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What’s another year for Mayo?

Sport

Seán Rice

THE sense of doom is breath-taking. The colours are down and the dander is up. History is weighing heavily on Mayo football. The loss of eleven All-Ireland finals seems to have fused into one massive primer for the wrath that exploded around Mayo’s defeat to Tyrone.
Not since they were beaten in 1997 has despondency to such a degree descended around Mayo followers.
Yet of all the Mayo teams to have qualified for finals over the past decade the latest was the least convincing. It had all the hallmarks of a side in transition. A mix of experience and callowness, a team emerging from wreckage left by wholesale retirements and injury to key players.
A team around which too much expectation was built.
Assumptions were drawn from one half of one match that Mayo were on the road to fulfillment. The Dubs were dethroned. Nothing now stood in Mayo’s way.
In the first half of that semi-final, no one would have given a cent for Mayo’s chances.
“The match is over, we might as well go home,” were the chilling words of pundit Colm O’Rourke at half-time. And who would have disagreed with him?
In the Connacht final Mayo were outplayed and outsmarted by Galway and trailed by five points at the interval. Who, then, would have protested any suggestion that they would reach the All-Ireland final.
Facts are stubborn things. In neither of those games was there a complete performance, a full seventy minutes of the intensity they displayed in the half of each . . . or of that needed to win an All-Ireland final.
We exulted in the aptitude and skill of the young Mayo men. We were thrilled when Matty Ruane stuck the ball in the Galway net and the points scored by Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy, and the defending qualities of Oisin Mullin.
We lionised them, placed them on a pedestal.
We extolled the acumen of manager James Horan for his timely introduction of young Enda Hession in the semi-final and his stunning raids into the heart of the Dublin defence. Prejudiced guns are now trained on him.
Everything about the team had a touch of class, all of it rolled up into the second half, and all grist to the mill of those of us hoping that the luck that by-passed the players who had just retired was about to grace the new stock picking up the reins.
We forgot about the halves of those matches in which Mayo were very ordinary. Ordinary in the sense that they had promise, but not yet the experience to survive the whims and the reverses of the big occasions.
And the hype.
Astonishingly, few of the national pundits saw the flaws. Few forensically explored the faults that flecked the first-half performances of Mayo’s two previous matches. Few saw how they stood back, were overturned, how they failed to take on their opponents.
All got carried away, blinded by the sparkle of two transcended halves. They, too, seemed to have got caught up in the emotion of a Mayo about to be liberated from the chains of history.
Overwhelmed at the thoughts of a Mayo man receiving the Sam Maguire, all of our reasoning seemed to have seized up. We read before the game of Oisin Mullin and Eoghan McLaughlin about to be declared fit to take their places. Recovering from a broken jaw picked up in the semi-final, the gods had to be on our side if McLaughlin was ready to play. A miracle.
He didn’t. Oisin did, and wasn’t fully fit.
Tyrone scarcely entered the conversation. It was ONLY Tyrone. Nothing to worry about. They had beaten a poor Kerry team, made the Kingdom blush for once.
That would not happen to Mayo. But it did.
It was irrational judgement, founded on nothing more solid than sentiment and hope.
The ousting of Dublin was the grounds for optimism. And it was a good win, unexpected by most followers and fans. It was clear, though, that it was a Dublin side  far from their All-Ireland winning form of the previous years. They were spent, functioning on the residue of six triumphant, record-breaking years. Tired, jaded.
All of that combined to send 20,000 Mayo followers to Croke Park and thousands more all over the world to their televisions with expectations that were excessive and delusional.
Experiences of the past decades ought to have brought more balance to our aspirations and to some of the vile criticism that followed when those hopes were not fulfilled.
It was, to be sure, disappointing to watch our young guns outplayed. Perhaps all that pressure got to them too. It will be noticed that the more experienced members seemed least encumbered on the field by the build-up.
Having been through it all before, Aidan O’Shea, in the first half, and always so disgustingly censured, Lee Keegan, Stephen Coen and Paddy Durcan were unfazed, undeterred, undaunted.
Last year empty stands had shielded the younger members from the tension generated by some followers. Unlike Croke Park on Saturday week, mistakes were not amplified by reactions of spectators.
Weighed down with expectation, the final must have been unnerving for the younger players. Mistakes that are part and parcel of the game are fuel for detractors.
And there were plenty of mistakes in the final. Mis-directed passes, faulty shooting, missed goal chances, all feeding the confidence of the Tyrone men, and eroding the convictions of their rivals.
Who knows whether that missed penalty by Ryan O’Donoghue would have made a difference had it been scored? It did look to have been a game decider and Tyrone drew energy from it. But the Ulster men were so assured, and technically so much better, that you could never rule them out.
The young Belmullet man has been devastated by the miss. It will return again and again to haunt him. He won’t embellish his attempts next time. But he is one of Mayo’s better forwards, and he’ll make up for that miss in time to come. In fairness, his free-taking afterwards was unaffected.
There is, to be sure, a need for fresh faces to fill out the forward line. A few strong, scoring forwards and a midfielder, for which James Horan will be searching in the coming championships.
In the meantime we could do worse than absorb the final lines of a fine article about Tyrone football throughout the troubles written by John Doherty, a Tyrone man living in Mayo and who was about to sit among some over optimistic Mayo hopefuls:
“. . . So, being one of the lucky ones, I’ll take my seat in Croke Park tomorrow and I’ll will Tyrone to the end, and if Mayo win, I’ll stay till they lift Sam, and as an adopted son of Mayo I’ll hum in my head the Green and Red of Mayo.
“Because at the end of the day the GAA is bigger than one game of football.”

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