Thursday 26 April 2018

Repentant combatants put cynicism aside to restore faith in football

Magnificent advert for black sheep of Irish sport little consolation for Mayo amid galling sense of deja vu

Eamonn Sweeney

Karl Marx said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. And Mayo's fans seem fated to endure a series of reverses which combine the worst features of both tragedy and farce, setbacks which are different in detail but gallingly similar in outline.

The loss of a five-point lead in last year's drawn semi-final against Kerry might have seemed like the ultimate in carelessness but the loss of the four-point lead which they had built with 18 minutes remaining in this semi-final will rankle even more.

When Lee Keegan raced through a minute later it looked as though Mayo would make it five and confirm that the tide had turned conclusively their way. Instead Keegan tapped a weak shot into Stephen Cluxton's hands, Mayo lost another couple of vital possessions and a reprieved Dublin set about punishing them.

It had been a similar moment of carelessness from Keegan when straight through which let Kerry back into the game in last year's semi-final replay, and the game turned decisively in Dublin's favour in a manner spookily similar to the way in which Mayo were undone in the 2012 All-Ireland final.

Back then it was Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden scoring the quickfire goals for Donegal. This time it was Bernard Brogan and Philly McMahon finding the net inside a minute for Dublin, proof once more that a quality team will always feel there are goals to be quarried from that Mayo defence. Mayo are sometimes described as being bottlers on the big occasion but that is unfair. What has undone them time and again over the past few years have been weaknesses they haven't had the personnel to address. It is physical limitations rather than psychological ones which continue to undo them.

It will be of little consolation to the Connacht champions that they played a major part in a match which restored faith in the game of Gaelic football. Because, make no mistake, a lot of people came to bury Gaelic football at Croke Park, to watch a match which would finally seal the game's status as the black sheep of Irish sport. There was talk of huge anticipation, but it was the queasy anticipation which used to attend the Compromise Rules matches in their most violent days, a morbid curiosity about the depths which could be plumbed.

They talked too about the electrifying atmosphere, but it was the kind of electrifying atmosphere which prevails before the contestants enter the boxing ring or the MMA octagon. This was going to be the game which confirmed everyone's worst fears about Gaelic football.

The only problem was that the players didn't get the memo. Instead they played as though in repentance for the deeds of a week ago, as if relieved to leave behind the bitterness, the anger and the empty macho posturing which had disfigured their first meeting six days ago. If this was a horse race, you'd have wondered if some crafty trainer had pulled a fast one by substituting some better quality animal in the guise of the nag who was supposed to run.

There could not be a better advertisement for Ireland's most popular spectator sport than this match, which proved that intensity is not about preventing your opponent from playing the game but about playing it to the absolute peak of your ability. The pace was blistering, the skill breathtaking, the excitement unrelenting.

And what it showed was that in 2015, while pundits may like to accentuate the negative and TV stations advertise their coverage with slow-motion shots of lads thumping against each other, that's not really what Gaelic football is about. It's about Paddy Andrews twisting and turning to make an angle before screwing a shot over the bar, about Ciaran Kilkenny taking on his man and steering points home from the wing, about Diarmuid O'Connor's ability to carry the ball at the heart of the opposition and strike the most outrageous points, about the power of Aidan O'Shea, the guile of Bernard Brogan, Kevin McManamon's opportunism and many other things which have nothing to do with the cynical side of life.

Mayo depart. Dublin prevail. Football abides. This is a beautiful game. This is our beautiful game.

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