When you are in the middle of something, it is hard to get perspective. The greatest period of dominance in Men’s Gaelic Football came to an end on Saturday, in the rain falling at Croke Park, and in the face of a storm of youth and vigour that Mayo brought to their second-half performance.
For those with any sense of sporting history, this day was inevitable, though it did not look likely when Dublin went into a seven-point lead just before the break.
There were those of course who said it would never end. That the five in a row was only a step on the path to a ten in a row and beyond. That Dublin by virtue of its population, funding and sponsorship had so much of an advantage that nobody else could come close.
That is never the case in sport where the rules of the game putting out an equal number of players starting from scratch every time the game starts is one of life’s great unknowns.
As a Dublin fan these past ten years, in which the team has won eight All Ireland titles including the last six in a row, have been exceptionally good. They made up and far surpassed the dismay of the previous 16 years when the team could not get within hailing distance of a Final, never mind winning the Sam Maguire trophy.
The magic number within that run was five. That was history and with so many great teams from Kerry in football and Kilkenny in hurling never having achieved it, it was mythical.
I stood on Hill 16 for the drawn game against Kerry and the Replay that delivered the Five in a Row. When it looked like Kerry were going to win that first day the pain was physical. It looked as though the fact of witnessing something never done before in a sport I have always played and loved, by a team I have followed since early childhood was going to be taken away, and that it would likely never come around again in my lifetime.
The joy and the relief of getting to that five was visceral. We never got to really know whether it would be the same going for six, with the intervention of Covid, but on Saturday the pain of potential defeat was not as sharp.
If that was the case for a fan, surely the even more heightened emotions of a player and team cannot have been far removed. The lung-bursting run to recover a ball, the slowing of time to take that one crucial kick, cannot always be done with the same brilliance, no matter how many times we are told that this was a different group of players.
But there is something in the collective sense of players, team and fans, a shared passion, a sense of ecstasy when things went right, rage and despair when they went wrong. Even though it is ‘only’ sport and the world would keep turning regardless of a ball going one side or the other of a tall white post in a field of North Inner City Dublin.
Sporting dynasties do not last forever, whether it is Dublin, Kerry or Kilkenny, the Cork Women or Manchester United, the New England Patriots or the Chicago Bulls.
The irony of sporting competition is that the seeds of defeat are sown in the most fertile ground of continued victory.
A team that is dominant is hard to change and so the next generation of players coming through does not see as well lit a path for themselves. Yes, there is the incentive to try harder and play better against the Champions that hold the shirt but every multiple medal winner means one less to share around across the wider sporting population.
In 2013 when Dublin won the second All Ireland in this series I remember looking at the respective substitute lists of Dublin and Kerry and remarking on the difference in age between them.
Eight years on the same was true in reverse, with the Mayo bench proving the stronger. That they crossed the line without so many of the great players that had seen the agony of defeat at the final hurdle, from Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran to Tom Parsons, Keith Higgins and yes, even Aidan O’Shea was visible in the surging runs, the power of youth that Mayo brought to bear when the stakes were high once more.
Dublin’s older guard were chasing shadows and the brilliance that will never be forgotten had dimmed.
It could be that this weekend was Mayo’s All Ireland and that once more they will fall short on the biggest stage but Dublin have been downed and that is a huge monkey of their backs and those of other counties that can now emerge from the shadow and play their own game.
The sport will be stronger and in a way so too will Dublin, frightening though that may seem to some.
They still remain one of the best teams in the sport, with a corp of young players that have their own story to write. The perfect storm of 2011-2020 may not though be repeated. If every group could do what they did, then their own magical place in history would be lessened and that is not likely, at least in the near future.
So Dublin fans can kick their heels on September Sunday’s and watch on as others climb the steps of the Hogan Stand.
As ever, the spoils of victory will go to the best team over the course of a season. The destiny of the trophy will be determined by effort, skill, luck, planning, execution and the attitude of the opponents, not by the colour of the shirt.
And that, at the end of the day, is why sport has such a hold over us, in such a good way.
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