Majestic though the setting may be in Croke Park on All-Ireland Sunday, it’s a scene that just refuses to provide any succour for us poor benighted souls from the Yew County. We came in hope again today but once again our dreams of All-Ireland glory turned to dust on us, like all those other times they’ve done in the recent past. It’s gone well beyond a joke at this stage: since our last All-Ireland Sunday success back in 1985, we’ve now lost eleven September finals (six minor and five senior) on the spin. And, as those September losses mount up in this apparently inexorable way, year after year, each successive one hurts that little bit more than the one that went before. Today’s one hurts like hell right now.
This afternoon in and around Croke Park summed up so much about what passes for normality on All-Ireland day. All those people in Mayo jerseys with those weary, resigned looks on their faces and those folk in the Kerry colours, strolling round HQ like they owned the place (which, in a sense, I suppose they do) but most of whom couldn’t be bothered to wait around to see their captain take possession of Sam for the umpteenth time and instead poured out onto Jones’ Road as fast as their legs would carry them. This is it, guys – this is September Groundhog Day. For once, I can’t wait for Monday to arrive.
And yet … We could have won that bloody match today. We wouldn’t have deserved to, mind, after that ragged, disjointed second half display but had we managed to rob it from under Armagh’s noses, none of us would really have cared. For all the pre-match talk about this Armagh team being something special, they looked far from that today and while they could have blown us away in the second half, we should have gone in at the break at least four or five points to the good. Only at the end, where our lads’ nerves totally went to pieces and they – despite the fact that their county was on the cusp of its first minor title in sixty years – held their nerve to close out the game with four unanswered points, did they look in any way a class above our fellas.
And yet … We tore into them impressively from the off, our team showing multiple positional switches from that named in the programme, most notably with captain Aidan Walsh moving out to midfield and Brian Ruttledge switching into the inside line. We won most of the early ball around the middle but an inexplicable miss from a 20 yards free from the normally ultra-dependable Aidan Walsh was followed by two points at the other end from them – the first a free, the second from play – and so, despite that early dominance that we’d enjoyed, they were two to the good after six minutes.
Brian Ruttledge opened our account from this free a minute later and soon after a nice Cillian O’Connor lay-off to the inrushing Danny Kirby saw the Mitchels youngster pump over the equaliser. We continued to see loads of ball but they made better use of the scraps they got with the impressive Andrew Murnin edging them ahead again before Cillian O’Connor scored from play to level matters.
More chances followed but our sole apparent tactic of lamping the ball high into Alex Corduff wasn’t exactly paying rich dividends. The balls in were reasonably well directed but the Ballina youngster repeatedly flailed one-handed at them, failing either to claim the leather or lay it off to the likes of Cillian O’Connor. As a result, bags of good, hard-earned possession all went for nothing and instead of going in a few points in front, we reached the halfway mark level, Fergal Durkan pointing just before the break to leave it all-square at four apiece.
I was fully expecting to see a transformed Mayo emerge in the second half – I’m a simple man: this was what had happened in the Down game and I just expected that the same thing would happen this time too – and Brian Ruttledge’s second point of the day within seconds of the restart gave us reason to hope that an enjoyable second half was, indeed, in prospect.
Instead of kicking on, though, we conceded two scores in quick succession, the second of which – from McVerry – had to be tipped over the bar by the alert Michael Schlingermann in goal. Michael’s Kiltimagh clubmate, Ciaran Charlton, then surged forward and thumped a beauty over the bar to level matters once more.
The Orchard County then took complete control of the game and for the next ten minutes created chance after chance, all of which, to our immense relief, sailed wide of the posts. They kicked six wides during this ten-minute spell and while all these chances were being created by them, we failed to get a single shot at the posts at the other end. As well as those missed points, they came close to bagging a goal too, only for the excellent Ciaran Charlton to pull off a crucial intercept perilously close to our goal-line.
It looked as if they were going to blow us away but, amazingly, we were the next to score when Aidan Walsh – who’d dislocated a finger in the first half (The Brother saw it all clearly and said it looked gruesome enough) – knocked over this free to edge us a point up with just ten minutes left to play. We’d been completely at sea for the previous fifteen minutes, during which time we’d looked anything but All-Ireland champions but now, with the winning line starting to come into view, the notion that we might just nick it began to look somewhat less than preposterous.
It was obvious that the lads could sense this too as we threw ourselves at them for the next five minutes. We desperately needed a score at this stage in order to turn the screw on them and give ourselves some breathing space. But Brian Ruttledge shot a bad wide, then sub Jack McDonnell had a goalbound effort beaten away and Aidan Walsh screwed the resultant ’45 wide. The crucial score never came.
Eventually, they raised the siege and with their first attempt at the posts in ages, Tasker hauled them level. Straight away afterwards, a clearcut goal chance arrived for them but, although left exposed in a one-on-one situation, Schlingermann pulled off a superb save to keep our hopes alive for a bit longer.
But then came the three points that finished us off, the first of which was scored by sub McAlinden, the second from midfielder Carragher who was totally unmarked thirty yards out when the ball was fed through to him and who had all the time in the world to pick his spot and thump it over. I can’t remember who scored their tenth and final point but what I did know by then was that the game, and the cup, had slipped from beyond our grasp.
I had to leave my seat just after the final whistle – the sight of those crumpled, defeated bodies sinking to the turf was heart-breaking and I simply couldn’t bear seeing the opposing captain yet again accept the spoils of victory at our expense. Sometimes the only way to deal with things is to shut them out, although I did take the time out back to have a right old moan for myself in the post-match audio piece I did. And then I went back inside and sat through a poor enough senior final only to see the Kerrymen go and win that. A perfect bloody day, in other words.
I’m still feeling sore and bad-tempered after today’s loss (I had the first hint that the day wasn’t going according to plan when, on arrival at HQ, I realised I’d left the battery of my new camera at home; this means, by the way, that today’s visuals were all done by The Brother – thanks, Bro) and will no doubt continue to feel like this for the next few days. But the pain felt on the terraces must be nothing compared to the anguish that our young players will be experiencing right now. I saw a number of them at close quarters up in the Hogan during the senior game and the hurt and disappointment they were feeling then was clearly etched on their startlingly young-looking faces. It’s crap to lose and they know that a whole load more than we do at the minute.
But, despite the loss, we should still be grateful that our brave minors’ exploits gave us all sufficient excuse to be there at Croke Park today, on football’s biggest day of the year. As I keep saying, so many counties never get to savour the experience of having a team involved on All-Ireland day and so while we’re all understandably down right now, the fact that we keep coming back means that we can never be definitively counted out. We’ll keep coming back, we’ll keep knocking on that door and one day – hopefully sooner rather than later – we’ll experience something different than having it repeatedly slammed in our faces.