Sonia O’Sullivan: Mayo and Bulldogs bid for elusive glory

Australian Rules football grips the nation like Gaelic football final does in Ireland

It’s 65 years since Mayo last lifted Sam Maguire, 62 since the Bulldogs last picked up the AFL Premiership Cup. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

It’s 65 years since Mayo last lifted Sam Maguire, 62 since the Bulldogs last picked up the AFL Premiership Cup. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It doesn’t matter how many times I travel the 10,000 miles between Ireland and Australia. There is simply no getting used to that upside-down feeling when stepping off the plane in Melbourne, everything at once familiar and yet completely different.

It generally takes three strange days before recovering some sense of normality, before settling back into some sort of normal routine. It’s even harder when arriving back in the middle of school holidays, which means there are almost no parameters whatsoever to the day. I find myself freelancing between some work, some sleep, and the reconnecting with the daily Australian life.

One of the things you also discover is what you’ve missed out on, such as some of the major sporting events that have taken place while you were sleeping, or else are coming up in the days ahead.

It happened the first weekend I arrived back. The plan was to stay up to watch the All-Ireland football final, only to wake up, hours later, and see the result on my phone: a draw, which I could hardly believe, and another day out for both Mayo and Dublin.

It was the same last Monday morning, waking up to the result of the women’s All-Ireland football final, only this time a one-point victory for Cork over Dublin. Of course a quick glance at the result like that doesn’t do justice to a game, particularly in this case, given the controversy surrounding the lost point for Dublin, the lack of Hawk-Eye, and the debate over what could or should have been.

Then I saw the result of Rory McIlroy in the playoff of the FedEx Cup in Atlanta, a stunning finish even by his own high standards, and with that setting himself up as the in-form player in the Ryder Cup and the climax of the golf season, his no-show at the Rio Olympics long forgotten.

All this happened while I was sleeping, and obviously seeing or reading a result like that is never the same as connecting or engaging with the event as it unfolds.

Now comes the climax of the Australian Rules football season. I’ve never really allowed myself to connect with the football culture in Australia, even though I’ve spent a good portion of the last 20 years living in Melbourne. It’s certainly an obsession here for many people, the AFL season running from March to September, and it’s rarely if ever out of the news.

It’s one of those things that most children in Australia and particularly Melbourne grow up with; they generally inherit a team through birth, although this isn’t always related to which part of the town you come from.

My first real address in Melbourne was Richmond, so I paid a little attention to the Richmond Tigers, our closest team at time. Then I followed Carlton for a while, when the Ó hAilpín brothers from Cork were making their presence known, although again it was only a fleeting interest.

For me, it’s nearly all about the emotional connection with a team or player or athlete when watching sport. I need to have a vested interest to sit down and watch a game. Especially one that lasts close to two hours.

The first AFL preliminary final was won last Friday night by the Sydney Swans who defeated the Geelong Cats with relative ease and not much fanfare.

And so next up last Saturday afternoon was the second of the preliminary finals, between Greater Western Sydney, a newly formed team in 2012, and The Western Bulldogs, a team that has changed its name from earlier days as Footscray Football Club, one of the oldest clubs in the AFL, formed way back in 1877.

The Bulldogs won their first and only ‘Grand’ Final title, as they like to call it here, back in 1954 – the same year Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile, to put some perspective on that time span. The only other time they contested a Grand Final was back in 1961, when they lost.

One of my friends is a lifelong Bulldogs supporter, so I dug out the scarf she gave us 10 years ago as a sign of my support for the “Doggies”, as they are known. It’s not enough for each team to be named according to their location; every team is actually better known by their nickname, and also have their own song which is heartily sung by the victors of each and every game throughout the 23-week long season.

I headed out for a walk with our own dog, Snowy, just as the game was starting, planning to be back for the latter stages.

As it happened I called into a friend on the walk, and naturally the game was on. It seemed all of Melbourne was now supporting the Bulldogs, ranked only seventh at the end of the season, only to rise above the odds and make it to the last four – and from there a chance to win the Grand Final.

The score was close, it was clearly an exciting match, so I pulled up a seat, going nowhere until the final whistle blew. With that I was invited to stay for dinner. Our half-prepared meal at home could wait until the next day, because this was gripping stuff, and finally I was properly embracing an AFL game, cheering the Bulldogs to the Grand Final as they beat Greater Western Sydney by six points – the equivalent of one goal.

So this Saturday sees the Doggies take on the Swans in the 2016 Grand Final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, not too dissimilar to the All-Ireland final replay on the same day between Mayo and Dublin in Croke Park.

In both games, one team has a chance of victory that has been a long time coming; it’s 65 years since Mayo last lifted Sam Maguire, 62 since the Bulldogs last picked up the AFL Premiership Cup.

With the time difference, the AFL final will be complete before the Mayo players have even had their breakfast. Only time will tell how historic both these games will end up being, but will the result in Melbourne on Saturday afternoon provide any indication or inspiration for what might then lie ahead for Mayo in Croke Park, 10,000 miles away?

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.