This great Mayo team owe their fans nothing
Western People 21.9.21
In the aftermath of the Mayo defeat, Adrian Langan wrote in these pages last week, ‘We need analysis not bitterness, we take care of our own’. And, some days later, the Gaelic Players Association advised against personalising criticism of players because of the impact it has on their lives and families. Wise counsel.
But, as we’ve discovered since, the whole array of predictable reactions from all the predictable sources were soon on display.
First off, self-appointed experts on social media felt entitled (as always) to direct their bile to whatever player or players they decided didn’t live up to their inflated expectations. And as usual the full extent of their limited vocabulary, including all the words that in polite company would be listed under the rubric ‘expletive deleted’, were repeated ad nauseam, as if using the F-word for emphasis somehow made their juvenile abuse more credible. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Then came the contribution of those who were delighted to relish the opportunity to put the boot into Mayo, sneering at the county’s inability to win one All-Ireland after nine semi-finals and six finals, making jokes about the daft ‘curse’ story and generally enjoying themselves by berating Mayo for their perceived failures.
Suffice it to say that Martin Breheny in the Independent put that juvenilia in proper context by pointing out the comparative performances of counties like Galway, Meath, Kildare and Cork who between them have reached the grand total of three semi-finals over the last 15 seasons. Breheny concluded that, rather than making Mayo ‘the butt of jokes and ignorant analysis’, Mayo deserved credit for a level of consistency that few of their critics (or their counties) could reach.
But worst of all was the dismissive tone of those who like Joe Brolly in the Sunday Independent decided to personalise criticism of Mayo’s defeat by attributing it to a few individuals, in this case the Mayo manager, James Horan and Mayo captain, Aidan O’Shea. This was unfair comment, not just inaccurate but nasty, mean and offensive in terms of the contribution both men have made to Mayo football.
It was also very unfair to their parents, siblings, children and extended families who rightly should be proud to have their sons wear the green and red of Mayo but could not be other than hurt and offended by such gratuitous comment.
Hard on the heels of the sporting commentariat, was the usual complement of disillusioned supporters who believed that the Mayo management and players had deprived them of some imagined right they had to winning.
We rightly laud Mayo’s supporters – their legendary numbers, their commitment and support for the team, their respect for the sacrifices of amateur sportsmen who give so much to their county and above all their unwavering loyalty and resilience to team and county.
But for all the respect Mayo fans have earned over the years, a difficult truth is that an unsporting virus has infected a cohort of Mayo fans who seem to imagine that they have a God-given right to roundly abuse players for not measuring up to their fictitious standards as a way of punishing individuals and by extension their family circles who have made huge sacrifices for team and county.
This corruption of sporting standards begins with under-age GAA teams where winning at all costs is often the bottom line and with, even parents, sometimes instilling that sporting vice in their own children, without any sense of the obvious truth that failure in sport builds character in a way that all the success in the world can’t match.
Those who believe that sport is just about winning shouldn’t be allowed within miles of it – particularly under-age teams where their heresy is still, it seems, infecting a new generation with that unsporting virus.
It might seem a bit foolish to suggest that winning an All-Ireland should not be the be-all and end-all of Mayo’s footballing ambition. And it is, I accept, a natural and worthwhile sporting ambition. But who really believes, for example, that those who played for a county like Derry and who managed to win a solitary All–Ireland since the GAA was founded are somehow more entitled to sporting glory than consummate players like Lee Keegan, one of the greatest the sport has produced, who was on the receiving end of seven lost finals? After all, the nature of team sports is that it can be spectacularly unfair, often penalizing great players while rewarding unexceptional footballers.
I for one wouldn’t swap one Mayo All-Ireland success for the enjoyment of the last ten-plus years. Who cares about the ridicule sometimes heaped on Mayo players for the naivete of their approach over the years when Mayo played the kind of pure football that earned the respect of objective football commentators? Who cares about all the negative analysis when we’ve had so many glorious days with both the performance and the scoring absolutely breath-taking? Who cares ultimately about the recent loss to Tyrone when most of us, before the championship, hoped that Mayo would win Connaught and, instead, a new team of mostly young players lifted our hearts and minds through a long, difficult summer? Who cares about the disappointments and the frustrations – an inevitable part of the mix of sport – when Keith Duggan could write as he has in the Irish Times that ‘this Mayo team will be remembered on a national scale long after All-Ireland champion teams have faded into obscurity’.
Yes, of course, we will continue the ambitious climbing to the top of what has become a footballing Everest. And, of course, with every final Mayo play in Croke Park we want to believe that soon we’ll be mature enough as sports people and as human beings to be able to leave the great theatre of footballing dreams without wrapping another defeat in regret, disillusionment and recrimination.
But ultimately what we need to remember is that, in the pursuit of our sporting dreams, those who bring us to a Croke Park final owe us nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Gratitude is the only fitting response.