Those clocks are down to single digits now, as Mayo’s early outing at the seaside against Galway approaches. Since the draw was made in October last year, Sunday has been a green-and-red letter day. Win in Salthill, and the Mayo bandwagon is back on the road. Lose, and James Horan needs to be smuggled out of the county until things calm down a bit.
Problem is, those countdown clocks are calibrated incorrectly. A countdown to Salthill made sense before Christmas but as the League rolled on, things changed. A measure of a team’s success is its ability to adapt; if Horan can adapt to changed surroundings in time to have Mayo punch their weight come August, it’s been another great year already. If not; well, it’s not like we haven’t cried into our beer before.
What’s changed since Christmas? Injuries are what have changed since Christmas.
James Horan spent the first year of his time as Mayo senior manager trying out players and combinations. By Year 2 he had found the men with whom he was prepared to fight or die, and that year was about bedding them in. And Year 3 would be about forging those men into burnished steel in the white heat of the greatest glory of the Irish summer, the Championship.
But that plan is pretty much dependent on the players being there in the first place. If they’re not, Horan has to wing it until they are.
Mayo football never wanted for rumours, but we are certain that Michael Conroy is gone until August at least. A big loss. If Alan Dillon and Andy Moran are back, they can’t be match fit, and no-one will really know how much Andy Moran’s lion heart will be able to rule his wounded body until he plays.
That’s three hostages to fortune on Sunday out of the six forwards the rules allow. Barry Moran’s continued absence sees further question marks over midfield, so Horan is going to the game in Salthill with three lines disrupted. Those who dream of the return of Richie Feeney or Tom Cunniffe could make the case for four.
And that’s a hell of a lot of uncertainty for a team to be away-from-home favourites against a traditional rival who always have it in them to turn Mayo over, and to sometimes go so far as to give Mayo a comprehensive hiding. The price of Mayo as 8/15 favourites at Salthill on Sunday is mean in the extreme.
In an ideal world, of course, Mayo turn up in Salthill, burn Galway down and cast their ashes to the wind that howls around that cold ground. Galway are a team that cannot be beaten too often or too badly by the County Mayo. We do it, not out of spite, but of love for our western neighbours that, like the triumphal Romans of old, they will always know that they are mortals, not gods.
Unfortunately, that’s not always possible and on occasion it’s been Galway that have done the beating. There is a strange quiet in the land of the heron chokers this week, a remarkable trait among a lippy tribe. What are they up to? Are they thinking of May 25, 1998, a day that will live in infamy in the county Mayo?
Perhaps they are. It’d be like them, God knows. But this is 2013 and, should the unthinkable happen, Mayo must remember that there is a back door this year, and they should be neither ashamed nor unmotivated to use it.
Mayo’s qualifier record is shocking, but it doesn’t have to be. If Mayo take the pipe in Salthill it’s six weeks until their next competitive game. That’s a lot of time to repair those who need repairing and to remind the younger members of the panel that if you want a place on the team you have to go out and grab it. It won’t come to you by right.
It would be lovely if Horan threw caution to the wind and told someone like Evan Regan that his hour is come, and if Regan were then to go out and do as Cillian O’Connor did before him. Chances are that Horan will pick Enda Varley or Alan Freeman instead. Both are fine men, but neither particularly daring as a selection. Who knows? The most important thing to remember is that the countdown clock doesn’t reach 00:00:00 on Sunday the third Sunday in May but on the fourth Sunday in September. All Mayo have to do until then is survive.
Survival on the high road of the Championship would be ideal, as Mayo have done in the past two years of the Horan era. But if the journey is to be through the mountainy land of the Qualifiers, so be it. So long as a full-strength Mayo are in Croke Park in August how they get there doesn’t matter. Because, gentle reader, take this as gospel: there isn’t one county in the country who’ll look forward to playing them then. Up Mayo.