Thursday 23 November 2017

What it feels like to cost your team an All-Ireland

No matter the scale, anyone who has made a big mistake will empathise with Hennelly

Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly drops the ball which led to refereee Maurice Deegan awarding a penalty to Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park
Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly drops the ball which led to refereee Maurice Deegan awarding a penalty to Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

There's about 10 minutes to go and hopeful ball is lobbed in which should be dealt with comfortably by the defence.

About 20 yards from my own goal, I jump to head it away like a centre-half is supposed to but, in that split second, I know I'm not going to get a decent clearance and a weak header could be dangerous.

My team-mate must recognise it too because he calls his name.

It's a call I've probably heard dozens of times over the course of roughly 35 league and cup games that season that has got us to here - an under 17s All-Ireland final in front of easily the biggest crowd I've played in front of, drawing 1-1 against bitter rivals we've been duelling with all season.

I don't remember the other calls but, 16 years later, I can still hear this one.

I duck my head.

My team-mate, despite calling for the ball, doesn't expect me to duck my head.

The ball bounces past both of us and in nips Michael Doyle, lobs the goalkeeper and Cherry Orchard beat Belvedere 2-1. Doyle goes on to have a successful professional career in England but that's about as much consolation to me in the years that follow as Mayo have today knowing they have pushed one of the greatest Gaelic football teams in history so close.

Yesterday, Rob Hennelly posted his thoughts on Instagram vowing that his mistake last Saturday wouldn't define him, thanking people for their support and believing he still had something to offer the cause of winning a Sam Maguire.

I hope he's right.

Under 17 finals aren't, obviously, on the same scale but Hennelly's line - accompanied by the picture of him getting a black card - that "I’ll never be able to fully describe what was going through my head at this moment" will ring true for anybody who has ever made a crucial mistake in a game that meant the world to them, regardless of the level.

My manager at least waited until the next training session to ask the question that was probably on the mind of everyone leaving the Iveagh Grounds that day who has just seen a centre-half decide not to head the ball.

"What the fuck happened?"

The explanation was relatively straightforward and, if you weren't involved, understandable. But while there was a reason, there was no excuse.

Friends and family who were at the match approach afterwards with the caution of someone not wanting to press the wrong switch for fear the bomb will go off.

They say that everyone makes mistakes, you nod, but your head says "yeah but not ones that costs your team an All Ireland."

They say your team-mate called for it, you nod, but your head says "yeah but if I'd done my job I wouldn't have cost my team an All Ireland."

And, above all, the problem is that you can never escape your own head, replaying the moment over and over as though, by magic, you'll be transported back in time and done what you should have done. And yeah, not cost your team an All-Ireland.

In some circles, there has been criticism that no mistake in an All-Ireland final in an amateur sport should make Hennelly feel as bad as he does but this misses the point spectacularly.

No player who has put that level of commitment to a cause would be able to shrug off such a mistake and, with the level of time and emotion invested over the years, nor should they.

At the moment there's probably not much anyone can say to make Hennelly feel much better but, for sure, there is nothing anybody can say that will make him feel worse. Those criticising him with genuine vitriol are, frankly, morons who should probably find some other cause to throw their limited brain power behind.

In the same season as my All-Ireland cock-up, a missed penalty in the last minute cost a place in another cup final while, leading 2-1 late in a play-off for the league, a back-pass was left short, an equaliser scored, and the replay lost 3-0.

Those mistakes came from other players but no matter how many others make them, it doesn't make your own any easier to get over.

As is the case with all teams that lose a match, every Mayo player will contemplate an error they made over the course of the two games and, in time, might even talk to Hennelly about a missed free, a pass given away or a tackle they should have made.

It probably won't make Hennelly feel better about his own mistake but it reinforces the positive message that teams win and lose together even though you may feel like you're the one who has let everyone down.

It's not much of a positive as you contemplate whether to display a medal that marks you out as part of the second best team in the country or throw it in the nearest river.

But you have to start somewhere.

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