"It's very rare that anyone reaches their potential," said Malachy O'Rourke afterwards, the weight of the day and the year and the loss puffing out through his cheeks. The game was over about half an hour now and O'Rourke, his team and their county were not in an All-Ireland final for the 130th year out of the 131 that they've been running these championships. Normality is a cold-blooded killer.
The question had been put to him in a way that might encourage him to find a little solace in the year as a whole. As in, sorry about not making the final Malachy but there must be comfort in the fact that your players have reached their potential all the same, that kind of thing. O'Rourke expanded on it to talk about the resilience of his players to come back after being knocked out of Ulster and so on but in all truth, he didn't really need to. His opening line was entirely on the money.
To be a Monaghan person last week was to think a lot about potential, even without realising you were doing it. All our lives, All-Ireland finals have been a thing that happened to other people. Friends, cousins, spouses, people at work – every year around this time, there’d be someone to send a text to or buy a pint for or stop in the street to wish all the best in September. To be on the other side of that for once, literally for once in the life of anyone in the county under the age of 88, would have been very cool.
And to put a finer point on it, it would almost certainly have been enough. Nobody really imagined O’Rourke’s side would have beaten Dublin in the final. Call that loser talk if you wish but when you’ve followed a small county all your life, you know far more about reality than you do about dreams.
You know so much better than anyone who only tunes in for the game of the week where the limits lie. Making the final would have amounted to reaching what most Monaghan people presume is the county team’s potential. For most of our lives, it would have been a concept that existed light years beyond the outer boundary of that potential.
That's what sent such a buzz around the county last week. The idea that this was a semi-final that could actually be won and that at 2.50pm on Sunday, September 2nd, you could be standing in Croke Park in your colours as Gerry Grogan called Foireann Muineacháin out of the tunnel. The very notion of a ticket hunt. The knowledge that everywhere you went for the next three weeks, it would be the conversation opener, the writing through the stick of rock of all your interactions.
For all the complaining we do about the GAA, that's something that is golden. The ability of this thing to take a county and make its people feel something that is deep and visceral and completely tangible. The sense of belonging it gives those who have long since made their lives elsewhere, be it on the other side of the planet or an hour and half up the road in the city. For the rest of the coming week, they'll have that in Limerick and Galway. Good luck to them.
It is also, for all that it’s a competitive handicap, one of the glorious things about being from a small place. Sure, the numbers game stunts your potential, ever more definitively the more professional things become. But the very narrowness of the funnel through which your team emerges also has a way of strengthening the very thing that matters most – that connection between the players on the pitch and people in the stands.
As the minor match was coming to its conclusion on Sunday, I was walking down Clonliffe Road with my sister and her two kids, showing them how to get to the Cusack Stand. My godson Tom is four next month and this was his, and his sister Molly’s, first time in Croke Park. As the Monaghan minors were making their comeback and the crowd was getting behind them, Tom’s ears caught the roar and he started worrying that the big match was being played already.
His mother told him not to worry, that that was a different match and his one wouldn't be starting until they were in their seats. When he asked how she knew, she told him Niall Kearns, the Monaghan midfielder and, more importantly, a Sean McDermotts player just as Tom and Molly are, was going to tell the referee not to throw the ball up until he could see them. Tom seemed satisfied with that and skipped along the road, happy out. Evidently, he trusted Niall Kearns more than his mother or godfather.
Kearns had maybe his best game for Monaghan so far on Sunday to cap an excellent rookie season. He's 22, the same age as Ryan McAnespie. Conor McCarthy is 23. If that trio reach their potential over the coming decade, then the outer boundary might keep getting pushed back. If the word around young lads like David Garland and James Wilson is borne out, Tom and Molly will have more days to come up to Croke Park for.
Malachy O’Rourke is right, of course. It’s very rare that anyone reaches their potential. In football, in life, in anything. Getting within touching distance of it was fun, all the same. Even if it was just for a week.