Friday 23 February 2018

Off the Ball: Many painful treks home from Croker but '96 still the one that really hurts

David Brady
David Brady

This time last year we stood in the Hogan Stand. Me and dad. He's from Charlestown. 'Jimmy's Winning Matches' boomed across Croke Park. It was a green and gold party. Flags in the crowd, bunting on the pitch. The Donegal players paraded Sam. We exchanged wry looks. The exits beckoned and we headed on.

It is 1996 which remains as the one that really hurts. It was a beautiful summer. Mayo was drenched in colour, optimism and good vibes. My mother, from Ballina, insisted no car journey was complete without a blast of 'Sam Maguire's Coming Home to Mayo'.

To this day the lyrics lurk in my consciousness: "In this year of '96, John Maughan arrived and he showed his tricks..."

Meath didn't really care about our tricks, though. They just kept on coming back. Refused to die. Colm Coyle's equaliser bounced over the bar. There was McHale's sending off. Crazy – '96 retains an ability to haunt.

The following year it was Kerry. There was heavy rain that day and an utterly sensational Maurice Fitzgerald. He'd been sent from another planet to destroy Pat Holmes. Game over.

It was Kerry again in 2004. An eight-point defeat. People began talking about a curse.

The 2006 decider marked the finale of our very grim Kerry trilogy. It was done after 10 minutes. A total non-event. Kieran Donaghy was on fire. They ripped Mayo apart. An hour was spent waiting for the final whistle. The only highlight was David Brady coming on at full-back and winning the first ball in over Donaghy's head.

I was separated from my parents that day, but we found each other on the pitch at full-time. What can you say? Once again, the exits beckoned. I remember a perverse sense of achievement emerging that evening. Just how many finals could we watch Mayo lose? And so here we go again. Tickets still haven't been secured for Sunday, but they usually turn up. On the field, there has been an air of purpose about James Horan's group.

The annihilations of Galway and Donegal put to bed any traditional fears about Mayo's forwards. The Tyrone semi-final has tapered the hype nicely. And Dublin of 2013 are not Donegal of 2012. My father's generation has now made the trek in 1989, '96, '97, 2004, '06 and '12.

I don't want to tempt fate, but surely...


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