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This title race is wide open now

Sport

Seán Rice

AS catalysts of a new era, can Mayo take advantage of the passageway they have opened up for others, this sudden change of fortune, this abnormality of an All-Ireland final without Dublin.
Can they exploit the opportunity they have created, write the final chapter of a narrative that has stumped all their efforts for the past seventy years. Can they win the All-Ireland?
That’s the question their famous win over Dublin has posed. And let’s be frank: sentiment won’t win it.
Misgivings about how Mayo would fare against Kerry topped conversations following their achievement in finally dethroning the champions.
“Wouldn’t it be ironic if, having beaten Dublin, they fell to the kingdom in the final” were the negative vibes percolating through discussions. Kerry was to be the opposition, Tyrone hadn’t a hope.
But Tyrone performed their own giant-killing act in Croke Park last Sunday when, as rank outsiders, they foiled Kerry’s hopes of replacing the Dubs at top of the pile.
That, if anything, was a  more praiseworthy achievement than Mayo’s triumph in the other semi-final. And they are now installed as clear favourites to win their fourth All-Ireland title on Sunday week.
Mayo’s win was over a somewhat jaded side, a team who renewed itself every year, looked fresh and ambitious in every final they entered, until their main players finally ran out of steam, and their bench ran dry.
Even then, Mayo laboured to finally put them away.
Kerry were none of those things on Saturday. They came confident in the belief that their hour had come. They were ready. Big players like the Clifford brothers and Seán O’Shea were raking in huge scores, winning all round them, and were gunning to become the team to down the Dubs.
Mayo beat them to that objective, but left them content in the belief that whatever doubts might confront them in taking on the champs, nothing precluded a win in the final over Mayo.
First though there was a little matter of getting by Tyrone, whom they had trashed in the league, some of them recovering from the Covid virus.
In no condition were the Ulster champs ready for a kingdom waiting so long for this moment and galvanised by the fact that Dublin were not in their way, it appeared.
Quietly, however, the downfall of the champs was being plotted. And how the mighty have fallen!  History has weighed heavily on the princes of Gaelic football . . . Tyrone’s proven bogey team. In all of Tyrone’s three All-Ireland victories Kerry were dismissed on the way. In the semi-final of 2003, and the finals of ’05 and ’08, the Red Hand triumphed.
In more recent times the Munster champs seemed to have got the measure of their Northern rivals. Winning in 2012, ’15 and two years ago in the semi-final.
The tables had turned, it was thought.
But once again Kerry were out-foxed and out muscled, and the post-mortems will be deep and demanding in the weeks ahead. The steel that was once so much part of Kerry armoury has become malleable and exposed. Pride has been hurt.
In the white heat of battle they have faltered again.
In many ways they resemble the Mayo of 1997, who for once were red-hot favourites to win the title for the first time in 46 years.
It was easy to be optimistic. Kerry readily admit to have been one of the poorest sides ever to emerge from the kingdom. And Mayo followers assumed a swagger of confidence that for the first time was grounded in genuine belief that they were good enough to win.  
It was their second All-Ireland final in a row. John Maughan had come to Mayo on the rolling wave of his coup in leading Clare to a mammoth Munster final win over Kerry.
Peter Ford and Tommy O’Malley joined him and together they worked wonders in the county, building muscle and confidence, but losing unluckily to Meath by a point in a replay of the final of ‘96.
Mayo reached that final by crushing Kerry in the semi-final and when they met the following year Mayo expectations soared. After 46 years the end was in sight.
Outside Mick Byrne’s pub in Castlebar crowds gathered to see off a coach-full of Byrnes’s Babes, cheerful messages from the late great local radio sports commentator Willie ‘The Shoe’ McNeela ringing in their ears.
While hype and hysteria suffused the county it was inevitable that some of that complacency would wriggle into the minds of the Mayo players. Training was not then fully closed off to spectators in the way it is nowadays.
You had an idea what form the players were in by watching them prepare. You knew who was carrying a slight injury, who was the fastest, who was giving it everything, who was holding back.
On the training fields of Kerry, the profile was low. The great Paidi Ó Sé, now their manager, kept a lid on their drill. Into their evening exercises they poured mind and body, rebuilt conviction, batted off criticism of their performances and grew positive in the tag of the underdog.
Of course Mayo lost, injuries to key players hastening their demise. Just when we thought it safe to be confident Kerry taught us once again about the distance that lay between Mayo and an All-Ireland title.
In his weekly column, Darragh Ó Sé refers on occasions to the year the worst ever Kerry team won the All-Ireland, how they smiled in Kerry at the excessive attention given to Mayo, the press, the interviews, sheep and sheds painted in the Mayo colours, all sorts of madness.
That is all of twenty-four years ago before some of the present Mayo side were born. How the wheel has turned!
 
Three cheers for Sligo
LEST we forget, three cheers for the Sligo minors. They won the Connacht title for the first time in 53 years, and struck a blow for minnows.
They beat fancied Roscommon in the final. Having accounted for Mayo and Galway, the Rossies had high hopes on their home ground of advancing to the All-Ireland series, but found in Sligo a well-drilled side capable of matching them in every phase of the game.
Their success sent out a message that Gaelic football is not dead in Sligo, that below the surface something is stirring in the Yeats county.
All the categorising of the Sligos and Leitrims into hopeless cases has been undermined by the surge of the Sligo minors. It is an opportunity for the powers that be to support this development with funding and other incentives.
No stone should be left unturned in helping and encouraging the county to build on the success of their minors. They have set a benchmark. The next step is the Under-20 competition and onwards to a senior side worthy of a serious challenge for a Connacht title.

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