AMIDST THE CARNIVAL atmosphere around Dublin all weekend, it rather escaped me that one of these amazing sets of supporters would be disappointed on Sunday.
But walking back to the Hogan Stand Pub on the North Circular at 5.30pm, where just a couple of hours ago I had spoken to so many hopeful Mayo fans, there could be no mistaking that feeling. That old Mayo feeling.
I turned to Eoin McDevitt, who was with me and I said “My God, I’ve never seen so many people make so little noise.” The Donegal fans had stayed in Croke Park to celebrate with their team, so this was Mayo’s private time for grief. As if to accentuate the point, a Ballaghaderreen man turned to me and said – “family flowers only”. Truth be told, it felt a little like a funeral.
Some people didn’t even stick around for the wake – my Mum and Dad were sitting in the Cusack Stand and they said a Mayo man left after David Clarke denied Colm McFadden a third goal in the 13th minute. Dad said this lad had been filming the parade, taking photographs, soaking up the occasion and then left after less than quarter of an hour. The man was obviously an idiot, but these All-Irelands are complicated days for Mayo people.
Lee Keegan of Mayo is consoled by Jason Doherty at the end of the game. Pic: INPHO/Donall Farmer
But there are shreds of comfort for them. After that opening quarter hour, their worst nightmare had come to pass. The thing they absolutely couldn’t let happen, had happened. And yet they were only three points down at half-time and were only three points down mid-way through the second half. Donegal always looked in control but Mayo didn’t die, and if Seamus O’Shea had had an extra half second with that goal chance in the last minute, they’d have been back to within one.
Then, of course, there’s Andy Moran. He is Mayo’s stand-out forward and his absence through injury was absolutely crucial to how this game went. Get him back for next year’s championship and they have a massive chance. But to see him leaning over on his crutches at the end of the game, heart-broken, was absolutely gut-wrenching.
Donegal have no such All-Ireland final hang-up’s of course – when you make the effort of getting to these things, you might as well win them. They’re two for two in September now, and the manner of their win this year brooked no argument.
They were the best team in the country and they had to beat the best to be the best. They couldn’t have been given a harder route to the summit, but now that just makes this win all the sweeter.
And they got the big-match performance from Michael Murphy that they were waiting for. In truth he hasn’t had an exceptional year, but on Sunday he was unplayable. He is a truly monstrous physical specimen, and his goal in the third minute is a Croke Park moment for the ages.
We shouldn’t be too surprised of course, because he did the exact same thing in the Donegal county final last year…
… but it is already one of the all-time great All-Ireland final goals, along with Deccie Meehan in 2001, and Colm Cooper last year.
We all saw the celebrations on the pitch, and the BBC championship cameras caught a really astonishing moment, that we saw subsequently on the Sunday Game, of Mark McHugh celebrating with his father Martin on the sideline seconds after the final whistle.
It was funny because I had spent some time with Martin earlier that day at a pre-match function and he was telling me about the worst game he ever played. It was the All-Ireland semi-final against Meath in 1990, and he was taken off having barely kicked a ball. He never took a defeat so badly, and didn’t leave his house for three days until Mark was born the following Wednesday.
Now here Mark was, preparing for the biggest game of his life, and his dad was a ball of nervous energy who couldn’t sit still for two minutes at a time. It looks a lot more fun to play in an All-Ireland final than to watch your son playing in it, I will say that.
Some teams time their seasons well (Kerry in 2009). Some counties win and deserve to win without ever giving us a performance to savour (Cork in 2010). Some teams show nerve at the right time (Dublin last year).
And sometimes a team win an All-Ireland championship by being the best team in that championship for the entire summer, by bestriding the entire season, winning in style with the best players, and the best manager. No arguments – Donegal are our All-Ireland champions.
This week Murph was – telling myself not to gloat. I make predictions every day that are so laughably wide of the mark as to be a permanent stain against my character.
But then again, there’s this…