So near and yet so far, but dreams live on in a place that breathes football

The wait for Sam continues, but Mayo people still have some reasons to be cheerful

Fans at the homecoming of the Mayo teams in Castlebar last night. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Fans at the homecoming of the Mayo teams in Castlebar last night. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus


In Mayo the party has been postponed for another year. But on they go. The train west pulls into station road precisely on time. Mayo is decorated – every terrace, telephone pole and even ruined cottages are dressed in green and red. The leaves are turning and it is a sublime evening: 20 degrees and sunny. The big county has rarely looked as good.

So Mayo have lost their seventh All-Ireland final in a row since 1951 and the sun comes up anyhow. Light applause as the players mount the bus which ferries them through the town and back to where it all began in the deep of last winter: MacHale Park.

For one evening, the roles are reversed. The supporters are on the field. Several thousand of them are waiting. The teams – Mayo’s brand new All-Ireland minor champions and the senior team – are brought out onto the stage in the open stand. The Saw Doctors are playing on the tannoy.

The speeches are brief and heartfelt. Michael Ring, Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, is there. Ringy tells Midwest Radio that he was invited to the Mansion House for the Dublin celebrations. “But I had couldn’t do it. I had to send Leo.”

Johnny O’Malley, chairman of the Mayo county council, makes thunderous promises about next year and scares the little ‘uns with his closing thought. “America got Bin Laden: we WILL get Sam.”

Ringy takes the microphone and the voice breaks once or twice as he implores the team to do what they have no choice but to do anyhow.

“And I want to say to them, please lads ... PLEASE!... stay together ’til we bring home the Sam Maguire Cup. Don’t have your heads down. There was 30 counties would love to be in Croke Park yesterday. We had two teams in Croke Park yesterday. Look at them! They are young men! They are fit. They are ready to go. I know they have given it everything but I am pleading with them here this evening: go at it again for another year.”

Always another year. So 2013 had no magic dust. Andy Moran, too used now to these evenings of sombre dignity, cracks a joke and tells people that this is the end of nothing.

“We have 30 lads ready to join us after winning the All-Ireland minor title. Belief is a key thing and we are closer than we have ever been to winning an All-Ireland since 1951. In 12 months’ time ... why not? If we don’t believe, we are not going to do it. So keep believing.”

There are hundreds of kids kicking balls on the grass. Mayo have just won the Ted Webb cup (under-16 provincial trophy). They are newly crowned All-Ireland minor champions and the second best team in Ireland for the second year running. This place breathes football. They can’t stop this.

“We are delighted to be here this evening,” James Horan says. “It is a happy occasion because we have a bunch of minors that just won an All-Ireland title. That is something to be proud of. You mix that in with the talent behind me and you can see that the future is bright for Mayo football.”

Then Enda Gilvarry and his minor champions take the stage. There are speeches and warm applause. The senior team gives the minors a standing ovation. Then Queen’s We Are The Champions booms across MacHale Park.

The teenage stars stand bashfully on stage and the Mayo seniors walk in single file down the terrace steps out of MacHale Park. On the field, taciturn Mayo men swallow hard and think about the nearness and farness of it all.