"I broke down when the full-time whistle blew. It was either going to be tears of joy or tears of hurt. Unfortunately, it was the latter and I did get very emotional because I know how much these Waterford lads have invested in this journey . . . . we’re all feeling down this morning, but this group will come again”.
These were the comments of John Mullane, a former Waterford hurler last Monday. Grown men do cry and John is a young grown man. His and the other tears of many other grown men from Waterford will hopefully dry up soon. There were tears of joy from many of the Galway players and fans alike. They’ll be crying all week as the Liam McCarthy Cup travels around Galway county.
This basically sums up what winning a senior All-Ireland title means. Back in 1992 as a player, I didn’t realise the significance of All-Ireland glory. As the years have faded into memories, I suppose I better appreciate the enormity of my achievement and that of my playing colleagues. I have also come to realise that there are far more important things in life to cry about. As a child, I was taught that sport was all about taking part. No, it’s not, it’s all about winning unfortunately. We don’t remember losers and we don’t want to be associated with losers. There was scant news in the media about Waterford in the aftermath of last Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final. It was all about Galway.
Losing hurts. The build-up within the competing All-Ireland final counties gives the people sense of belonging and pride. People don their county colours. Buntings and flags colour the entire county. All the banal chat is about the final. We’ve experienced it here in Donegal on three occasions. It certainly is a marvellous and magnificent time. We also experienced both winning and losing. The winning players are lauded and feted in every village and town countywide. The losing players are let slip into oblivion by most, but not all, supporters. The die-hard followers will never abandon their players. Those who do feel let down fade off and wait for the next bandwagon. If they are hurting then they are only feeling a fraction of what a player feels.
I was there on those three occasions when Donegal played the All-Ireland finals; 1992, 2012 and 2014. The latter was obviously the disappointing one. I felt for the players and their families. There were no tears, though. The fact that we had won only two years previously softened the blow. We were disappointed because we knew it was a game that we should have won.
The euphoria in 1992 was understandable and I enjoyed every moment of it. Back then, there wasn’t the same exposure as there is today with the advance of technology in the form of the internet. Because of this, I feel that our inter-county players are under far more pressure. Shortly after the final whistle blew in 2014, I walked amidst our disconsolate Donegal players to give them some words of solace. They were dejected. Last Sunday, I watched Waterford players sink to their knees with heartache as the delirious Galway players embraced each other. This is the difference between winning and losing. This is sport.
Millions of viewers saw the same scenes as I did. Losing can either make us or break us. The lesson is that we must put sport into context because there will be far bigger disappointments in life. But winning too can have disastrous consequences. As I commented in my book ‘Confessions of a Gaelic Footballer’, I got carried away for a time with my success. I was on a pedestal. Gaelic football was my everything. When my career ended, I was unable to cope with ‘normal’ life. I tried to substitute football with other activities, such as ‘saving the world’. It backfired. Mental illness set in and I learned one of the greatest lessons that life can teach a person. Winning the All-Ireland 25 years ago changed my life forever. Like the rest of my playing colleagues, we became household names throughout Donegal and further afield. If I hadn’t won that All-Ireland all those years ago, I most certainly wouldn’t be a columnist with the Donegal Democrat.
Humility is the secret. The general public may perceive inter-county players differently. I always relate the story about a colleague of my wife Maura’s who were sitting together having lunch when the colleague saw me parked at traffic lights outside their office. She analogised that I was that piece of anatomy of what a bull has between his legs and that my playing colleagues were the same. Maura asked her if she’d ever met me or any of the others. She hadn’t. Maura told her that she shouldn’t judge just because that they represent their county at Gaelic football. I would have loved to see her colleague’s face when Maura told her that I was her husband. Those were the days and maybe I was those things that a bull has. Hopefully, I learned to be humble and live for the future and not the past.
The past will be revisited on Sunday week when we will be the 2017 jubilee team who will be paraded at half-time like bulls at a mart in Croke Park. I wrote 23 years ago in my column that it would be the only day when I will be guaranteed a ticket for an All-Ireland final. And it has come to pass. I received a letter from GAA headquarters this week informing me that “As a member of the 1992 All-Ireland winning panel, you and a guest are invited to a lunch in your honour to be held in Croke Park on September 17, the day of the All-Ireland Football Finals 2017…Should you accept the invitation, two complimentary All-Ireland Football Final tickets and full details will be forwarded to you”.
It’s wild what one has to do to get a ticket. I’ve had several calls from Mayo friends looking for tickets. I just would like to inform other potential callers that I too am looking for tickets for my two daughters. I’m keeping the faith!