One of the unexpected joys of lockdown was that I found music again. Like most teenagers, I was nuts about music. But then I lost it. So during the first lockdown – the fine weather and endless walks – I started listening to old heroes like Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Why did I stop? Life got in the way. Instead of putting music on in the car you'd stick on a podcast or the news. So it felt like finding an old friend.
And this time I began to listen to Leonard Cohen properly for the first time and, in particular, his end of life album, You Want It Darker. No question mark. It's been the soundtrack to my winter and it occurred to me that it is almost the perfect soundtrack and title to the last decade of following Mayo's All-Ireland final story. They have been played an unholy hand of cards in those games.
In the first three years from 2011 to 2013, they beat the reigning champions but failed to win a final. In 2015, they a lost semi-final to Dublin who went on to win and start this historic sequence. I think the 2017 All-Ireland final might well be the best game of football I have ever seen. That Mayo team took us to the brink and they were breathtakingly close to taking the final magical step. But by autumn, the All-Ireland winners were somewhere else and we had to wait for Mayo to come again. If you want it darker, give us another 12 months.
That sense of failing or not quite getting there goes back all the way back to 1951 in terms of All-Ireland senior finals we have lost. But there is a contradiction in the recent chapter. Those 10 years also provided so many great, great days. The days of our lives. It is impossible to break the faith of a Mayo supporter. They may grouse and swear never again and admit that it is too much to keep going “up” to see them fall short in some final or other. But try and keep them away! Only a pandemic could keep Mayo people away from Dublin on an All-Ireland final weekend in which the green and red is flying. If this was a normal year, there’d be bucks landing in from JFK and Heathrow all week.
It's a funny thing. We think of 1951 as an untouchable past. But I was raised with All-Ireland winners all around me. Gerald Courell and Jackie Carney lived in Ballina. I was Gerald's messenger boy in his drapery shop when I was in national school. And he had talked to me for ages about winning All-Irelands as if that was the most natural thing in the world. But for him, it was. Seán Wynne was chairman of Bord Na nÓg and he was the goalkeeper on that double team. I met Seán Flanagan as a child. My father knew him and he was captain of those teams. And the confidence Seán exuded about Mayo's place in football was just magnificent.
When I was seven I got a brand new set of Mayo gear. I felt dynamite wearing it. I had to use elastics to keep the sleeves up and the white sole of the socks rolled up above my ankles and the shorts were far too loose. But I loved that rig-out. The only Mayo player I knew was Tommy O’Malley. I assumed he was the greatest footballer in Ireland. It was only when I grew up that I realised how tough his Mayo experience was. Tommy played from 1969 to 1981 when the team failed to win a single Connacht championship. It was barren. And I remember my father often saying, ‘come on we will go to Tuam’. That was the height of adventure for Mayo supporters then.
They had to fight their way out of the jacks. That's what playing for Mayo was like then
And another highlight was doing the scoreboard in the park in Ballina during league games. I saw Seán O’Neill of Down play and that was a thrill. My first actual championship match was the Connacht final in 1975. A silver Ford driven by Mr Maughan, our teacher. Three kids squeezed into a car already filled with adults. Mayo had resurgent under age teams: an All-Ireland minor title in 1971 and an under-21 All-Ireland title in 1974.
The future looked brilliant. We were playing Sligo that day. The feeling was that it would be a handy one. They drew on a hot day. And a week later they were dumped out in Castlebar. A year after that, they lost to Leitrim. After that defeat, I later heard of a player and his mates who headed to Achill so they could nurse their wounds unnoticed. Fat chance. In the hotel toilets, the player was rumbled by a few irate islanders who wanted to have words and more over the disgrace brought to the jersey. They had to fight their way out of the jacks. That's what playing for Mayo was like then.
And yet it pulls you in. Why? I keep coming back to the colours and that tradition and the oversized crest on the shirt – too big and uncool but gorgeous at the same time. And we kind of knew, as children, we were good or supposed to be good at this game. ‘The double’ was a conversation piece. The photographs were everywhere.
And 10 short years after that '75 game, I found myself playing for Mayo. And I remember we drew with Dublin in the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final. We were in the Ashling Hotel on the Liffey that evening. The squad was there and there was a lovely afterglow: a sense that we were back. When was the replay, someone asked. Who cares, he was told. I worked 200 yards from the Ashling, up in Collins Barracks. I was expected to report for duty at 09.00 hours the next morning. But by 21.00 hours that night I was in the Beaten Path outside Balla in the heart of Mayo. For the recovery session! I think we lost the replay around then.
In later years, when I was a pundit, I stopped going to Mayo finals. I volunteered to stay in the RTÉ studio. And often, when it looked as if the impossible might happen, I began to entertain ideas of grabbing a taxi over to Croke Park from Montrose, to hear the end of the speech or just breathe the air. But then the final whistle went and we would be back in the same place, all of us.
It is an addiction. If I stop for petrol in Swinford or Ballindine this week, someone will bump into me and want to know what I think about the game. Everyone wants to talk about football all the time in the county. And I admit: we become half mad with excitement and anticipation because we are very proud of our place in the game. Every town has their specific hero. Belmullet has Willie Joe. Ballindine has Colm Boyle. Ballintubber has Prendergast. Ballinrobe has O'Malley. Ballyhaunis has Zippy Higgins. Balla has TJ. Ballina has Liam Mc. Ballycastle has Tom Langan. Ballagh' has Johnno. That's just the Bs! Claremorris has John P. Crossmolina has McDanger. Moygownagh has Larry. Shrule has the Morts. Gilvarry from Killala. And the Flying Doctor in Swinford.
They are everywhere. But when you remove yourself from the lifelong connection and love for Mayo and try and be rational, it is very difficult to look at Saturday four days out and coldly say: this is the year.
So what if we lose again on Saturday? Well, Mayo will keep going on
Now, this Mayo team has a lot going for them. They are full of pace and youth and running and I think we have a proper full forward line maybe for the first time since . . . ever. But for all that, it appears like an almost impossible challenge. So many things have to happen.
Can they find the right players to mark Fenton, Kilkenny, O’Callaghan and Rock and James McCarthy? Can we get our long kick out sorted? Can we function at midfield like you have to function in an All-Ireland final? Can we have several key players give the performance of a lifetime? Can we get any kind of kick from the bench? We have got 0-3 from our bench so far using 20 substitutes. All of these are real concerns and reasons to steel yourself for another year of waiting.
So what if we lose again on Saturday? Well, Mayo will keep going on. I was training Mayo in 1995 and we took an awful trimming against Galway. Marty Morrissey asked me: what now? And I remember saying on television: what do you think we will do? Will we give it up and try cricket or something? This is what we do.
There is no choice here. Mayo will be defined by Gaelic football for as long as the game exists. There will always be another year. Toby McWalter is a famous Mayo supporter. We had lost a final again. It was '04 or '06 and he came up to a gang of us in Citywest. It was late. We were shook. And he said: "Come on lads. Chin up. I just checked. You are all under age again next year."
And maybe I am just steeling myself here in this column. It’s a process you go through as a Mayo supporter. You rationalise why the team probably won’t win. Then, by Friday, you have produced a counter logic and you are convinced they can do it.
All I do know is that thankfully the players and management are in a bubble that this mood or this stuff does not permeate. They are thinking, as all teams must, that everything is going to just fall right and that they have a plan and are going to beat this crowd of Invincibles. And, of course, that is the point of sport. Sports people have unreasonable belief in themselves. The evidence is that this will be Dublin’s sixth title. But unreasonable belief sometimes triumphs over logic.
Every so often I wonder about the collective experience the county has undergone since we flew home after losing the 1989 final. It was a dismal night but as the plane descended into Knock we could see the crowd, vast and loyal, in the drizzle. It was one of the most affecting things I have ever seen. We weren’t favourites to win in 1989.
And the peculiar truth is that we have never been favourite to win any of the All-Ireland finals we played in since. No Mayo team has lost an All-Ireland final it was ‘supposed’ to win. But there were a few days when they could have won anyway. And I just wish we had experienced that joy that other counties have had.
Just that sense of accomplishment and completion and radiant happiness for your group of footballers and people. And yet there is outrageous pride that we keep on coming back. I absolutely take my hat off to that fearlessness.
There are players on that Mayo team who have every reason not to want to put themselves through another All-Ireland final against Dublin. But I know they can’t wait for it and I know they believe just as much now as they did the first time. It’s probably their greatest strength.
I know I love that about Mayo. And that I wouldn’t be from anywhere else.