Monday, May 14, 2007

Of Sense Forlorn - Mayo's Quest Begins Again in Salthill

For John O’Mahony, picking his way through the thickets of An Taoiseach’s house purchase, as published by the Sunday Independent yesterday, is as child’s play compared to picking his team for the game against Galway in Salthill in six days’ time.

For instance, consider the number three jersey. A case could be made for it to be filled by any one of Liam O’Malley, James Kilcullen, David Heaney, Billy Joe Padden, James Nallen, David Brady or Uncle Tom Cobley if it comes to that. And that’s just one shirt of the fifteen. The only one who’s assured a place on a line is probably Conor Mortimer, and even then all it takes is one nocturnal trip to Super Mac’s on the Square for Conor to get on the wrong side of Johnno, and next thing you know there’s a Fine Gael motor car going over hill and down dale in Louisburgh blaring “Austy! Austy! Are you there Austy?” from the megaphones.

This is a very strange game from a Mayo perspective. There’s been a lot of old yak in the papers about Mayo’s fragile psyche and subtle psychological scarring and all this old chat. What happened in Croker last September amounts to a whole lot of nothing in Salthill in May, but if Mayo are to get September closure they will have to dispatch a lot of heavy hitters, such as our friends and neighbours who choke the heron for sport, on the way. That’s what comes of leaving All-Ireland titles behind you. If Mayo had given a good – or even a reasonable – account of themselves against Kerry in 2004 or 2006 it’d be something. They imploded instead, and now they find themselves in some strange sort of limbo until they return to that grand stage and exorcise their demons. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Mayo stand accursed, and will get no relief until they resolve what happened them in two Septembers of the last three.

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

So, even if Mayo do beat Galway on Sunday, it won’t really count, or at most, it’ll count for very little. Sunday’s is a game that Mayo can only lose. Winning is just one step closer to the only game that counts. If that sounds harsh, then that’s because it is. One of the reasons that winning All-Irelands is so great is because losing them is so wretched. The most telling quote from last year’s debacle was Jack O’Connor remarking that Kerry got more hunger from their one year without Sam than Mayo did from their fifty-five. And counting. That still smarts.

That’s the macro picture from a Mayo perspective, taking 2007 as a whole. On the micro level, taking the year one game at a time, Galway stand in Mayo’s way and it’s very damned hard to know what they will be like. Nobody was revealing very much in the phony war between the counties in the League semi-final, and we’re as wise about Galway now as we were then. The strangest thing coming down the wires from heron-choking central is how very unhappy they are with Peter Ford’s stewardship, which is baffling, to be honest.

We were wondering earlier about who’ll play fullback for the County Mayo. Whoever gets the nod might end up playing centre-half, if Pádraic Joyce goes rambling, as he did in the semi-final. It’s hard to know what Galway will do. If, as in the semi-final, Galway have Cormac Bane and Michael Meehan in the corners, then they have men inside that can bottle lightning and do Mayo profound damage if they light it up. The languid Bane looked stealthily, slyly dangerous against Mayo. Meehan has yet to cut loose in the Championship the way he has, on occasion, in the League, but the talent is there, simmering away. If Meehan can harness it, and if he gets a supply of ball coming into him, it’s hard to know how anyone can stop him.

Other than cutting off the supply at source, of course. Kevin Walsh continues to be missed in midfield as Galway chop and change, looking for a replacement. As things stand, any of the possible Mayo combinations of Davids Brady and Heaney, the timeless James Nallen, the industrious Pat Harte, Kilcullen or even Billy Joe should be able to stand their ground in the centre, unless Galway have dug up another Liam Sammon and Ford has him hidden under a blanket in some hayshed outside Tuam. If Mayo can get a grip at midfield, then it’s up to the forwards to keep the scoreboard ticking over, something that they’ve been struggling to do of late.

The low scoring returns of the forwards, Conor Mortimer excepted, is a source of growing concern. With the sort of form-line the forwards have been showing so far, they need someone in there who can give them an edge by the breath and depth of his passing vision. Regular visitors to this soapbox will know of whom I speak. Ciarán McDonald, like his Holiness the Pope, has been granted the keys to the kingdom; his is the power to loose and to bind. But Ciarán McDonald has hardly kicked ball since the All-Ireland, and he was half-crocked then. If Mayo are to beat Galway, the forwards need to step up.

If Mayo lose, it’s not, strangely speaking, the end of the world. Martin McHugh remarked to Paul Collins on Setanta recently that, because whoever loses on Sunday has seven weeks until the first round of the qualifiers, whoever loses has enough time to rebuild, and to treat the game in Salthill as just a once-off thing. Of course, things were much more thrilling back when the two sides met at this time of year on a hot day in Castlebar nine (nine! Can it be?) years ago, when it was still a real Championship and Mayo went spiralling out of it before the children had been given their summer holidays. What a cat summer that was.

If Mayo win, marvellous, and we look forward then to Leitrim or London on June 24th in the Connacht semi-final. If Mayo lose, darn, but it’s still back to training and focus shifting to the start of the qualifiers on July 7th, the difference of a fortnight. Whichever path Mayo tread, the demons stay with them:

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn'd round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Coleridge again. STC was from Devon himself, a pretty little town called Ottery St Mary, but the poet clearly knew what it meant to be a Mayoman. We can expect a week’s thrills and spills as the Candidate and the Boxer fight their phoney wars, and An Spailpín Fánach can do no better than recommend his fellow toiler in the fields of the Lord, Willie Joe at the Mayo GAA Blogspot, for all the latest. Willie Joe plucks all the latest news from ether the way his namesake used to pluck footballs from the azure vault of the skies, and I, for one, shall certainly be relying on him for the full skinny. Up Mayo.

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