Croke Park on the third (or fourth) Sunday of September. Mayo. We have been here before. We have been here over and over again since 1989.
Is this the day Irish sport’s most notorious famine finally ends, all curses are banished and Mayo take their place among the sporting nations of the earth? Or will Dublin bate Mayo, to paraphrase the Saw Doctors, and the formbook be validated?
The latter for three reasons, Pat Spillane predicts. Dublin’s bench, Dublin’s scoring power and the improbability of Mayo sustaining a performance for 70 minutes and beyond. Logic says Dublin, agrees Colm O’Rourke, who adds dryly that he doesn’t believe David will beat Goliath at all.
Joe Brolly, meanwhile, reveals that he ran into Paraic Duffy earlier and was informed that if Croke Park possessed a capacity of 140,000, it would still be sold out for this one. As it is, not a ticket is to be had. There’s almost certainly scope for a Pat Hickey joke at this juncture but, the man being highly litigious, you’ll have to make it yourself.
The pre-match parade takes place. The handshakes go smoothly, this not being the camogie final. Mayo open brightly and have two points on the board when, after eight minutes, they score — perhaps ‘concede’ is a better word — an own goal.
No matter. The underdogs keep her lit and at the end of the opening quarter, lead by 0-3 to 1-0. Martin Carney, alongside Ger Canning in the commentary box, is upbeat. Dublin have managed three wides and no point. Ger: “They’re misfiring.” Martin: “They’re misfiring.” As if in sympathy, Stephen Rochford’s troops promptly contrive to concede a second own goal. Really. How totally, utterly, absolutely, surreally Mayoesque.
At the interval, the panel try to come to terms with the contradictions of a bizarre first half. If they look slightly dazed, they’re entitled to. Mayo didn’t allow Dublin to score a point until the 31st minute or a point from play until the 34th minute, yet they’re trailing by five. “Gubu,” laments Colm, resurrecting a political reference so old — kids, ask your parents — that at this stage he’s probably forgotten what the acronym stands for.
Joe muses that the Mayo players must reckon they’re in some sort of twilight zone. Michael Lyster announces that he doesn’t believe in curses but is beginning to lose his faith — or non-faith, perhaps — after what he’s just witnessed. That’s Mayo footballers for you. Constantly testing entire belief systems.
Fair enough, they resume with five unanswered points to pull level after 45 minutes. It takes Dublin another five minutes to get their first score of the half. With three-quarters of the match gone, the champions have tallied eight scores, six points and 10 wides. The eternal question rears its apologetic head once again. Could this be Mayo’s day at last?
Martin reckons so. “They have greater energy and urgency.”
They sure have, but the 70th minute arrives with them still a point behind. Fortunately there are seven minutes of stoppage time to be negotiated.
Just when it looks as though what Martin terms Dublin’s “indisputable little bit of experience that comes from winning All-Irelands” will see them over the line, Cillian O’Connor drills the equaliser. It is nothing less than Mayo deserve. Does anyone deserve to lose, Ger wonders? A follow-up thought strikes him. Does anyone deserve to win?
Michael mentions the word ‘epic’ afterwards. The panel do not demur. It was, says Pat, “everything you wanted… huge hits, huge workrate, huge levels of fitness.” It’s hard, he adds, to please us — it’s certainly been hard to please you these many years, Pat — but he’s sure everyone is happy with the fare.
Colm comes over all Eamon Dunphy. Mayo, he asserts, showed heart and commitment and spirit and physical courage — “and moral courage when they needed it most”.
The warning bells are already chiming, however. Joe insists that Mayo “should be seething with disappointment”. Colm hopes the entire county aren’t about to lose the run of themselves. “You don’t prove the critics wrong in a drawn All-Ireland final, a game Mayo left behind them,” Pat points out.
The famine continues. They’ll have another chance to end it on Saturday week. Whether in victory, in defeat or in a two-own-goals-draw, there continues to be something about Mayo.
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