'In my heart and soul, I shed a tear'

In this extract from Keith Duggan's book House of Pain Mayo's David Brady recalls the nightmare of the 2006 All-Ireland defeat…

In this extract from Keith Duggan'sbook House of Pain Mayo's David Brady recalls the nightmare of the 2006 All-Ireland defeat to Kerry

September 17th, 2006, Croke Park

It was like breathing in ether. David Brady stood in the mellow autumn sunlight, solemn and resolute, about to enter his fourth All-Ireland senior football final. This one was over almost as soon as it began. On the field, the Kerry players were responding to their own private motivations with a performance of skill and power that was majestic and cruel. They were playing Gaelic football as if the Mayo men were just ghosts on the field instead of 15 primed, finely-tuned athletes.

Kerry took command with such killing and withering finality that they succeeded in largely silencing the crowd of some 80,000 people that had gathered on that gorgeous Indian-summer day hoping for drama and intrigue. Mayo people had dared to hope this day would transport them back to the bonfire nights of 1951, when their team were last champions.


Instead, they were treated to a frightening exposition of the inherent desire and ambition, the carnivorous need, that drives Kerry football men and of the shocking depth of paralysis and capacity for big-day misadventure that have haunted Mayo football teams for too long.

To make matters worse, the match echoed eerily what had happened when the counties met in the 2004 All-Ireland final. It was a stroke of bold genius by the Kerry manager Jack O'Connor once again to present the Mayo team with their worst nightmares as soon as the cheering from the national anthem had finished. High, booming balls were rained down on the Mayo full-back line, and where two years earlier the green-and-red-shirted defenders had struggled to cope with the bulky wizardry of Kerry veteran Johnny Crowley, now they were helpless against the height and smart passing of Kieran Donaghy, the rangy young Tralee basketball star whose unorthodox, blue-collar full-forward instinct had made him the sensation of the championship.

Declan O'Sullivan offered a portent of the afternoon to come with an early goal of supreme ease and confidence. Then Donaghy caught a ball and turned to find the net with a murderous shot. Colm Cooper was a torment. He too would find the net before the half was out. Further up the field, the Kerry lines were moving at speed and in harmony.

Billy Fitzpatrick, the veteran Mayo forward who now calls live matches with Midwest Radio, was almost speechless with disbelief. Fitzpatrick had been worried from the second Mayo had taken the field. He detected lifelessness in the way the players moved, as if they were burdened rather than inspired by the task ahead. It was so different to the melodramatic, anarchic scenes of three weeks earlier, when Mayo had outraged the Dublin fans and team by warming up in front of Hill 16 before the semi-final. The atmosphere had been revolutionary that day.

Now, in the hazy afternoon warmth with the brass band sounding out tunes of triumph and excitement in the amphitheatre, Mayo looked meek. He watched Ciarán McDonald, probably the purest kicker of a football in the game, send two practice shots tailing lamely towards the old Nally Stand and he feared the worst. "Something is not right here," he said aloud.

Brady had become something of a shop steward to the Mayo team over the course of the season. Coaxing the Ballina midfield man out of retirement and resurrecting the career of Kevin O'Neill - the classy but forgotten Knockmore forward - had been two of the brightest moves made by the management team of Mickey Moran and John Morrison.

The Ulster men had used Brady as an impact substitute, and although he believed he could have started this final, he was at peace with the role. It was his habit to sit in the reserves' dugout with his boots unlaced, but four minutes into the final, he began to lace them tightly, his heart pounding.

Later, he would liken those minutes to an out-of-body experience. "I remember feeling as though I was being sucked into a vacuum. It was as if the light went on. We suddenly realised where we were and what it meant. You would swear Kerry had never won a thing in their life. They were killing us. And they set out to beat us in the first 10 minutes. We went six points down, eight points down, 10 down.

We were in disbelief. It was all happening again. I had to keep telling myself that this was not some kind of f***ing joke."

WHEN BRADY, inevitably, was called to go on, after just 11 minutes, the notion of the All-Ireland final as a contest was already a ruin. Of the four All-Ireland senior finals Mayo had lost in the past decade, this was the most spectacular implosion. Three weeks earlier, they had starred in a match against Dublin that drew immediate comparison with the finest of the last one hundred years.

Now, just 10 minutes into the GAA showpiece, a day of ritual importance not only in Ireland but also in the emerald enclaves of the great American cities and throughout England and the far-flung reaches of the world, Mayo were a hunted thing. On televisions across the world and to the crowd in Croke Park, the match seemed almost leisurely, with Kerry bossing proceedings so thoroughly it no longer felt like a competition.

But for Brady, it was still a live proposition, and the hour passed by in a blur. He remembers flashes. He was sent in to try to rein in Donaghy, and he made a pact with himself not be passive. They shook hands. There was no cheap talking. Kerry never resorted to goading. They just took care of business all afternoon.

Brady clattered into the taller, younger man for the first three balls they contested and, somehow, he came away with them. Through the stunned quietness came the first tentative sounds of Mayo cheering. It was a brief moment of defiance on a day of staggering capitulation.

Brady heard no sounds, nor was he conscious of the terrible lull that fell when the match settled into a rut in the second half. After all, he was playing in an All-Ireland final and his last match for Mayo. He made deals with himself. He played clever and he played bullish.

"I had to gamble and play like it was midfield. I wanted to contest every ball. I decided to forget that the goalposts were behind me," he would remember later.

Kevin O'Neill's heroic season continued as he manufactured a goal out of nothing shortly after Brady joined the game. There was a fleeting sense of optimism when Pat Harte hammered home a second goal on the half-hour mark, and when O'Neill found the net again, just seconds later, a brief shiver of fatalism passed through many Mayo people, a shortlived prayer that maybe this might be the day after all.

Brady felt gung-ho after Mayo's third goal. He distinctly remembers Donaghy looking across at Cooper and shouting: "What the f***?" It was the faintest scent of Kerry vulnerability. But just as he was beginning to make more personal deals, Paul Galvin sauntered in from the right side and landed a brilliant, almost arrogant point that seemed to say rebellion would be pointless.

Before the match, there had been such singing hope. It must be remembered that scattered through that vast crowd of supporters were Mayo heroes from yesteryear. Pádraig Carney, the chiselled All-Ireland-winning centre-fielder from some 55 years earlier, had made his annual trip from California. He had been invited to sit in a corporate box, and although he was glad of the distraction of the wine as the day unravelled, he found the spectacle tough to watch.

Carney is no sentimentalist when it comes to the old days. He believes the game has improved and reserves special praise for the unique skills of Ciarán McDonald. "Oh, he is so talented," he laments, "but he needs to stay in his position or he is wasted. That day was a shock. Maybe we expected too much. I reckoned the Northern guys (Moran and Morrison) would put fire in their bellies. And then this collapse."

Elsewhere, his old friend Paddy Prendergast, full back on that last Mayo championship team, was trying to make the best of a bad situation. He had turned up in the lower Hogan Stand for a supposed unofficial reunion of the 1951 team. "I don't know what happened, but there wasn't a shagging sinner there but myself. In the end, I had to go. I couldn't watch any more."

John Casey, whose form had illuminated Mayo's All-Ireland run 10 years earlier, was seated in the lower Cusack Stand. The Charlestown player had been having a fine day, touring the pubs with his brother. He had swaggered up to the champion jockey Barry Geraghty with the amicable salute: "Howya, Ruby."

He greeted men he had played against years ago as they walked along a crowded Jones's Road. Although he was still young enough to be playing for Mayo, it felt liberating to attend a final as a fan. The match brought the sensations of his own lingering disappointments rushing back. "I just felt awful for the boys. Particularly Aidan Higgins, my own clubman."

Jimmy Maughan, who had been part of a Mayo team badly beaten by Kerry in the summer of 1981, was with friends down at the old Canal End.

"A blind man up in the stands could have seen what was going to happen. I said it to the guy beside me, 'This has the shape of a disaster. It'll be over in 20 minutes.' The form Donaghy and those guys were in, they had to sacrifice someone for the first seven to 10 minutes and play a sweeper role. My neighbour said, 'You're talking through your hat. Were you in Barry's for pints?' I said, 'I hope I'm wrong'. And I was - it was over in 10.

LIAM MCHALE, the convivial midfield giant who lost three senior All-Ireland finals, had been asked to do a half-time interview by RTÉ. He left his seat with 10 minutes to spare, and as he hurried through the chilly tunnels underneath Croke Park, he twice heard the huge rumbling acoustics of the crowd roaring above him. When he was escorted to the side of the field, he saw that Mayo had scored two quick goals. "I had been ready to put a brave face on things and talk about how brilliant Kerry were, and then the whole thing was confused. There was a very strange feeling in the stadium. I think I said that Mayo had a chance."

Six points down at half-time, the Mayo team huddled together in the dressingroom and promised themselves if they scored the next point, they would win the All-Ireland. Brady believed it. But they were spooked. The big electronic scoreboard flashed a strange and lopsided state of play: 3-8 to 3-2. There was something terribly lonely and incriminating about those two points.

After the break, Mayo were passive. Kerry took up where they had left off. Not for the first time, several Mayo supporters left the game early. They fled the ground, in shame or heartbreak or whatever, an abandonment that was becoming a motif. Brady didn't notice them, nor would he have particularly cared.

"We didn't show the heart. We made a deal that if we got the first score of the half, we would win the All-Ireland. And we didn't. Why not? We didn't get possession in the middle. We were destroyed in the middle half of the pitch. It is the whole thing of taking responsibility. I don't know how any man - any human being - cannot give it their all in an All-Ireland final. But maybe, maybe, that's not fair to say either.

"Like, I know our lads were so physically fit, but they seemed to be genuinely drained of energy and motivation. If they were racehorses, you would be questioning if they were drugged. There was something preying on them."

It was a strange, hollow conclusion to the All-Ireland championship. Mayo managed three points in the entire second half, all desultory frees from Conor Mortimer. Kerry were impressive and may have privately wished they were being given a better game. Brady kept on telling himself to keep going, to try to make something happen. But when Brian Crowe, the referee, told him there were two minutes left, he couldn't wait to escape the whole thing. "I just said to myself, 'I want to be out of here. Out of here'."

In the coolness of the dressingroom, the Mayo boys gathered for the last time of the season. Brady realised, to his surprise, he felt nothing. He still has keen phantom pains when he thinks about his first All-Ireland defeat in 1996, when he played as a cocksure 22-year-old in a bizarre and gripping September series against Meath.

"Until they throw earth on top of me I will be hurting about that," he will say to those who ask. But he was like a war veteran in these days of abject Mayo misery. He had company in players like Jimmy Nallen and McDonald and David Heaney. Sitting there broken and even sobbing, however, was a group of players 10 years younger.

Jack O'Connor came in and spoke with direct compassion about what had just happened on the field. He explained that the one, single year Kerry had been waiting since their All-Ireland final loss to Tyrone had been more cutting and salty than the half-century of constant keening that accompanied Mayo teams. He explained Kerry's need had been greater. Brady listened because he respected O'Connor, and his mind roamed back to the exchanges on the field, the uncompromising hardness of the Kerry tackling, as swift and clean and accurate as middleweight combination shots.

"MEAN" was the word he would use to describe that Kerry performance, and he meant it as a compliment. But still, it didn't seem logical that those Kerry players, all of whom had All-Ireland medals in their cabinets at home, could summon up more hurt than his team-mates and friends. And it certainly wasn't the case now. What had happened out there to those Mayo players was about as distressing and cruel as sport gets. It would have been no real surprise had they decided to quit en masse.

Brady went around and murmured words of consolation here and there and eventually delivered a muted valediction. "I remember thinking, 'These are the lads who have to carry this f***ing thing for the next 10 years'.

"Afterwards, the one thing I said was about this word 'if'. It has been embedded in Mayo football players for the last 30 years. If only this had happened in 1985 or that had happened. If only I could have got my hands to block Colm Coyle's point in 1996. Then it all might have been different. All the 'ifs' in the world would not have won that game. To lose an All-Ireland final by a point is agonising. But to lose it by 13 points, well, there is no pain there."

And yet he was hurting. It didn't matter that his own performance would see him exonerated from the criticism that would come in the following days. Outside the dressingroom, he flung his bag on to the team coach and confirmed to waiting pressmen that he was retiring. He was dreading the trip home on the bus on Monday evening.

After a sorry night in the Citywest Hotel on the outskirts of Dublin, they packed for home and drew the curtains across the windows of the bus as they rumbled down through the plains of Kildare. But, as it turned out, the mood was defiantly bright as they journeyed west. They drank beer and played cards and laughed. One player got turned over for about €500 in a blackly comic run of wicked cards.

It was as though he was a cosmic example of the truth that there is no limit to the misfortune a Mayo footballer must endure. He was branded the unluckiest man on earth. They laughed a lot as they headed through the twinkling midlands and back to the beloved and bereft in Mayo. "We knew it would be the last time we would be on our own," Brady says. "After that, it would go f***ing mental."

In Castlebar, a small but steadfast crowd was waiting in the heavy rain outside the Welcome Inn. Nothing official had been arranged, but these Mayo people stood vigil all the same. Their gesture choked Brady up in a way he hadn't felt in years. In the function room, he was overcome. That was when it hit him. Thirteen years of playing county football and this was how it ended. He had to lower his head, had to raise his hand to warn his friends away.

"The warmth of those people was incredible. It kind of dawned on me then. The whole thing hit me and in my heart and soul, I shed a tear or two inside. That is what I had been doing this thing for - the 13 years of breaking arms, legs, nose, jaws, the hundreds of training sessions, the whole lot - that is why. These were strangers standing in the pissing rain to greet a team that had been destroyed in the biggest football match of the year. I won't ever forget that."

When he composed himself, he was D.B. again, gregarious and friendly and laughing. They began pounding drinks and the night splintered. At dawn, he woke in a pub belonging to a relative of Gerald Courell, the great Mayo football man who had trained the 1950 and '51 All-Ireland champions. He walked through downtown Castlebar feeling shattered. It was still dark and wintrily peaceful, and there wasn't a soul on the streets. He had the freedom of the town.

Back in the hotel, he lay down for a couple of hours, and when daylight pierced the room, he realised he wasn't ready to return to real life just yet. "I was sharing a room with Trevor Mortimer, and I just said, 'Trevor, let's go again'. I was in a sorrowful, pitiful state, but there was nothing else to do.

"This is not a thing to be saying, but it felt like the choice was to either die or have another drink. That is a traditional football thing. You need it after a summer of training. You need to be with your own. Eventually, we made it back to Ballina. And we did it all again."

THOSE FEW DAYS were his goodbye. After all, he was only experiencing the same everlasting truth that every other Mayo football player of the last 50 years has learned at the end: it wasn't meant to be. Somehow, as the years after 1951 became decades, that became the proud, melancholy story of Mayo football. The county produced good ordinary players and hard men and exceptional stylists, and they all fell short in one game or another.

It does not matter that Mayo has only ever won three All-Ireland senior titles in the history of the GAA. Mayo is nothing if not a football county. There is a deathless expectation running through its darks fields that the next period of grandeur, the next period of glory, is out there on the horizon.

David Brady is one of a rich cast of men who have given a considerable chunk of their lives to chasing down that dream. And call it bad luck or call it innocence or put it down to some inexplicable fear at the heart of Mayo football people, but it just hasn't happened.

Brady is luckier than most. He has, after all, awoken on four September mornings wondering if this was the day he would win that precious cross, the medal that would unite him with the band of brothers from the 1950s. It was of little consequence to him that on one of the bleakest days for football in his county, Brady had stood out there as the chief flag bearer of courage and integrity for whatever the green and the red represents. But in his last hour, his bravery promised that Mayo would be back. What a place to find himself, though - standing on the edge of this great tradition, the All-Ireland football final, waiting to enter a contest that had been flipped into a twilight world of embarrassment.

It must have been the loneliest moment of his football life. "To be honest," says David Brady, thinking back to his last hour with Mayo, "I felt like I was being sent in there to look for survivors."

House of Pain is published by Mainstream, priced €14.99