Playing sport, one of the hardest things you have to face is losing in a final. It’s so tough because you experience a total change in emotions in such a short space of time and you can’t prepare yourself for it. You cannot go into a final expecting the worse. You have to be positive about your chances so your buzz is good beforehand. You love the excitement and the build-up to the final. You love seeing the flags and bunting go up around the parish and county. You love reading the newspaper reports and looking out to see who the journalists and the pundits have tipped. This provides confidence and motivation. Confidence because if you are tipped to win, then they see the good in your team; motivation because if your opponents are tipped to win, then you want to put the two fingers up and say, “We’ll prove you wrong”.
There are many more positive factors in the build-up to a final. The community feeling at events like “The Big Breakfast” so to simply expect human beings, particularly amateurs in their sport, to come down off that high and experience such a blow is crushing to the core. I know this because I have experienced it. I experienced it as a player quite often and now in my capacity as a coach, I have experienced it again quite recently. In fact, it was only last weekend.
I have been quite lucky though that my record in winning finals outweighs that of the defeats but that doesn’t quite ease the pain for some reason. I won’t lie to anyone – 14 years on from our All-Ireland final defeat to Tyrone it continues to haunt me. There are lots of reasons: we didn’t do ourselves justice in the final, we were too uptight and Tyrone were more relaxed; they were our neighbours, our rivals and on the day, they were the best team. It is not a nice feeling. Looking back now, and there wasn’t much talk of it then, I would say in the immediate aftermath of that match, I probably suffered from mild depression. I’m sure other team-mates did too. Going over the ifs and the buts can do this to anyone. Going to Australia with the International Rules a few weeks later helped me to cope with it and it got me back to what I loved most, playing football.
This was on the biggest stage of all and this is why I always feel for the losing team. I can only imagine the heartache that some of the Mayo players have experienced but a lot of teams would have buckled totally at this stage. Not them, that’s the easy way out. They keep knocking on that door and the more often you do that, the greater the chance your team has of the door eventually opening.
This is not just a feeling you experience at elite level. Across the length and breadth of the country right now, teams are preparing for county finals. These are minor, junior, intermediate and senior finals. These are men and ladies finals. These are football, hurling and camogie finals. No matter what the level you play at, the low feels the same. I am now involved in football 31 years and during that time I have had many lows. I have learnt to deal with it better though and, to be honest, for me a few days on the beer helps. What I have also learnt is that you can’t fear losing. If it happens you do what Mayo do: you get back on that bike again and start peddling your way back into contention.
When you’re in a team environment, you can deal with this a lot easier. There are more of you feeling the same way, in the doldrums. I have had many telephone conversations lasting hours upon hours going over the post-mortems with team-mates. Guys like Kieran McGeeney, Enda McNulty, Oisín McConville and Paul McGrane but the great thing about those conversations were that they wanted success even more than ever. The hurt and anguish was now their motivation.
I’ve had a shit week thinking of “what ifs” after Burren were beat last week by a great team in Kilcoo but that’s because the players were confident and so were we in the management team. That’s the only way you can face into a final. My own club Killeavy play Silverbridge next weekend in the Intermediate final. Two great teams but one has to lose. I hope it’s not Killeavy, of course, but I will feel the hurt of whichever team loses. Simply because I know the feeling too well.
To the teams that win the finals, enjoy it, embrace it, it’s your time. You’ve trained long and hard and made many sacrifices to lift the cup. There really is no feeling quite like winning a final, but at the same time there really is no feeling quite like losing one.