Monday, April 16, 2012

Mayo Learn a Valuable Lesson Against Kerry

Mayo learned a valuable lesson when they beat Kerry in the National Football League semi-final yesterday, a lesson that’s important not just to the team, but to the entire culture of Mayo football itself. The lesson is this: you don’t have to be especially good to win. You only have to be good enough.

There’s a thing in Mayo, sometimes spoken but generally under the surface, that it’s not enough to win. You have to win in the Mayo style. You have to look good. It is the equivalent of being starving and then turning up your nose at bread because there’s no jam on it.

And that mentality – that you’re either perfect or your nothing – has cursed football analysis in Mayo since John O’Mahony’s breakthrough team in 1989. This is the most successful era of Mayo football since the 1950s, but the failure to bring home an All-Ireland has, unfairly and illogically, damned all the other great things that have happened.

In Mayo, it’s not a case of the glass being half-full or half-empty. It’s a case of the glass being either full of the creamiest, sweetest porter imaginable, or dry as a bone, containing nothing but a final notice bill for the Household Charge.

Yesterday’s win over Kerry was the diametric opposite of this peculiar psychosis. Mayo’s win over Kerry had nothing to do with style. It had to do with an ability to dog out a result, and to gratefully accept lucky breaks when they broke.

There were some outstanding performances from Mayo yesterday. Colm Boyle, obviously. The much-maligned Ger Cafferkey. Higgins, of course. The Mort. And the ramshackle midfield, which was missing Mayo’s best player of the new generation. Previous Mayo teams would have thrown their hats at it when Aiden O’Shea wasn’t there – if you’re not going be magnificent, what’s the point in trying? Let’s just roll over.

But this is different. When the midfield began to burn diesel, Mayo kept on going, ignoring the black smoke belching between the 45 metre lines. The penny had dropped; Mayo knew that, even though they were struggling, they were always in the game. That Kerry would make mistakes, as we all make mistakes, and those mistakes would give Mayo a chance. And that’s exactly what happened.

Two hundred years ago, when Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, fought across Europe, Wellington noted that they two men were fundamentally as strategists. Napoleon was a magnificent battlefield commander – Wellington compared his campaigns to a “splendid set of harness,” while his own were more like ropes. However, once one part of Napoleon’s harness broke, everything else fell with it. All Wellington had to do was tie a knot in his rope and carry on. Less pretty, but considerably more practical in the long run.

James Horan and his management team spent a lot of time trying knots from when Aiden O’Shea got injured during the week, and then they had to do further mending on the hoof as the game progressed. This is the great lesson of yesterday, even though it’s so early in the year. Mayo realised that it’s all right not to be perfect. That you can be less than perfect, and still win.

Mayo got off to a good start for the second week in a row, only to find themselves in the same old hole after fifty minutes, with Kerry moving up through the gears and edging away. Mayo fought hard to come back and force the extra time, only again to see Kerry easing in front like the thoroughbreds they still are. And still Mayo spat on their hands, and got back to work. They knotted the rope and carried on.

Even if Bryan Sheehan’s 45 had gone over in the final minute – and it was high folly on Kerry’s part to go hunting for a goal at the end instead of taking the point and the replay – today would still have been a good day for Mayo. The team and the Mayo public learned the valuable lesson that games are always winnable.

You don’t need to play like gods to win football games. The bar isn’t that high. You only have to be a little better than the other fellas. Roll on Cork.