UP AND AT THEM Some Mayo fans react to a score during the second half of Sunday's Connacht SFC Final victory over Galway at Croke Park. Pic: Conor McKeown
“Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
- John 20:24-29
FIRST, a confession. My mother always told us to beware of the sea. Seems obvious, but she always elaborated that, though the sea was a thing of unmatched beauty, it was all powerful and needed to be treated with respect. That complacency in water could only lead to disaster. Fear the sea. It may look serene, but it will swallow you.
Heeding her advice, I subconsciously chose never to learn to swim properly. The sea can’t harm me if I don’t submit to it, I figured. Cowardice? I can’t say. Laziness? I’m not sure.
Counterintuitive? Most definitely. It was the only sporting challenge I have ever recused myself from. Unbeaten on the tennis courts of Balla for six straight years. The best golfer of my generation on the Kiltimagh road. The second best free-taker in my house.
Sport was easy even if life was sometimes hard. But, the sea...well, to paraphrase Shakespeare, it was better to not learn to swim and live, then look good in speedos and drown. My mother won’t appreciate being blamed, but her words rang loud; the sea was not to be trusted.
So, when the prospect of a Connacht final against Galway suddenly appeared on the horizon like a continent-sized iceberg, I once again thought of the sea, something I always do with Galway footballers.
Confidence in my beloved Mayo gives way to anxiety. The closer we got to the game, the more I started seeing things that genuinely weren’t there. PETER COOKE IS A PHENOMENAL FOOTBALLER (he could be, but, not the point here).
GALWAY HAVE BETTER KICKERS THAN US (what does that even mean? Kickers? Who calls them kickers?). MAYO HAVE CILLIAN DEPENDANITIS (not a thing).
To be clear, it was me saying these things. Maybe not a fortnight ago, but as weeks became days and days became hours, Galway did what they always do to me; they became the sea.
A looming mass of benign scenery that I wanted to sit on top of on a lilo and catch some summer sun, but I couldn’t.
I have pleaded my case too often that Galway robbed me of my childhood. Enough of that.
I mock them behind their back. I snigger when they pass. I roll my eyes as others swoon because of their natural talent and flair for, well, flair. I do all of that until it’s our turn, and suddenly I’m up to my neck being swept away on a riptide feeling cramp in my legs.
They do this to me, and I do it to myself.
ENOUGH of the water metaphors. I, like many others, was worried last Sunday.
That worry was assuaged by many learned people on social media pointing out they found the talking up of Galway's chances to be genuinely baffling, given every reliable metric informing us they were nothing but maroon clad dilettantes.
Far from being affronted by their arguments (as they contradicted my increasingly gloomy world view), I was comforted by them. I needed their reassurances.
Maybe they were younger and less traumatised than I, but I took refuge in their science-inspired confidence. My fears were faith based. A fatal flaw in any belief system.
The game starting was an actual relief. So too was the realisation that Galway goalkeeper Conor Gleeson was as confused as I was as to what to expect, especially when it came to him kicking out the ball. Gleeson should not feel too bad. Even the great Stephen Cluxton, once of Dublin, has been befuddled by the great Mayo press more than once.
The fault lay less with the Dunmore man and more with the stars.
When Mayo hit Croke Park, this is just how they play.
For twenty minutes, it was peaceful waters. Not dead calm, but easily manageable for even a modest front crawler like myself. Then, Shane Walsh packed an entire career of promise into five minutes. Aidan O‘Shea, outstanding all day, only looked human for the millisecond it took Walsh to sprint past him en route to setting up Damian Comer for a blistering goal.
2-5 to 0-6 down at the break, I swallowed my first mouthful of salt water.
Where to turn to now? Faith or science?
The latter prevailed. Mayo’s second half was as much a rebuke to those who built up Galway as to the few that may have doubted their ability to amass a winnable total without Cillian O’Connor. That's the thing about Mayo, though.
They tend to read the room and answer the exact questions asked of them. Afterwards, like them or loathe them, there is very little cupping of ears or kissing of crests. If they hear their doubters before games, the only way they answer them is with ball in hand.
Unlike so many other teams, Mayo know themselves, for better or worse.
Another All-Ireland semi final. Another chapter in the Mayo-Dublin canon of clashes.
Take note of where the life jackets are, we’re going to need a bigger boat.