recall that he was useful enough to merit more appearances in a Mayo jersey.

  7. 2021 All Ireland will be 7 in a row for the Dubs, as sure as today is a glorious sunny 1st of March.
    The only bet will be who will face them in the final.

  8. Enjoyed the article WJ, I get that you would like the happy ending but this would be a great read in any case as you have a great way with words,

  9. Willie Joe you should publish it now and call it”heroes without medals “. The last 10 years in particular following mayo have been wonderful and a privilege to watch our heroes leave it all on the field and if it all ends with no medals at least there are lifetime memories in the bank.

  10. Remember the 2004 match well. Meehan got a goal after about 30 seconds but we did well and won comfortably. Also was at the match in 1981 and vividly remember Feeney’s late free on a day when Willie Nally gave an exhibition of high fielding for 50 minutes. Galway were league champions and that was the first day I saw Mayo defeat them in championship. Never wavered at any stage in support of the team and saw some brilliant days and some horrendous days but every day going to watch a Mayo game it makes one feel alive and the rollercoaster of positive and negative experiences helps build resilience for other walks of life. I can only try to anticipate the feelings I would have should we ultimately win the big one.

  11. Really enjoyed your piece WJ. Would certainly love to have the finished book to read for Christmas! We can all dream. My story is similar to your own with emigration to London in 86 and on to the US in 93 and back home in 02. Many lean days in my youth following Mayo especially the 70’s where we hadn’t even a provincial title to cheer about. First time in Croker was the semi replay against the Dubs. Next time was the 89 AIF courtesy of a ticket from a Kerry friend of mine. Have been a regular to Croker since my return and now get to most Mayo league games and all Championship games. I am fortunate to be a season ticket holder so only right to get full value out of it. They say it’s the journey not the destination that matters. I have come to appreciate that more over the years. Yes it would be wonderful to win one but that would be the end of the journey. Thanks again WJ for all you do for us your fellow travellers.

  12. Looking forward to reading this book.

    2 new words today 😉

    to make a physical or mental effort; exert or rouse oneself.

    with an attitude or look of suspicion or disapproval

  13. I wrote a piece here on the blog some years ago, parts of which found their way into the manuscript, about that 1981 campaign, which you’ll find here.

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