Monday, October 23, 2017

Mayo Post-Mortem #66: Open Verdict

Recordings of both Sky and RTÉ’s coverage of this year’s All-Ireland Football Final sit on my Virgin Media box, like the regions of dark matter in outer space that so fascinate the astrophysicists currently. I have no intention of watching them, but I can’t delete them either. A situation that is bizarrely appropriate for this particular Final, suddenly the hardest of all Mayo’s many All-Ireland Final losses to come to terms with.

One of sport’s eternal debates is whether it hurts more to get hammered into the turf or to lose by inches. It’s the sporting equivalent of whether it’s better to get punched in the face or the guts. Neither is great, really, but is possible to make a case that one is worse than the other?

There’s something different about this year’s Final though. It’s not a question of so near and yet so far for Mayo, the way 1996 was, say. It’s something different. But what exactly that difference is remains stubbornly hidden in the dark matter that exists beyond the stars, and in the tortured psyche of the Mayo football public.

Partly it’s got to do with the mixed records of the two competing teams. The narrative is that a hairsbreadth separates them. The reality is that Dublin always win, and Mayo always lose.

Dublin, we are told, are one of the best teams ever, if not the best team ever. Mayo can’t win an All-Ireland Final, despite appearing in them with almost monotonous regularity. Other teams have risen and fallen in the past twenty years – Mayo keep regenerating to be almost there, but just not quite. Just that little bit missing, every time.

Is there a lesson there? Are All-Ireland generations essentially destructive, like the economic cycle? Is it the case that every boom must be followed by a bust? And is that why Mayo have never fallen from Division 1, because they never boomed sufficiently to go bust?

It’s a theory. One of many, and not the strongest. The reality of Mayo’s perpetual losing of All-Ireland Finals is more likely to be prosaic than metaphysical. The fault is more likely to be in ourselves than in our stars.

It’s that logical impossibility that exists in the two states of Dublin and Mayo that makes processing the 2017 Final so difficult from a Mayo perspective. If Dublin are one of the greatest teams of all-time, then surely the only team that’s put them regularly under pressure is also somewhere in the pantheon of all-time greats. But entry to that pantheon necessitates possession of a title, and that’s something that Mayo have failed to achieve. Armagh won. Cork won. Donegal won. Mayo ... lost.

A narrative has been proposed whereby, even if they were never to win an All-Ireland, the current Mayo generation would be remembered as one of the all-time great teams. A visit to a Galway football Facebook page a week or two after the All-Ireland Final would quickly disabuse the innocent of that theory. No Celtic cross, no nothin’. Plenty of teams that have won All-Irelands are disparaged as having won “soft” ones. How soft is the one that is not won at all?

And so we come back to the circle that can’t be squared. We have, in the green-and-red corner, one of the all-time great teams that not only can’t achieve what all-time great teams achieve – win multiple All-Irelands – but can’t achieve what legitimate-and-deserving-champions but not all-time-great teams do, and manage to somehow fall over the line. Cork fell over the line. Armagh were damnably unlucky not to win a second All-Ireland, but the Geezer generation got their Celtic Crosses. For this Mayo generation – nada. And for some on the panel it’s already too late.

There’s a new ethos in Mayo whereby any criticism of the team – who owe us nothing – is socially unacceptable, if not worthy of pariah status in cases where repentance is neither swift, clear nor suitably remorseful. On the other hand, there are underground criticisms, most notably those of a mystery man called Jimmy, surreptitious videos of whom are being transmitted through that most pernicious of modern curses, social media.

Filming anyone on the sly is a low act but it’s clear that Jimmy is a legitimate and well-informed student of the game. You may not agree with everything he says – I, myself, do not – but I prefer him saying it so that at least there’s a discussion going on, so that we can get some sense of closure about what happened, why it always happens and what else can be done to stop it happening, rather than people expected to become some sort of Stepford wife-esque cheering section.

For instance: the long and lustrous autumn of Andy Moran’s career reflects brilliantly on a man who is loved within the county and genuinely liked by nearly every other county. But how badly does it reflect on the rest of the forwards in Mayo that the county is so reliant on a man who has many more football years behind him than before him?

The bravest thing Stephen Rochford did was play Aidan O’Shea at fullback against Kieran Donaghy, not least as it took serious guts to back an unorthodox opinion after his most famously unorthodox opinion, that it was worthwhile to drop a goalkeeper for an All-Ireland Final reply, having blown up in his face. Rochford deserves huge credit for that, and surely owns the dressing room now in a way that was less-than-obvious earlier.

However. Rochford’s record on bringing players through is not good to the point of being bad. One of Jim Gavin’s many strengths lies in his regenerating his team without outsiders ever being able to see the joins. Rochford is now in danger of having to replace players en masse and that is a risky business. It is seldom wise not to plan ahead.

These are just two of the challenges facing Mayo as the long quest continues into another empty winter. Up Mayo.