TWO OF THE FINEST Galway manager Padraic Joyce and Mayo selector/coach Ciaran McDonald exchange a few words before last Sunday’s Connacht SFC Final at Pearse Stadium. Pic: Conor McKeown
IT’S been said that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during lockdown.
His old boozer shut, not able to visit his elderly mother, the old bard set to work on Cornelia, Goneril and Regan. It’s likely he launched a podcast with his buddy Christopher Marlowe, too, calling it Rivals. Ivanka Trump (re)read the classics and taught herself guitar.
Most of us just burned banana bread and cheated at family quizzes.
Padraic Joyce and the Galway footballers? It seems they spent the lockdown being their cool, post-modern selves. They could have spent the time developing – say – a discernable defensive strategy, but instead chose to hone their Galway-ness.
At the outset of the pandemic, Galway were in a pretty good place. They weren’t the nerdy teachers’ pets that Dublin were. They weren’t tortured and confused like Mayo, either.
No, Galway were the shoeless dude on the couch at a house party strumming an acoustic guitar, crooning Kodaline numbers, a parakeet they rescued from a Cambodian slum perched on their shoulder. Galway were free love and free football.
They were sailing into summer like a hooker into the Claddagh Basin.
Then, with Covid-19 came the tempest. No house parties to woo erasmus students. No Sunday league matches on TV to win hearts and minds. Even the parakeet got spooked and un-rescued herself back to Phnom Penh.
Mayo? Permanently in a state of Sunday-night-after-a-stag-in-Lahinch self-loathing and existential torment, the pandemic was a blessed relief. It broke just as we were about to probably lose to Galway and be relegated. The fact we got relegated anyway doesn’t matter. Being relegated by them, especially in their pre-summer shoeless troubadour pump, may have been one blow too many.
Sure, we would’ve bet Leitrim, struggled against Roscommon, lost to Galway again, before showing false promise by beating Kerry and Cavan in the ‘Super Hates’, inevitably losing to Tyrone in an All-Ireland semi-final, just when we thought it was all coming together.
We would return to our hibernative state of self-torment for winter, reflect on loves lost, and curse our near-neighbours, who, although themselves losing a semi-final — most likely to Dublin — would score 1-32 in the process, leaving them with a winter of self-love and spiritual growth to look forward to.
That’s what might have happened. Instead, a summer like no other allowed the ruminaters ruminate, and the dreamers dream. By the time we picked up where we left off in Tuam last month, the fruits of the sabbatical were plain for all to see.
Mayo and Galway – two sons born from the same womb — were once again walking different paths; Mayo were grumpy and ruthless. Galway had a great welcome for themselves, but came to the party with no pants on.
A week later, Mayo lost to Tyrone in a typical Mayo way, Galway backed up their Mayo charity giveaway with a likeable loss to Dublin. Twas prudent, we told ourselves, not to read too much into too much. Connacht finals take on lives of their own. Form is obsolete. Outcomes impossible to predict.
WHAT is possible to predict, is Pearse Stadium doubling as the Higgs Boson-Hadron Collider, meaning one team would have a gale behind them for one half, agin them the next.
This in turn makes it somewhat easy to predict patterns of play, what pressure points will likely occur, how to relieve them.
At first glance, it seemed as if Padraic Joyce had learned the lessons of the Tuam debacle; Galway restricting Mayo to a menial first half total. But, upon revisiting this mile wide/inch deep thesis, the truth is somewhat different.
That truth lies in Mayo performance anxiety in front of goal, which, as the half wore on, evolved into crippling shyness. Time after time, Mayo worked the ball to the D, only to encounter one of those invisible force-field things they used to have in Star Wars.
Repelled by the force, they would wander around the periphery of the red zone, each one having a look, as if eyeing up a foreign student visiting Belmullet for the summer, before skulking away, pretending to have no interest, in reality being unable to pull the trigger.
Maybe Galway’s defence forced them into this state of paralysis, but I think that gives both sides far too much credit. Mayo should have won the game by half’s end; instead they gave Galway a loaded gun to shoot them with.
Padraic Joyce is a smart man. His reputation as an all-time great of the game long cemented. Kevin Walsh - his predecessor - was much maligned for his tactical conservatism, which was viewed as an affront to the “Galway Way” – free flowing, attractive football, played by young men with ankle socks and no baggage.
Joyce, hardly the type to heed hyperbole, must have taken some time to reflect these last few weeks that Walsh was on to something. Looking good is one thing, taking a hiding from the auld enemy on television, quite another.
Whether by accident or design, at half-time in Salthill, he couldn’t have wished for a better platform to stage his revolution. It’d difficult to say what the plan was, but what it actually amounted to was let Shane Walsh do it. The man can do a lot, but he can’t do it all.
Enough about them. Mayo barely did enough, and by barely doing so, advanced to an All-Ireland semi-final where they’ll be hot favourites against one of a pair of outliers. James Horan won’t admit it (nor should he), but a similar, scattered performance will likely do. What then? Twelve months on from ‘Shoe the Donkey’. Seven months on from avoiding a year-defining loss to Galway, two months on from claiming the White House, we may well be in an All-Ireland final again. We are the perfect pandemic team.
It’s unlikely Nike will ever emblazon it across a tee shirt, but this team has a new mantra that perfectly suits these turbulent times; Just Do Enough.