Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Resilience and Realism Win the Day for Mayo

Mayo have been involved in many extraordinary Championship displays over the years. Some extraordinarily good, some extraordinarily bad. But neither Nostradamus, the Oracle at Delphi nor Paul the Octopus from the 2010 World Cup could have foreseen the drama at Croke Park on Sunday, as Mayo beat Dublin to advance to their thirteenth All-Ireland Final appearance.

The general wisdom was that the Dublin v Mayo game would be a cagey affair. Instead, Mayo turned up to shoot the lights out in a way that few in the county would have thought possible, even in their wildest of dreams.

Mayo people looked at the teamsheet and didn’t see scores. They saw good lads who’d break their hearts for the green and red but they didn’t see any Joe Corcorans or JP Keans or Noel Durkins. The fact that all of the forwards scored turned that preconception on its head and those Mayo forwards are the toast of Mayo for the week.

Not that the win was down to the forwards alone. The Mayo defence has been the same all through the Championship and pretty much the same all through the League. Establishing Ger Cafferkey at fullback has been one of the first things James Horan did, and he built out from there. On Sunday, instead of the certainty that he was blessed with during the summer, James Horan had to run the changes at the back and hope to God everyone could hold on.

And that’s what they did. People talk about modern football being about the squad rather than the team and that was proven again on Sunday as Chris Barrett and Richie Feeney stood up to be counted after waiting patiently on the bench during the summer, which can’t have been easy for either of them.

There has been talk about an increased level of cynicism in Mayo football, which isn’t entirely accurate. Mayo are playing modern football, and certain tactics are part of that. Darragh Ó Sé gave a master class in this a few weeks ago in the Irish Times. Maybe Horan is a fan – An Spailpín Fánach is, and hangs on every word Darragh writes.

What is refreshing is that this is accepted by a Mayo public which normally insists that Mayo teams have to play “in the Mayo way.” When – or if – Eugene McGee’s comma-tee change the rules to make this sort of thing an offence, Mayo will change too. But until such times, we dance with the girls in the hall.

Besides. Mayo 2012 still have that recognisable swagger that has traditionally distinguished the Mayo footballer. For this particular trait, look no further than corner forward Mickey Conroy, who is surely having the season of his life. First, Davitts’ great run to the All-Ireland final and now his triumphant return to the county team. Conroy has the full bag of tricks and it was a treat to see him work his magic yesterday.

Sunday worked out perfectly for James Horan. The Dublin comeback gives him plenty to work on in training, and the performance off the bench proves that there is real competition for places. All of that is good, but what is even better is the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that ever since Mayo returned to the top table in the mid-1990s, the county has tortured itself over what an All-Ireland winning team might look like. The consensus was that that you need Fionn Mac Cumhaill in midfield, Cúchulainn on the forty and Manannán Mac Lir bossing the square. A team of heroes, in other words, who know neither flaw nor weakness. Anything even slightly short of that shot you down to the level of the Warwickshire Junior B level.

Sunday’s semi-final suggests that in searching for perfection over the years Mayo have overlooked excellence. In other years, the loss of Andy Moran would have broken Mayo’s hearts. This year, Mayo know that while they’re still in the Championship, they’re still possible All-Ireland winners. As they lost man after man on Sunday, the next man stood up to be counted as he came off the bench.

It would be wrong to categorize the Dublin comeback as a choke-job. Dublin came back because you don’t get to be All-Ireland Champions without being able to play like that, but also because the Mayo defense was being held together with spit and string by that stage. But hold together they did, and that’s the point. Mayo have learned that sometimes you don’t have to perfect. Sometimes, mere excellence can get it done. Roll on Donegal.