Only when Mayo come shoulder to shoulder with Kerry and Meath and Tyrone in the Spring will the loss of Pierce Hanley sink fully home. He was not long enough a member of the senior side this season to have rescued Mayo’s sagging fortunes.
But his presence was sufficiently influential to have induced optimism about the county’s return to national competitiveness somewhat earlier than might have been generally expected.
His potential had been obvious at underage level yet his selection against Cavan at the age of nineteen caused a mild ripple of surprise. In the wake of Mayo’s collapse to Galway changes were expected for the Qualifiers, but the choice of Hanley was regarded as risky.
His performance affirmed only the opposite. Hanley played with the maturity of one well established in senior football. His athleticism had all the maturity of a young man confident in his skills, unrestrained by any sense of vulnerability. It was a triumph for the perceptiveness of John O’Mahony and his selectors.
With Hanley on board the old evergreens looked less indispensable. We left McHale Park confident about the future, confident that O’Mahony’s search would unearth further Hanleys, that Mayo football might not after all become swallowed up in a long period of obscurity.
The Ballaghaderreen man embodied the qualities we missed so desperately against Kerry in Croke Park. He was not yet an Eoin Brosnan, but he had the potential to be one. He had the build, and the skill and the nerve, and the freshness to become the fulcrum of a Mayo that would spare our blushes in Croke Park.
That was our dream. Of course, none of those things might have come to pass. The promise of exceptional talent is not always realised. Hanley might not at all be the one to fulfil the dreams of a county craving so long for ultimate success. Who knows, the weight of those expectations might be too much for the young star to handle. Injury, God forbid, or loss of form, might have slowed his career.
Whatever the future holds for the young man, it is on the likes of him our chances of success lie. The experience of the last few years has taught us that without a bit of bulk, and a lot of heart, Mayo are grasping only at straws.
The Australians saw the potential in Pierce Hanley long before we came to fully recognise his flair. They had watched him star two years ago with the Irish compromise Rules U-17 side that toured Australia. The scouts of the Brisbane Lions pencilled his name into their notebooks, and have now plucked him from the grasp of John O’Mahony. Around him the Mayo manager had hoped to build his new team.
The Brisbane Lions have offered Hanley a two-year contract, and the lure of the Australian way of life is too good to be ignored. If Hanley were to turn down the offer, he could spend the rest of his life regretting it.
We can criticise the Australians for robbing us of the one asset on which we depend to renew a serious championship challenge, but we can’t stop them flaunting the attractions of their country.
The GAA can call on the Australian Football League to stop plundering our most precious asset. But we can’t stop our young people from succumbing to their seductive way of life. There are no incentives in Gaelic football to weigh against what the Aussies have to offer. The AFL is just one attraction. It’s a young person’s country. The weather and the lifestyle are also appealing factors.
Having so long bemoaned the scarcity of physical power in our senior teams, we had seen in the likes of Hanley the way back to Croke Park. His departure is a damaging blow to those hopes.
Maybe the GAA should think twice about parading the cream of our talent in those meaningless Compromise Rules series which they are contemplating reviving. They serve only as a window through which the Australians scrutinise Irish talent, and then come waving their chequebooks at the crème de la crème.
Half a century ago we lamented the exodus of our most talented footballers in search of work in other countries. The damage still vibrates through every aspect of our lives, but now, in better economic conditions, must we still wave goodbye to our greatest resource!