The Longford champions have shown that nothing is impossible when you truly believe in yourself, writes Michael Hannon.
Everybody playing sport has dreams. Whether they ever get to live them out is another thing.
But from the moment a child gets exposed to a game, sees their heroes in action, they can’t but allow themselves to dream a little dream. It's part of the human condition, it gives us hope. So while everyone has dreams, not everyone playing sport has belief.
Last Saturday night I sat in a house in south Dublin, watching Leinster’s rugby team on television. Leo Cullen’s men were grinding out a win away from home against Bath in the European Champions Cup. Conditions were wet and difficult. It was one of those nights where you had to stick to the task at hand, which they did.
With 13 minutes to go an argument erupts in the room. I’m the only non-Leinster person among five, all of whom are GAA fanatics, so I sat this one out and listened as they went back and forth.
It all kicks off when Ed Byrne is catapulted off the Leinster bench to make his Champions Cup debut.
“That’s my man there!” shouts the Laois footballer as he bursts into spontaneous applause.
“What are you on about, sure he’s a Carlow man” replied the Wexford hurler.
“He’s a good Laois man. Born and bred.”
“Played his rugby in Carlow,” said the other Wexford hurler.
“Played his football in Laois,” replied the Laois man. “Arles Kileen, County Laois.”
“But he doesn’t play football does he?” said the Wexford hurler, “he plays rugby.”
“Sure why would he play football for Laois when he could play rugby for Leinster?” countered the Laois man.
“Why would he spend every year of his career getting thumped by Dublin by at least 10 points when he could be traveling all over Europe and be beating the likes of Bath, Toulon, Exeter, or Stade Francais?”
“Dublin will never be beaten in a knock-out game of football again,” said the Laois man.
“Mark my words. They. Will. Never. Lose. Again," he reiterated.
"And the same goes for the Dublin ladies football team. They have the money, the expertise, they are organised. And they have the population.”
In case you're in any doubt, that conversation shows how it can be pretty bleak at times for these Leinster chaps. The Wexford hurlers had to live with Kilkenny for the best part of two decades and just as the Cats started to decline Galway were sent over to play in the Leinster championship.
Meanwhile the football situation is well documented. Dublin rule. Plain and simple. They are the football kings of the province. But while it was always accepted that Kilkenny hurlers couldn’t go on forever, Dublin’s resources make it seem possible that their footballers will.
I find it hard to believe that there is no more than a grain of truth to the earlier sentiment about the Laois man's assertion on Byrne's decision to choose rugby over Gaelic football. It’s true that the Leinster academy is now trawling through the province and picking up talented athletes from further and further afield.
Where once it was only the schools that existed inside the old pale who provided the talent, that net has been spread much wider. However, I doubt it is the fear of playing the Dubs that has all these lads turning their back on Gaelic games, rather the lure of a professional sporting life is just too big to resist.
“But sure if it was all about population Mullinalaghta might as well not turn up tomorrow.” opined the other Wexford hurler.
“Crokes will win that easy. Mullinalaghta haven’t a chance,” said the Laois man before adding “Mickey?”
“Well they have a chance because they’re good defensively,” I said, staring into my crystal ball, before adding “but Crokes will win by three to four points.” Ouch.
Now, here’s the thing about belief. When you have it, you have it. Currently throughout Leinster far too many people are buying into the idea that Dublin, and everything that comes out of Dublin, is going to be better.
And, sure, that’s one belief system you can hold on to. Another option is that you can create a different one for yourself, like Mickey Graham and his Mullinalaghta side have done.
Repeatedly in interviews given prior to their semi-final against Eire Og from Carlow, and indeed their final against Kilmacud Crokes, Graham has acknowledged their small pool of players, but gone on to reiterate what you can achieve when you work hard and are willing to make sacrifices.
Working hard and making sacrifices is no guarantee of success but doing so allows you to develop the belief that you’ve given yourself the chance to win.
When you then apply that hard work over a long period of time - in this case Graham has overseen three years of hard work - then that belief that you’ve given yourself a chance develops into an iron-plated belief that you’re going to win.
People tend to fall into two distinct categories, according to psychologist and educationalist Carol Dweck, those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset person believes you are who you are and you cannot change. This creates problems when you’re challenged because anything that appears to be more than you can handle is bound to make you feel hopeless and overwhelmed, like say, being from one of the smallest half parishes in Ireland and playing one of the biggest clubs in the country.
On the flip side, those with a growth mindset believe that they can improve with effort. They outperform those with a fixed mindset.
From an educational point of view, Dweck has always been keen to highlight how they outperform fixed mindsets even when they have a lower IQ, because they embrace challenges, treating them as opportunities to learn something new.
Mullinalaghta clearly embraced the challenge of being a small half parish squeezed onto the Cavan-Longford border. They talked about it with pride before the final against Kilmacud rather than resignment.
And it has worked out amazingly well for them. It's notable how many football fans, players and pundits have commented in the last 24 hours as to how the St Columba's have offered a beacon of hope for underdogs everywhere, which they have.
Now, if only more counties in Leinster could now follow their lead when tackling the challenge posed by Dublin and restore some sense of competition to the provincal championship in which they ply their trade, downbeat conversations like the one I had on Saturday evening might become fewer and fewer.
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