JOE BROLLY: The OakLeafers’ reprieve

IT was as if the last eight weeks were a bad dream. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, our boys woke up on sunday morning in their own beds, their mothers waking them up with a cup of tea and buttered toast.

There were very few Derry fans at the game in Castlebar. I rang around my old team mates during the week. “I’m taking my wife for dinner.” “Sorry Joe, I’m going to a 50th birthday.” “I’m going to watch it in the club with my old boy.” So, like the little red hen, I went to MccHale Park on my own, and sat among the Mayo suporters like David Attenborough in the Gorilla enclosure. “That’s not a Mayo accent” I said to a girl beside me, wearing a Mayo jersey. “I’m from Rio de Janeiro,” she said. The lad beside her said, “we’re engaged.” “Where are you from?” “Killala” he said, “this woman was milking cows this morning.” Welcome to Mayo.

The day started with our minors beating Kerry in the semi-final, a team filled with sons of famous fathers. Dara McGuckin, Cathair McBride, Ruairi Biggs, Ger Dillon and the Rocks brothers. After that, the trek to Castlebar.

I was delighted when we got Mayo in the draw. They are the kings of nearly winning. Last week against Dublin was a perfect snapshot. They only had to hold out for 20 seconds against the Dubs and they couldn’t. Against us, with one minute in injury time left and Mayo a point up, all they had to do was hold possession. The Dubs or Kerry would have knocked it back to the ‘keeper and played keep ball. Not Mayo. They attacked forward, cheered on by their supporters, and Sam Callinan fisted the ball wide. Like excited puppies. After that, their doom was sealed.

Lachlan Murray is the best thing to come out of Desertmartin since the William of Orange Memorial Flute Band. His composure and decision making summed up Derry.

As always, with a game involving Mayo, it was terrific entertainment. But terrific entertainment is a different thing from winning.

The modern game is strategic, and when it comes to strategy, Mayo are lost. Against a Derry team that conceded nine goals in three games from long kick outs, and were horribly short on confidence, Mayo kicked short.

This allowed us to breathe. It allowed us to recover. It allowed us to remember that we were back to back Ulster champions and an inch away from beating Kerry in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.

We were in our comfort zone. We were nowhere near our best, but Mayo allowed us to relax into the game. Suddenly, there was only going to be one winner.

The penalty which temporarily reprieved Mayo was a disgrace, the Mayo forward kicking the ball of the back of the Derry defender’s legs, followed by yellow card for the bemused Derry keeper for a foot block. Odhrán was a full two metres away at the time. The referee did not even see it. He guessed. This is unforgivable and will no doubt have consequences for his future appointments.

Thankfully, the penalty was only a stay of execution. Mayo should have held possession with a minute to go in normal time, but of course they did not.

As always, they extended the hand of sportsmanship to the opposition and we did not spurn their offer, scoring a brilliant equaliser.

We went the length of the field – under pressure – before a series of inch perfect passes ended with Chrissy McKaigue fisting the equaliser. Penalties are the ultimate test of winners.

We are fast becoming the Germany of penalty shoot outs. The only surprise was that we missed one.

It was an electrifying game. A game of great sportsmanship. A game that reminded all of us how fortunate we are to a part of this great community. Even the Brazilian beside me was enthralled, and her grandmother Marlene’s next door neighbour in The Barra in Rio was the great Zico.

Like a man reprieved from death row, Derry have seen it all now. National League champions against the greatest team Gaelic football has seen. Three horrific humiliations in the championship.

They know now there is nothing to fear. They have experienced the highs and lows and have felt the embarrassment of heavy defeat. Now, the boys can just go out and play. There is no doubt they are good enough. Is the manager?

• Check out our Gaelic Lives All-Ireland SFC quarter-final preview show with Éamonn Fitzmaurice on  Spotify. Link below.

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