Ciarán Murphy: Thrill-a-minute Mayo make case for Super Eight
More classic games between the best teams is just what football needs
Andy Moran celebrates scoring his side’s second goal last Sunday: Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie
In retrospect, the debate over the “Super Eight” championship restructuring due to come into force next year could have been ended with one four-word bullet point in its favour – “More games involving Mayo.”
It was curious to see how eagerly some people jumped on results in this year’s quarter-finals to question next year’s modest proposal. They may not have noticed, but they got an emphatic answer last Sunday. Games involving the best teams in the business are, much more often than not, the most thrilling showcase of the sport.
It might seem an obvious thing to say, but it’s not always the case in top-level sport – there seemed to be a few years in the Premier League at the end of the noughties when big games between the top four often produced rather bland stalemates. The World Cup similarly hasn’t had too many brilliant semi-finals and finals recently. But for the last five years or so, that has most certainly not been the way of things in Gaelic football.
The All-Ireland semi-finals of recent years have been absolute thrillers. Since 2012, there have been seven games at the semi-final stage that would fit easily into the “classic” category, and therein lies the ultimate, best argument for the Super Eights – more good games between the best teams.
It’s hard to imagine two sports more prone to knee-jerk reactions about their current state than hurling and Gaelic football. That is the natural way of things when games are so few and far between. If there are three disappointing games in a championship, and they’re the last three games, then the winter is spent in deep contemplation about the future of the sport.
To say that there’s nothing wrong with football after watching Mayo and Kerry is naive, but it’s also naive to presume that the whole world is in a state of chassis after the four best teams hammer four more teams that are striving to get up to that level in one eight-day period.
So much of the post-match reaction after last Sunday has focused on how Mayo showed a lack of belief in leaving Aidan O’Shea to mind the backyard for the entire game. And it’s true that after 50 minutes it became clear he was being wasted at full back when the game was there to be won.
But everywhere else there were shows of exhibitionism and bravery on the ball that suggested the benefits of a zero respect, zero inhibitions outlook from both teams. Killian Young kicking points off his right foot from the right corner forward position; Colm Boyle’s tenacity to repeatedly break a tackle before off-loading; Paddy Durcan’s deathless finish when a lesser man’s confidence would have been knocked by his miss moments before.
It was that commitment to self-expression, that belief in their own ability, that gave the game its chaotic, rollercoaster feel. And it’s that which separates these teams from the chasing pack. At this level, when you’re thinking, when you’re second-guessing yourself, you’re losing. And at heart, this was a match between two teams who deep-down believed that all things being equal they were better than the other crowd. That happens less often than you might think.
There’s also an individual’s commitment to self-improvement. That point from Killian Young was a case in point – but there was also Andy Moran’s coruscating display in the Mayo full-forward line. It has often been said that Mayo are in a bad way if they’re still depending on Moran, but the evidence is irrefutable – He has become a better player in the last two or three years.
That alacrity he showed in tight spaces last weekend wasn’t always in his game. I found myself watching a repeat of the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Mayo on eir sport a few weeks back, and the Andy Moran I saw freewheeling from wing back to score a vital goal in the second half was not the same player we saw against Kerry. Instead of trying to prove people wrong, he became a different player to the player people were criticising. It’s hard to argue with a man like that.
Debate surrounding any restructuring will be inevitable, and it’s a sign of a healthy democracy . . . or something. But the grace note to any discussion is that what we saw last Sunday will happen more regularly next year – two of the best teams in the country hammering away at each other like they were Arturo Gatti and Irish Mickey Ward.
It becomes clear when watching Mayo and Kerry whaling away at each other – and the Dubs too – that there is no way a round-robin system will dull their ardour. There is an elemental nature to games between those three that exists even beyond the consequences of the occasion. We will see on Sunday if Tyrone belong in that company too.