The sport that is closest to my heart is Gaelic Football, and the team that means the most to be is the Mayo Senior football it has always been the Green and Red that have stirred the most emotion in me.
Following Mayo from Vancouver, where I now live, is different but it is not impossible. Websites such as Hoganstand.com/mayo make it easy to keep up to date on happenings within the county and hoganstand.com keeps you up to date on national stories. I find the Irish Independent and Mayo News good sources too and of course I have Mammy posting the sports section of the Western People!!! Some things are difficult, such as the Connacht semi final against Leitrim, 6am start Pacific and with RTE having no interest in it, it meant listening to it on Mid West through the Blackberry, a far cry from attending Mc Hale Park in the flesh. A 20 point win did make it nice though. Planning to watch the Connacht final was an operation too, first half at home, 20 minute commute to get to work before I was due to start so I could watch the second half at work, worth it to see Andy Moran lift the Nestor Cup. It is not often one would want to wish they were in Roscommon instead of being in Vancouver but that was one of those days.
Before I talk about the Croker adventure I will go back to the start of the year. I am one of those that likes the FBD but who loves the National League. It boggles my mind why GAA fans don’t get behind it more, especially those in Division 1, 7 games against quality opposition. A run of games that will include Kerry, Cork and Dublin to name a few, how could you not be excited by it. To me a far more attractive proposition than Leitrim in the first game of the championship. Championship is bigger but it is great to be in Division 1, I miss going over the road to Castlebar and watching Mayo play the best teams and seeing new players introduced to the set up, road games are great too but if you play the game it is hard to make these on a regular basis. I got to one game this year in the NFL when I was in Ireland on holiday, at home to Down, lost. Aiden O Shea go an undeserved red after 8 minutes and despite playing well it was a little too much to overcome. I felt that Down looked pretty unathletic and that they were there for the taking, even with a man down but they had one of two moments of inspiration and they have good forwards and did enough to win. Little did we know then the revenge we would take out on them in Croker!!! The defeat in Donegal was the low point but a turning point for this Mayo team. Little did we know then that Donegal would be another low on our year. Tough questions were asked after that game and in the remaining divisional games the questions were answered somewhat, a draw in Kerry being a huge confidence builder and a demonstration of what this team could do.
The introduction of league semi finals was beneficial to Mayo this year and it did help to bring the team on a step further when beating Kerry in the league semi final, playing Kerry two weeks in a row and to not lose is huge for Mayo as they have poured so much heartache over us in the last decade. Defeat against Cork was how our league ended, you will never beat them both!!! But there were positives from this. From my work computer I could see that we were close, the turning point being when Lee Keegan was fouled in front of the goal, a score here would have brought the gap to a point, Cork got the ball and went the length of the field for a goal, bang 5 point gap, too much. But from this Mayo could enter the championship in a positive mood.
There is a growing Irish community in Vancouver and a thriving and growing GAA club. One of the great things about being involved in the GAA club here is the banter between lads from different counties. For example our trainer is from Kildare, when Meath beat Kildare you would swear that the Meath team were in Vancouver on Tuesday night after the game with the amount of Meath jerseys on show. Meath jerseys are not a sight this Mayo fans like either, still bitter. The Meath jersey didn’t last long though.
I think all Mayo people have to fight the same fight when among a group from various counties, the “Choker Fight”. It is something that is certainly the case in Vancouver. The amount of times you hear it, lazy analysis at best. Oddly it is usually from counties worse than ourselves, Kerry people will tell me “ye have a good team”, “ye are always there” and “ye just can’t seem to do it”, I can take that. They have some depth to what they say but when a Rossie or Westmeath man, to name but a few, slates Mayo for our All Ireland record it is a little harder to listen to. How many teams would love to be in our position?, 43 Connacht titles, Division 1 side, regulars at the latter stages of the championship, are they slagging us for being good? I know I am very proud of where my county stands in the game, an All Ireland would top it off.
Now lets fast forward to August, Down in the Quarter Final, a tricky but highly winnable task. Unfortunately watching the game was not an option, 9am start on the Saturday but with competing in the Western Canadian GAA championships my own footballing endeavours took over. So it was tweets and RTE.ie from friends and team mates for my Mayo fix. An Armagh friend and team mate happily informed me of the convincing victory we had over his clearly not so loved neighbour. Later in the day we were able to watch Dublin and Laois in what was a closer than expected affair with the Dubs scraping through. So next up the Dubs. They were seen as being a lock to make the final on the easier side of the draw. I was confident we could beat them, they weren’t playing well all Summer, we were flying and I always feel we can beat them, I believe we are better than them. Memories of the classic of 2006 came flooding back, games with the Dubs in Croker are always special. The news filtered through to me that Andy Moran had sustained an injury, it wasn’t until the next day I found out how serious it was. This concerned me, losing Andy could be the difference, he is such a huge part of making our forward unit click. I know Andy through working with him in coaching and playing against him underage. His energy is endless, his enthusiasm is amazing and passion for game is inspirational. A concerning question occupied my thoughts on the game, could his loss be the difference between winning and losing? I thought it might be but as the game drew nearer I felt that it was Alan Dillon’s time to be the main man that he would be a huge part in us winning. Man of the Match in the game, Alan Dillon.
Its at this time where a Summer in Mayo is what you yearn for. If I was in Mayo this would be dominating conversation for the next month, not too many Canadians willing or able to debate if Freeman would do a job at full-forward. Being involved in Gaelic football in Vancouver there is plenty of opportunity to talk GAA. There is a great sense of pride in seeing the other lads counties exit the championship and have my own still going strong. After Donegal beat Cork to make the final out trainer said to me I should hope Dublin beat Mayo as we will not beat Donegal. Kildare aren’t in it to be beaten by anyone so he is quickly told that!!! I decided to play it cool when talking about the game and not get too carried away. While worrying about how the game would go a more pressing matter was going through my head if we won, I cannot be in Canada if we are in the All Ireland. At the start of September, Labour Day weekend, we have the North American GAA championship in Philadelphia., the same weekend as the game. Will I be able to watch it in Philly? I was pretty sure I would as it is a major GAA event. Could I get time off work for an All Ireland after going to Philly? How much were flights? Which flights suited the most? There was a much different thought process than if it was up the N5 to Croker.
Philadelphia was were I would watch the game, there were a couple of Irish bars near our downtown hotel so I was confident it would be on, it was. On a side note we lost narrowly to the Boston champions to an injury time point, a heartbreaking loss. Back to following Mayo and Eastern time meant a more friendly throw in time of 1030am. The bar was started to fill up and the nerves set in. This was the first game I had watched surrounded by Mayo fans and the oppositions the atmosphere was created. After a cagey start where Kevin Keane gave away a free for two hops Mayo were sublime in the first half, kick passing fantastic, shooting fantastic, everything fantastic, 12 points to 6 up at half time, couldn’t ask for more, a few more points and we should be through. And that’s what happened, after 50 minutes we are 10 points up. Chants of “easy, easy” go around the bar but you gotta be careful. At this stage I was getting emotional at the thoughts of being in the final. I am definetly going back for it. But Dublin have some bite in them and started chipping away. The Dubs are a momentum team and their momentum was getting scary. There are 3 points in it when the ball sails over Ger Cafferkey’s head and Bernard Brogan is through on goal, time stood still as he bore down on goal, a ten point lead down to nothing. David Clarke had other ideas and produced one of the great Croker saves. If they had scored there is could have been so different. Kevin Mc Loughlin’s re-introduction was a huge turning point, what a fantastic player. Mayo managed to tag on a couple of points after going 21 minutes without a score to put some distance back between them. Three points down when Dublin have a free to drop in around the square. There must of been 20 players in around the Mayo goal, you just never know what can happen and the heart was in the mouth as the ball was sent in and falls in around the goal. But when Keith Higgins grabs it and runs it out and the whistle goes there is pure elation. The Mayo fans in the bar were delirious with joy. I was looking at the screen with tears in my eyes, so so proud. “The next time I see Mayo I will be there, I’m going home”. I had watched the game away from the Vancouver lads, not deliberately but as we had been out the night before I was the only one that was up early for it. When walking back towards the hotel to look for some of them I see one of our lads from Galway outside another bar. I ran and jumped on him with joy, it was good to share and especially with a fellow Connacht man. “Up Mayo” was the shout that could be heard loudest in Downtown Philadelphia!! Inside were all the lads, as much slagging as there is throughout the year they were genuinely happy for me. I think that most GAA people would like to see us eventually win one. I was hoping this would be the one we would win, the “unbeatable” Donegal in the final, I thought we could do it. All I knew was I would be there for it, I was going home.
Back to Vancouver and its all about getting off work to travel back for the game. I was willing to take the minimum amount of time, all that mattered was getting to Croker. Thankfully getting off proved to be unproblematic. If it had come to it I would have thought about looking for another job, easy to say now, it may have been different if it had become an issue. Now all that was left was booking the flight, it didn’t matter how much. Six days was all I booked, not a lot for travelling across a continent and ocean but the game was the only reason for this trip. Debating changing jobs and spending so much on flight may seem nonsensical to some but how can you put a price on seeing your team win an All Ireland? There was no guarantee but I’ve never known anyone to believe their team will lose a final.
So now that the flight was booked the issue normally associated with finals was the main concern, tickets. From previous experience I knew that tickets would come into my possession from about the Thursday or Friday before the game. Family in Mayo were trying their utmost and getting stressed but I was reassuring them it would be fine. An advantage of sorts of being in Vancouver was that there was nothing I could do about it only email and text so the pressure was off in that regard. I had a feeling that the Canadian ticket would come into my possession, it did. A couple more did too, always the way, you’ll have none on the Thursday and then on game day you are looking for people to take them.
The longest commute to a game started from Downtown Vancouver on the Friday before the game, a connecting flight though Toronto would take me to Ireland. In Toronto I noticed a guy with a Green and Yellow scarf waiting for the flight to Dublin, a few more Donegal people were there too. The All-Ireland rivalry was starting, an ocean apart from where the action would happen, what an amazing thing the GAA is.
Landing in Dublin is always interesting after being away for a prolonged period, I was back, back to see Mayo win Sam. Air Canada left my bag in Toronto, bad start to my return. It is never good to hear your name at baggage claim!!! A setback but so be it. Seeing my little 2 year old nephew in his Mayo shirt when I came through was an amazing feeling, the one feeling that could top Mayo winning Sam. My brother and his girlfriend were decked in Mayo colours too, she is adopted Mayo being from Down, Mayo has been forced on her but she has embraced it. The excitement was building. While on a nap the Canadian GAA official rang to say I had the Canadian ticket, the ticket worry was over, Dad, brother and I were sorted.
Getting on the train into Drumcondra and the excitement was building more, a crowded train of Mayo and Donegal fans, I was so happy to be among them. This was my 6th All Ireland final but I had never seen a crowd on the streets as big as this, hardly any room on the sidewalk. I made my way to the Hill with some lads from home I had bumped into, behind the goal was full by 230. This was it, I was here. After following Mayo from the West coast of Canada all year I was in Croke Park for the final. I was cautiously optimistic, more than in 2004 and 2006 against Kerry. The excitement levels rose as Mayo took the field then after all the pre match it was game on.
And then bang and bang again. Two early goals and it was head in hands time, just like 2006, sickened. But this Mayo team has something about them and fought back superbly with some fantastic scores, Conroy and Mc Loughlin scoring two fantastic points, at half time we were right back in it and in a great position considering our awful start, 3 points down after being down by 7. At half time we know that a good second half start and we have a great chance. For the next 15 minutes it was pretty much score for score, still 3 down with 20 to go. It is at that stage that I feel Donegal won the game. People talk about the start being killer and while it didn’t help we go it back to a manageable position, there is the whole game to make it back. But Donegal reeled off 3 points without reply and with 10 to go there was 6 in it, too much with too little time and when the whistle goes it is Donegal who are champions. Heartbreak is our lot again. I have always stayed too watch the opposition collect the trophy and dream of a Mayo man one day leading our team up the Hogan Stand steps. I remember Dara O Cinneide’s speech as Gaeilge whilst sitting on the ground of the Hill in tears being consoled by a Kerryman, another example of great Kerryness but also that they have won so many he would rather console me that celebrate his team’s All Ireland, I just want to win one. It was also another great example of our organisation. When Michael Murphy broke into “Jimmy’s Winning Matches” that was the queue to leave. Goodbye Croker, I hope to see you next September.
When I bumped into my brother on the Clonliffe Road the tears were uncontrollable. In the build up to the game in Vancouver my thoughts had been about embracing Dad and my brother in celebration of winning Sam, we had been through so much following Mayo and this was supposed to be an end to the wait for Sam, but that will have to wait for another year at least.
So now while being so far from Mayo I still follow my team. Its different, I don’t get to go to the games but the team is still an important part of my life and always will be. There are good people here in Vancouver to banter with on GAA matters. It has not escaped me that the two Mayo games I was able to go to this year Mayo lost, maybe I should stay away!! But I know I will be on the ticket hunt in September if Mayo make it to Croker in September. I look forward to the 2013 season as much here as I would if I was in Mayo. Maigh Eo Abu!!