Sunday, August 29, 2004

Twenty-First Century Mayo Seventy Minutes Away

I understand that Pat Spillane has written in this morning's Sunday World that the standard of yesterday's All-Ireland semi-final replay between Mayo and Fermanagh was not as high as the standard of football played at Junior B level. I don't know, of course, as An Spailpín doesn't take the Sunday World, but I would suggest that if the standard of junior football around Templenoe and environs is that high, then Pat ought to stand by the county he served so well by alerting the current Kerry selectors, who could always do with more souls before the mast.

And yet, I can't get it out of my head that this junior football that is played at the same level as the best game An Spailpín has seen in the Championship this year is not played in Templenoe, nor Kerry, nor any other county in Erin; it is much more likely to be played in some fantasyland rather like that described by James Stephens' in his lovely and lyrical novel The Crock of Gold.

Pat, as is his custom, is more than likely pulling the nations' leg. As the GAA's leading voice of harmless mischief, Pat is firing his usual fusillade that begins "back in my day…" Pat must be closing on the fifty now - how tiring this act will be should he persist with it when he really is an ancient.

Kerry have added a hint of steel to their play since the two years when Armagh and Tyrone so traumatically questioned their manhood. Other than that, this is pretty much Kerry as we have known them over the past number of years. Interchangable genii at inside forward - what other bench could boast Johnny Crowley and Mike Frank? - and a fine midfield led by Dara Ó Sé, but an unremarkable back division notable chiefly for their investigations into the tensile strength of the O'Neills' jersey, and a half-forward line remarkable for being not remarkable in the slightest. A far cry from Denis "Óige" Moran and P. Spillane himself.

Mayo have their problems too, of course. The fullback line creaks like some very old floorboards, the goalkeeper is undergoing a long dark season of the soul, and all Mayo teams must by their very nature fight against the sheer weight of history, expectation and that peculiar level of psychosis that all Mayo people claim as a birthright.

But, at the same time, Mayo are the form team in the country. They are strong up the middle, with Heaney, Nallen, Brady, McGarrity, McDonald and Mortimer; they have the best player in Ireland in McDonald pulling the strings in attack and in Conor Mortimer they have the finisher of whom they always dreamed in the dark days.

Mayo are a work in progress, and what a wonderful position to be in with four weeks to kill before they finally find out if they are to end that fifty-three year wait. How terrible it would be if they had peaked in that marvellous performance against Galway - instead, only nine or ten survive from three months' ago, and, by the time the referee blows his whistle at five to five on Sunday, September 26th, 2004, there could be even fewer.

From a man who was accused at having lost at least one title on the sideline, if not two, John Maughan, with the aid of selectors George Golden and Liam McHale, has developed into a wily fox indeed. And a tremendously brave one as well.

A rumour swept through Mayo like a burning flame on the eve of yesterday's game that there had been a huge fight between Maughan and David Brady, David Brady being known as a man that doesn't care to hide his lights under a bushel. The benching of Brady and the presence of Fergal Kelly in midfield with McGarrity gave truth to the stories, but, when Mayo's fat and fate were both in the fire, Maughan, to his eternally credit, put personal issues aside and sent in Brady. And to David Brady's eternal credit, he too put the county first with another outstanding display.

This determination and unity of purpose is not something that Mayo are used to in the past half-century, and it's not something that Kerry have seen in this year's Championship either. The Kingdom has been said to have breathed a sigh of relief after Tyrone followed Armagh into that good night in the quarter-finals; one has to wonder are All-Irelands that easily won.

The cobwebs are not gone from the Mayo psyche just yet, as witnessed by their freezing under the harsh spotlight of favouritism against Fermanagh last weekend, but Mayo are unlikely to be encumbered by that tag again. After all, where else but in Kerry or in Dublin would a forward be considered one of the most dangerous in the county after only returning one point in four games? This is Mayo's year.