Sunday, August 22, 2004

Twenty-First Century Mayo One Step Closer to Sam

Mayo 0-9
Fermanagh 0-9

It was not immediately obvious to the Mayo hoard tramping through the rain after Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final muttering "that feckin’ Brady/McDonald/Mortimer/Maughan is only a bollix, I always said it, I always knew it," but a week’s reflection will instruct them that Mayo have, in fact, laid the foundations for their first All-Ireland win in fifty-three years.

This is a bold statement after a game where Mayo played as badly as the Grand Guignol horrors of Mayo supporters’ worst nightmares; when Mayo lost James Gill to a sending off; when it seemed that, to borrow a phrase first coined by a Charlestown man about a Castlebar man, if Mayo had ducks, they would drown.

The fact of the matter is that Mayo did not drown. Mayo, as Championship contenders, are still in the Championship. Previously, when Mayo put on an exhibition of choking, of which Sunday’s exhibition was well down there with Mayo’s lowest standards of the past, that was the ball game. This time, Mayo did not suffer the ultimate sanction, which is loss, and elimination from the Championship. This time, Mayo drew, and live to fight another day.

Punditry will start its reflections on the game with "All credit to Fermanagh," and Punditry will be wrong, as usual. For Fermanagh, the drawn game was a disaster. Fermanagh had Mayo writhing on the ground, but they failed to deliver the fatal kick to the head. Mayo selector Liam McHale and Mayo manager John Maughan both said after the game that it was a game that Mayo did not deserve to win, that Fermanagh should now be in their first ever All-Ireland final. The reason that McHale and Maughan know this, of course, is because if you substitute Fermanagh for Twentieth Century Mayo, you have the whole sorry Gaelic football history of Mayo in the past half-century, the team that never pulled the trigger in fifty-three years. Maughan and McHale know exactly what it is to leave it behind them, just as Fermanagh did on Sunday.

Mayo had an absolute disaster in Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final, when so many of the players on whom Mayo had built their church were blinded by the light. Burke had another nightmare with his kickouts, the Mayo fullback line looked soft, Brady was the Invisible Man without the bandages, Gill got sent off, the clown, Dillon anonymous, Conor Mortimor bottled it and Brian Maloney was cook too. The triumvirate of McHale, Maughan and Golden are not to escape the lash in this regard either, blatantly failing to make the changes that were necessary once the smell of fat frying became known to all with noses to smell. One of the indicators in the Championship so far that the era of Twenty-First Century Mayo had dawned was the speed with which the sideline make switches, such as the springing of Peadar Gardiner in the Connacht Final when Gary Mullins was getting trimmed by John Tiernan. On Sunday, nothing stirring on sideline as they watched in horror.

But here’s the thing – in previous Championships, when whatever it is in the Mayo blood or psyche or water that causes this choking, Mayo choked against teams that did not let them away with it, like Cork, Kerry or Meath. Fermanagh did let them away with it, and, as the week wears on, they will have plenty of cause to wonder about what might have been. It’ll be interesting to see how that impacts on Fermanagh’s Freewheeling Football the next day.

Nobody who choked did it deliberately, of course. By saying that certain players choked, I’m not saying that they disgraced their family or the proud old jersey that they wore – I’m saying it as a self-evident fact, just as rain being wet is a fact, or that match traffic is a bitch. That’s just the way it is.

How to react to that choking is the interesting thing. Lots of different, and often terrible, things happen in life, and that will always be the case. It’s how we react to reverses, rather than the reverses themselves, that will determine who we are.

An Spailpín knows all about nerves – as one of nature’s True Cowards, I have been known to jump three feet in the air should a butterfly clear its throat. Before the teams lined up for the parade, I saw Conor Mortimor in animated conversation with Kieran McDonald, and I now wonder if Mortimor had a touch of the collywobbles beforehand, as can happen to anyone. The thing to do in this case, then, is to go to the young man afterwards, and say "remember those collywobbles you had at the start of the game Conor? Didn’t you do well after all that to nearly win it for Mayo at the end? Well done, kid." For what do we fear but fear itself?

In picking the bones of the game, everybody will have formulated their own theologies about what should be done, whom should be benched and whom should be called to the colours. It quickly becomes an unfortunate exercise in what-aboutery – I could cite the appalling weather, or the pernickety refereeing of Michael Collins, who was sufficiently prissy to make one suspect he editorialises for the Irish Times in his spare time. Personally, if I were managing the team, I’d have hauled Brady ashore after fifteen minutes, and have hauled off Peter Burke immediately after he kicked out over the sideline. If I hadn’t taken him off, when Burke did it a second time I would have thought very seriously indeed about a pitch incursion to go as far as him to give him a good shake.

There will be tubs thumped all over Mayo this week saying this man should play and that man should play. Again, everyone has their favourites and their bugaboos. But to rend the Green and Red garment now while Mayo are still in the Championship, while for once Mayo have dodged a bullet instead of taking one behind the ear as is their custom, is folly. For Twenty-First Century Mayo, the dream continues.

POSTSCRIPT: Logical consistency appears to have no role to play in GAA analysis. Paul Curran and Kevin McStay have just been on The Sunday Game. The boys reckoned that Mayo were cook, terrible, rotten, whereas Fermanagh are a fine team of footballers who’ve been hatefully underestimated all season. They did not go on to explain why, if one team was horrid and the other Godlike, the match finished in a draw. Nor did they explain why, when asked to chose who would win the replay, both men were as one in picking terrible, rotten Mayo to beat Godlike, fantastic Fermanagh. Who will analyse the analysts themselves, as Juvenal might have wondered if he’d been a GAA man?