STILL STANDING A Mayo supporter celebrates after the team’s win over Derry in the All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers back on Saturday, July 1 at MacHale Park, Castlebar. Pic: Conor McKeown
IT was the Derry game that did it.
The team has enjoyed strong support for ages, the base expanding every year since 2011. An ever-widening circle of friends, relations and acquaintances. An army on the march, a Green and Red banner to rally around.
We weren’t always great supporters. James Horan archly reminded us of this fact after the 2013 final when he mused about how we’d gone all ‘Silent Sideline’ on the team just at the point when they’d needed to know we were there.
It was a barb that hurt, principally because it was true.
The failure that day was acknowledged and the Mayo supporters have rarely been found wanting since then. Both days against Kerry in 2014, and again against Dublin in both 2015 and last year, the level of support the team has enjoyed has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Can anyone forget the way we shouted down the Dublin supporters – on their own patch – every time they tried to start up their Come on You Boys in Blue chant in the two final meetings last year?
Every single time they tried to get going they were met with a ferocious counter-blast of May-O! May-O! May-O! Out on the field and all around the stadium every Mayo person was giving their all for their county.
But the Derry game in the qualifiers in June this year took the experience to a whole new level. To my mind we – players and supporters – came into that match as two separate and distinct entities but we emerged from it as one.
It was as if some kind of chemical reaction occurred during that game and like any good scientific experiment it happened when the Bunsen burner was turned up to full power. The players wanted the result but just couldn’t dig it out, the supporters wanted it too but could see that more was needed to make it happen.
And so something extraordinary occurred. Wide after wide mounted up that day but this simply prompted those in the packed stand to redouble their efforts. Louder the chant rang out. May-O! May-O! May-O! Eventually Conor Loftus found the net and the dam burst.
Ever since then we’ve been on a roll, team and supporters marching lock-step, a shared enterprise, truly in this together. A march that has taken us to Ennis, to Limerick – for a further stress-test of the heart before an exorcism of 2014 was performed - and onto Croke Park.
Three times since that Derry game we’ve come perilously close to hitting the ditch in this year’s championship. But when the challenge was laid down every Mayo person at the Cork, Roscommon and Kerry matches knew the role they had to play.
The lads out on the field fed off the partisan yelling of the supporters, who in turn drank deep from the big hits and the massive scores. This symbiosis pushed the players on while also enabling the supporters to find the energy to keep the roars and chants going all the way to the final whistle.
By the time the Kerry replay rolled around, we’d all benefited from this long run of games. Fatigued, did you say? We were only getting going. That day against Kerry – one of the standout occasions in this great journey of ours – both players and supporters showed they had plenty left in the tank.
We’ll need it all, of course, for the final. No All-Ireland is won easily and all the hard yards put in on the way to the decider only get you the entry ticket to the big one.
Every ounce of energy – and more – will need to be expended on Sunday and even then we know from bitter past experience that this may not be enough. Dublin are an exceptional team, we’ll need to match and exceed their brilliance to come out on top. It’s not a task for the faint-hearted.
But as we face into this toughest test of all we know that the hard road we’ve travelled this summer will surely stand to us.
If, God willing, we do make it over the line this time, that day down in MacHale Park in Round 2A of the qualifiers against Derry will feature large in the telling of our triumph.
It was a day I know I’ll never forget. We could see before our very eyes a dream that was visibly dying but it was one none of us were ready to let go. And so we simply refused to. The players – sensing this – refused too. Together we made it happen.
The touch-paper for the remarkable run we’ve been on since then was lit. This shared enterprise culminates at Croke Park on Sunday where, once again, the team and supporters will be giving their all.
Because we’re Mayo and we’re in this together.
John Gunnigan (AKA ‘Willie Joe’) runs the Mayo GAA Blog.