Sport Gaelic Football

Thursday 22 February 2018

Mayo heroes who carried the flame

I asked someone, to the Mayo born, for his impressions of James Nallen and David Heaney who both retired after long careers with the county football team and who, regrettably, joined the growing assembly of players from that jurisdiction who never won an All-Ireland senior football title. He rated both as good as what Mayo has produced in the last 40 years, but with the caveat that they stayed on too long. Of course they might well have left sooner had they gained the reward that eluded them, most achingly in Nallen's case in 1996.

They were the last relics of that period under John Maughan that served to deepen Mayo melancholia and the county's addiction to sporting tragedy. Mayo has grown too comfortable with its own industrial levels of mi-adh but the players, or a good many of them, never relinquished hope or belief that it might happen.

Nallen has spoken eloquently about the county's ongoing quest for that elusive All-Ireland, last won in 1951, and the oppressive tradition of yearning which now pertains. This is not helped by large doses of pity being sent in by outside charities; Mayo has a unique position in the nation's affections. They would be the most popular of All-Ireland winners and it is often said, with justifiable assurance, that the place would go stone-mad were they to achieve that goal.

What goes on in a player's heart and mind when he comes to the end of that long journey, as Nallen and Heaney have done, with the goal unaccomplished? Does he accept the limits of sport's importance, set it against other issues in his life, and if he does, will that be an honest outlook or simply a way of dulling the pain and skipping the moribund reflections? Does he simply say to himself -- I have tried my best and it was not to be? Does he have any other choice? Would he not turn slightly insane otherwise?

Some day Mayo will win the All-Ireland again -- you read it here first! -- and James Nallen and David Heaney will, with the many others over the years, be recited for their contributions. Because, though it sounds cheesy, they carried the flame and kept her lit. That is no small accomplishment. They retained a belief and a desire that would have been beyond most men and for that they set themselves apart and claimed a special distinction not marked by medals. They will certainly go into retirement with the endorsement of their peers.

For Nallen and Heaney to endure two more crushing defeats to Kerry in the last decade, with Nallen taken off early looking a defeated and washed-up man in one of those, and then to endure and come back the next year is to be greatly admired. They kept on being selected and even in Mayo the sentiment only extends so far -- they were there on merit because they had something to offer.

By the end, Nallen had played more times for Mayo than anyone else, and Heaney is in the top five. Perhaps they just wanted to play for Mayo -- in itself -- for as long as they could because they knew, like all players reaching the end, that it would not last forever. And each day at the tail-end of their careers was worth immeasurably more than the days that skipped by in the early part of their time.

They will leave the stage greatly enriched by the experiences, even the bad ones, and the lasting friendships forged. And they leave knowing they had lots of fun.

Sunday Independent

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