Caolan McGonagle of Donegal in action against Mayo's Aiden Orme at Markievicz Park. Photo: Thomas Gallagher
"Nothing beats being there" was a tagline the GAA used to drum into people to get them off their you-know-whats and go to games.
However, it must be noted that in the deluge of rain in Sligo on Sunday last, you couldn’t help but think the stay-at-homers might’ve been right.
Firstly, with McHale Park in Castlebar out of commission, you have to thank the Mayo County Board for selecting a venue that was essentially neutral for their Allianz League Division 1 opener against Donegal.
Had the shoe been on the other foot and we hadn’t a county-status ground to host such a fixture, we’d have considered dragging them to Owenbeg, or maybe even Reykjavik?
Knowing Mayo’s support - some call them die-hard, others delusional - they’d probably have made the trip to the Icelandic capital in their thousands, as, on first glance in Sligo, they appeared to massively outnumber the Donegal followers in the rain.
Even approaching Markievicz Park more than two hours before throw-in, parking was awkward.
Having found a relatively straight-forward spot outside Roemer Furniture on Pearse Road, in Cornageeha, only a couple of hundred yards from the ground, this hack was promptly told by a young local woman, with the thickest Sligo accent imaginable: “Ya can’t park de-erre love. It’s for da cust- dee-meeers.” Essentially, there was no room at the Roemer.
I’d been in a similar predicament years before with a classmate, one morning whilst parking/horsing the car outside a small post office on the Newcastle Road adjacent to NUI Galway where we were studying at the time.
We were met by a rather more frightening middle-aged woman wearing an An Post uniform, pretty much saying the same thing, minus the pleasantries and plus the expletives.
This is no ordinary stadium announcer though.
This is Padraig Gorman, a Sligo native and gentleman to the fingertips, who once, legend declares, wasn’t paying attention during a match and asked someone beside him “was that a point or what?” - while the mic was still on.
Padraig diplomatically states the given car is “blocking a gate.”
Running through the Donegal starting team is never easy - with the changes scribbled on the matchday programmes looking as easy to dissect as a Japanese version of Sudoku. But off he went.
When Tony McClenaghan, or “Tony Mc .. Clen .. eke .. egg .. en,” was mentioned, you kind of hoped Jeaic Mac Ceallabhuí was drafted in.
Although the Naomh Conaill clubman’s name is not in the slightest bit difficult to pronounce, it can throw someone at first glance.
There was a noticeable “ooooh” from the crowd when Michael Murphy was one of the “athrú ar fhoireann Dhún na nGalls”.
“Please do not switch off the scoreboard,” Pauric announced to, presumably, remind whoever was looking after the scoreboard not to switch off that same scoreboard.
Mulreaney has kept goal for the Ballybofey club in pre-season, most recently on Tuesday night in their 1-1 draw against Sligo Rovers
And as sure as morning follows night, off went the scoreboard. “OK, I’ll keep ye updated,” Pauric announced to the crowd, which, by now, was not far off 10,000.
Amhrán na bhFiann went over the tannoy and for a second - and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one - I did turn to see if it was Padraig in full tune. Turns out it wasn’t.
As the match started, Donegal appeared to be relatively comfortable, kicking five points in the opening 13 minutes as Mayo, who only contested one FBD match - a four-point defeat to Galway in the luxurious surrounds of the AirDome - looked way off the pace.
“We’ll win this handy and we’ll beat Kildare and we’re nearly safe hiy,” was the notion early on. “That’s five for Donegal and only one for Mayo,” Padraig told us before shredding up the diplomacy card.
“And that car, the one I was on about …,” he adds. “Well it’s still there and if it’s not moved, well, I’ll tell ya for nothing, it might not be there when ya go back.”
Back home, the Twitter machine was in full-blast, not complimenting the fluidness of Donegal’s performance, more so the wetness of the TG4 cameras. Those same viewers were perhaps subconsciously berating the fact Super Sunday wasn't on.
“You wouldn’t see this on RTÉ,” one said, relatively unclear whether they were commenting about the cameras or the match itself. From our spot, it looked like whoever was up on that scaffold with the main camera should be nominated for the 2022 Comhairle na Míre Gaile, the Deeds of Bravery Council to you and me.
It was suggested they wipe the camera lens. Look, I’m no expert, but you’d hazard a guess that such an idea did cross their minds at some stage.
“Very much appreciate the advice from all on here to wipe the camera lens,” TG4 tweeted in reply. “We are also on the phone to the man above to turn off the rain.”
Later that night, TG4 presenter Micheál Ó Domhnaill, reminded viewers that Markievicz Park isn’t Old Trafford.
He said: “For the uninformed Twitter bashers I’d like to point out there is no camera system in the world that will self clean the lens when the rain is driving directly into it. There is no covered stand to protect the camera positions at Markievicz Park.”
Sligo is a scenic county. The conditions were that bad though. Benbulben was so shrouded in cloud Edmund Hillary might've had bother scaling it.
Donegal were 0-7 to 0-3 ahead at half-time with “should be more” the consensus. Rob Hennelly made two good saves and Murphy and Michael Langan were strutting their stuff.
Mayo scored a single point from play, in the last minute of the half, from Eoghan McLaughlin. But the roar that went up made you wonder that if they tagged on a couple in the second half, this crowd would rise and Declan Bonner’s team, you sensed, might be in trouble here.
We’ve all heard about the apparent funeral cortège in 1951 and the curse. Mayo, beaten finalists in their next appearance in 1989, didn’t make a habit of picking up runners-up medals till the late-90s. Nobody really knows where that fable of this curse started. Nobody really knows when they’re going to end, either.
For example, Keith Duggan, a native of Ballyshannon, formerly of the Donegal Democrat and these days Chief Sportswriter with The Irish Times, is a master of his trade. In 2007, his ‘House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football’ was published.
By then, Mayo had lost five successive All-Ireland finals. Little did Duggan know at the time, he might’ve inherited a series that’ll outlast Coronation Street.
Mayo have lost six more since. Love them or loathe them, in an era when county football is considered stagnant and even disinteresting, their rollercoaster is the most gripping of all the contemporary tales.
And that’s only looking in from afar - television cameras permitting. Imagine being one of them?
Their support has a sound that no other support has; it’s hard to describe in diction, easier to measure in decibels. If you're one for putting your hand into a boiling kettle, try to imagine the sound you'd make.
When things are going against their team it can create a nervous anxiety that transcends onto the pitch. But when it flips, the Mayo players can grow in confidence and energy.
And so the wheels turned. It happened in Sligo and Donegal played into their hands. Aidan O’Shea was introduced. Stephen Coen was sent off. Hennelly saved a Patrick McBrearty penalty.
Paddy Durcan was popping up everywhere and Jason Doherty - his first appearance for Mayo since the 2019 Super Eights win over Donegal in Castlebar having suffered cruciate injuries both left and right - was leading the charge. The crowd responded and now we had a game on our hands.
When Ryan O’Donoghue’s free was deemed over - please don’t suggest watching the television replays - Padraig reminded us “there’s only one in it now. Mayo 10 points, Donegal ...erm ... 11.”
The concession of a late free when Ryan McHugh played a backwards one to Shaun Patton, who may or may not have been fouled, was probably symptomatic of Donegal’s showing in the last quarter. Hennelly did the rest.
It should've been better but, if truth be told, could’ve been worse.
Three Donegal draws with Mayo in a row. Four in six in the league. And one wet drive home. Nothing beats being where?
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