GAA Football

Enda McGinley: Champions don't always win in sport

Mayo and Dublin fought out one of the most memorable All-Ireland finals of recent years

SOMETIMES, champions don’t always win.

For a sport that is so often maligned there is a history of great All-Ireland finals.

Our expectations are alway high, yet, on Sunday, we were again left gasping at the sheer intensity and spectacle of it all. What a battle. The want in every GAA person to see someone really put it up to this Dublin side was satisfied. Mayo went toe-to-toe and rattled Dublin to the core.

That they fell agonisingly short again, having put in such a Herculean effort, leaves us all starting to question how much we believe in curses.

That’s how short we fall in trying to reason how this team has managed to remain empty-handed.

The fact that we witnessed a remarkable Dublin side complete the first three-in-a-row since Kerry in 1986 has somehow come second to the Mayo narrative. Make no mistake, Dublin, having their mettle so firmly tested, were found resolute. They found a way of winning when the game was in the balance.

While the rest of us struggled to watch on such was the tension, they continued to exhibit a composure and a ‘nothing to see here’ attitude which meant it always felt more likely they would get the big score.

I have mentioned several times how the problem for any team facing Dublin is that, with so many potential game-winners, it becomes almost impossible for an opposition to keep them all quiet.

On a day when so many of Dublin’s big lights toiled rather than dazzled it was the turn of Paul Mannion and James McCarthy to be the go-to men.

If the semi-final against Tyrone left us numb, this game left us dumbfounded.

The now clichéd early Dublin goal that seemed to derail Tyrone’s plans barely made Mayo blink.

They set about their task with a manliness of men with a stomach hard-lined from previous defeats and this year’s marathon campaign. They relished getting into Dublin physically.

Dublin’s conductor Ciaran Kilkenny was not allowed the luxury of space in which to coast about, hounded, as he was, throughout, by Lee Keegan.

All over the pitch the same story was unfolding. They even rattled the totemic Cluxton kick-out, for a while anyway.

Mayo’s loss, the pain on the players’ faces afterwards contrasting the joyous Dublin faces, was tough for any fair-minded person to watch.

No-one needs reminding that sport isn’t fair but this felt like a step too far.

At times like this, the cherished currency of medals is shown to be a poor reflection of a person or team’s worth. Like wealth in real life, they are a poor barometer of the person or team.

Are some of those Dublin players who have five medals, or some of the younger boys winning their first one, somehow more ‘champions’, in terms of the vaunted and prized characteristics associated with the tag, than the likes of Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan, Andy Moran or Aidan O’Shea? Very obviously not.

It reminds me of a moment in the hours after Tyrone’s first All-Ireland win in 2003.

We were on the team bus parked outside the Burlington waiting to walk into the hero’s welcome of the All-Ireland banquet.

Pascal Canavan, older brother of Peter, got on the bus to see him and congratulate us.

At the start of that year, Mickey Harte had invited him to continue his long county career one year further but Pascal had decided to call it a day.

He was an amazing player who oozed class and had a ruthless and leadership streak that meant if he had have thrown his hat in the ring, he would’ve been a nailed-on starter and the team of ’03 would’ve been stronger again for it.

I was 22 and a newly minted All-Ireland champion, the presence of Pascal, who was a legend in my club and someone I wouldn’t have been a patch on as a player, was a stark reminder that the medal was more a thing of luck than ability. Right place, right time.

Throughout the country, there are men from clubs and counties who are hugely talented, committed and courageous, who have what it takes. Yet their situation is that they may not have a group or team that allows them to win or compete in a way their efforts or talent may warrant.

Mayo, even worse, have got a group with all the ingredients, but somehow fate, by way of a wee decision here and there or the width of a post, just happens to make their dream remain just that.

For the rest of us, however, they give us so much to admire. So much to remind us that there is huge respect and merit to be gained in giving your all.

In Vince Lombardi’s oft repeated quote he said – “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfilment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

For Mayo, the sands of time may weigh against them and they may not achieve that final word but they have earned respect in a way medals alone never will.

In sport, not all champions win.

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