Do people from other counties agonise over metaphysics the way Mayo people do? When they won their respective finals or quarter-finals, did the four counties lining up the for the next two weekends’ hurling semi-finals spend sleepless hours wondering what those wins meant, or were they just glad to be still be in the show, and have their summer extended by a few more weeks?
Maybe Limerick. Limerick and Mayo followed parallel paths of misery in the mid-nineties, losing two All-Ireland finals, at least one of which was entirely winnable. The jubilant scenes in the Gaelic Grounds when they won the Munster title would suggest that, in terms of dementia, Limerick could give Mayo a game of it.
Clare’s success of the 1990s is still warm in the memory. Maybe the Bannermen are enjoying a feeling of belonging as they prepare for the Treaty County the weekend after next. As for this weekend’s semi-final, there are very few Corkmen or Dubliners who could be described as quiet and unassuming. They don’t get dazzled in the limelight. If anything, they’re inclined to wilt without it.
Not so, historically, for the County Mayo. Times are changing, certainly. Since John Maughan took over a team that languished in Division 3 of the National Football League in 1995 these have been glory years for Mayo. Mayo played in Croke Park just three times between 1951 and 1981 and, naturally, bit the bullet each time. Now, the place is as familiar as Moylette’s corner is to a Ballinaman – and they used to be very familiar indeed on Moylette’s corner, back in the day.
But can we enjoy it? Can the people of Mayo, like the man in the song, take the day for what it’s worth and do the best we can? Or will that longing for September redemption hang over everything we do?
Justly or no, Mayo are the All-Ireland favourites as you read this piece. This may be due to a quirk of bookmaking – because Kerry and Dublin are playing each other in the semis, they tend to cancel each other out, pricewise – but the fact is that national favoritism is not a place to which Mayo are accustomed. There is too much water under the bridge not to feel a frisson on uncertainty when thinking of what’s ahead.
Is this justified? Isn’t this the best Mayo team we’ve seen since the 1950s? Strong on every line, with depth on the bench, a messianic manager and a back-room staff who leave nothing to chance? They even have a team psychologist, to make sure the marbles are all correctly accounted for and the lazy media cliché about Mayo’s “mental toughness” is suitably addressed.
Well. We’ve seen this before, and we don’t have to go back to the 1950s to find it. There’s a new steel in Mayo, say the pundits. How is the current steel different to the steel of Horan’s team when he was a player, when the team were – allegedly – banned from the Valley of Diamonds in Enniscrone because the ferocity of their training was eroding the beach? Or the team of 2004, who went 1-3 to 0-0 down against Galway, only to come back and win? Wasn’t there steel there?
The Mayo forwards are different to what they were. So too in 2004, when Ciarán McDonald was in his full pomp at centre-half forward, his favourite position, pinging in passes to the Mortimers on the full-forward line. Conor Mortimer had his best season in 2004, in this writer’s opinion, probably due to the fact that his brother beside him and McDonald behind him effectively fenced in his more impish tendencies and forced him to concentrate on the job in hand.
The Mayo celebrations shook the Big Tree the night after Mayo beat the reigning All-Ireland Champions, Tyrone, in 2004. It all fell apart then. A stutter against Fermanagh, rumours of trouble in the camp and some difficult to understand selection decisions saw Mayo suffer the same fate as the frog before the harrow in the 2004 All-Ireland final. So it goes.
Mayo are unlikely to see this year’s campaign collapse as 2004 collapsed. These are different men, in different times. But then, fans are inclined to judge losses on when they occurred, rather than why. The 1998 team got a Mayfly summer of one match, when they were unlucky to lose to a Galway team that went on to justify their win by returning Sam to the West for the first time in thirty-two years. But could that ’98 team have been The One, if it survived past May?
The 1998 Championship was far from vintage, and Mayo ’98 were better than ’97. Or how about 1999, when Mayo ended the Tuam hoodoo on a hot day when St Jarlath’s Park was so full that a spectator could have lifted his or her feet from the ground and still not fall over? John Maughan was chaired off the ground that day; how long ago it seems. Ifs, buts, and maybes – these are what we build our summers from in the County Mayo.
Maybe this team will win the All-Ireland and join the immortals. Maybe it won’t. Maybe their destiny is in their hands. Maybe it’s not. Maybe Dublin or Kerry or Tyrone are better. Maybe someone else will get injured, as Andy Moran got injured last year or John Casey in 1999.
What would be nice would be if Mayo fans could live in the now, and drink the sweet taste of victory and vengeance from the weekend. The All-Ireland will hang over every Mayo team until that wanted is sated but in the meantime, the Green and Red still flies high as summer moves towards Autumn. That’s a feeling of deep, deep satisfaction and should be enjoyed fully while it’s here.