Monday 16 September 2019

Our love will always be strong for boys of summer

An era is sadly over for the team who arguably defined a decade

Paul Mannion of Dublin in action against Brendan Harrison of Mayo. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Paul Mannion of Dublin in action against Brendan Harrison of Mayo. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Mayo didn't deserve to go out like this. But when did they ever get what they deserved? At half-time, with the outsiders two points up, romantics allowed themselves to dream all kinds of impossible things. Ten minutes after the restart Dublin had scored 2-5 without reply and it was all over.

That onslaught marked the end of not just this game as a contest, but of an era. There was a terrible and cruel finality about the realisation that this Mayo team will never win an All-Ireland.

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Yesterday was not their last chance to do so. That chance came in 2017 when they led Dublin by two points with six minutes of the final remaining but could not close the game out. Everything since has been a kind of coda to their legend, a rage against the dying of the light as they refused to go gentle into that good night.

Now they will have to admit defeat. There was no more potent symbol of that defeat than the sight of Lee Keegan on his hands and knees as Con O'Callaghan scored Dublin's first goal and standing flat-footed as the Cuala Kid bamboozled him before rattling in the second.

O'Callaghan is a player with the ability to become Gaelic football's Messi. But there was a time when he wouldn't have been able to do this to Lee Keegan.

The Westport man was the greatest player on a great team, as good a defender as the modern game has produced, a force of nature who came from deep to bag goals in successive All-Ireland finals, who never lost an individual battle and seemed to embody the vigour and drive which made Mayo more than the sum of their parts. It speaks volumes about Keegan's character that he found the net again yesterday, even as the roof fell in on his team. Yet this was nothing more than a last vain gesture of defiance, a King Canute effort at holding back the waves engulfing Mayo.

There will be no All-Ireland medal for Lee Keegan. None either for Aidan O'Shea, Colm Boyle, Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins, Cillian O'Connor, Andy Moran, Séamus O'Shea, David Clarke or Jason Doherty. It seems a horrible injustice.

Yet the fact of Sam Maguire's absence from these players' careers does not make them failures. The binary notion of sport as divided into winners and losers is a foolish one, a product of a culture where the bottom line is seen as the only real yardstick of worth.

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Who can genuinely claim that the Mayo team from this decade is not a better one than the Cork team which won the All-Ireland in 2010 or the Kerry one which triumphed in 2014? Who doubts that they'll be remembered for a far longer time than the Derry side of 1993 or the Dublin team of 1995?

None of those sides had to get past Jim Gavin's Dublin team, or any team remotely in their class. Again and again Mayo ran into a team which might just be the finest ever to play Gaelic football. So perhaps it's fitting that their last stand came against the team whose destiny was intertwined with theirs.

Mayo might have been in decline but they still brought out the best in the Dubs who, for the first time since the 2017 final, played at full stretch. James Horan's team paid dearly for that but it seemed a fitting tribute from his long-time nemesis.

Dublin should be grateful to Mayo. Without their challenge their All-Ireland victories would have had a hollow ring. The championship too would have seemed a much lesser thing without Mayo. We were lucky to have them.

The most legendary team in American sporting history is the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team of the 1940s and '50s. The greatest of all sporting books, The Boys of Summer, was written about them and their lustre had not dimmed one iota over the past half-century.

A look at the record books discloses just one World Series win in those years for those Dodgers and nine for their hometown rivals, the New York Yankees. Yet it is the former who still cast the bigger shadow. In some odd way their many near misses and tragic failures merely enhance their legend.

We'll come to think of this Mayo team in the same way. They could even be the team who define this decade for many of us. Mayo may not have been the best side of the age but for honesty, courage and resilience they were in a class of their own. No team in the history of football has inspired more affection.

I can tell you our love for them will still be strong after these boys of summer have gone.

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