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.
“We’d targeted a big start in the second half and we just didn’t get it.”
No. It was eerie for Mayo, that second half, when they were right there on the scoreboard but all the while you could feel the confidence ebbing out of the green and red sections of the stadium.
They had been noisier for the minor game than for the senior game. Even when Andy Moran’s snap goal on 49 minutes set the season up for a perfect last chapter, it was apparent Mayo were not collectively operating at the same frequency as they had against Donegal.
Still, the match was there. The All-Ireland was waiting to be claimed. During the frantic exchanges, it was the Dubs who made the most of their scraps.
A fast break led to a second Bernard Brogan goal. Ger Brennan wandered up field and hoofed a huge right-footed point.
Mayo kept chasing, they stayed in touch, they didn’t falter and they couldn’t catch up. Higgins shrugged when told the free count was 32 to Mayo and 12 to Dublin. Someone asked Higgins if maybe they shouldn’t have been a bit more . . . cynical.
“Obviously they were trying to slow up the game in the last 10 minutes but a lot of teams would be trying to do the same thing, to kill the game off, it’s not like they’re going to get penalised for it, it’s just the way the game is gone.
“If things were the other way around we might have done the same themselves.
“ It was always going to be a dog-fight. People were expecting end-to-end-0-22 to 0-22 like Dublin’s semi-final with Kerry but finals are a different kettle of fish.
There were times, alright, when it was back and over but I didn’t ever think it was going to be that kind of a final.”
But it was, many thought, the kind of final which would end with wine and roses for Mayo.
It was supposed to be the end of this helpless journey which Mayo have embarked upon as a football county.
In the end, there was really only one question to ask Higgins, who has now lost three All-Ireland finals in the green and red.
The Ballyhaunis man managed a half-smile.
“It’s tough but we’ve no choice. We’re not going to pack it in! We have to go back. We’ll probably go back playing club football next week and take it from there. Come November or December we’ll probably have a meeting and think about it.
“And it’s FBD again in January, simple as that.”
So they’ll see you in all the old familiar places.