Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Dublin Hound and the Mayo Hare

First published in the Western People on Monday.

In these magical years, when Mayo have knocked so hard and so consistently on the Great Door of Glory, a certain amount of energy was wasted every year worrying over where the team’s Achilles’ heel was prior to each particular Final.

People would worry about how the team could possibly mark Kieran Donaghy or Michael Murphy. Childhood friends would fall out over who should take frees on the left hand side. Duels were threatened over whether this game or that game was lost on the line. And so on and so forth.

One of the many remarkable things about this year’s campaign has been the absence of that sort of worrying, even though this 2016 team is, arguably, more visibly flawed than the ones that went before it.

John Maughan’s 1996 team could hang their hats on a magnificent six-point win over Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, still the last time Mayo beat the Kingdom in the Championship. Maughan’s 2004 team beat Tyrone. 2006 had two incredible victories over the Dubs, the game itself and the battle immediately before it, in the shadow of the Hill.

James Horan’s teams had more glory days than we can count. Even the ill-fated and unhappy reign of last year’s management had that triumphant Saturday evening win over Donegal.

This year hasn’t been like any of those. Worrying, disaffected displays in the League were followed by that shocking Saturday evening in a wet and miserable McHale Park, as Mayo tumbled out of the Connacht Championship for the first time since 2010.

Some people thought a run in the qualifiers would be the making of Mayo. The theory is that the back door allows for building in incremental improvements, away from the spotlight, until you come bursting back into All-Ireland contention.

And that’s fine, as long as you’re incrementally improving. There’s been very little to suggest that Mayo are improving, as they’ve huffed and puffed to get past Fermanagh, Kildare and Tipperary, with only the victory over Tyrone feeling like something substantial.

And now, somehow, Mayo find themselves in another All-Ireland Final, against Dublin. If this were one those hideous reality TV dating shows, there would be no problem telling the metropolitans and the Mayomen apart.

Dublin would be dressed in those Rumpelstiltskin-style shoes, brown and pointy. They’d have drainpipe jeans paired with a pricey-looking shirt – no tie, of course. They’d be clean-shaven, iron-jawed and wearing enough product in their hair to keep the pistons of a David Brown 990 tractor lubricated until well into the winter.

Bedraggled Mayo, by contrast, are covered from head to toe in clay, dirt and the sort of scratches you get from digging with your bare hands. Mayo would look like they had to tunnel in by hand to get there at all. Which, of course, is exactly what they have had to do. For Mayo, this summer has been defined by struggle.

Mayo could lose on Sunday. God knows, it’s not like it’d be the first time. All the balls that bounced their way in the summer could bounce against them.

Someone could get sent off for some bizarre black card infraction. Someone else could forget he’s sweeper this Sunday. If a bolt of lightning were to blow the ball up just as it’s crossing the black spot for the winning point we wouldn’t be entirely surprised. If such a calamity could befall anyone, it’d befall Mayo on the third Sunday in September.

But, but, but. Every now and again, in all of the matches, there have been moments that make you wonder. David Clarke charging off his line to stop the baby being thrown out with the bathwater in those anxious final minutes against Tyrone. Colm Boyle bouncing up and down with passion and fury and sheer, raw want. Aidan O’Shea taking constant abuse and still getting up and going again, time after time, game after game.

It’s hard to imagine these men are thinking of making up the numbers on Sunday. It’s hard to see Mayo willingly playing the hare to Dublin’s hound.

Dublin have that greyhound trait about them – the speed, the relentlessness, always giving the impression that they are born to do this, and only this. What Dublin might not be so good at doing is adapting to circumstances.

The greyhound expects the hare to always run away. If the hare stands his ground, the greyhound has to look for Plan B – if he has a Plan B.

We have seen Dublin shocked twice in recent years. Donegal turned them over as seven-to-one outsiders in that 2014 semi-final that wasn’t played in Limerick, and Kerry shocked Dublin last month. Dublin reacted better against Kerry this year than against Donegal in 2014 but – if it’s not Gaelic Football heresy to even think it – maybe Donegal ’14 had a little more in the locker than Kerry ’16, and that made a difference too.

Dublin aren’t the first team to be hailed as unbeatable. There have been many of them, down the years. But once the unbeatable team goes down as they all have, the mortality that was always there is suddenly obvious to all. Of course the Cluxton kickout was the rock on which they built their church – when that collapsed, everything else crumbled with it. Of course the team had peaked, and had nowhere to go but down. Sure that was obvious, if only we’d been looking.

What is particularly interesting from a Mayo perspective is that, having prayed so long for The Ultimate Team, we are now sending into a battle a flawed team with just a single gift, the gift of doing just enough to win. A team that knows it only has to be better than what’s in front of it, rather than the best of all time. Will the change of focus finally direct all Mayo’s energy to ridding ourselves of that sixty-five-year-old monkey on our backs once and for all? We’ll know by five o’clock on Sunday. Up Mayo.