Monday, December 30, 2019

An A-Z of the Past Decade in Mayo Football

Your faithful correspondent was flattered and delighted to be asked to add his two cents to the Western People's recent magnificent tribute to the Mayo footballers of the past decade, published about two months ago now. Here now are those two cents, with nothing added or taken away. Or hardly anything. Ahem.

A is for Ardour
It’s reasonable to wonder why we do it. Mayo people think we’re great at football but three All-Irelands in 130 years isn’t quite Liverpool’s Glory Years in Europe. But you can’t choose whom, or what, you love. Mayo are ours and we theirs and the GAA senior football team is our morning and evening star, whether we like it not.

B is for Bowe's
John Gunnigan, the man behind the Mayo GAA Blog, decided to hold a sort of a Mayo pre-match party on the eve of the All-Ireland semi-final of 2011. We all knew Mayo were going to lose in the morning, but Gunnigan thought it important to mark how far the team had travelled from losing to Sligo and Longford the year before. And so, visits to Bowe’s of Fleet Street became a pre-match institution as this remarkable decade rolled on. The night before the 2013 Final it felt like Mayo’s Age of Aquarius had dawned in that area of Dublin bounded by College Green in the south and the river in the north. It didn’t last, of course, but it was magical while it was there.

C is for Cork
Younger readers may not remember what a bogey team for Mayo Cork were. Cork beat Mayo in the 1989 final, but the humiliation of Cork beating Mayo by 5-15 to 0-10 in the 1993 semi-final particularly stung. It looked like business as usual in the early minutes of the 2011 quarter-final, and the pundits’ pre-match mockery of Mayo was going to prove all too true. Then Aidan O’Shea cleaned Noel O’Leary, Kevin McLoughlin stuck a goal and history changed. Mayo met Cork again in the quarter-finals of 2014, and won a game by a one-point margin that felt like six or seven. As someone remarked at the time, “isn’t it nice to be the bullies for a change?”

D is for Donegal
Mayo played Donegal in the Championship four times this decade, and won three out of four games. But the one game of those four, the one Donegal won, is the only one that’s carved in stone. In the Championship, when you win is often more important than whom you beat, or how often, or by how much.

E is for Egg-Chasing
Every hardcore GAA club member treats rugby like a black-widow spider. They don’t want it about the place and if there’s any hint of an infestation, it’s all hands to the pumps until the crisis is dealt with. This is a little paranoid, not least because it’s not at all obvious that the IRFU wants its base to be widened as much as young people in non-rugby country want to play the game. However. There is one egg of which the GAA should be much more wary, and that is the Sherrin KB Size 5 ball used by the Australian Football League. It’s very hard to expect any young man to turn down the offer of Australia and our blessings and best wishes to all to take their chance when it comes but goodness gracious, it’s middling heartbreaking for those who are left behind.

F is for Forwards, Quality Scoring
Well, Bernard Flynn, or Dessie Dolan, or Tommy “Tom” Carr, or whoever, why do you think Mayo didn’t win the All-Ireland this year? I’m glad you asked me that Joanne – I think that it’s mainly due to a lack of quality scoring forwards. This summer, Cillian O’Connor surpassed Colm “Gooch” Cooper’s career scoring total. O’Connor is twenty-seven years old. Why not think about that one for a while Bernie, or Dessie, or Tommy?

G is for Galway
You could make a case that the best Mayo team of the first Maughan era was the 1998 team. But no-one would ever know because that team didn’t last past the month of May, beaten by Galway in Castlebar before the schools had closed for the summer. The hero of that Galway generation has just been appointed Galway manager. The prospect of history repeating is not a pleasing one.

H is for Heraclitus
Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that a fire is always changing, and yet is always the same. It’s the same with the Mayo team. There’s been some talk in the media about the “end” of Mayo. Teams don’t end. Mayo will have a team in the Championship as long as there is a championship. Always changing, always the same.

I is for Insult
The first your correspondent ever heard of the so-called Mayo curse was outside the Big Tree after Mayo were hammered in the 2004 Final. There is no way between Hell and Bethlehem it’s been around since 1951, because if it was I’d have heard of it before then. I don’t know who started the curse story first, but if he, she, it or them ever has the lard beaten out of him, her, it or them by stout men with sally rods, that’ll be fine by me.

J is for Jackeen
In discussing Gaelic games with Dublin supporters, it’s essential to point out that the nickname “Jackeen” comes from the vast amount of Union Jack flags the city-that-took-on-an-empire hung all over the metropolis for the visit of King Edward VII in 1903. It drives them demented. Demented.

K is for Kerry
If you’re playing serious football, you’re measuring yourself against Kerry. Over this decade Mayo went from cannon-fodder in 2011 to equals in 2014 to victors in 2017. It was hard luck on Aidan O’Shea, but when Kieran Donaghy boxed O’Shea in the dying minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final replay, we knew the Kingdom was done when that was all they had left. Anything that happened in that oul’ Super-Eights stuff isn’t right Championship at all, you know. Ahem.

L is for Limerick
The city of the ancient walls and the broken treaty stone will always have unhappy memories for Mayo. The 2014 semi-final replay should never have been played in Limerick, and the County Board were chicken not to stand their ground. The match had spectacular levels of drama and was a classic for Kerrymen and for neutrals, but none of that is worth yesterday’s chewing gum when it’s your team that gets knocked out.

M is for Money
It got lost in the coverage of Ireland’s hammering at the hands of New Zealand in Tokyo, but that same day saw a special congress of the GAA introduce a two-tier system to the Championship. They say it’s to give smaller counties a chance. It’s not. No law was ever made for the poor. It’s another step on the road to professionalism, along which the GAA has already travelled a perilously long way. In trying to mimic other sports, the GAA is in grave danger of losing that thing that makes it unique and unparalleled. God forfend the unhappy day.

N is for Newbridge
Stephen Rochford’s tenure as Mayo manager ended in loss to Kildare in Newbridge. Newbridge hadn’t been awarded the fixture when the draw was made but Kildare kicked up, the country got behind them and they claimed their reward. This column looks forward to Kildare showing similar gumption the next time the current Leinster and All-Ireland Champions tell them there’s no room for Dublin’s massive travelling support in Newbridge.

O is for Overseas
People used to say that what goes on tour, stays on tour. That was pre-social media. Anybody involved in sports, on either the playing or administrative side of things, should have the fact that the world is now a village tattooed on the palms of their hands, for fear they’d forget it while dazzled by the bright lights and make jack-asses out of themselves and all belonging to them.

P is for Propaganda
History is written by victors. The narrative of the 2017 final is a case in point. That game is remembered for its ending – Lee Keegan chucking his GPS-tracker in the general direction of Dean Rock before Dean Rock kicked the winning free. Except that wasn’t the ending. The ending was when all three of the Dublin fullback line dragged down their men as David Clarke was taking the kickout, ensuring that there was no short kickout option. Did the referee issue three black cards? He didn’t even blow his whistle. Did anybody go bananas in the RTÉ studio or in the papers afterwards? Not at all. After all, Dublin winning All-Irelands is good for the game. Future Mayo teams should always remember what it’s like to be disrespected. It’ll help concentrate their minds.

Q is for Quest
A year or two ago, a friend was stuck in traffic on the way home from one of those indeterminable qualifier fixtures and was surprised to find himself not caring. He saw the cars stretch fore and aft of him, all bedecked in colours, all in common cause, and he was washed over with feelings of camaraderie and fellowship. Reader, when you can’t remember the years or the opposition or the players’ names, you’ll remember that feeling and many like it from these golden years.

R is for Reek, The
In the dying years of the Twentieth Century, between the All-Ireland final of 1996 and its replay, some Ballinamen climbed Croagh Patrick. One of them looked down from the summit, turned to his fellows and asked “how can anywhere this beautiful not win an All-Ireland?” Some mysteries pass all understanding.

S is for Sam
S is for Sam, S-A-M, Sam. Accept no substitutes.

T is for Tickets
It’s never been easy to get a ticket to an All-Ireland final. I know a man who knows a man who met a man who heard of a man on a lock-in in Kilkenny some years ago, when the hurlers were unbeatable. He and his fellow zombies regained consciousness sometime around midday and, while searching his pockets for any money he might have left, he found a ticket for the hurling final that was on that very day. He held it up, and got a laugh from the boys. If he had done that in Mayo, it wouldn’t have been a laugh he’d have gotten. It’d have been a spin in an ambulance.

U is for Ululation
Ululation is the sound of sorrow vocalised, from the Latin ululo – I shriek, I yell, I howl. We are more inclined to describe that sound as “keening” in Ireland, but Kerry have already taken K – just like they take anything else that isn’t nailed down if you don’t keep your two eyes on them.

V is for Victory
Mayo won three national titles in this decade. The minors won in 2013, the Under-21s in 2016, and the seniors won the League this year. Had those victories occurred in any other generation, there would be statues chiselled and songs sung. But they happened in the shadow of this extraordinary decade, and thus didn’t get what they might otherwise have gotten.

W is for Winter
Andy Moran retired this year, as did Ger Cafferkey. Alan Dillon hung up his boots a year or two before that, and there will be more to come. It’s sad that neither Andy nor Alan nor Ger won an All-Ireland, but is any sadder than the fact that Ciarán McDonald didn’t, or Liam McHale, or Willie Joe Padden, or any of the countless others? Winter is what it is, and we must accept it.

X is for X-Marks-The-Spot
Fifty-three degrees, forty-four minutes, thirty-one-point-seven seconds North, seven degrees, fifty-five minutes, three-point-five seconds West. Those are the exact co-ordinates where Sam will cross from Leinster into Connacht on his way to Castlebar if they’re travelling by bus. It’ll be 53 degrees, 25 minutes 43.8 seconds North, seven degrees, 57 minutes and 38 seconds West if they take the train. Some of us have been planning ahead.

Y is for Youth
The fire is always the same, and always changing. Youth must be given its fling. There are footballers coming into their prime now who know of no other Mayo than the one that plays in Croke Park as leaves turn on the trees and they take up the torch in their turn.

Z is for Zzzz’s
Of which there are only sixty-one thirteen left until Mayo's first game of the FBD League in dear old Caisleán a'Bharraigh. Can’t wait.