Mayo players will be done soon enough — but soon enough need not be now

These are players to be admired and celebrated, not pitied, says Paul Rouse.

Mayo players will be done soon enough — but soon enough need not be now

That any person outside a panel can presume to know enough to call time on a group of players as a collective is something that needs to be treated with great caution.

There is a general sense that Mayo’s loss to Kildare last weekend spells the end for that team.

But writing the obituary of any defeated team is an exercise fraught with danger.

Teams evolve in victory and in defeat. The Dublin team that won the first of their three All-Ireland’s depended on Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, and Bernard Brogan to get their scores for them.

For a variety of reasons, all three are now peripheral.

Teams transition all the time — in the last couple of seasons Mayo have lost players (Alan Dillon, for example) and gained others (Brendan Harrison and Diarmuid O’Connor).

There is an understandable urge to look at the loss of certain key players as marking the end of an era. But there are no neat lines in the history of teams.

There are key questions to be asked, before consigning people to retirement: Why should all of those great Mayo players not come back again next year? Are there really that many good players in Mayo that, say, Keith Higgins or Andy Moran or Colm Boyle or David Clarke will not be at the very least great men to have on a bench?

Why should they simply be consigned to history because they slip into their mid-30s?

The way science has changed the life expectancy of humans — across wealthy societies at least — means that traditional understandings of the capacity of people to act in a particular way dependent on their age are no longer appropriate.

And the changes in sports science that have revolutionised preparations for Gaelic games have, in the process, redrawn the capacity of players to compete for more years, providing they retain the desire to live properly and to fight hard.

There is another way to look at the exit of Mayo from the Championship before the month of June has ended.

Perhaps it offers a summer of respite, a chance to regroup before having a serious cut again next summer.

They sustained too many blows this year to be competitive in the Super 8s. The loss of any of Seamus O’Shea or Donal Vaughan or Tom Parsons would have been a huge blow. To essentially be deprived of all three left them stripped of much the power from the middle which has defined their better performances.

The fact Lee Keegan (below) and Cillian O’Connor have clearly not properly recovered from their injuries sustained earlier in the season meant that essentially one-third of the team that came within a kick of beating Dublin over the last two summers were not operational.

When you add in the absence of the brilliant Brendan Harrison, it is clear that injury — more than the age of any of their players — was central to Mayo’s difficulty this year.

Why should any of those great players give up playing if they don’t have to?

Is there anything in the world that will replace the fundamental pleasure they presumably get from playing football for Mayo?

The idea that they should stop because they now carry a particular number in brackets behind their name is a poor one.

It is bizarre, sometimes, to listen to the rubbish of people who talk about players ‘staying on too long’, or rushing to replace them with a new arrival in some sort of quick fix.

Now, it may be that some players decide that they have had enough, that their lives need to move on. If that is the case then the only thing to wish for them is that they do not miss it too much.

There is a certain sympathy abroad for those great players who are edging towards the end without an All-Ireland medal.

This is genuine and understandable.

But these are players to be admired and celebrated, not pitied.

They have been part of a truly formidable team and they haven’t won an All-Ireland because they have not been quite good enough. They have, however, come closer to Dublin than all the others and that is something that really matters.

They have also enjoyed more good days that most players who have ever played the game.

Indeed, they have played compellingly in some of the best games of Gaelic football that have ever been played and have brought their supporters on an epic, riotous journey of the sort that gives lives real colour.

They suffered some cruel, heartbreaking defeats, but they also enjoyed days that were truly memorable.

Compared to the experiences of players who know only (or almost only) defeat and spend their days on the circuit of poorly-attended lower division games, they have lived playing lives of splendour.

Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor
Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor

There is no doubt that those who leave will bitterly regret their losses, but the number of medals a player has pinned to his chest does not determine who he is and what he has done.

The great Galway footballer Jack Mahon wrote a lovely book about his time playing for Galway in the 1950s called Twelve Glorious Years.

Mahon recalled in the book how, after losing by nine points to Kerry in the All-Ireland final of 1959, he was despondent.

In the week after the game he received a letter from a Mayo friend of his, Fr Seán Freyne.

The letter included a discourse on the relative merits of victory and defeat. And it served as a fine antidote to what Mahon understood as a bandwagon culture around winning football teams.

He noted that “there is nothing so fickle as a supporter”.

He appreciated more than anything the expressions of hard luck from genuine supporters, but continued: “Far too many shallow-type followers turned their backs on us whenever we got beaten.”

It is hard to think of supporters who have stood by their team as thoroughly as the Mayo ones of the last two years. The true supporters understand just how much their players have given.

And the knowledgeable ones will surely know that these remain the best footballers in Mayo.

It would be great to see them have another go at it, fresh and fit, still chasing the dream. They’ll be done soon enough — but soon enough need not be now.

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