Probably the harshest reality of our championship structure is that for all but one county, defeat is the inevitable finale on which a season will close.
Unfair really when you think about it, as a despondent dressing room is often an unfitting scene to what otherwise may have been a productive season.
Even more depressing is that for the vast majority of inter-county players and teams, it is the only way their seasons will ever end. Last Saturday, for the third year in a row, we suffered another tough defeat at the quarter-final stage of the All Ireland series.
Don’t worry, I’m not singing a sad song or looking to blame anyone outside of our group. We have always prided ourselves in not hiding behind excuses in the aftermath of defeat.
Excuses simply deflect the focus away from addressing your own failings and areas for improvement. We’re not in the business of trying to cod anyone, especially ourselves.
Defeat, inevitable as it may be, presents itself in various manifestations, and how you deal with it shapes the seasons that follow. Looking back, some of our most notable defeats greatly influenced what came next, both positively and negatively.
Moral victories are very often the easiest way to bow out at years end. A jag of initial disappointment is quickly displaced by a sense of achievement. Supporters are jovial, satisfied, content... immediately there’s talk of next year.
We experienced this in 2007 when narrowly losing to Tyrone in the Ulster Final and Kerry in the All Ireland quarter-final. However, the problem with the back-slapping winters that follow such defeats is that hard questions can often be avoided, or not even asked.
The expectation a lot of the time is that the team will just pick up from where they left off. Looking back, we got, and took, far too much credit out of those games in 2007. We never honestly questioned why we didn’t win those games. Instead, we indulged in the platitudes and new found fame. We shipped a few more disappointing defeats in the seasons that followed until that team largely broke up with the management change in 2011. Many wrongly assumed repeat performances of 2007 were inevitable; mix in a pinch of good fortune and a dash of experience, and silverware was sure to follow.
Heavy defeats are not as difficult a place to finish off as many would think. They can often be written off as one of those days when nothing went right. Strangely enough, supporters generally go easy on you here, acknowledging that you have been embarrassed enough. Apathy can take over from hard analysis, and for some counties it is the real reason behind perennial defeats of this nature.
However, it can also lead to instant and sometimes considerable overreaction. Managers get moved on, panels get shaken up, and players fall away. The club dressing room often proves a comfortable refuge when compared to the smouldering embers of a county set-up. A volatile way to finish a season, but it shouldn’t define a team’s true standing. Strong leadership and perspective is badly needed in such circumstances, but unfortunately this is often lacking in many post-mortems.
The underperformance, a la our exit last weekend, is without doubt the toughest place for any team, at any level, to find itself at come the season’s end. Nobody gets an easy ride here; players, management, and whoever else has a possible case to answer, get it with both barrels from supporters and pundits alike. Rightly or wrongly, these defeats eat away at you for weeks and months later. As the dust begins to settle, you question everything you did and agonisingly try to find solace in some sort of explanation.
When you lose like we did on Saturday last, especially if it is not the first example of such a defeat, very often there is no choice but to take a good hard honest look in the mirror; individually and collectively. Deficiencies begin to stand out and can’t be ignored. Internally you ask hard questions of yourself. Strong managers and trusted team mates alike might ask them directly of you. Have you the stomach for the honesty of it all? Are you big enough to take it on the chin? Are you willing to do the necessary in order to improve? Or do you shy away, take refuge in the cherry picked moments of self-v alidation and convince yourself that you’re right and they’re wrong.
The underperforming defeats, more than the heavy ones or the moral victories, have shaped this Monaghan team over the years, with none more so than last year’s Ulster final. Instead of wilting away after missing out on a historic back to back success, we faced up to the harsh truths of our performance.
Without doubt, the single biggest contributing factor to this year’s victory over Donegal was how we mentally responded to last year’s crushing loss.
If experience has taught me anything, the manner in which defeat is dealt with and (more crucially) the honesty of the post-mortem will largely dictate how a team will perform the year after.
If Monaghan happen to draw Tyrone in next year’s Ulster Championship, do yourself a favour a take a spin to Clones, and bring your popcorn. You’ll see what I’m talking about.
GAA retirements have become very fashionable these days.
There’s nearly more fervour devoted to predicating which thirtysomethings are going to walk away than there is to picking the All Stars.
As far back as 2010 (I was 29) people started asking me if I would be back the following year. It is assumed that playing into your 30s is generally not feasible anymore, such are the demands of inter-county football.
This summer Monaghan played four Championship games in 12 weeks.
Demanding indeed. If inter-county GAA was professional, there wouldn’t be any mention of retiring in your early 30s. So why, just because we do it for the enjoyment and the privilege rather than a pay cheque, do we assume our capabilities diminish at a faster rate than our professional counterparts?
For me, far too many inter-county players are retiring too early. Many are bludgeoned by the keyboard warriors and feel almost obliged to move on.
Over the past few years I have asked myself a few simple questions when deciding whether to put myself forward again. Do my family and professional commitments allow me to give the necessary effort? Do I think I will make a meaningful contribution to the team? Do I still enjoy playing inter-county football?
It’s a bit early yet for the ritual, but when the time comes, the answers to those questions alone will determine whether I will, as Páidí Ó Sé used to say, “go at it again”.
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