In the aftermath of a championship defeat somebody will always try to tell you that there is always next year.
You have lost this battle but you have not yet lost the war. And once there is a war to be fought you know these loyal soldiers will return. Maybe those people were right. Maybe there is next year...
By Alan O'Mara
Mothers say it to console their children, girlfriends and wives say it to try pick up their opposite halves and work colleagues say it because it prevents the awkward silence as they lean against the water cooler. They don't realise just how far away next year seems in your head though.
When you wear your tribe's colours, when you put yourself out there centre stage it is then that football becomes a lot more than a little old game. It consumes you. It consumes your thoughts. It becomes a way of life.
You drive hundreds of miles a week just to be part of it, to feel how it makes you feel. You travel, you train, you rest and you recover. You organise the rest of your life around football. You do all that because you can’t wait for the next emotional high, the next sense of fulfilment, of accomplishment. The feeling that achieving something together gives. Winning.
Travelling together for big matches is when you feel the bond most with your team. In your own little way, you are heading off to war and certain lads will trigger different memories when you are in that mindset. One will remind you of the injuries players have overcome to be on the bus, while another of all the travelling you do just to be on the bus. A different one will trigger the memory of the gym sessions that players have done to help earn a seat on the bus. A familiar face will remind you of all the years you spent dreaming about getting on this bus for these games. This bus is the place to be on matchday. It is a vehicle of opportunity.
On the way in to the game you see supporters with smiles on their faces. Grown men will jump up and down on the spot waving as they see the steel horse coming; children will run along trying to keep level with the bus.
As you prepare for battle you soak this up. The hormones and energy start building in your body, slowly starting to vibrate in the pit of your stomach just like a small tremor before an earthquake. The closer you get to the pitch, the slower the bus tends to travel as the crowd congests. The people stare towards you and you look back. You know that being on this bus is the place to be. You know they would love to be on this bus with you. The bus is a sign to them that their army has arrived. It is now you are reminded that this is more than just a game.
The easiest thing to do in life is to be mundane, avoid disappointments and dodge things that have the ability to alter your mood. Play it safe, keep your head down and just plod on. Sometimes those thoughts can enter your head as with football the highs can be scintillating and the lows quite devastating.
The reality is that each year only one team can be crowned All-Ireland champions. The rest have to endure the torturous environment that is a defeated championship dressing room at some point.
As soon as that final whistle goes you want to escape from the pitch as quickly as possible. Now you are under the spotlight and you don’t want to be. You are the actor that has fluffed his lines, the dancer that has tripped on the stage. You have failed to do what is expected of you. You have failed to do what you expect of yourself.
You exit the field looking at your feet. You are stopped on your way by some opposing players who wish to express their sympathies. You congratulate them. Some swap jerseys; some don’t. Words are rare in this situation. You don’t look at the crowd as you exit the pitch; your head stoops low. You march down the tunnel and back towards the dressing room in silence. The only noise you hear is that of the studs tapping on the concrete floor. You get through the door and you sit down on your seat. You are leaning forward with your head in your hands. You are trying to make sense of what has just happened. You are trying to gather your feelings and thoughts.
You go to take your jersey off but half way through that process it sticks to your back and you realise that if you stay in that position you can’t see anything. Just like the little child who naively covers his eyes in hide and seek or like Father Dougal hiding behind that curtain in the caravan; you think blinding your eyes will prevent people from seeing you. But then you remember.
The jersey comes off and you stuff it in your bag. Nobody asks you to throw the gear back in the middle of the dressing room like every battle before this. There is no need to prepare the armour for the next tussle. This war is over.
Now you are topless and reach down to start taking off your boots, socks and shorts. The chairman interrupts that process as he pops his head in to say a few words and thank you for your efforts all year; to tell you to come back stronger than ever next year. The manager will speak too and tell you how he feels. If he is a good manager you pray he isn't stepping down, as good managers are hard to find. It’s like speeches at a funeral. People are listening but they don’t really want to.
Those speeches stop and you go to start undressing again. Then your captain stands up. He thanks everyone for their efforts and support too: the County Board, the management, the physios, the masseurs, the players, the doctors and the kit men – all those that have given up their time for the betterment of this tribe over the past number of months. There is an applause at the conclusion of each address but this is not the like the energy-injecting applause you received when you ran out onto the field earlier in the day.
Bodies sit slumped against the wall. The shorts, the socks and the boots are still on. You eye them up again and try to summon the energy to remove them. You know that once these come off that you have waved the white flag after months of perseverance. You catch a teammate's eye and you both shake your heads in bewilderment. One sighs, the other shrugs his shoulders. Again, words are rare.
And then you swallow the lump in your throat, pull the lace and unhinge your boot and socks. You repeat that process on the other side. Now you stand up to remove the shorts; the last bit of your armour. You take one last look around the room because you want to be able to remind yourself that you never want to feel like this again.
Then you trudge to the showers. Some pat you on the back to express their consolation. The only voices you hear are mumbles for shampoo. You press the button on the shower and let the water hit your face. It doesn’t wash the feeling away. The same feeling of hopelessness lingers no matter how hard you scrub your scalp.
You go to dry yourself but it doesn’t seem like it is worth the effort. You stand on the spot wishing there was some gadget nearby that would do it. Every rub of your arm or leg takes its toll. You feel drained. You just want to lie down in a dark room by yourself.
You pull on your trousers and t-shirt knowing that this is the last time you will meaningfully wear the uniform this year. The crest on the shirt seems more prominent now. You ram the towel in your bag and realise your gear is completely disorganised. You get a flashback of the bag you neatly prepared the night before. The boots were placed delicately on the left, gloves on the opposite side in plenty of space to avoid being crushed. Now though, the bag is all over the place. A bit like your thoughts. A bit like your head.
You zip up the bag and put the strap on your shoulder. You walk to the bus and put your bag on the bottom. Then you get on and you find your seat. Lads trundle on and find their places but this is not the same magical bus you travelled to the game on. The atmosphere is much different now.
Some lads go straight to sleep. Others simply pretend to be in dreamland so they don’t have to engage in the charade of conversation. They sit there with their eyes shut letting the momentum of the bus ebb and flow them from left to right. A few are staring into space with their earphones in and fighting against the independent gravitational forcefield a bus can sometimes create around its passengers. A minority try to laugh and joke to avoid the awkward silence and tension.
On the way in your head was pepped up and your eyes switched on. You absorbed the surroundings and fed off the energy and goodwill around the bus. Now though as the bus meanders out through the crowd, you wish the windows were fully tinted. You wish you were so small your head didn’t appear over the plastic below the window.
The bus keeps moving. Sequences from the game start to re-enter your head. You see a kickout that went a foot to the right. A tackle one of your players missed as the other team worked a score. An attempted shot dropped short. A goal chance blazed wide. You wonder how and why it all went wrong.
You go to talk about it to the person next to you but you both slowly realise that there is nothing you can do about it now, and that talking about it you only makes the feeling worse.
After what feels like an eternity the bus gets home. There was no motivational video or film to entertain your brain for the return leg of the journey. Now you have to search for your bag among 40 others as the bus driver has thrown them onto the car park. You see your initials and scoop it up. You put it over your shoulder again and you walk towards you car. You open the boot, you toss the bag in and it hits you once more. You remember that the adventure is over. You won’t be driving home for training on Tuesday to meet up with the lads that you have trained with for months. You won’t be having the banter in the physio room before training either. And it’s not just this Tuesday you won’t be doing that.
It is now you fully realise that you have spent hundreds of nights and thousands of hours together trying to restore pride in your tribe. You remember that you have lived some dreams together and had others crushed. Had good times and bad. Together.
All this is racing around your head and you shut the boot in anger. You open the door and get into the car. You are frustrated that this is it; that this is the end. You sit in the seat and watch the others filter out. You watch them go one by one. It is like soldiers leaving the army after finishing their service. They are signing off from duty. This band of brothers is being dismantled.
Then something else dawns on you. That yes, you have lost this battle but you have not yet lost the war. And once there is a war to be fought you know these loyal soldiers will return for their tribe.
Maybe those people were right. Maybe there is next year...