“Look it,” as the great John O’Mahony would rationalise. When it comes to Galway-Kerry, there will always be the matter of the goal.
Cue much drumming of fingers on the bar counters of Dick Mack’s or Paidí’s and exasperated grimaces along the Dingle peninsula. Prepare for much hand-wringing and muttering about the Gooch’s no-look stab or the Bomber in ‘78. But they know the reference. That goal. They cannot erase the bloody thing from their minds.
It is six minutes into the replayed All-Ireland final between Galway and Kerry in 2000 AD. The day overcast, the shirts baggy to the point of oversized and the Galwaymen weathering a bit of traffic close to their own goal.
Pádraic Joyce, mystifyingly, popping up deep inside his 21 and working the ball out of a very tight spot with John Divilly. The ‘Divil’ as Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh took to calling him, spins out of a thicket of Kerry men and the ball finds its way to Seán Óg de Paor.
And suddenly all the Galway heads were looking up! Joyce came back into the picture and hit Paul Clancy with a pass that might have been designed by a notoriously fussy tailor on Savile Row.
By then Declan Meehan had started his gallop from the far wing and Clancy, somehow, knew exactly where he was. Clancy played an unorthodox pass, a spiralling box kick which fell on to a silver platter into Meehan’s outstretched hands.
He didn’t break stride, instead just thundering the ball into the Kerry net. The whole thing took 27 seconds and was a score of outrageous poise and beauty. It was hard to know even whether to declare it the goal of a decade with nine full years still up for grabs (only Mulligan and Murphy would enter the same sphere) or simply enter it in all the international architecture awards.
It’s true that Kerry went on to win the match. They left with the cup, the prize, the reason for being there. And it is also true that the protagonists in that Galway goal would easily trade it for a 4-3 stinker of a game in which they ultimately triumphed. But it’s a funny thing. You can’t choose what’s remembered from sporting occasions.
The winning of All-Irelands is escapism of the rarest kind and it is fleeting. For the other 30 counties watching the match, it is an afternoon’s diversion. For the losing county, a general sense of dismay and a long road home.
For the winning supporters, particularly seasoned winners like those in Kerry, it creates a deep sense of pride. But it passes. Winning the All-Ireland is ultimately a private thing that is reduced to the players of any given year left with the All-Ireland medal which stands as perpetual proof of his participation.
What to do with it? Some encase it along as the prestige piece in their collection, others chuck it in a drawer.
The traditional cliche holds that former greats swan around with a haul of medals in their back pockets. Who knows? During all those years when Pat Spillane was shifting uneasily in his seat on the Sunday Game, it was difficult to figure whether he was discomfited by Joe Brolly or those eight hunks of metal drifting about in the rear pocket of his chinos.
But the game, the winning of the All-Ireland; it generally fades into obscurity. That is what happened in 2000, too. Except for the goal. It has carried through the decades.
It popped up in a WhatsApp feed during the week and drew a striking observation from a friend with no special maroon allegiance.
‘I love Galway football. They are actually the best at it, truth be told’ he replied. There was no protest from other county loyalties in the group because there is an undeniable truth about it.
Which is not to say that Galway is the best Gaelic football county. Galway will never be what the Americans like to call the winningest county at Gaelic football. The county has been carved up as simply as the American midwest into big plains of hurling and football territory in the east before giving way to the football outposts of Connemara and the islands.
Football will never be the be-all and end-all. There are simply too many distractions in the city and beyond; the place is a series of festivals.
A cursory glance at the GAA record books offers an alarming form line of the football tradition’s habit of falling into a funk that can last for several decades.
Who would have believed in 2001 that they wouldn’t be back in an All-Ireland final for 21 years? Or that they would not win a game in Croke Park until 2018 when, ironically, they beat Kerry.
No, it falls to Kerry to maintain the ferociously tough standard of winning they set themselves far back in the century and to produce a conveyor belt of supreme stylists, with the latest on show tomorrow.
It falls to Kerry to keep on pushing the edges of the game and to always respond to external threats – to Tyrone in the noughties, to Dublin over the last decade – by coming back stronger and better and with new ideas and to get back to the primary business of winning.
That consistency of excellence has not been the maroon way.
But! When Galway do hit the town, they are a bit like Steve McQueen in his cinematic heyday. The girls and boys in the dance hall sit up and take notice. Even the aristocrats from the Kingdom sit up. They remember that goal.
As well as that goal, Galway also have a trademark on arguably the most famous point scored in Croke Park. It is often misremembered as a Michael Donnellan point but the score was finished by Seán Óg de Paor.
The run was what people remember, when Donnellan took possession close to his 21 and just kept accelerating, carrying the ball and then playing a series of one-twos until it seemed he became a blur, moving in a different symphony to everyone else on the field.
It was the kind of score that should only be possible in national school when you have one kid who is unreasonably faster than the rest. Except this was an All-Ireland final against Kildare. On the sideline for the Lilywhites was Mick O’Dwyer, the godfather of Kerry football.
“One of the great scores that I’ve seen in Croke Park,” was his summary years later.
He should know.
None of this is to suggest that Kerry will not oblige the majority of pundits by winning the All-Ireland tomorrow with a fine performance and take control of their destiny in a manner that pleases them.
But it is reasonable to hope, when you see the maroon shirts on parade, that you might witness some spark of ineradicable genius that stays lit long after the game, the day, the year and the prosaic details have been forgotten.
That moment that stays suspended above the passing of ordinary time.
That’s the thing Galway have got going for them.