Green and red army pray for an end to 61 years of hurt
Hoist the banners high: Mayo fans get in the big-match mood
THERE IS a part of Co Mayo that would have this cup pass from them. Not the Sam Maguire Cup – we badly want to lay hands on that rascal – but the hullaballoo that goes with All-Ireland final day.
The pageantry in Dublin city, where the bars fly the competing counties’ colours, eager for the passing trade. The ritual of RTÉ’s Up for the Match, where Des Cahill and Gráinne Seoige interview zany characters from the competing counties. It all rings a little hollow now.
Truth be told, there are those in Mayo who, if they were offered a switch of venue for the final, from Croke Park in its full All-Ireland splendour to an All-Ireland final played on Tuesday at midnight at some club ground in the midlands, ideally near a crossroads, they’d think long and hard about the matter.
If Mayo won, great. A monkey would be off our backs and we could return to the pageant next year. If Mayo lost, at least the house would be private and there would be family flowers only.
Mayo aren’t the lovable innocents any more. That narrative was ideal for 1989, Mayo’s first All-Ireland final appearance in 38 long years. It was fine too for the 1996 and 1997 All-Irelands, when John Maughan brought a team from Division Three to within seconds of an All-Ireland title, playing football with a kind of intensity that wasn’t always associated with Mayo.
But by 2004 it had gone beyond a joke. Mayo were top table at that stage, regular contenders for honours. The days of not being able to get out of Connacht in the 1960s and 1970s were long past. Mayo needed more than a day out. They needed to win.
But they didn’t win. They lost. Badly, in 2004. Humiliatingly, in 2006. David Brady’s pithy quote about being sent on as a sub in 2006, not to change the game but to look for survivors, neatly sums up just how bad those beatings were.
The Mayo fans got some stick for leaving early in 2006, but it was easier to understand if you’re from Mayo. If any of the early Christians were in the crowd at the Colosseum during Nero’s circuses, chances are they wouldn’t have waited for the lions to be served their jelly and custard either.
The years after 2006 were bleak. John O’Mahony returned to bring the team that final yard. Instead, he embarked on a rebuilding project that didn’t work. It was a measure of how things have changed; O’Mahony’s Mayo were in the last eight in the country for two of the four years of his second coming. That’s not good enough anymore. Not even close.
The records show that Mayo have been consistent winners in the qualifier era. Mayo appear regularly in Croke Park, and win regularly in Croke Park. Mayo have defeated the All-Ireland champions three times in the past 10 years – Dublin this year, Cork last year and Tyrone in 2004. But the fact that they didn’t push on to close the deal and take home the big pot strangely invalidates all that went before.
And it stings. If you got thrown naked into the middle of a 10-acre field of 10ft-tall nettles and rolled over a few thousand times, you might get an idea of what it’s like to see Mayo get so close and remain so far away.
Because in Mayo, we have nothing else. Everybody in Mayo who enjoys sports enjoys soccer and rugby and all the other games from all over the world now available to us. But they don’t mean anything. They don’t represent Mayo as football represents Mayo.
The Sawdoctors, our neighbours in Galway, got it. They asked themselves what is the fundamental thing about Mayo and realised it was the colours of the football team, the green and red.
Mayo is beautiful, but it’s not easy to live there. It’s not easy to graze cattle on rushes and whins. You can’t eat scenery. Growing up in Mayo, you’re always aware that it’s an odds-on bet that you may have to pack your bag and move somewhere else. You don’t have to go, but you can’t stay here.
And Mayo people hate leaving home. There’s a Mayo Association in Galway, which is hardly that far away. There’s something faintly ridiculous and yet strangely glorious at the notion of being homesick while 30 miles down the road.
The richness of Mayo football exists in contrast to that need and want. There are only 19 counties that have won the All-Ireland football championship. Mayo is one. Sixteen have won more than once. Mayo is one. Only seven counties have double-figure appearances in Croke Park in September. Mayo is one.
Mayo’s history is strong and her present is strong. Down through the years, Mayo have produced artists of the game – Joe Corcoran, Willie Joe Padden, Ciarán McDonald. For Mayo to have waited so long without at least one more title defies rationality.
While playing Donegal at that midlands crossroads is tempting for this weekend, it’s no more than that. A secret All-Ireland mightn’t quite do the trick for Mayo.
People thought winning a league in 2001 would change things. It didn’t.
People thought the under-21 win in 2006, which broke a long spell of losses at every age level, would cause a sea-change. Not quite. Maybe there’s only one way to change this thing.
Maybe the only way to win this thing is to do what’s always been done. To go in through the front door with the chest out. Let emergency green and red paint be shipped to the Plain of the Yews, and sheep prepared for their makeovers.
Hoist the banners high on the chimneys and rooftops. Book that flight home from New York and let the job go hang. Because however bad the sting of loss may be, the void of there being no Mayo at all would be infinitely worse.
ANTHONY MUNNELLYwrites An Spailpín Fánach ( spailpin.blogspot.ie), a bilingual blog on Irish life, culture and sports