Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Austin Burglar

What a very unusual build-up there's been to this Mayo-Cavan game. For a game that leads to another day out in Croker in the (please God) hot summer sun, the reaction and rumblings at home have been muted. There is no real sense of anticipation, only a vague tingling of dread. Dread of losing, dread of what exactly Kerry would do to County Mayo in ten days' time were Mayo to be so careless as to beat Cavan.

John Maughan, normally a man that can seldom resist the footlights, has gone to ground, leaving just Georgie Golden as his representative on Earth. The only word that seems to be coming out of the camp is that "Marty McNicholas is going well in training"; only thing is, we've heard that about Marty Mac since Pat Holmes first brought him on board. Marty, Maloney, Andy Moran - these fellas are always flying in training. No news there.

The really interesting thing about this game, at the remove of Wednesday evening, is whether or not Austin O'Malley will pull on the green and red when it matters. Austin was one of the stars of the 2004 league campaign, but he only got two runs out in Championship afterwards - the dying minutes of the Connacht Final, and the dying minutes of the second replay against Fermanagh, the All-Ireland semi-final. He did not get the call on the fourth Sunday, and, while he spent a hot ten or fifteen minutes running up and down the sideline in this year's Connacht Final, he did not cross the white line.

Why not is the chin-scratcher for all Mayo fans. Austin was popping them over for fun in the league in 2004, not least in that miraclous and joyous game against Dublin in Castlebar when he scored seven, from frees and from play, from right and from left. That's not bad. He did well down in Cork as well, but as the ground got harder the word began to seep out that Austin was a bit of mudlark. That Austin had very little by the way of jet engines, and would be found out on the hard veld of high summer. Or else Somebody Important didn't like the cut of Austin's jib.

Whatever the reason, Austin was sparingly sprung during last year's Championship, and never had a chance of a start. So why he's starting now is the three-pipe problem, as Mayo's championship, and John Maughan's reign as Mayo manager, both hang by the same thread.

If Austin starts, why is he starting? Has the Mayo Brains Trust spotted something at last? If he was "going well in training" we surely would have been told - by Georgie, inevitably. So could it be that Maughan has decided bugger it, I've nothing to lose? I'll spring Austin and my critics will have one less stick with which to beat me?

The last named is An Spailpín Fánach's best guess. It's the final shout in the Last Chance Saloon, and Maughan is sending for a saviour from the Wild West - or, to be more precise, Louisburgh. The only thing that's causing An Spailpin Fanach concern is that Austin is meant to be filling in the same role as saviour as BJP, An tIolar Breá Iorrais, was meant to be doing in the Connacht Final, and see how badly that went.

Not that an tIolar should be blamed, of course. Billy did as he was told, and if his ball providers couldn't find him with the ball, he could hardly be expected to whittle one out of the goalposts. The thing is, if the ball coming in wasn't coming in to BJP, who's to say it'll come sailing in to AOM? Besides, wasn't Austin playing at wing-forward on that marvellous day in Castlebar, where a man has some space to turn and shoot? Surely there's a world of difference between playing on the wing and playing as that forward with his back to the goal?

If Austin is given the 14 shirt, does that mean that an tIolar should have his wings clipped? Is there an single intelligence behind all this, or is the current Mayo setup like something from a Pirandello play, with Fifteen Footballers in Search of a Manager?

Radio Johnno will be fascinating tonight at ten o'clock. Hopefully. It depends on the Great Man's mood, of course. Sometimes you get ball-hopping, having-a-cut Johnno, but other times you get butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth Johnno, who is a touch on the dull side. And is there any chance of giving Heaney a run at midfield? His interview in this week's Mayo News, where he admitted lapses of concentration in a position that he acknowledged can badly punish such lapses, make for another nervous trip to Da Hyde. Will Austin save the day and, if he does, will he start again against Ciarraí in a week's time?