Do You Come Here Often?

Next Sunday’s All-Ireland Final is a novel event in so many ways.  It’s only the second ever meeting of Donegal and Mayo in Championship action; it’s the first Ulster versus Connacht pairing since 1948 when Cavan beat Mayo and of course it’s only Donegal’s second Senior All-Ireland Final appearance ever and their first in twenty years.  For Mayo, Final appearances are a bit more common place, with 12 appearances in all.

Mayo reached back-to-back finals in 1996 and 1997, with the 1996 replay going down as perhaps one of the most infamous finals ever, with Meath proving too cute for Mayo, for whom Liam McHale saw red for one of the oddest looking attacks on a GAA pitch I can ever recall (certainly outside of the club game). Of course, the consensus at the time was that Mayo left it behind them after the first game when they frittered away a six point lead, but they also had a nice lead in the replay.  Rightly or wrongly, it is perhaps these two games against Meath that have given rise to an unwanted label in Mayo.   Read between the lines for I won’t go into it any further here – no more than Donegal supporters like hearing the jibes of ‘party animals’ or latterly the sort of ‘anti-football’ nonsense that has been spouted, folk from Mayo don’t deserve to hear any such lazy stereotypes applied to their team.

In 1997, they lost to Kerry by three points, with the manner of defeat less agonising than in 1996 perhaps, but a final defeat always hurts, especially when it’s your second in a row.  Mayo left themselves too much to do after a first half when they only scored three points, and had the misfortune to run into Maurice Fitzgerald in fine form while at the same time losing their own Maurice (Sheridan) to injury during the game. It’s worth noting that current Mayo manager James Horan was a sub that day, despite winning an All-Star the previous year.

In 2004, Mayo were back in the Final after overcoming surprise package Fermanagh in the Semi-Final, but a hungry Kerry team, hurting and motivated after suffering at the hands of Tyrone and Armagh in previous years were too much for them, running out eight point winners.

In 2006, after producing an amazing comeback to beat Dublin, a game which many of us took great delight in watching, Mayo again let themselves down badly to a Kerry team who it has to be said were perhaps at the peak of their powers, or very close to it, losing the final by 13 points after both teams scored three goals apiece in the first half.

Of course Mayo won All-Irelands in 1936, 1950 and 1951 – I’m not forgetting about that, but not being around at the time it’s hard for me to say much about them.  If someone wants to share their insight into those years, I’ll happily publish it here.

I do hope that I don’t need to give Donegal supporters a similar run through our recent history.  It consists of one game that everyone reading should be familiar with at this stage.  Of course, on the way to that Final in 1992, we beat Mayo in a game that was a ‘classic’ semi-final – everyone largely remembers the result and not the game itself, which is probably just as well as far as I recall.

In terms of the overall honours table, Mayo leave Donegal in the shade to be honest.  Three All-Ireland titles to one. Four Under 21 titles to two.  Six All-Ireland Minor titles to none for Donegal.  And 44 provincial titles to Donegal’s seven.  Even in the National Football League, Mayo have won 11 titles to Donegal’s solitary win in 2007, which of course came when they defeated Mayo.

All Ireland titles from 20 or even 61 years ago are likely to be of cold comfort to today’s supporters.  Both teams will feel that they didn’t do themselves justice in last year’s Semi-Finals, although the manner in which both teams exited the Championship was very different, with Donegal going down in infamy for their approach against Dublin and Mayo living up to a different sort of stereotype in losing to Kerry by nine points.  Still, one has to remember that both Jim McGuinness and James Horan were rookie managers last year and what they accomplished represented tremendous progress that has sown the seeds for this year’s success.

As managers, they have much in common – both have taken their club sides to County Championship success based on a system that relies largely on collective effort rather than individual brilliance.  Both are now feted as heroes, but not everyone in their respective Counties bought into what they wanted to do when they were first appointed.  It could be argued that both took over when each team’s stock was at a very low point – Donegal had just been hammered by Armagh in a first round qualifier while Mayo had been dumped out in a shock defeat to Longford at the same stage.  With even a little bit of luck, some progress was likely.  However, provincial titles and then All-Ireland Semi Finals for both rookie managers were likely to be seen as a bonus.  And perhaps that was reflected in the Semi-Final performances last year – there was a real danger that a Final appearance could be too much too soon, similar to Down in 2010 perhaps.

Both teams now find themselves on the verge of All-Ireland glory in the second year of what is likely to be a three to five-year cycle.  Ahead of schedule perhaps, but it’s hard to argue that both Counties aren’t the best teams in the Country at this point in time.  In both cases, who is to know when we will see either team in an All-Ireland Final again – I know for sure I am not taking it for granted after suffering through the last 20 years of disappointment.  Defeat will not be the end of the line for either of these fine young managers, but they too will know that the time is right for their team to claim the ultimate prize.

The scenes of celebration will be fantastic no matter who wins next Sunday.  Both sets of supporters are famous for their good nature and passion.  There is no bad blood or ill will towards the other on either side.  The banter and the build up will be something to savour over the next week.  We should all enjoy it as such occasions are here to be savoured – we are not Kerry or Kilkenny, where All-Ireland Final appearances and successes are as common as a shower on a summer’s day in Ballintra or Ballina.  Whatever the result, I’m looking forward to a great day out next Sunday – the sights, the sounds, the sense of occasion that I have envied while watching on TV over the years.  We can talk about the game itself later in the week – for now it seems almost secondary to everything else that will happen in the next seven days!

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