Saturday, June 05, 2010

Sligo's Day in the Sun Delivers Another Mayo Football Disaster

Sligo 0-15
Mayo 1-08

Mayo manager John O’Mahony was talking some fighting talk on the radio tonight. Mayo aren’t out of the Championship at all yet, he said. We’ll regroup, we’ll see where we are, we’ll move on, said Johnno. And he reminded the nation that he’s been here before. Galway got dumped out in the first round of Connacht in 2001 and they went on to win the All-Ireland. Why not Mayo?

It’s an interesting feature of John O’Mahony’s public pronouncements in his second coming as Mayo manager that his perception of the team’s potential seems to exist in reverse proportion to everybody else’s.

Johnno’s second coming started four years ago with his contention a team that got to two All-Ireland finals in three years was deeply flawed and had to be rebuilt, and tonight he’s saying that team that got beat out the gate by Sligo has All-Ireland potential.

No wonder he’s in Leinster House. That sort of statement fits right in. We are where we are, moving forward in the light of totality of experience, after all.

Of course, it is possible that Mayo could pull themselves together and make some sort of a run in the Championship. As Johnno said, it has happened before, and that’s the nature of knockout competition – you catch the wave, and ride it as far as you can.

But while it’s possible, it’s by no means probable. It is this blog’s considered view that if the revellers in Belmullet on its great fair day on the 15th of August still have a Mayo team in the Championship to talk about over their glasses of sherry that it will be the single greatest achievement of John O’Mahony’s long inter-county career. Bigger than the Galway All-Irelands, the Leitrim Connacht title and his taking of Mayo to their first All-Ireland final in 38 years in 1989.

The only thing Johnno has going for him is that it can’t get any worse. But out from that, things look pretty much insurmountable.

When Johnno took over from Mickey Moran and John Morrison as manager of Mayo, it was all about rebuilding. And every team he’s fielded in the four years has certainly been rebuilt. The thing is, rebuilding really should mean getting progressively better – as Sligo have got progressively better, for instance. Building, getting flattened and starting from scratch every year isn’t really rebuilding. It’s going around in circles.

There are serious questions arising from all this. About tactics and training and game plans. About why good players deteriorate, as good Mayo players have deteriorated in recent years. About why there seems to be a lack of fitness in the team, in this age of major advances in sports sciences. About how players are injured so often, again in this sports science age. But the startling absence of progress is the most worrying thing.

Sure Mayo could make a run. A Mayo twin tower inside line of Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea presents completely different questions to anyone Mayo is playing, and Mayo has a rich pick of players, more so than most counties. But what would that mean for Alan Freeman, the one ray of sunshine for Mayo today?

Because it could get worse, actually. Mayo could field yet another “rebuilt” team in the qualifiers, against Longford, say, with McGarrity at corner forward and Conor Mortimer at center-half back, and beat them, and then maybe draw Kildare in Castlebar – to the exquisite relief of the County Board – and beat them, and then play Dublin in Croke Park and get annihilated in front of a baying Hill. That would be worse than today, for instance.

Or maybe getting beaten again by Kerry in Croke Park, with Jack O’Connor having told the team to go easy on us, like Kilkenny went easy on the Dublin hurlers last year. Out of pity. That would be worse. Mayo are in a bad, bad place tonight, and a Hollywood ending seems very, very unlikely. It’ll be short summer on the plain of the yews.

But while Mayo writhe in the horrors, Sligo bask in the joys and good for them. Kevin Walsh has been masterful in his management of Sligo, in the long term and outstandingly so during the game today, and in Eamon O’Hara Sligo have one of the all-time greats of the game, for any county.

Herman Melville wrote of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick that “"he piled upon the whale's white hump, the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.” If you substitute pride and guts for rage and hate you have O’Hara in a nutshell, in every game he’s played. And he was that again today, even as his body finally begins to betray him. Eamon O’Hara is a credit and grace to the game, and the very best of luck to him and everyone involved in the Sligo setup. They deserve their day in the sun, and more than one at that.