AFTER 29 minutes of the Mayo Senior Football final on Sunday, co-commentator John Maughan said, “All I can do is apologise to the viewers for this really terrible spectacle. I’m not sure it’s going to get any better.” At half time, hundreds of people upped and left, leaving empty rows of seats in the middle of the main stand at McHale Park. “I’m not surprised,” said John, “I would leave myself if I could.”
Conditions were more or less perfect, with not a breath of wind. The second half resumed where the first had left off: the nothingness that has replaced the game we once knew and loved.
That game we played was about entertainment and courage and individual contests all over the field. A game where anything could happen. A game where spectators did not spend the first 55 minutes chatting among themselves. Where they were not reduced to cheering every time a forward was surrounded by four defenders and over carried. Where players had been conditioned to be terrified of making a mistake or trying something adventurous. Or kicking the ball.
At one stage in the game, Ballina’s talented defender Sam Callinan came forward and found himself clean through about 25 metres out. He had no one to give the ball to and he could plainly be seen panicking as he kicked the ball badly wide off the outside of his foot. I stress that Sam is a gifted county standard footballer who has not been out of place in Division One of the National League.
By the 54th minute, it was 0-5 to 0-4 (one point scored from play) and the supporters of both teams sat in glum silence, punctuated by the odd groan. It would have, as my Granny Corey from Brackaville was wont to say, made a dog eats its granny.
In the 61st minute, with the score still 0-5 to 0-4, Conor O’Shea, Aidan’s brother, had an easy free in a perfect position on his right foot to level it. Slightly to the left of centre, about 30 metres out. Commentator Mike Finnerty, one of our best, was trying to put a brave face on things by making those distracting comments that commentators have to make nowadays to prevent the audience becoming any more depressed than they already are. Things like:
“X, who has been superb throughout this championship run” or “Y, one of the most talented young defenders in the county” or “Z, who scored a wonderful goal against Knockmore in the league and who must surely be in contention for Kevin McStay’s Mayo squad” or “it may not be the most exciting game, but like all finals, it is a tense battle and I’m sure no one will be leaving early” said, “If he puts this one over it will be a frantic finale.”
John Maughan was having none of it. He said,”Please God it won’t go to a replay.”
Fortunately for everyone, it didn’t. Conor O’Shea put it wide. Then shortly afterwards, Aidan put a more difficult one wide from the right hand side. At the final whistle, a clearly relieved Maughan said, “That’s the worst county final I’ve ever had to witness. That’s the way football has gone unfortunately. A truly terrible game of football. Let’s hope the GAA president who is here today takes urgent action. It’s no surprise a stream of people left at half time.”
On Monday night, I met up with some of the Ballina greats from their great championship winning and All-Ireland winning teams of the ‘90s and noughties. Liam McHale, Liam Brady, Paul and Brian McStay, Fr Michael and all the rest were enjoying the craic and the pints in Harrison’s. But the main topic was how bad the game has gone.
The semi-final between Ballina and Knockmore was as bad, and I really did want to leave at half time. In fact, I haven’t seen a decent senior game in Mayo this year. Unfortunately, like most Gaels of my generation, I stick it out because deep inside, we have an optimism that maybe, just maybe, there will be an outbreak of football at any moment. It is a forlorn hope.
Over those pints in Harrison’s, Brian McStay (Conor’s uncle and Kevin’s brother) said, “The GAA is taking us all for granted. We coach the underage, we teach the kids about community, then we go to the senior games. Unless there are drastic changes, I don’t think the younger generations will keep going. It’s just too boring. Thank God for the pints afterwards.”