Tyrone manning the barriers but Mayo's momentum to see them safely through
Mickey Harte has done it all before but James Horan’s team is a serious contender this year
Aidan O’Shea is New Mayo personified. Powerful, dominant and without a hint of the occasional fecklessness of old. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
In Haad Rin beach on Koh Phangan just this past Wednesday night, young women danced at the monthly Full Moon Party with luminous ‘Mayo 4 Sam’ signs scrawled up their arms. No kidding. Check the Mayo GAA Facebook page if you must – it’s all there in grainy camera-phoned glory. Following on from the painted road on the Alpe d’Huez during the Tour de France, they appear determined to colonise all points of altitude from shore to sky with word of their yearning for September’s big pot.
In other years, it would feel quaint. A little tragic, even. Plucky old Mayo, still keeping the faith long after faith left town and shacked up with reality. But not this year. Not with four games won by an aggregate of 61 points. Not with the All-Ireland champions lassoed and strung up for the third year in a row.
James Horan’s Mayo march on Croke Park again tomorrow, this time with Tyrone manning the barriers between them and a fourth All-Ireland final in 10 seasons. They arrive at the semi-final stage as favourites for the first time since meeting Fermanagh in 2004, a burden they didn’t carry especially well back then and one that weighed them down enough to need a replay to make the showpiece game.
Still, you have to go back to 1999 for the last time they lost an All-Ireland semi-final. Even in the years when finals caused their voice to catch in their throat, they never had any trouble banging out a tune in August. It was the scene of their most glorious days. And a prelude to their most tortured heartbreaks.
Given their deconstruction of Donegal, defeat tomorrow would constitute the worst of them all. Without question, it is possible. Tyrone are the forgotten wanderers in the All-Ireland desert, available at 7/2 tomorrow and 9/1 for the whole kit and kaboodle. Yet they are the only side left with a manager who has won an All-Ireland – he has, of course, won three – and they boast a spine of players who helped him do so.
Six of tomorrow’s team were on the pitch at the end of the 2008 final. Another four won All-Ireland minor medals either that year or in 2010. Tyrone’s transition period is over. All that’s left is for the new generation to make their own bit of history.
“Even in those years where we weren’t doing well in the public eye we still won back-to-back Ulster titles in 2009 and 2010,” says Mickey Harte. “They kind of went unnoticed compared to what Donegal’s two Ulster titles meant to them with the crowds on the pitch and everything else. So we have had players who won two Ulster titles as the next phase of players coming in to replace the senior ones who retired.
‘Every age group’
“We have players in every age group, which is more manageable than letting all the old senior players and experienced players go out at the one time. You have some of them, you have some players who are a bit younger than them and then you have the minors of 2008 who are the real serious operators now in our team. They’re now into the 22nd year, they’re seasoned in senior football.”
They also, it’s worth pointing out, beat Aidan O’Shea’s Mayo minor team in the final that year after a replay. Funny enough, if we saw the future in those two games we thought we saw it in Kyle Coney who only makes Tyrone’s bench tomorrow.
O’Shea, on the other hand, is New Mayo personified. Powerful, dominant and without a hint of the occasional fecklessness of old.
“The decision of the bookmakers to install us as favourites has not affected a team that is made up of ambitious guys,” says Horan. “We have been favourites in every championship game we have played this year. We are comfortable with that. We are where we want to be at this stage of the campaign and we want to play the kind of football of which we are capable.
“The fact we average a goal scored every 22 minutes is simply a product of how we have played. As a group, we can’t wait for the next challenge and there is little doubt Tyrone present a huge one.”
If Tyrone find a way through, let them happily say that everyone wrote them off. The momentum behind Mayo gives us no realistic option but to do so.