I THOUGHT we had become inured to defeats of this nature. But it seems that Mayo’s cave-in to Meath has touched deeper suffering in the soul of followers than some of their All-Ireland final failures.
The wreckage of this latest anti-climax is scattered everywhere. Dreams once again were found to have been built on quicksand; lofty hopes that Mayo were going somewhere once again misplaced.
Why the disappointment is more painful on this occasion is hard to fathom. Has the past taught us nothing? When Meath blew away that veil in Croke Park, underneath lay only the timeless fickleness of Mayo football. The old, weary, Mayo. The Mayo to which we have become accustomed on the big day.
In essence nothing has changed. Mayo are doing their best. Every player longs for the success that belongs to the privileged few. When a Mayo team is built with the innate hardness that is bred in Kerry men they, too, will enjoy the freedom that goes with being champions.
Against pre-match hype this column had counselled caution: “Like so many other contenders, Meath trot onto Croke Park convinced that Mayo, as always, are there for the taking. Horse them out of it, is their belief, and Mayo’s mental foibles will begin to surface,” I wrote.
“Mayo are mentally stronger now. But they would be foolish to underrate the royals. The qualities of 1996 may not be apparent, but they ran Dublin to two points in Leinster and they looked fast and powerful against Limerick. Their hard tackling, effective cover and their tactics in dispossessing opponents will not be easily countered. Mayo had better be prepared.”
Only one sentence needs to be altered. Deep down, Mayo’s mindset is no different now than it has been for years. The strong football counties know this. They know that Mayo are easily licked under pressure, that they offer no real threat, that deep down there is no conviction in their football, and that the contagion has seeped into every heart within the county.
What’s missing is not the physical skill of the game, but the will to implement and embellish it. It’s a mind game and it’s encapsulated in two lines of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘IF’, read so beautifully by Sean Boylan in the GAA’s television blurb: “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you, Except the will which says to them: Hold on!”
Meath embodied that spirit, no one more convincingly than Joe Sheridan just before half-time when he filleted the defence and drove the ball over the bar with a determination that was almost tangible. An inspirational score! Seconds later they were in the lead for the first time.
That inner strength is a characteristic of successful teams. What it implies is not easy to confront in Mayo, but it must be confronted if Mayo are ever to bridge that interminable gap. Leading teams thrive on Mayo’s endemic mental vulnerability.
And a sizeable portion of Mayo followers is also susceptible to recurring visions of false dawns. Too easily convinced, they grasp at any wisp of progress as if it were a sign from the heavens.
Mayo were better in the Connacht final than their one point margin of victory implied. But they were not All-Ireland quality. The faint signs of leadership displayed by Andy Moran and Peader Gardiner in grinding out that final winning score in Pearse Stadium had given rise to ungrounded expectation.
I confess to have been almost carried away myself on a widespread wave of vibes that this year was going to be different, that a win over Meath was a near certainty. Well, Meath — maybe so. But no further.
Whatever qualities were on show in Pearse Stadium had vanished when they reached Croke Park. Nothing new about them was discernible. You would be hard pressed to distinguish this from the old threadbare Mayo. There was no Gooch to be seen, no Cavanagh, no Dooher, no Donaghy. Only a young O’Shea did justice to that name.
I don’t know how John O’Mahony will deal with this lack of leadership on the field. Someone once wrote that the secret of leadership is that no one sees how it works. The gift is rare for it is as much about imagination as courage. Have we got footballers with those attributes? Maybe not.
We did have once . . . a long time ago. And the standards they set have never been emulated. What ever happened to the flair that Flanagan and Mongey and McAndrew and Carney and Langan engendered on the football fields of Ireland? Where has it all gone wrong?
We’ll never know what made those men tick. At a time when the education of most of the population finished at national school, this Mayo team boasted three medical doctors, a couple of solicitors, a barrister, a chemist, an engineer, a priest, a couple of gardai etc — a team with academics at its core.
All were thinkers, achievers, doers who forged their collective football destiny on an anvil of courage and team-work and self-belief. Inferiority was not an issue. They drew up the plans themselves, and in the words of the song did it their way.
The present panel is not without its intellectual quota, its thinkers and doers. But for some reason they are not imposing themselves on vital games.
Of course, courage and self-belief are not the prerogative of those treading the groves of academe. Nor is heart or nerve or sinew cultivated solely by dumbbells or in the winter sweat of gyms. The frame of mind is what moulds the man.
The late British journalist, Ian Woolridge, commenting on the remarks of a former Australian captain who claimed he had witnessed the greatest game of rugby ever played in which his country had been beaten by England in the World Cup Final, wrote: “Beaten by what? An England team that outdazzled Australia in every department? Certainly not. An England team that had eliminated errors by sure handling? Ridiculous. England made more blunders in this game than they had in two previous internationals strung together.
“So how come they won? I will tell you exactly. By absolute discipline, iron-will determination, ruthless management over a three-year build-up, total team unity under a hugely respected captain and the genius of a 24-years-old goal kicker (Johnny Wilkinson) . . . . . . .” In other words . . . Heart and imagination.
In winning the Nestor Cup Mayo made some progress this year. And they might retain it next season. But the road to the steps of the Hogan Stand is as long as ever.
TO BE HONOURED
JOHN McANDREW, Mayo’s stalwart centre-half back on the All-Ireland winning teams of 1950 and ‘51, is to be honoured in Castlebar by the Mayo Emigrant Liaison Committee.
The Bangor man who has retired from his medical practice in Birmingham is being honoured for ‘his outstanding contribution to Irish exiles in the British Midlands.’
McAndrew was a key member of the Crossmolina team that won the club’s first Mayo senior championship in 1949. “I cycled 20 miles to Crossmolina to play and then played at midfield in my first Mayo senior football final in 1949. I then had to cycle the 20 miles back,” he said.
“I first got selected for Mayo in 1949 after the success with Crossmolina, and although we had a good team in Bangor Erris I had to play away from home to get noticed by the selectors.”
He attended St Muredach’s College in Ballina and then the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and while a student there won all his football honours. He also won a county senior medal with Castlebar Mitchels in 1959.
The award will be presented to Dr McAndrew by former Kerry Star Mick O’Connell at a function in the Welcome Inn Hotel, Castlebar on Friday, September 11 at which the guest of honour will be Cllr Alison Firth, Lord Mayor of Manchester.