Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mayo Football - Crisis as Usual

Neither Doctor Jekyll, Mr Hyde nor the Irish weather itself are at the races with Mayo football support when it comes to mercurial mood swings. Last August, we were licking our lips at the return of the county team to the top table after the desolation inflicted by Johnno’s Second Coming; now, the week after St Patrick’s Day, we are in despair once more after two bad losses in the National Football League.

How can this be? Why does it always have to be either/or?

It all stems from the long wait for the All-Ireland – what else? It isn’t just that Mayo haven’t won an All-Ireland since 1951, sixty-one years ago. It’s that they’ve been so close so often in recent years that the county has become demented as a result.

Everyone in Mayo wants the county team to win Sam, but nobody knows how this can be achieved. And between these twins rocks the good ship Mayo crashes over and back, year after year, summer after summer.

While nobody knows how it can be done, everyone has an opinion on the path to glory. The difference in these opinions is absolute. Even when it comes to evaluating players, something you would think a fundamental question, nobody seems to know what a good footballer is.

Kieran McDonald was a godlike genius with a football. Kieran McDonald held up play to the detriment of the team. David Clarke is the best goalkeeper in the county. David Clarke can’t direct his kickouts. The Mort is fire. The Mort is ice.

All good crack, of course. Football isn’t just for the seventy minutes the game lasts; it’s about the pre-match banter and the post-match forensics as well. The banter is all part of the crack, and there wouldn’t be much to talk about if everything were obvious.

What might be a bit more worrying, from a Mayo point of view, is that the banter is so unfocussed that it’s got to the stage where understanding is lost in the shouting and the roaring. And there is a huge and untapped resource there that may hold the secret to why Mayo always lose.

While nobody in Mayo knows how to win an All-Ireland, there is a fair population there now who know how to lose one. Mayo have lost five senior finals since 1989. That’s a lot of people with legimate views from inside the whitewash on what went right, what went wrong, and what the team can do to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Is that knowledge being tapped? Seán Óg de Paor was fulsome in his praise of John O’Mahony in his excellent autobiography, Lá an Phaoraigh, but he was also at pains to remember what one of O’Mahony’s predecessors, Bosco McDermott, told his Galway team about what it was like to play in an All-Ireland. Bosco ran them hard in training one night and, as they sat there puking, told them to remember the pain, because that pain is what it feels like to play in the All-Ireland final.

A few years later they were in the final and, when they felt the pain, they knew they weren’t beaten. They knew that this is just what it’s like on the greatest stage of all. And they were able to accept the pain and go on to beat Kildare. That knowledge of what the big stage is like can’t be bought, and Mayo have it. Lots of it. Are they using it?

John Maughan was a guest on the Newstalk Sports Saturday show the day before Mayo played Kerry last summer, live from Rouse’s Pub in Ballina. Maughan opined that Mayo couldn’t have won in 2004 and 2006 because Kerry were just too good for them.

If that opinion is general in Mayo GAA then we might all just as well fold up our tents and watch cricket instead. Mayo got to two finals in three years, and four in eleven. They can’t all have been poxed.

For Mayo to push on, they must understand why they have fallen when they fell. They must understand it absolutely, in order not to fall again. Once more and more ways to lose are eliminated, more and more ways to win appear.

Is this what’s going on currently? Who knows? What is of concern is the way seasons are evaluated at the highest level, and whether or not the county is chasing its own tail.

After the trauma of 2006, one County Board delegate thought Mayo lost because they were “like ladeens” against Kerry. Another was proud of the fact that Mayo would always play in the Mayo way. Those opinions are mutually exclusive; they can’t both be right.

Other counties don’t seem to have this division. If there is a substantial body of opinion in Tyrone who don’t rate Brian Dooher, or Kerrymen sick with worry about Colm Cooper still being in the squad, they keep it pretty much to themselves. Whereas in Mayo it’s all sackcloth and rendered garments.

To early to tell for 2012 yet, of course. It is, after all, only the League.