Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mayo Win the Nestor Cup: All Else is Jam

Concerns that Championship 2009 "hasn’t sparked" may be safely put to bed. The dross has been boiled off the qualifiers leaving an intriguing final round of marquee matches in prospect, while the four provincial champions wait on their quarter-final opponents in regal splendour, looking more potent and complete as a set than provincial champions have done since the wretched qualifier system was introduced eight years ago.

For the first time in a long time all four provincial champions look favourites to win their respective quarter finals. They are not nailed on, of course; would Pat Gilroy or Mickey Harte be able to suppress the tiniest shudder of dread should Kerry get by Antrim and be drawn to face either of their charges, bearing in mind the special fury the Kingdom reserves for Dublin and Tyrone? But accidents aside, right now the most likely semi-final line-ups are Cork v Tyrone and Mayo v Dublin.

One of the many delicious prospects that guaranteed football in August brings is that one may look at the game’s princes straight in the eye, as equals rather than subjects. Tyrone are the best of the four provincial champions of course. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been paying attention. However, against the grain of popular current opinion, your correspondent would fear Cork much more than Dublin.

An Spailpín rather fancies either of Galway or Mayo’s chances against the Leinster Champions. But Cork are big and strong and have survived tougher tests over the past few years than Dublin. Cork are worthy of having eyes kept on them.

Of the nine qualifiers left in the Championship, An Spailpín Fánach views Kerry and Galway as easily the most dangerous. Kildare received a lot of plaudits for their display against Dublin but there seems a very clear gulf between the team that played in the first half of the Leinster Final and the team that were present for the second. Kerry may be wobbling but not until we hear taps sounded over the descending casket can the thirty-five time Champions be counted out.

An Spailpín has heard it said that Galway were between poor and shocking on Sunday in sunny Salthill. Not from where I was looking. Galway broke even in midfield where they were expected to get cleaned like the herrings for which they are known, and were within one kick of forcing a replay after being behind for the entire game. A lot of teams would like to be that shocking.

The real questions over Galway concern tactics, and the wisdom of withdrawing Seán Armstrong so far from the front line. Because, as has been noted here before, Galway have some stone killers upfront, men who can pop them over all the live-long day and anybody who’s licking their lips at the prospect of facing Galway for the rest of the summer may end up dining on ashes by the time the referee blows that all-too-final whistle.

All of which reflects well on Mayo, of course, who were just terrific. After the disappointments of the past two years Mayo are Connacht Champions and the summer now stretches into August and possibly beyond. If Mayo had lost, platters would have been sent to the County Board with demands for John O’Mahony’s head by return of post. When he wins a Connacht Championship he deserves praise of the highest.

From here on in for the volatile and hopelessly passionate Mayo fans, everything else is jam. The people of Mayo have tortured themselves in the past over not winning All-Irelands, rather than celebrating still playing football in the height of summer, and having football to talk about while drinking the bottle of cold tea in the meadows. It’s very hard to buy a doughnut that doesn’t have a hole in the County Mayo. Time to deal with that, and move on.

There are issues with the Mayo team, of course. Some players didn’t seize the day the way others did. What harm? They still won, and now they have something to chat about at training while they wait for the quarters. Win-win. While the fans enjoy the taste of jam, the players know the object of a knockout competition is to take each contest as it comes, and last as long as you can. If you’re the last men standing, well, so much the better.

FOCAL SCOIR: There has been some press coverage of Conor Mortimer’s t-shirt tribute to the late Michael Jackson, or Micheál, as Conor styled him. It’s all my hat. Conor Mortimer is an amateur player playing football by the seaside. If he can’t have a laugh while he’s doing it, then we should all chuck it in and retire to the monasteries and convents. The really funny thing about Conor’s mischievous message is that Conor is a GPA man, and we know how much the GPA membership equate playing football in high summer with suffering and pain. But then Conor was never what you’d consistent, I suppose.

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