The desperate pursuit of All-Ireland final tickets often throws up peculiar twists of fate. And so it was on Saturday, when I found myself in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Canal End of Croke Park, a veritable fish out of water, in the company of a 12-year-old sporting oracle, the son of a Mayo friend.
His little sister was in the Cusack Stand with Dad, who wanted both of them to see this momentous day for the county. After all, if it was 1951 since the last one, the chances are it could be another lifetime until the next. You can’t argue with that logic. I didn’t.
Sitting in the Davin Stand, draped in my Dublin scarf, chatting football with my little red and green buddy, I was surrounded by what appeared to be the entire combined population of Castlebar and Ballina. Yet somehow a strange calm descended on me; the peace that can sometimes only come from a change of perspective.
5pm approached. The sound of plastic seats clicking into place and the hum of dizzy anticipation filled the chilly evening air. From our lofty perch, the scene was spectacular. As Amhrán na bhFiann rang out, my gaze took me across the hallowed turf, over the Hill and far away. Marino, Fairview, Whitehall, Artane… my beloved northside stretched into the distant gloom. And here we were… 82,000 of us wedged into this bubbling cauldron of light, this remarkable structure, about to witness a battle for the ages; one that we all sensed would go to the last kick of the game. It didn’t disappoint.
On more than one occasion during this remarkable match, I thought of 1991 and the third replay against Meath. Ok, that infamous game might have been only been the first round of the (then competitive) Leinster Championship but it was a Saturday evening, it was close and it was tense.
On that day, we stood dumbstruck on Hill 16 when some curly headed young fella called Foley buried the ball, along with our dreams, in John O’Leary’s net. I remember the deathly silence as we traipsed home through Ballybough. I remember the puzzled looks on the faces of my family when, at 8 pm, I announced that I was home and going to bed.
Whether it is because I am a quarter of a century older or the unusual circumstances of my matchday situation, last weekend I knew magnanimity was mine. Win, lose or (God forbid) draw, I would be high-minded and generous. I would stand proud with my Western comrades as they wept for joy and spoke of lifted curses; I would hoist my little companion, adopted for the day, high in the air as he shouted “H’on Mayo”. I would allow myself to smile as Cillian O’Connor raised that elusive silver pot high into the October night.
But it was not to be. In a pulsating contest, an epic slugfest, as tense a football match as I have ever witnessed, Dublin came out on top, just. Amid my fellow countrymen, I felt the pain, the excruciating familiarity of coming so close to the summit. I wondered how I’d feel facing that long road home. But this they did. And next year, they’ll be back again.
In retrospect, it was neither my passing years nor my novel perspective that made me feel so at peace that day. It was the opportunity to witness this incredible sport of ours; the commitment, honesty and intensity of those who play it; and the sheer wonder, passion and often heartbreak of those who watch it.
At the final whistle, my little friend was inconsolable. I didn’t try. There are days of glory ahead.
Paul Hennessey, Pundit Arena