Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Walking Shadow: McDonald Dispute Brings Johnno's D-Day One Year Early

There will be one TD on the Yes side of the house who will be serenely indifferent to this week’s recriminations and repercussions over last week’s ambush of the Lisbon referendum. John O’Mahony, Fine Gael TD for the County Mayo, knows that the people of Mayo can look on the ebb and flow of the geopolitical tide with a steady eye, but losing to Sligo can get a man run out of town on a rail.

When John O’Mahony returned as Mayo manager two years ago, he said that one of his objectives was to calm down the annual early summer frenzy of ambition and excitement that builds from Belmullet to Ballaghaderreen and all points in between as Championship approaches. In this at least, John O’Mahony has been an outstanding success, as there has seldom been a greater air of foreboding and unease on the eve of Mayo’s first game of the Championship.

A cloak of invisibility, similar to that favoured by Fionn Mac Cumhaill himself, has enveloped the county team since their final league appearance, against Tyrone in Omagh. The exchanges then were gentle, as the sides waltzed each other around Healy Park, each with eyes firmly fixed on other partners. Since then even the rumours have dried up and no word at all, good, bad or indifferent, has emerged from the camp to get the people talking outside Mass of a Sunday, or during occasions of venial sin on the preceding Saturday night.

The situation reached its nadir when Mayo played Offaly in a challenge in Doctor Hyde Park some weeks ago, a challenge about which nobody seems to know or have seen anything. Mayo turned up like a flying column, played a game that nobody seemed to know was on twenty-four before, and then disappeared back into the mist, like they were Brigadoon Sarsfields instead of one of the top eight inter-county teams in the country.

As such, it is perhaps less than surprising that the weight of pre-match discussion centres around a man who isn’t on the panel at all. Part of the reputation that John O’Mahony enjoys has to do with his image as a conciliator, a man who can pour oil on troubled waters. This year, that oil caught fire like a chip pan and left O’Mahony badly burned, as Ciarán McDonald gave an out of character interview to an national newspaper saying that he valued nothing more than wearing the green above the red, and was bitterly disappointed not to have the chance to do so this summer. It was sufficiently explosive to have John O’Mahony do an early morning interview on local radio on the day of that paper’s publication saying that nothing was set in stone and the summer is long and all the rest of it, but the damage had already been done.

Now, while news of the county team remains strictly under wraps, McDonald has been like Banquo’s ghost during his appearances with Crossmolina, dispatching Ballaghaderreen and Knockmore with some aplomb in recent times. It hasn’t got to the stage where they play Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me on the PA at the Crossmolina home games, but that step can’t be far away now.

Looking back through the years, it seems impossible to be a hero in Mayo football without being dropped or forgotten or overlooked. And the constant turning of the world means that if Mayo do catch fire this summer, and if the coming men arrive this year, then history will very quickly swallow Ciarán McDonald, just as it has McHale and Padden and Corcoran and all the rest. But in the meantime, John O’Mahony has left himself a considerable hostage to fortune is this upsetting public falling out with Mayo’s most charismatic player since Willie Joe.

When John O’Mahony was doing a radio show during John Maughan’s final year in charge it was fascinating to hear the reverence in which he was held by many of the callers. It was like he was perceived as the football equivalent of the Biblical Joseph, exiled by his own tribe only to win two All-Irelands in the land of the Pharaoh.

The spurned figure of McDonald has now blown away that mystical aura, and John O’Mahony will address his team on Sunday as a man who knows D-Day has come one year sooner than he would have liked. Eamon O’Hara and co are waiting, eager to show that their Connacht title was no fluke. It’s only the first game of the Championship, but even Johnno’s legendary political skills will be in extremis should the Yeats county men storm Mayo, and cause a terrible beauty to be born.

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