Dying with boots on a key lesson for future champions

It was surreal.

Last Sunday I stood on the field of Croke Park alongside the footballers of Mayo as Michael Murphy lifted the Sam Maguire and green and gold ribbons floated down from the heavens. Then after watching and waiting in silence as he made his speech, we made our way in unison towards the tunnel as the opening notes of Jimmy’s Winning Matches struck up. I looked up to see the cup above Colm McFadden’s head. I kept looking at it until it disappeared as we disappeared down the tunnel. What was once so near was now so far and gone, just like that.

We trooped into the dressing room. The last time we’d all been in there 50 minutes earlier, we were convinced we were going to win. Contrary to popular opinion, it was the second half, not the first half, in which we lost it. For a team that had been behind at half time in all but one of its Connacht championships this past two years, that had trailed Kerry by four points with just a couple of minutes left in both normal and extra time in the league semi-final, we felt we were in a great position, being only three down. Now, clearly, we weren’t.

I suppose I’m supposed to say here it was like a death. And for a few minutes the complete and utter silence in that room would have suggested it sort of was. But then James Horan and Andy Moran spoke about how this team would drive on. And then you realise life goes on. David Clarke sets about untying his boot laces. Ger Cafferkey goes about being the first Mayo player to shower after losing this All-Ireland. A couple of our players politely oblige the equally pleasant drug testers. Life doesn’t stop, life goes on and as James says, so will this team.

If anything the loss has made us closer. It will certainly make us stronger. It might appear an odd thing to say about Mayo, a county infamous for reaching and losing so many national finals, but this team hadn’t enough experience of that ‘so near so far’ sensation.

Looking back, that was a big difference between Donegal and us. Both teams have had remarkably similar journeys over the past two seasons: from losing to Armagh and Longford in the 2010 first-round qualifiers; coming back from five points down just before half time in our respective 2011 provincial semi-finals; winning those provincial finals, before recording epic All-Ireland quarter-final wins over Kildare and Cork respectively. But in the subsequent All-Ireland semi-final Mayo only troubled Kerry for 45 minutes. Donegal tested Dublin for the full 70. They felt they left an All-Ireland behind them last year. Mayo couldn’t say that the way they can now.

Back in February in one of my talks to the panel in my role as their sport psychologist, I addressed the nature of that defeat to Kerry. For all the progress they’d made in 2011, they hadn’t yet become what we call a proper championship team. A couple of minutes before that game entered injury time, Mayo had trailed by five points. They allowed Kerry to extend their lead to nine. They didn’t yet appreciate that even when victory is beyond you, you’re still playing for something.

It had irked some of our players that they were only ranked sixth in the country at the end of the year, behind Kildare who had beaten no heavyweight like Mayo had beaten Cork, but as I pointed out to the players, there was no way that Kildare team would have allowed anyone beat them by nine points.

If you lose, you die with your boots on. Mayo hadn’t in 2011. They hadn’t been close enough to have that vital ‘so near so far’ experience that all champions must go through. Now I believe they have.

There are, what I term, professional Mayo supporters who don’t accept there was something different about this Mayo effort, who seem to think only Mayo lose big games. Every team does.

The Cork footballers lost in ’07 and ’09 before winning in 2010. Dublin nearly had to lose to Cork in that semi-final in 2010 to win it all in 2011. It took Munster rugby six years to get their hands on their big cup. Each time they’d try again, fail again, fail better, knowing you only fail when you don’t get back up.

Donegal are rightly the champions. It is the greatest All-Ireland ever won. To win it from the preliminary round in Ulster? To beat five other Division 1 teams along the way? Jimmy had to win a hell of a lot of big matches to get his hands on that big cup.

Jimmy Horan and his team will win more matches too, though. Even though we haven’t yet emerged back out of that tunnel, we still see that cup.

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