Monday, September 11, 2006

Nolite Timere - Mayo's Time is Come at Last

On his return to his native Poland after his election to the Papacy, the late Pope John Paul II took as his leitmotif the first words of the angels to the shepherds as recorded by Luke - nolite timere; be not afraid. The Solidarity movement was welling in Poland at the time but the people needed reassurance that Moscow would not crush them as the Russians had crushed so many others while the world stood idly by. And their own, Polish, pope, delivered that reassurance. For once, the long downtrodden people of Poland had a world figure to fight their corner and, with that extra assurance, they were able to march on to a new age.

Now, of course, they didn't think that new age would result in emigration to Ireland to lead roofs and serve tea in restaurants, but few journeys occur on the Cartesian plane, where the straight lines rules; in this life, we must prepare for bumps. And having gone down the blind alleys of 1989, 1996, 1997 and, most traumatically of all, 2004, your Spailpín Fánach has decided that it is no longer appropriate to be afraid, and to await the crumb that falls from the green and gold table. Now is the time to sit down among equals, and feast.

Colm Keys was on Des Cahill's new radio show - isn't it awful? Did you hear Desmond talking to Platini the other day like Platini was a ten year old? It's so embarrassing, and yet, so RTÉ - and Keys was saying that Mayo have "a right good chance" in the All-Ireland Final. And just as Constantine saw the fiery cross in the sky, so a realisation finally dawned on An Spailpín Fánach - it's not Mayo that have to counter Kerry; it's Kerry that have to counter Mayo.

Do the math. Go through the positions. The Kerry full-forward line is terrifying of course, but any full-forward line is only ever as dangerous as the ball that goes into them. If Mayo can deny Kerry primary possession, then the full forward line are reduced to the level of the civil service - standing around with nothing to do. It is unlikely that Colm, Kieran and Mike Frank would be as indolent as the civil servants in looking for work to do, but still. It's a start. And why wouldn't Mayo deny Kerry possession? Daragh Ó Sé has been as fine as midfielder as his Ríocht has produced, and it's produced both Micko and Jacko. But he is only one man, and Mayo have three. Pat Harte and Ronan McGarrity have dominated the midfields they have played against, and each one very highly rated nationally - Michael Donnellan, Pádraig Clancy, Ciarán Whelan, et al. And as well as those two, Mayo enjoy the brooding and baleful presence of David Brady on the bench, ready at all times to cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war. Brady has a point to prove; he says his terrible rage was sated by that Stephenite win in 2005, but chances he's just being polite. In the event of Harte or McGarrity taking a knock, there is every chance that Kerry will find themselves in a frying pan, fire situation.

And this changes the dynamic completely. Instead of thumping high, hanging ball into the hungry maw of Kieran Donaghy and his wingmen, Kerry's best line is isolated, while play concentrates on the other end. And there Mayo have what they never had before. Options.

When Armagh beat Mayo last year in the league and Galway beat them in the Connacht Final, they knew that Ciarán McDonald was the cornerstone of all Mayo play. This is no longer the case. Colm O'Rourke and Joe Brolly may opine that all Mayo play goes through McDonald but it does not. If the Holmes and Yo-yo of RTÉ's football analysis did a little more homework they would see this Mayo forward unit for what it is - a threat coming from any direction, at any time. Alan Dillon, in the form of his life, cracking them over from under the stands. Ger Brady, chest out, head back, churning up the waves like a ship in full sail. Conor Mortimer fizzing and cracking at the corner of the square. And most importantly of all Kevin O'Neill, the Roy Hobbs of Mayo football, the Natural whose best years were denied him by cruel fate, having one last shot now as the sun goes down on his chance, using all his nous and hunger and deep, deep skills to rage, rage against the dying of the light. And if they're minding all those bucks, who's minding McDonald?

While Mayo are not utterly reliant on McDonald, that does not mean that the great man cannot take the baton and command the day when he hears the bugle's call, as others have done in Dublin 3 on late September Sundays to write their names in letters of fire on the honour roll of Gaelic Football glory. Ciarán McDonald gave his best ever club performances on All-Ireland Final days, in 2001 and 2003. He was one of few Mayo players who performed on that awful day two years ago, and if he's given an inch he will use it to plant his right foot while throwing down a green and red gauntlet to the laws of time and space with the left. The Good Book reminds us that it's not easy for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle; if she just got a root in the transom from McDanger's cos ciotóige An Spailpín Fánach is making the dromedary an odds-on proposition.

That's a lot of water for Kerry to bail, and keep the scoreboard ticking at their own end. And if they do ship it, if they can withstand being attacked on so many fronts and take their own scores, then hats off to them and more power to them. There are lots of reasons why Kerry could win. If Donaghy, Daragh Ó Sé, Cooper, Mike Frank, if any of those bucks catch fire Mayo are in big trouble. If they all catch fire, Mayo are quite certainly doomed. But there's quite some tinder in the Mayo chamber too, and for once, as talent, hope and history combine, and internecine feuding is finally forgotten, Mayo are going into this one holding aces. Mayo for Sam, at last. Go bhfeicimid thú i gCaislean an Bharraigh, a stócaigh ó, is fada an lá a d'imigh tú uainn.

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