On the Friday of last year’s All-Ireland final, RTÉ’s’s flagship morning news show broadcast an open letter which, in four stilling minutes, caught the essence of why the hurling and football showpieces shine so resolutely in the Irish calendar year.
Willie McHugh originally wrote the letter as a column in the Mayo News and then obliged the request that he read it aloud for Cathal Mac Coille and the nation as it began another day. It was an unabashed paean to Mayo football past and present but also chronicled the complexity of emotions that McHugh experiences in following Mayo football teams from his boyhood and through his adult life: "From high infants you were there."
Most of all, it demonstrated the combination of anxiety and unbearable anticipation with which the Mayo football public have come to approach All-Ireland final days. It was a good luck card from the unknown thousands who follow Mayo – "We're the woman serving the meal at a wedding in the Castlecourt. We're the kid playing in the schoolyard. We're the girls on the B shift in Baxters. The exiles in London or Long Island. The five Ballinrobe lads who took off one morning for Australia" – and expressed the plaintive wish for just "one September Sunday when an unimaginable world unfolds".
On four Sundays within the last decade alone, Mayo have been on the cusp of that alternate reality, so close that they could almost feel it and touch it. Almost.
As the 2014 football season begins tonight with Dublin and Kerry jerseys mingling on the Jones road, the months ahead hold many intrigues: whether Dublin can defend their championship; whether there is another gallant push left in Kerry; whether Donegal can reclaim their brilliant intensity, whether Mickey Harte can manufacture more magic from Tyrone.
And as usual, the season is accompanied by the usual question: Is this to be Mayo’s year?
Tomorrow, Mayo line out against Kildare in Newbridge. Next weekend, Kiltane GAA club, the pride of the Erris peninsula, will contest the All-Ireland Intermediate final in Croke Park. The week after that, Castlebar Mitchells – Mayo and Connacht champions after a 20-years hiatus – will play for right of passage to the All-Ireland club final on St Patrick’s day.
The season is in its infancy but already it has Mayo fingerprints all over it.
“You could see it in our semi-final in Ballinasloe,” says Michael Holmes, formerly on the Kiltane management team. “The support we got from the Erris region but all over the county was a good measure of how people feel about the whole thing. I think myself Mayo can do well this year.
“There is a lot of optimism there all the time. The thing about Mayo people in general is.....okay, we would be disappointed with the losses but you have to give credit to the team for being in the top echelon as long as they have. The general consensus is that they are good enough to win an All-Ireland and just need a touch of the green.”
James Horan has introduced many qualities to Mayo since taking over but through his own unflappable demeanour, he has also helped to toughen the county’s mindset. September’s 2-12 to 1-14 loss to Dublin was Mayo’s second consecutive All-Ireland final defeat. But there was a notable absence of the agonised trials and wringing of hands. They lost because they didn’t win and unlike other years, there is no consensus on why this particular match didn’t go Mayo’s way.
“People skirt around it a bit,” says Martin Carney, the former Mayo player and coach. “They are still very much with this team and behind what they are trying to do.”
Within days of losing the final, the Mayo senior players were sending out positive messages about making another summit attempt this year, just as they had done after their disappointment against Donegal in 2012.
The commitment of this generation of players appears to be unassailable. What made last September's defeat so galling was that, unlike that 2012 final, the contest hung in the balance until the end. They promised that they would not be exposed in the opening minutes of that match as Mayo teams had been in the All-Ireland finals in 2004, 2006 and 2012.
And they delivered on that, containing the vaunted Dublin forward line to a single point from play – which occurred after a Mayo free out fell short – in the first 20 minutes.
For all the key points of analysis after the match – the cleverness of Dublin’s kick-out strategy; the injury to Cillian O’Connor; the three terrific saves by Mayo goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly – one aspect of that match stands out. With 20 minutes to go, Andy Moran fired a low goal to leave the score at 1-9 apiece.
Mayo had been trailing in the possession stakes and the Dubs were resuming their landlord status in Croke Park. But that goal could have changed everything. It meant Mayo – the county as well as the team – were right where they wanted to be: everything to play for in the last 20 minutes of an All-Ireland final. The goal should have signalled an unholy reaction from the Mayo crowd.
“That primal roar,” says Martin Carney. “That sense of: now is the time to do it. And yes, it didn’t manifest itself when the team needed it.”
Michael Holmes was in Croke Park and acknowledges that the Mayo crowd was noticeably timorous during the closing quarter of the match.
“I suppose there is that ghost of the past there. An ingrained ghost among the supporters that won’t allow us believe we are capable of winning an All-Ireland. I think it is an unconscious thing until that thing is on the table.. .until the Sam Maguire is there with is. I probably felt like that myself. ..there have been so many disappointments. But I do think the day will come when we grab it by the scruff of the neck – when we have that bit of belief.”
If Mayo return to the All-Ireland quarter-finals this year, that necessary show of force may be the final piece necessary to complete the jigsaw.
When Kerry teams reach All-Ireland finals, players and fans alike are conditioned by decades of happy experience to believe success beckons.
Similarly, the current Dublin team has shown that playing in Croke Park in All-Ireland final emboldens them. The Mayo football squad has, under Horan, rightly decided that the past has nothing to do with them but they cannot prevent the psychic weight that accompanies the supporters when September comes.
"That sense of foreboding or even inevitability about the Mayo fans," says Carney. "There is a collective intake of breath when it comes to All-Ireland finals. As much as James Horan and the management shield the players from it, the players live in the community. And I am convinced to a degree that some of that kind of worry or sense of trepidation that people feel filters through to players. I may be wrong about that but that is my sense of it."
But has this team enough left to sustain another big push?
This week, Horan didn’t seem unduly worried when he noted that he was down “13 or 14” experienced players for what will be a vigorous contest in Newbridge. Even so, he was in a position to name a strong team on Thursday.
The inclusion of the outstanding Keith Higgins at centre-forward is the tantalising positional pick but his conversion from Mayo’s defensive unit suggests the Mayo attack remains a work in progress.
Mayo have plenty of good forwards but they tend to be the same kind of player: they have not had an out-and-out playmaker since Ciarán McDonald became a folk memory and could badly use the kind of forward who regularly clips two or three points from play.
Kiltane’s emotional journey to Croke Park has been hewn from intense commitment – not least from three players who commute from London but also on the high-scoring habits of Tommy “goals” Conroy, the key player on the Mayo minor team which won the All-Ireland title last September.
Mikey Sweeney, his partner up front, has been called into the Mayo panel along with John Reilly, a midfielder. Neither will feature until the club adventure is over. Tom King, bantamweight in build and just as quick and a former soccer star, clipped 0-6 in the Connacht club final for Castlebar.
Evan Regan shot 0-8 for Sligo IT during an FBD game against Mayo. Regan is from Ballina and has been part of Mayo’s panel in the past. Conor Mortimer is at a loose end in Dublin, playing for Parnells.
Everyone has an opinion about potential changes in the team. Horan is giving two debutants their chance tomorrow.
But this will be a slow-building season for Mayo. Nobody is expecting them to catch fire in the league – even if Mayo teams usually do well in that arena. The depth of football talent within the county means their elite panel is rarely skeletal. Kiltane were formed in 1962 and had been promoted to the senior ranks by 1973 where they remained for almost 40 years.
“So I suppose we would see ourselves as a senior club really and truly,” Holmes says. “People within the club were very disappointed to be relegated but it might have been the best thing to happen to us as it gave us a new impetus and we got to work and it has catapulted from there.It is a massive thing for our lads because we are not the centre of the universe here. We are out on a limb here, the next parish to America.”
Martin Carney did not watch a replay of last September’s All-Ireland final until a week ago, when the highlights happened to come on. They served to confirm his initial impressions of the game, particularly what happened right after Andy Moran’s goal.
“The key thing at that moment was for Mayo to push on. But instead, Dublin got the next score and it was a goal.”
Between those two scores lay a few seconds when uncertainty swirled around Croke Park and when the Mayo public had a chance to exploit that moment with a torrent of noise to let the team know they believed.
“Everything that team does is predicated on huge honesty and effort,” Carney says. “In those seconds after the goal, it was turn of the Mayo public to stand up and be counted and they were not there.
As Willie McHugh noted, “It’s a lot for you to carry on All-Ireland final days.”
It is. Just then, the team needed to be not so much carried as swept along by the sound of their countymen and women daring to shout their belief from the rooftops. And it is that harnessing of the collective belief – the necessary arrogance – of an entire county which may be required to finally push Mayo into the mystic.