HEART is the constant that has threaded all of Mayo’s moods this season. When legs buckled, heart propelled them. When they staggered through the Qualifiers and the dream was beginning to fragment, it was heart that shaped their recovery.
All season we have wriggled between faith and doubt, a curious Mayo contradiction. On occasions a quarter-final seemed no more than a shapeless blur on the horizon. Throughout the Qualifiers they were on the ropes, dodging the jab that would finally floor them.
When eventually they did stumble into the quarter-final, a rare smile from the gods seemed to greet their meeting with the Connacht champions. Inexplicably, at the end of 70 minutes it seemed as if Mayo were finding it hard to die.
Lethargy had slowed their responses. Mind and body were at odds with each other. But they clung on for a draw and set up a replay that was largely expected to herald the rebirth of Roscommon football.
Instead, startlingly, it ignited Mayo. As if locked in some kind of mental cavern, they broke from the blocks in Croke Park in an explosion of colour and energy and creativity, brushing aside the Rossies with a ruthless competence that astonished even their own supporters.
Where did that come from, we asked. Long consigned to the bin of broken dreams, it was a performance like nothing they had produced all year and it earned them a semi-final against Kerry – where their journey would surely end, according to the critics.
Considered a mere shadow of last year’s team, Mayo were seen as no match for the league champions. But against the odds, another storming performance was hatched and Kerry in a replay for once bowed to Mayo’s rediscovered vitality.
Almost stealthily they had tiptoed into the final ... before their critics had noticed. From their own physical and mental powers and from the support of the hordes that follow them they have re-invented themselves.
And now Dublin looms again. Invincible, incomparable Dublin going for three or maybe four or five All-Irelands in a row, they say. And the county dismissed from contention, the Mayo that was dead in the water a couple of months before, is now seen as the last bastion of resistance to the runaway champions.
To be sure Dublin are what they say they are, one of the finest ever to grace Croke Park. Pace, strength and consistency has been their hallmark. No team from any county has matched the intensity they have brought to the game. Theirs has been one clinical, landslide win after another.
We had hoped Tyrone in the semi-final would uncover some imperfections, but surprisingly they, too, were swept away in the blue tide. Tyrone above anyone! Who would have thought a team led by Mickey Harte would have conceded without a whimper.
Is that because of the calibre of the team Mayo meet on Sunday? Maybe they are indestructible. It is an indication of the depth of Dublin’s talent that while Mayo will field more or less the same side beaten in the replay last season, a host of new choices is available to Jim Gavin.
In the semi-final speedy Jack McCaffrey resumed at wing back, Niall Scully, who was not even among the subs last year, is now an inventive wing forward, and it was another newcomer, Con O’Callaghan, who lit the fuse against Tyrone with a cracking goal.
The backbone, however, still consists of familiarly trustworthy steeds like McMahon, Cooper, O’Sullivan, Mannion, Andrews and Kilkenny. And the bench is also full of high achievers, to be called on at will.
Amid that profusion of talent, however, only one man is indispensable. Stephen Cluxton’s perfection from dead-ball kick-outs is a phenomenon of the game. No goalkeeper ever has so consistently found his target. More than Andrews or Fenton, McCaffrey, Connolly or McMahon, the Dublin goalkeeper poses the biggest threat to Mayo.
In the drawn final last year Mayo closed in on his kicks and unnerved him somewhat. But he is resilient. From between the posts he still has the accuracy to turns games around, to find the man that will make the difference. Take him out of the game and Dublin are a lesser side.
A season less bountiful had been the extent of Mayo fans expectations. Tight wins had envisaged no riches so the new lease of life they found in the quarter-final caught most by surprise. Their refusal to quit along the way has now been reinforced with intensity and renewed ambition.
Nor is it physical power alone that propels them. There is style there, too, and flair and a kind of mystique that has aroused interest far beyond the borders of their county. Each of them seems focused not only on his own performance, but also on the assistance he offers to others.
Some will be singled out for special attention as they always are. The O’Shea brothers, the O’Connors, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Keith Higgins, Paddy Durcan, Andy Moran, Tom Parsons and Jason Doherty all carry souvenirs of last year’s final on their bodies and in their minds.
No Dublin plan though, however comprehensive, will cover every contingency. And Mayo is no one-man band. Power emanates also from the likes of Brendan Harrison, Donal Vaughan, Chris Barrett and David Clarke, a better stopper that Cluxton. But a better strategy is needed for his kick-outs. They’ll be under pressure.
Kevin McLoughlin’s wanderings will have been noted, but class will always leave its track. Young Conor Loftus may not yet have the required muscle, but he has the football brain to create scores.
And then there are the likes of Ger Cafferkey, Stephen Coen, David Drake, Shane Nally, Danny Kirby and the other subs who have been gradually edging into the side and are more than adequate back-up men.
The sum of their talents is the wisdom they have collected along the way, their ability to stay calm under pressure, their knowledge of the opposition and their own distinctive qualities of muscle and sinew and ambition.
Dublin presents once again the greatest challenge to their long-standing goal. While Mayo scrapped for every win, Dublin purred along unchallenged. Three-in-a-row is now their obsession; Mayo’s is a more humble once in a lifetime hope.
We have no advice to offer them because they, not we, are the experts. What they have learnt over the past six years is now what they bring to the game. They have been at the coalface. They know what is required of them, the dangers that Dublin pose especially in the final minutes, and the personal consequences of another loss.
It’s down to self-belief and heart. We believe in them, believe that they will overcome, that this most committed bunch of young men will finally bridge the decades of under achievement, set a precedent for their young admirers and carve out their own piece of history and immortality.