On the road again. Around lunchtime on Sunday, Mayo will skydive into another All-Ireland quest, this time framed by the unfamiliar backdrop of Ben Bulben. It's only the beginning of the league but there's no point in pretending that going one game better than last year is the epicentre of Mayo's football aspirations. With MacHale Park out of use for the league, the Mayoites are gone nomadic. No matter: wherever I lay my hat and all that.
They will play Donegal with Markievicz Park their adopted home venue for the day. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the unique All-Ireland final meeting and for most of the decade both counties have done their level best to keep pace with the superpowers of Dublin and Kerry. If you told Mayo in 2012 that they’d go on to contest another five finals in the next 10 years, then who in their right minds would have bet against them becoming champions- and more than once?
Autumn blew through Mayo carrying with it the speculation and gloomy introspection of perhaps the most hurtful of their All-Ireland defeats. Three months have passed since James Horan did an interview with Tommy Marren on Midwest radio. It was another reminder that in a parallel world, Horan could have made it to the top as a bombs disposal expert. In 20 minutes, he laid waste to the various rumours of management feuds with Ciaran McDonald and Peter Burke, of what was or wasn't said on the sideline during the final.
“It is so far from any realm of truth that it’s crazy,” he remarked. “But was it Churchill who said if you stop and start at every dog that barks you’ll never get anywhere? So . . . you move on.”
And the standard in Mayo, I have to say, is very high
From his very first year in charge of Mayo, Horan has been deft in contextualising defeat and disappointment. Big football games were won, a few were lost: the sky never fell in. Once again, he simply acknowledged that the team didn’t play their best on the day and that it was a disappointment. He reminded listeners that everyone was trying their level best.
“Are there learnings for me in the game? Is there ownership I need to take?” he asked rhetorically. “One hundred percent.”
Things calmed down. The days shortened and club colours and voices lifted the drabness out of November and into December. Stephen Coen, a serial cup lifter, was quietly announced as captain early in the New Year. Cillian O’Connor’s slow-march to full fitness continues.
The news that Oisin Mullin, the marauding Kilmaine defender, has elected to stay home rather than join Australian Rules club Geelong sent a cheer through the county. Mullin's presence is enough to persuade the smart lads in the bookie's to recalibrate the odds. And all the while, the world kept turning. Mayo remained what it always has been: a big, besotted football county capable of fielding a serious county team year after year.
“I have seen a lot of club games last year,” says Austin Garvan, a Mayo football scholar for over half a century and the manager of the celebrated All-Ireland winning minor teams of 1971 and 1978.
“And the standard in Mayo, I have to say, is very high. Now the county final wasn’t good, I felt. But the Garrymore-Knockmore game was superb. Kilmeena are playing the All-Ireland junior semi-final this weekend and they are a very good junior team. And that is the third layer of football. The enthusiasm for the game never wanes at ground level here in Mayo. It is unbelievable.”
As Garvan made his way around the circuit over the winter, he noticed that Horan always seemed to be there too.
“I never saw him as active. He was at all the games. The team has kept a very low profile. They were beaten in the FBD by Galway. But the main reason for that was they were trying out a lot of young players; trying out lads like Sam Callinan from Ballina who had a great county final and was brilliant in that game. Donnacha McHugh, a young player from Castlebar, has impressed too.
“With Cillian missing I’d say James will be looking out for a full-forward for the start of the league. And the other thing is that Matthew Ruane will miss the first two league games because of suspension in the All-Ireland final. And they have no home game with Dublin away under lights, Kerry away and Tyrone away – all difficult assignments at the best of times.”
That’s a neat summary of the league season ahead. The sharp turn into the All-Ireland summer heightens the significance of each match. Mayo finished runners-up last summer despite firing only periodically in games. The incendiary closing half hour of their semi-final win over Dublin eclipsed the fact that they had struggled to put scores on the board in the first half. An irresistible second half against Galway in the Connacht final disguised a flat period in the first half. They played fitfully against Tyrone in that final but were in contention until the last 10 minutes.
The question now is what they require to go take that extra step. That subject is a constant source of discussion within Mayo. There’s an awful lot right within the squad. It’s down to fine details.
But they still need to identify that missing element if they are to finish on the right side of this quest.
Among those gold standard defenders who bowed out this year was the four time All-Star Colm Boyle. His closing act was as substitute in last year’s All-Ireland final. He didn’t play. As he left the field for the last time, he noticed a familiar figure bounding down the steps of the lower Hogan to try and reach him and shake his hand. It was Andy Moran.
Boyle was such a fireball of energy and effectiveness for Mayo for so long that it hardly seemed credible that he, too, would be leaving without his All-Ireland medal. He was emblematic of a bloody-minded determination that coursed through the ‘10s generation of Mayo footballers. Reflecting on his career with Mike Finnerty recently, he made a telling observation about his final day in a Mayo shirt and the atmosphere in Croke Park.
“Going back to the game I remember coming out to do the warm up and the whole arena just felt dead. Usually when you come out, especially with Mayo supporters, no matter where we go over the years…the Mayo fans are hopping. But I don’t know whether it was half full, but there was a dead feeling. It was very strange. I remember thinking that in the warm up. We started ok but Tyrone hit a purple patch in the first half and hit some really great scores.
“And definitely you could feel whatever life was in the supporters and in the team was just drained out. It was like someone stuck a needle in us. And there was nothing happening. It was a very strange feeling and we just needed that one thing to ignite us. And I know it is an easy to thing but if one of those goals goes in I think the roof would have come off the place. As a player, I can’t emphasise the lift that gives you.”
The point clarified what has always been obvious: that Mayo are a team which operates along operatic levels of emotion and who have a unique relationship with their fans. They can overcome most other county teams on athleticism and talent alone.
Against the elite teams, the potential of the Mayo crowd to create an anarchic environment has been vital in the past – and will be this year when the stadium is full again. But they still need to identify that missing element if they are to finish on the right side of this quest.
“What I feel is that they need huge leadership when things are going against them,” says Garvan. “Through the the particular lines. To be able to read the game and implement it and imbue it to players around them. Cillian was an awful loss in that regard. We need, too, a strong, creative centre-forward to carry that entire line.
“Matthew Ruane was excellent at midfield last year but he needs a strong man beside him. And even though we have lost some brilliant defenders we still have a very good defence overall. It is a matter of where you place each of them for the good of the unit.”
There will be other intrigues as the league season gathers pace: how O’Connor will re-integrate to the team when he does return; the role which the management finds for Aidan O’Shea and the ability to translate their formidable ability to win huge chunks of possession into scores.
So you can bet that there will be a long tailback of traffic from the Mayo arteries into Sligo town at noontime on Sunday for the lunchtime throw-in. Nothing is broken.