It used to be said, after each successive All-Ireland final defeat, that Mayo had found a new way to lose. After this latest, utterly deflating final loss, however, I’m not sure that particular dictum holds true any longer.
For me, this defeat to Tyrone had strong echoes of the 1997 loss to Kerry, which was also a final a number of pundits fancied us to win and a game where, like Saturday’s, we performed well below our capabilities. You could, of course, also put forward a plausible argument that it resembled the 2012 defeat to Donegal. Beat All-Ireland champions Dublin in the semi-final? Check. Get completely outwitted by a well-organised Ulster outfit in the final? Sadly, check to that one too.
When you think about it, though, it’s not wholly surprising that we’ve run out of losing plotlines. The sheer number of final losses in succession – which now runs to a truly staggering eleven – makes this a self-fulfilling observation. Gaelic football may be an unstructured and chaotic endeavour at times but at its core it’s a simple game. There are only so many ways you can lose a game of ball and we’ve now seemingly exhausted all the possibilities on the list.
I do wonder if, this time, that’s not all we’ve exhausted.
The fans’ job description is to support the team through thick and thin and Mayo supporters have certainly dined out on generous helpings of both down the years.
I’ve always been quick to slap down any suggestion that we’re some kind of long-suffering tribe, pointing with alacrity to the many good days we’ve had following the county team. And in the last decade we’ve had plenty of those, far more than we could ever have imagined before James Horan took over as manager for the first time.
Before this year’s final, Kevin McStay spoke with eloquence on the Mayo News football podcast when he paid tribute to how the county had kept the flame alive down the long decades since the Sam Maguire was last won. Victory helps greatly to sustain interest in the cause, Kevin reasoned, and so this made it all the more commendable that we’d retained so much passion for the cause since 1951 without ever experiencing the sweet taste of ultimate success.
In this observation, Kevin was undoubtedly right. Supporters can and do forgive beatings – even bad ones – if there’s a regular enough supply of silverware to provide balm to those wounds.
And there’s the problem for us. While we have had many great wins in recent years, they’ve all come in matches leading up to the main event. If Sam was doled out for semi-final wins we’d be a very happy supporting cast, as we’ve seen the lads get the better of every county worth beating at this stage of the Championship over the past eleven years.
When it comes to the final, though, it’s a different matter altogether. Defeat piled on defeat, each one adding to the cumulative weight of the ones that came before so that now the baggage we’re saddled with is bordering on intolerable.
As we approach each successive final we contest, the main coping tool we seem to employ is to pack away the memories of all the other losses (the box required for this getting bigger all the while) and, in effect, treat the upcoming game as our very first final. The other ones are all gone and nothing can be done about them. The only one worth focusing on is the one we’ve yet to play.
I’m as guilty as the next person of this kind of reality denial – to be honest, I’d say I’m more guilty than most – but after Saturday even I’m finding it hard to stick to this script. All those previous defeats have to have scarred us badly, their baneful influence must impact in some way on how we approach and contest All-Ireland deciders. Otherwise how is it we keep losing final after final after final?
It’s always hard to pick yourself up after losing an All-Ireland, though most of us have, despite the accumulation of final losses, eventually dusted ourselves down and got back supporting the team again the following year. We’ve gone again.
But for how long, starved of entry to the banquet that is ultimate success, can we reasonably be expected to continue doing this? In my own case, I was still in my twenties when the 1989 final was contested but in September of next year I turn sixty. How much more time do I have? More to the point, how much time do I have for this particular itch that seemed destined never to be scratched?
The wounds are obviously very raw right now in the aftermath of this latest, enormously dispiriting final loss. We know, though, that the pain will eventually subside and that when next year comes around we’ll have come around to another year of supporting too, at a time when we can at least hope that the worst effects of the Covid pandemic will be behind us.
Maybe hope is the best emotion to cleave to, despite the saying that it’s the most damaging one of the lot. For, without hope, how can any supporter’s dreams take flight anew?
This article was first published in this week’s All-Ireland final supplement in the Mayo News.