There was a science teacher on the staff of St Muredach’s College, Ballina, in the 1980s called Joe Kenny. Joe was a big believer in bringing the theory down from the clouds and home to where you lived. To this end, used to tell the most beautiful analogy about the nature of chemical compounds.
If you look at the periodic table of the elements, the elements that are listed in the rightmost column – Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon and Radon – are called the Noble Gases. They are called noble gases because they have a full complement of eight electrons in their outer shells, and this makes them very, very stable. Noble gases are the upper class of the elements; they do not mix with the lower orders.
The other elements – the metals, the metalloids, the halogens and the rest – are social climbers. They all want to be stable like the noble gases, and they form compounds to achieve that stability. Sodium combines its single electron with Chloride’s seven to form a compound, common salt, with eight electrons in its outer shell.
But leopards don’t change their spots. A compound can never become an element, least of all an element as elevated as a noble gas. Even though this new thing, salt, is supposedly stable, it’s not, really. It lacks the blue blood, and always betrays its humble origins. It will always call the midday meal “dinner” when the noble gases call it “lunch.” It will always answer nature’s call with a visit to the toilet, rather than the lavatory.
And so it goes with the Mayo support. The support are compounds, raised to stability by years of success, but always wondering when will be the next time Mayo lose a Connacht Final to Sligo, or be butchered by Cork by twenty points, or bet toyed with by Kerry as a cat toys with a dead mouse.
The players, however, look at the world differently. 1975 is indistinguishable to them from 1798. 1993 isn’t much different. What’s real to them are their memories of Ciarán McDonald and James Nallen and Liam McHale – the memories of watching them as children, and wanting to emulate them as men.
One of the many remarkable things about the current Mayo generation is its longevity. The most previously-consistent Mayo team was John Maughan’s team of the ‘nineties, which won three Connacht titles in four years and came closer than any other, before or since, to winning Mayo its fourth All-Ireland title.
This Mayo generation has reeled off five Connacht titles and, even more amazingly, has won its subsequent quarter-final in each of those five years.
You will read, or have already read, in this week’s Championship previews that that this achievement is as a millstone around the players’ necks. Not true. It can be a millstone around the supporters’ necks, for whom the bleak days remain very real, but when the players themselves stand among the elite every August and look around them, at the Neons and Kryptons and Xenons of the football world, they know that they belong.
A millstone? Reader, dream on. This Mayo generation know that they have the measure of anyone else out there, including Dublin. The very fact they’re still being talked of as contenders, after the almighty balls that was made of the post-Horan transition, is testimony to the extra-ordinary things that are happening in Mayo right now.
Because for once the current generation, talented though it is, is being pushed from below. The Minor winners of 2013 did not get the recognition they would have got had Mayo not lost (another) senior final the year they won, but those one-time minors showed in the Under-21 victory that there are men there who are ready for their close-ups.
Not that their time is come yet. Most of the current generation aren’t going anywhere, but the strength that can added to the squad by those men who will join from the Under-21 panel is considerable. Cillian O’Connor is the most under-rated player in Ireland but his return to the panel for the dying stages of the league underlined, once again, his worth.
There are tweaks to be made on the team, and question marks here and there. Of course there are – how could there not be? This is a game, after all. Balls bounce funny. But Mayo people, whose fondest wish was once to see a Mayoman lift Sam on the third Sunday just once before they died, are now coming to the realisation that is no longer a dream but an imminent event. Maybe this year, maybe the year after. Maybe both. Maybe neither. Like the weather, there are some details that are known only to the Lord.
But the when isn’t now as important as it once was. When was important when we thought Mayo might win an All-Ireland, when no-one was looking, as nearly happened in 1996. Those days of backing into the party are over. Mayo come in front door now. We are now looking at a Mayo team that will win by right, and God speed that happy day. Up Mayo.