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The Pain and the Glory

Half a century ago, University College Dublin GAA team trainer and journalist Eugene McGee asked his friend, two-time All-Ireland medal winning Kerry footballer and schoolteacher Michael Gleeson, to write a few lines on Kerry winning Sam Maguire.
Michael had enjoyed victory on the greatest stage of all with stylish Kerry teams in 1969 and 1970 while Eugene went on to mould an Offaly squad of fine players to scupper the Kerry drive for five in 1982 and deny the great John Egan the privilege of lifting the GAA heirloom with Ardagh roots.
Although he suggests the passage of time may have dated some of the narrative, Michael Gleeson – now retired from the classroom but still a very active member of Kerry County Council – says the sense of joy remains essentially the same.
And for the day that’s in it, with Mayo and Dublin clashing in Croke Park for an All-Ireland final like never before, it is timely to reproduce Michael Gleeson’s original essay which he titled The Pain and the Glory.

Michael Gleeson and his wife, Kathleen, enjoying a day out in Croke Park

The aching limbs have lost their youthful zest and propel a weary body more from instinct than desire.

The gasping lungs scream agonisingly for more oxygen and betray the folly of indulgence in the withered leaf so beloved of Raleigh and his virgin queen.

The mind, despite one’s best endeavours, doth wander to question the sanity of those who, from their lofty thrones of power, did ordain that sixty minutes were too few. Such sadists must find favour with the evil over-lords of ancient Rome who thirsted for the slow and gory kill in their coliseum.
In those halcyon days, when Harvey Smith was but a show jumper and not quite yet a showman, the two upraised digits of the trainer’s hand convey their simple message. No sooner had their message been conveyed than they contracted into a commanding fist which demanded from his troops one last supreme effort.
Two puny points ahead and two eternal minutes remaining. Never have two seemed so unequal to two. Such a slender lead, as all well know, is but a clarion call to the opposition. Their every thought and effort are intent on a bulging net.

The holy grail: The Sam Maguite cup

Alas, for them ‘twas not to be. The clenched fist had done its job and with a vigour belying his hour and nine minutes of intense effort a colleague delicately taps one over and makes the margin safe.
The strident whistling from the stands has reached its crescendo. The tribal baying shows scant regard for charity or the muted followers of the vanquished. The agony and the ecstasy have become personified ten thousand times.

For some the joy and revelry, with no thought for tomorrow; for others, the weary journey through the night to their homes, downhearted and forlorn.
The final whistle sounds and tired players feel grateful and tender sympathy for the losing combatants. And then, like a hungry locust swarm, the throng invades the hallowed turf. Limbs that yesterday were old and weary now with devouring strides carry their owners to the conquering heroes.

Shapes soft and round from their favourite brew embrace the players with a passion not yet enshrined in law. For today at least all past errors are forgiven. The rightful monarchs are on their rightful throne. The monarchs though are weary and footsore and seek escape to where a soothing pint or two or even six may be imbibed.

Like Garbo in the days of yore, they long to be alone, alone to let the glorious truth sink in. For now, they feel empty and devoid of all emotion, too drained to share the great euphoria.
Tomorrow when the potion and some sleep have restored the youthful vitality — Tomorrow?  And yet inside they know that tomorrow will fade into tomorrow and soon it will be another Sunday and today’s kings will be on the rack: Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.

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