Saturday 21 April 2018

Supporters and players united in a long-running pursuit

Mayo's bad experiences on the biggest day have helped to keep emotions in check in the county

Mayo supporters on Hill 16 during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo . Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Mayo supporters on Hill 16 during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo . Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Nearing 8.0pm on Sunday the Mayo team bus reached the CityWest Hotel to join a crowd estimated at more than 1,500 for their All-Ireland final banquet. Once the final whistle sounded a few hours earlier at Croke Park, preparations for the replay 13 days later officially started but this was a commitment to family and followers that the team felt was necessary to honour.

In contrast, the Dublin squad dined alone, meaning the banquet arranged for them and their supporters in the Gibson Hotel went ahead in the players' absence. Their players also made themselves scarce in Croke Park when the game ended, bolting for the dressing rooms, while three Mayo players consented to interviews.

If this might be construed as Mayo being more content than Dublin, the atmosphere at CityWest reflected a different reality. A large crowd of followers gathered at the hotel entrance to greet the players who, as they entered the lobby, received a spontaneous round of applause. Soon chants of 'Mayo, Mayo, Mayo' were ringing out.

But those present said the mood was restrained. The speeches were clipped, with county board chairman Mike Connelly, team manager Stephen Rochford and captain Cillian O'Connor emphasising the point that they still had a job to complete.

Mayo support is an enduring and visceral element in the long-running pursuit of Sam Maguire. Each of those present on Sunday night, some having travelled from Asia, Australia and the US, forked out €80 for a banquet ticket and the team they pledge allegiance to appreciates the need to recognise their efforts. Rochford thanked them for their backing and asked that they now allow the team the "space" to prepare for the replay. O'Connor said that the replay was already uppermost in their minds and lightly remarked on Barry Moran's decision to pass on dessert as evidence.

They stayed around for about half an hour mingling with friends and family once the meal was over and then dispersed. Early the next morning they had a recovery session and headed home, returning to training on Wednesday.

The last time Mayo were in this situation, 20 years ago, everything was different. They repaired to the Burlington Hotel after drawing with Meath in 1996 and while the players were gravely disappointed, the supporters were still high on the experience of being part of an occasion of that magnitude. In order to defuse the hype, Liam McHale took the decision to receive his man of the match award in the hotel reception rather than the main banquet room.

But in recent years Mayo have been regular participants in major championship games in Croke Park, including three All-Ireland finals since 2012, and two semi-finals which went to replays, one of those played in Limerick. The hard experience of losing has moderated behaviour, controlling the impulse to get ahead of themselves.

"It is a kind of weird feeling," says John Casey, who was on the team which drew with Meath in '96. "I suppose the difference between 20 years ago and 2016 is that we had a commanding lead (seven points) in that game and were hauled back and it was somewhat devastating. We were desperately disappointed in the dressing room afterwards.

"I remember (selector) Tommy O'Malley going around to each player saying, 'What are you disappointed about, that was Mayo's best performance since 1951'. I felt we had thrown away an All-Ireland. With the current crew they would have felt they never died, they kept coming back. That is the major difference.

"In the Burlington that night it was like a glorified wake. We had been catapulted from nowhere to that All-Ireland final. We played Division 3 football that year. We went from obscurity really to within a bounce of a ball of being All-Ireland champions so it was surreal to a lot of us."

At CityWest on Sunday night last, Cillian O'Connor acknowledged their followers' role in the journey. "It was humbling to see the red and green all around the stadium today," he said. "You inspire us every time we take the field, and today was no different. You drove us on, especially when we were trying to claw back that five-point deficit. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you very much."

They hope to be reunified next Saturday with the task completed.

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