It is the lot of the Mayo supporter to walk with ghosts. Ghosts of past players he or she has seen, memories of past achievements and disappointments, echoes of what-ifs and maybes. Mayo went into Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal with a lot of questions to answer. Some were obvious, like the goal-leakage identified by Malachy Clerkin in the Irish Times on Saturday. Some were a little more taboo; not spoken of, but certainly on people’s minds, shoulder-to-shoulder with all those ghosts.
It is to their eternal credit that the Mayo team and management answered all questions asked of them on Saturday, and more. Had the last of the four All-Ireland quarter-finals been an exam, Mayo would have graduated summa cum laude.
Top of the class were the new management team of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly. The challenges they had to overcome were many. Firstly, they had very big boots to fill. Secondly, the strange circumstances of their appointment meant that a lot of goodwill was lost at the start. Thirdly, the League campaign did nothing to ease the constantly frayed nerves of the Mayo support.
And fourthly, perhaps most importantly, the last time the Mayo County Board appointed a manager to give a team that one final push to bring Sam home, the appointee dismantled the team instead, put together a ragbag army similar to General Humbert’s, and suffered the same fate – cut down in Longford, beyond mourning or pity. The thought of the same fate happening the current group of players was distressing in the extreme.
Neither Pat nor Noel is a media creature. James Horan’s frequent media appearances have added to his reputation as a sharp analyst of contemporary football, while Jim McGuinness’s guru status is inviolable at this stage.
There isn’t quite the same bang off Pat and Noel, and the helplessless of the Mayo display against Dublin did nothing to dispel that impression. Post-Connacht final talk of a “secret plan” to shut down the greatest player in Ireland currently, Michael Murphy, sounded like people whistling past the graveyard to try to control their terror.
And then, on a dark Saturday evening in Croke Park, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly rolled a gigantic wooden horse called Barry Moran out between Mayo’s full- and half-back lines and seventy minutes later, Mayo were not only back at the big table, but they were consuming all around them, roaring for more, more, more at the tops of their voices.
For Mayo, Saturday was a story of redemption. Barry Moran, so often cursed by injury, has now played on every line bar the goals. The man has a heart the size of a farm in Meath and to see him work was a joy.
As was the return of Ger Cafferkey. Cafferkey was a permanent selection in the Horan era, and seemed to be taking more of the blame than he deserved for events against Kerry last year. On Saturday he reminded everyone that there is no real substitute for class.
And when we speak of class, what can we tell of Tom Parsons? Missing from Championship football for four years, who knows what sort of grafting that man had to do to tame his natural talent and focus it to the purpose of the group?
Whatever he’s done, it’s paid off in silver dollars. The Mayo heart can only fill with joy at the thought of these proud men and the leadership and character they’re showing, summer after summer, setback after setback.
Was it a perfect display? Of course not. Some of the substitutions were puzzling. Cillian O’Connor was unusually inaccurate with the dead balls. There is always something unnatural about a Gaelic football team sitting a lead rather than racking up scores. But these are small cavils in what was a great display against a very, very fine team. Donegal were leggy and by no means at full-throttle but they still had it in them to bury Mayo. Victory over this Donegal team is no mean feat.
And now, the Dubs. All Mayo is suffused with delicious anticipation of another pop at the metropolitans, not least as previous clashes between the counties have had such edges. The matchups are as stars in the sky, as each management team tries to anticipate and out-general the other. There has never been a bad time to be a Mayo man or woman but right now, for those with an interest in football the summer wine is very sweet indeed.