This Saturday evening in Limerick they meet, the twin pinatas of the GAA analysis world – Cork and Mayo. When they’re bad, they’re horrid. And when they’re good, well . . . they’re just not good enough.
It’s hard to see a result this weekend that will please anyone. If Cork win, we’ll ask why we haven’t seen that spirit before now, while putting the final nail in Mayo’s coffin. Mayo win in a canter, and it’ll be all about what a disgrace to the jersey Cork have been this year. Such is the way of things when you’re a Mayo or a Cork footballer. I’m sure they’re used to it by now.
For serial winners of their provincial championships, they haven’t met all that often in summertime. Mayo went nearly 100 years without beating Cork in the championship, but the match that broke that long winless streak, the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final, was one of those forks in the road that appear for teams – key moments in their development that can shape the destiny of both teams involved.
Cork went into the game as All-Ireland champions. They had lost the Munster final to Kerry, but had bounced back and hammered Down, the team they had defeated in the All-Ireland final the year before, and looked to be moving serenely back into the last four.
Cork at that stage hadn’t lost to a team other than Kerry in the championship for seven years. Having won the All-Ireland in 2010, many people expected Cork to dominate for the coming 3 or 4 years. They had pace, strength, ability, and tons of players . . . so many players, in fact, that the main gripe people had with them was that they didn’t know what to do with them all.
They had won the league in 2010, and had won it again in the spring of 2011. They were part of the elite, a fully paid-up member of the inner circle.
Mayo, on the other hand, had been taken to extra-time by London in the first game of the championship under new manager James Horan. While Cork were winning the Sam Maguire, Mayo had lost to Sligo and Longford in the championship the year before.
The All-Ireland champions were five points up after 13 minutes, 1-3 to 0-1, and the game was proceeding exactly as everyone had foreseen.
Then Kevin McLoughlin pierced straight through the Cork defence and scored a magnificent goal, and the touch-paper under this Mayo team was lit. They limited Cork to one point from play in the second half and won the game 1-13 to 2-6.
Cork won the National League in 2012, and beat Kerry in the Munster championship that year too, but in footballing terms that was pretty much the four or five steps that Wile E. Coyote takes over the precipice before he realises he’s run out of solid ground under his feet.
Mayo would lose to Kerry in the ensuing All-Ireland semi-final, but they had in that moment established themselves as a member of the inner circle. That would be the last year, until this year, that Mayo would be knocked by anyone other than the eventual winners of the All-Ireland title. The only years they haven’t made the final since then, they lost replays at the semi-final stage to the eventual champions.
That the fork in the road would be as steep and as downhill for Cork as it has been would have been hard to believe at that time, but here they stand, 9/2 outsiders against Mayo in a championship game.
It might be strangely gratifying for them to look back to 2011, and remember that even as Cork won National Leagues and All-Ireland titles, people were still giving out about them not achieving as much as they should have with the players at their disposal. They still didn’t have a fanbase worthy of the name.
Mayo might remember that day in 2011 too – plenty of the players will, because at least 10 of the players who featured that day might feature again on Saturday evening. The thrill of a first win in Croke Park for a new team is something you don’t forget in a hurry.
And maybe too they’ll remember what playing in Croker without pressure was like, and vow never to get back to that stage again. Back then, winning quarter-finals meant you were in bonus territory. This Mayo team has worked too hard to let standards slip to that level again.
So they beat on, boats against the current – hardened to the insults, and still searching for what they’re looking for. Cork, for some self-respect, and Mayo, for that elusive All-Ireland. They are the teams who can’t do right for doing wrong.
They have found out the hard way that, even when they’re on top form, the only method to delay the inevitable kicking coming your way is to keep winning. Saturday is just another day in a sporting life spent on that tightrope.