Monday, February 09, 2004

Something Stirring Among the Yew Trees?

Maigh Eo 1-10
Áth Cliath 0-03

Not since Miss Hilton and Miss Richie made their way down to Arkansas to help out on the farm has any group of sophisticated metropolitans got as rude an awakening in the sticks as Dublin did when they came to Castlebar to play Mayo in the National Football League yesterday. For Tommy Lyons' Dublin, the journey from cock of the walk to feather duster took just seventy minutes as Mayo put in the performance the like of which hasn't been seen in the Plain of the Yew Trees for many a long year.

How bad Dublin are is difficult to say. That they're not much good is certain, although Paddy Christie was outstanding, as was Shane Ryan, even if Ryan did stray a little into less than legal activity. Jason Sherlock was a revelation, as much a victim as a benificiary of the Dublin Media Hype over the years. Although Sherlock didn't score, he was always game, brave and a very fine player indeed. How Dublin haven't utilised him more since 1995 is one of many mysteries that shroud Dublin football.

Contrary to what an outbreak of shoneenism on a later RTÉ radio report might indicate, the reason why Dublin failed to score for fifty-two minutes of play was clear to the merest football intelligence: they weren't let. Dublin got two soft frees in the first fifteen minutes and a Darren Homan point from play, but after that the Mayo defence, so long the leitmotif of the John Maughan style, drew breath and flexed its considerable muscle. Dublin, try though they might, were crushed in the defence's embrace, just as the press crushes the grape. For Dublin, there was just no way out.

But, contrary to the opinions of our friends in the no-so-national broadcaster, this is not a Dublin story. Mayo v Dublin in Castlebar is a Mayo story, from first to last. The Mayo support, loyal throughout the humiliations of Sligo, Westmeath, Cork and Fermanagh in the past four years, finally left a Mayo game with hope for the future. Even in Mayo's worst days in the past four years the defence has been good; yesterday it was as the rock of Gibraltar, standing proud and unmoved as the blue waves crashed against it. By the end, if Dublin were to score one point after being held scoreless for so long, it would have felt like a defeat.

That Mayo had a find in Gary Mullins at centre-half back was the one thing the Mayo faithful could take from last year's championship; yesterday he had good men on his right in Conor Moran and his left in Fergal Costello. Costello has been excellent for years; Moran is new on the scene but he's fast, skilful and brave. He needs to be brave, as he's giving away size in a game that's become very physical since the Ulster Ascendancy of the past two years - perhaps a fistful of calfnuts in Moran's breakfast porridge could work the oracle over the next couple of months?

Behind the half-backs, the line of steel tightened with Geraghty, Ruane and James Nallen. Geraghty came on a sub and quickly subdued the lively Sherlock, and that Gary Ruane is a pocket battleship of a player is no news to anyone with eyes to see. But, wearing the unaccustomed No 2 jersey and placed in the corner away from the limelight, James Nallen gave truth once more to the old saw about the permanence of class. Nallen has worn the Green above the Red in full many a foreign field, and been felled and disappointed in most of them. With many miles on the odometer now, some of his speed is gone, but none of his craft, and none of his smarts. Whenever the defence was threatened Nallen was always there to pour balmy oil on troubled waters, calm heads and clear dangers. What a man.

Fans of TG4's marvellous reality show Underdogs will be aware that one question any team playing Dublin has to answer is how to combat Ciarán Whelan. Yesterday, Mayo's dominance in midfield was such that neither Whelan nor Homan (or Whelo and Homo, if you prefer the jolly Jackeens' own system of nomenclature) finished the game. Whelan was called ashore long before the end, and Homan left before that again, the bearer of two yellow cards and certain marching orders. It was an all-Ballina midfield of Brian Ruane and Ronan McGarrity that vanquished them; Ruane had a curate's egg sort of game, but McGarrity, only just returned to Ballina after three years playing Collegiate Basketball in the States, is a bone fide star. As the game got on and McGarrity found his feet his achievements became greater and greater. Come the summer, Mayo may finally be in a position to return to their tradition of outstanding midfield talent.

The combination of the absence of the likes Marty McNicolas, Conor Mortimer and McDanger himself, and the fact that we are talking Mayo after all, meant that forward play was always going to be a work in progress. But in Castlebar, a new star was born, or perhaps an old one reincarnated. Austin O'Malley, from the town of Louisburgh on the edge of the broad Atlantic, gave an exhibition of half-forward point scoring from distance, the like of which hasn't been seen since the late nineties when James Horan, the flying Kiwi from Ballintubber, was lording Croke Park. Horan had a strange style of kicking, a kind of weird arcing looped approach and motion; O'Malley is more a classicist, taking a sideways stance to aim over the shoulder and crack one over the black spot.

New beginnings are never easy to tell from false dawns, and the Mayo bubble could quickly be burst next Saturday night under the harsh lights of Pairc Ui Rinn and a Rebel roasting the like of which Cork have handed out so often to Mayo in the past. Que sera sera of course, but, in the meantime, Mayo heads are held high with a navy and sky blue trophy mounted above the mantelpiece. There hasn't been much to cheer in Mayo since Maughan went away; now it looks like the Messiah is back.