This week a year ago, Mayo was bubbling. Both the men’s and women’s senior teams were getting ready for All-Ireland finals.
The local papers were felling forests for souvenir pull-outs. Tickets, lifts, hotels, plans – the whole place thrummed with the sort of potential energy that sustains a county and keeps the winter at bay. Mayo was a place with its bow elastic stretched all the way back. Ready to fire.
Twelve months on, they have the look of a crowd you wouldn’t trust around an open quiver. Everything is everywhere and nothing is where it should be.
On Wednesday, the deadline for clubs to nominate candidates for the job of managing the senior men’s team is up. Before that, on Tuesday night, the women’s county board will appeal the Connacht LGFA’s decision to reinstate Carnacon to the county championship. Nobody can say with any confidence where either situation is headed.
On the face of it, there is no obvious link between the two. Outside of a shared sponsor and the same team bus, there’s no major crossover between the men’s and women’s set-ups. The county boards are separate, they train in different places, they carry vastly different levels of expectation around with them.
But people are people. And GAA people are people squared. The particulars of both situations may be unique onto themselves but underneath them both, there’s the same river contaminated with the same sludge. There’s turf wars and backbiting and arse-covering everywhere you look.
“There’s always too much emotion in Mayo football,” says one person close to it. “The tension is always there, inside and outside the county, even coming in from abroad,” says another.
Are they so different to everyone else? Possibly not.
Every county has its own tribal loyalties and internecine gripes, after all, and they’re not picked over with anything like the same gimlet eye as Mayo’s tend to be. That said, there does appear to be an appetite to go looking for the nuclear button a lot more readily in Mayo than in other places. At least, there has been recently.
Think of it this way. James Horan stepped down as manager of the men's team on August 31st, 2014. Presuming a reasonably normal process plays out, the new man will be in place at some stage in the coming weeks. That may well be Horan himself – he remains favourite for the gig – but regardless of who it is, the players will be sat in front of their fourth management set-up in just over four years.
Only Roscommon can match the comings and goings in Mayo over that period
Through that time, Dublin, Tyrone and Monaghan have all had the same man at the helm. Ditto Kerry, although a change is on the horizon there. Kevin Walsh is about to go into his fifth season in charge of Galway, Cian O'Neill is all set for his fourth year over Kildare.
Of the main challengers striving for the top of the shop, only Roscommon can match the comings and goings in Mayo over that period. Donegal and Cork have had their moments but still both come up one managerial change short. Stability has not been a watchword.
And of course, it isn’t just a male thing either. The fate of the women’s team can be and has been just as scattershot. Leaving aside the current farrago for a moment, it’s worth remembering that we’re only a few years removed from the Mayo LGFA pulling the county team out of the All-Ireland championship.
A row between players and management at the end of the 2010 league campaign led to manager Pat Costello resigning, which in turn led to club delegates passing a motion to withdraw the team from the championship. It took an appeal from three clubs – over the heads of their own county board – to get them back in in time to play Kerry in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
The stand-off led to the bizarre situation where there was a very real threat that if the county board stuck to their guns, all women’s football from under-8s to senior would have been scrapped by rule for 12 months.
When things get out of hand in Mayo, they really get out of hand.
One of the themes of the great political TV show The Thick Of It holds that the scandals we on the outside presume are driven by cynical Machiavellian intent are actually just as often the result of pure amateur incompetence.
On any reasonable reading of the situation, the Mayo County Board didn’t handle the end of Stephen Rochford’s reign well. For every voice in Mayo you’ll find to tell you that was by design, there’s just as many who wouldn’t be as quick to give them that much credit.
According to multiple different accounts from those involved, throughout Rochford's three years in charge there was a consistent low level of tension between the Mayo set-up and the county board. It was obvious – and even understandable – from the start that this would be the case after the way the players forced the previous management out, Noel Connelly being the brother of county chairman Mike Connelly.
Some of it was the usual push and pull over resources, some of it felt more petty than that. As a small example, Rochford occasionally found himself having to justify not just the size of the playing group but sometimes even the presence or absence of certain named players.
“Some of the county board members would have liked to think they had an influence over who was on the panel and not on the panel, even though it wasn’t their place to do so,” says one member of the set-up. “Stephen had to deal with all that and other things like it. That’s noise and you have enough to be dealing with as a county manager without adding noise.”
When the 2018 championship came to such an abrupt halt in Newbridge in June, a sort of stunned silence fell across the Mayo football landscape. It was their earliest exit from the summer’s doings since 2010 and it took a little adjusting to for everyone involved.
While it wasn't immediately clear what Rochford's intentions were, it was understood there would be changes. Tony McEntee was always finishing up this year regardless of how it ended and Donie Buckley and Peter Burke moved on as well. But when Rochford let a month pass without signalling his own intentions one way or the other, the resultant vacuum caused the whole environment to get antsy.
Rochford took a full six weeks to say he wanted to stay when he could have shut down all speculation much earlier
In the miasma of intrigue that always goes with these situations, it rarely pays to be entirely dogmatic about what exactly went down. The one thing that can be said with certainty is the whole thing ended messily when it didn’t have to. Rochford took a full six weeks to say he wanted to stay when he could have shut down all speculation much earlier.
Once he had done so, Mike Connelly announced out of nowhere at a county board meeting the following week that there was a 10-day deadline by which Rochford would have to name his selectors. Additionally, there would be a two-step process of ratification for whatever names he came up with.
This raised a multitude of questions and was seen in most quarters as painting Rochford into a corner for no obvious reason. If they were happy Rochford was their man, what was the big rush to get him to name selectors? Why impose a deadline at all? What if he didn’t meet it? Did the deadline come with an unspoken ‘or else’ attached? Why make him jump his nominees through hoops? Does two All-Ireland finals in three years count for that little?
Nonetheless, Rochford met the deadline with five days to spare, with word coming out in The Mayo News that Peter Ford and Shane Conway were his chosen ones. When the executive met, ostensibly to rubber-stamp Ford and Conway, it didn't go down well that the press knew before some of them did.
From there, according to one person present, the meeting simply drifted inexorably away from giving Rochford what he wanted. When he was informed afterwards that there would have to be a further conversation, he started drafting his resignation statement. Within 24 hours, his three-year term was finished.
When it comes to the row in the women’s team – and in women’s football generally within Mayo – in many ways, you’re looking at a far bigger mess than what’s happened with the men. Barring some new drama, Rochford’s replacement will be chosen, the county board will ratify him and Mayo will head into 2019 as one of the small handful teams who can feasibly stop Dublin completing five-in-a-row.
On the women’s side of things, however, the stakes are arguably far higher. You can’t have a situation where the dominant club in the county is at war with the rest of it with neither an end in sight nor anyone obviously inclined to find one. Whether or not Carnacon are allowed to play in the Mayo championship after Tuesday night’s appeal is almost beside the point. How the Mayo LGFA goes about closing up the scars of this row and putting together a team going into the future is really a more pertinent question.
Again, the Mayo propensity for going full metal jacket has served nobody particularly well here.
Throwing out a broad suggestion like that showed appalling judgement and was deeply unfair to Leahy
Peter Leahy’s management style might not be for everyone but he deserved better than for Cora Staunton to go on Newstalk and speak darkly about the Mayo set-up not being “a safe environment” for players.
Since she wasn't prepared to give specifics, throwing out a broad suggestion like that showed appalling judgement and was deeply unfair to Leahy. It left a chasm of interpretation available to anyone who wanted to come up with their own theories as to what she might be talking about. Little wonder that he went on Colm Parkinson's GAA Hour during the week to lay out his side of the story.
Whatever grounds Staunton and the Carnacon players had for walking away from Leahy’s set-up, there was an onus on them to either quash any suggestion that their issue went beyond a confrontation management style or to lay out specifically what the problem was. Instead, Leahy has had to come out and defend himself against nebulous charges that for all anyone knew could have had a sinister edge to them. That’s fundamentally wrong.
That said, Carnacon have every right to be outraged about the wider issue of their removal from the county championship. Whatever the ins and outs of the walk-out by eight of their players from the county panel in mid-summer, the decision by the other clubs to trump them up on a charge of bringing the game into disrepute looks smaller and pettier with every passing day.
Nobody is under any illusions about their lack of popularity within the county. They have laid waste to the league and championship in Mayo for two decades, running up mercilessly huge scores and setting their sights on Connacht and beyond. In a WGPA video recorded near the end of last year, Staunton herself copped to it.
“We probably wouldn’t be the most-liked club around the country or certainly within Mayo,” she said. “But I suppose that’s like any club that’s successful.”
At the LGFA county board meeting in mid-August, that lack of popularity gave rise to what by any measurement is a stunning over-reach by the other clubs. Feelings were understandably raw, coming a week after Galway knocked them out of the All-Ireland quarter-final on a scoreline of 5-11 to 0-12. But there’s raw and there’s malicious and this crossed the line.
It became clear on the night that there was a mood to do something about Carnacon, even though only eight of the 12 players who he walked off the Mayo panel earlier in the summer were from the club. The fact that they kicked around the idea of using a different rule rather than the one they settled on says it all.
Carnacon were to be got. And got they were.
The world turns.
And how, in the long run, will Mayo go about putting a county team together again?
The coming week will set the tone for Mayo football on both sides of the gender divide for the foreseeable future. First up, the Mayo LGFA are pursuing their appeal to the Connacht Council in Bekan on Tuesday night. Whatever about the initial sanction, the fact that they’re sticking to their guns seems particularly small-minded.
Even if they’re successful, what use is it to them to play out a championship without the perennial champions? Someone will win a county title but what will it be worth to them? And how, in the long run, will Mayo go about putting a county team together again? Mayo had to wait a decade between All-Ireland finals before they got to last year’s decider – how badly this impasse will set them back can only be guessed at.
As for the men, the process is grinding away. Horan is the favourite and most of the county would be delighted to have him back but it isn’t that simple. Even in the best of times, Horan and the county board didn’t rub along overly well. The fact that an email went around last Monday asking clubs to put forward submissions has already been seen in some quarters as putting it up to the former manager – does he want it enough to apply for it?
If he doesn't, the way looks to have been cleared for Under-20 manager Mike Solan to go forward and take it. Whether he is the right man to take charge of a driven dressing room of big personalities is another kettle of fish. Important members of the county board are known to favour him, at least in the background for now.
Emotion. Power. Control. All feeding into Mayo football, now and into the future. Meanwhile, Dublin have four in a row up in the men’s game and head to Croke Park tomorrow looking for back-to-back titles in the women’s.
And not a hint of drama to be found anywhere.