Seamus Maloney: Everyone loves a sporting fairytale ending but sometimes there can be a cruel twist in the tail

Conor McManus celebrates scoring his last-gasp equaliser against Armagh in their All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Picture by Philip Walsh
Conor McManus celebrates scoring his last-gasp equaliser against Armagh in their All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Picture by Philip Walsh Conor McManus celebrates scoring his last-gasp equaliser against Armagh in their All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Picture by Philip Walsh

Sport can be cruel. As obvious statements go, that’s right up there, but if you needed any reminder then Saturday evening at Croke Park did the job.

Strip away everything else from Armagh’s agonising defeat to Monaghan in the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final – or Monaghan’s resolute victory depending on which way you want to look at it – and you’re left with a brutal way to see your hopes for the season end. Fine, indeed cruel, margins can come into play in the outcome of any match but there is something raw and exposing about a shoot-out.

For Armagh, who have lost three Championship matches this way in the past 12 months, it must feel particularly cruel but, as manager Kieran McGeeney noted afterwards, “that’s sport, isn’t it?”

But sport’s cruelty comes with something else. It’s the ultimate two-sided coin and Monaghan’s win not only provided elation on the day but might just lead to that other great high sport can bring – the fairytale ending.

Of all the players left in the Championship Conor McManus, who came off the bench to do so much in helping Monaghan over the line against Armagh, is the most prominent candidate in search of that finale.

More than a decade-and-a-half on the road, not just toiling but elevating the game as one of the finest forwards of his generation, the Clontibret man is still capable of the sort of things that make sport lovers love sport.

An All-Ireland title wouldn’t just be a fairytale for him, of course. It’s difficult to remember a time when the likes of Darren Hughes and Karl O’Connell haven’t been front and centre for the Farneymen, and the county itself has never won one, with their only final appearance more than 90 years ago. These are fairytale-in-the-making ingredients.

If only it was that simple.

Read More:

'That’s sport, isn’t it? Cruel...': Armagh suffer penalty heartache again as Monaghan motor into semi-final

Cavendish upbeat despite being denied Tour record by Philipsen

If fairytales are characterised by being full of magic, fantasy and enchantment, then which sportsperson could have stronger claims to a storybook finish than Roger Federer?

While his contemporaries Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal may have won more Grand Slams and enjoyed better head-to-head records against the Swiss, neither of them played tennis the way Federer played tennis – no-one did.

But when the end came it was not with a triumphant flourish but with an Instagram video on a September Saturday afternoon, 14 months after losing a Wimbledon quarter-final in straight sets to the 14th seed.

When he walked off Centre Court no-one, Federer included, knew it would be his last singles match.

Injury, surgery and recuperation proved too big an obstacle to overcome and he played one more match, at the quasi-exhibition Laver Cup team competition. While it was a night of high emotion at the O2 in London and the sight of Federer and doubles partner Nadal next to each other in bits and pieces with tears and snaughters flying like crunching serves and top-spin heavy forehands was touching, it all came after the pair had gone down to defeat in their doubles match.

“We all hope for a fairytale ending,” Federer posted on Instagram.

“Here’s how mine went: 

Lost my last singles. Lost my last doubles. Lost my last team event. Lost my voice during the week

Lost my job.

“But still, my retirement could not have been more perfect and I’m so happy with how everything went.

“So don’t overthink that perfect ending, yours will always be amazing in your own way.”

TWO men currently hoping to achieve the rare feat of following through on a fairytale ending they’ve set up for themselves are Mark Cavendish and Tibaut Pinot.

The Manxman and the Frenchman are negotiating the opening stages of a Tour de France they have both declared will be their last.

It’s the race that has for good or bad defined both their careers – and a stage win for either would round things off in perfect fashion.

Cavendish is the greatest sprinter in the history of the sport and his 34 stage wins at the Tour have him level with Eddy Merckx, cycling’s most dominant, incomparable, champion.

He has battled injury and illness, both physical and mental, as well as the inevitability of advancing years.

More than a few times it has looked like too much, like the end of the road.

At 38, he would have featured on the bedroom walls of his sprint rivals in the peloton not long after they were taking the stabilisers off but he’s still here and, as he showed in the final stage of the Giro d’Italia, still capable of getting to the line ahead of the young pretenders.

While Cavendish has enjoyed countless glory days, Pinot’s career has been characterised more by what might have been.

While his record is the envy of most cyclists, when he burst into the French public consciousness at the 2010 Tour he was immediately anointed as the nation’s great cycling hope, and with that hope comes the expectation of winning the Tour de France.

Without a Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985, the French public has scratched around for someone to carry their summer dreams ever since.

As the youngest rider in the Tour, Pinot won a stage and finished 10th overall, before finishing third two years later. Still only 24 he was primed to shoulder those French hopes again and again. But it never worked out. 

Seemingly permanently beset by misfortune, Pinot didn’t finish three of his next four Tours.

In 2019 he appeared poised for victory when the freakiest of accidents – he tore a thigh muscle banging his leg in his handlebars while avoiding a crash in the peloton – saw him pull out in tears two days from the finish.

The following year he crashed on the first stage and didn’t fully recover until 18 months later.

He’s never made any secret of the fact the weight of expectation, of being the Frenchman leading the French team in the French sporting event has never sat comfortably with him.

He wasn’t even expected to ride the Tour in this his final season and appeared content to put away his bike and return to his family farm without the fanfare of one last ride in ‘La Grande Boucle’.

But here he is both supporting his team’s main overall hope David Gaudu while harbouring his own ambitions of a high finish or, more likely, a stage win that would spark the biggest celebration of the Tour.

An impressive Giro d’Italia has him, like Cavendish, dreaming of that fairytale ending. 

But anyone who watches sport, or reads fairytales, knows what is just as likely.

Those stories are not all sweetness and light and strip away their Disneyfication and you’ll find that in their original forms plenty also end in gruesome, harsh and cruel ways.

But for McManus or Cavendish or Pinot – or us eagerly following their adventures – the mere chance of that fairytale is reason enough to keep going to the very end, even if in the sporting world not everyone can live happily ever after.