READING KEITH DUGGAN’S brilliant piece in the Irish Times this morning reminded me again of the famous line from the letter written to the Mayo county board in 1948. The closing line worried that football in Mayo, if a sea-change in attitude did not occur immediately, would disappear “unwept, unhonoured and unsung.”.
Considering the vast number of tears shed in Croke Park and further afield following the recent All-Ireland defeats, and the sheer volume of songs that have been composed and sung about the county’s footballers this year alone, we can be certain that their worries were unfounded. Honours did arrive too thanks to those wonderful heroes, a defeat in the famous ’48 final to Cavan followed of course by the fabled two-in-a-row. The groundwork put into Mayo football by those men held firm and lives on. It lives to this very day as the county prepares itself for yet another tilt at the ultimate glory.
The steps that have been taken to get to this point are well known, well-trodden and examined with far greater knowledge and élan than I could possibly muster. Leaving aside however all that hype and worry, tactics and talk of gameplans, the old truism that it is about the journey as much as the destination holds firm even now, this close to the game. From the dark days of 1969-1981 when no Connacht title was won. From the player’s revolt of 1992, to the 20 point drubbing by Cork in 93, in everyone of those years we have longed for Sam Maguire to return to Mayo. So before the eyes of the Irish world turn towards Croke Park on Sunday, let us pause and reflect for a moment on what it has meant to get this far, to come to within 70 minutes of sating that longing once again.
The pride that this Mayo team, and indeed the pride all Mayo teams before them have brought. The happiness winning the league in 2001, the sheer elation on seeing the overlooked greatness of the Mayo Ladies winning an incredible four All-Ireland titles in five years at the turn of the century. The joy at seeing the under 21’s finally breaking the All-Ireland final hoodoo in Ennis in 2006. These were all steps along the way, moments that have made us proud, and if Mayo don’t do it this Sunday, these moments will still shine for all of us who cherish the Green and Red.
In managing a GAA team this year I went in search of advice from those who know the game far better than myself in the hope of getting an edge for my team. One of the people I talked to was Mayo full back Ger Cafferkey. Despite my tardiness arriving to our arranged meeting time, Ger was good enough to hang around and then spent almost an hour talking me through drills to help my team. The staggering detail that he went into, the unbelievable amount of work that he outlined, blew me away. The amount of work, and passion, that he put into training drills that he planned and executed himself made me shake my head. Here was a man who was already an All-Star and yet all he talked about was the desire for constant improvement in every part of his game. No stone has been left unturned by any player on the Mayo panel, from the work done by those in the shadows recovering from injury, to players 21-30, who know they may not be called upon but if they are they will never let any of their team-mates, or indeed the county, down.
The way I see it, there is no pressure on the young men who take to the field carrying our hopes and dreams because they have already given us so much. They may not make the breakthrough this year, but the day will come when Mayo are crowned champions again, and that day will remain in our memories forever. It will lighten our step and warm us over the winter months. But even if it is not to be this year, we still have the glorious memories of a summer of hope, a summer of excitement, a summer when all our talk was filled with hope, when every question from our friends and family in exile surrounded the health and well-being of the team.
In every corner of the world on Sunday, Mayo folk and those of Mayo descent will pray, sing, cry, dance, embrace, before, during and after the All-Ireland final. This team connects everyone of those people, from San Francisco to Abu Dhabi to New Zealand. They may win, they may not win, but they have already given us so much, it’s almost mean-spirited to ask them for any more.
Whatever happens on Sunday evening as the final whistle blows, every Mayo fan, with a ticket or without, at home and abroad, will just be thankful that despite all the blows and beatings, all the doom and gloom, that we come from a county that come what may, our hopes and dreams will never die.