How many times can they walk away and find new ways of dealing with the same old hurt?
Mayo defender Keith Higgins looks back on the chances that weren’t taken
Dejected Mayo players after the final whistle sounds at Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Mayo’s Chris Barrett and Keith Higgins tackle Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin during the All-Ireland SFC final at Croke Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
How many different ways can a county experience the same hurt? After doing everything perfectly all summer, Mayo found themselves in that old familiar nowhere when the last football of the year was kicked.
Golden streamers fell on Croke Park, another team – it was the Dubs this year but that hardly mattered to Mayo – danced for joy and yet another band of desolate Mayo men stood in the middle of Croke Park trying not to think about what might have been.
Maybe an hour after the match, Keith Higgins came walking down the long tunnel that runs behind the dressing rooms and stopped to talk about being back in the one place this Mayo team swore they would not be this year.
“Yeah, that’s another All-Ireland gone. To lose by a point is never easy. When we look back we’ll see we had a lot of chances that we might have taken.”
All afternoon, the Ballyhaunis man had been outstanding. Pushed up into the forward ranks by James Horan this year, Higgins had made the transition with ease, his natural ball-playing abilities and athleticism enabling him to thrive.
An injury to Tom Cunniffe forced the Mayo management to bring him back to the familiar duties in the full-back line. And even though he maintained his excellent form, they missed him up front.
During the 18-minute period either side of half-time when they failed to register a score and during the increasing desperation of the last 10 minutes, they missed him.
“Ideally I would like to spend most of the game in the forwards but that’s the way things go, Tom probably had been struggling for a while, he gave all he could in the first half.
It’d be nice to play a full game up there but it wasn’t to be. Yeah, anytime we got the ball up to the half-forward line or full-forwards we looked to be causing them problems but we didn’t get the return we should have. We felt we were causing them bother.
“That was the message, not just at half-time but for the past four weeks, to keep going and keep taking them on. In the second-half we just didn’t do it.”
All week long, the airwaves had crackled with advice about what Mayo must and must not do in order to persuade the gods to give them a break.
The Mayo crowd looked for signs in the warm up. The Dubs broke early from the pre-match parade: Mayo marched the full lap of the field. They looked fine: focused and composed . . . same game faces as they had worn all summer.
None of the fears materialised. The sky did not ball in after 10 minutes. Mayo scored first when Andy Moran landed a point after a fizzing, madcap start by both sides.
Then the wonderful, tigerish Lee Keegan cut through for a point. Higgins whipped one over and Cillian O’Connor landed a free. They were 0-4 to 0-1 up and things were going to plan.
“I don’t think there were any nerves there, to be honest. In the second half they probably got the start we were looking for; if we’d got a few points at the start of that it’d have put us two or three ahead and it could have been a different game, but they’re the ones who got it.