Rob Murphy was in a pub in Carlow when the twang of his last nerve sounded. It was April 2012 and he was in the area for the Towns Cup final between Tullow and Enniscorthy.
The final date clashed with Mayo’s appearance in a league semi-final against Kerry in Croke Park – by trade, he is a freelance rugby journalist; by vocation, a Mayo football fan. Fortune staggered the start times for both games and an agreeable work-life balance was maintained.
Lo and behold, it was a game Mayo actually won. In fact, they put on what would become a sort of signature Mayo Croke Park display that day. They raced out to an early five-point lead, faded badly to be trailing by four in the 66th minute, rallied from nowhere to force extra-time and then, just for laughs, squeaked out a one-point win by the end. Mad times. Not for the last time.
Anyway, after Murphy had kicked every ball of the game in whatever no-name bar it was in Carlow, he overheard a couple of locals chuckling to themselves in the normal way.
“It was these two oul’ lads sitting at the bar,” he says now, “and they were going, ‘Jaysus, Mayo – God love them. Will they ever do it?’ And I was there thinking, ‘Two fecking Carlow lads, like! We just beat Kerry! And ye’re from Carlow! And ye’re feeling sorry for us?’”
And on it goes. Mayo, God help us. Poor Mayo. Poor Mayo supporters, more to the point. Condemned to lives of wretchedness and misery, unable to save themselves, the poor craythurs. Always coming back for more, smiles wry, backs aching for the lash.
"What drives Mayo people nuts is to be pitied," says John Gunnigan, owner and curator of the MayoGAABlog website. "Absolutely nuts. Because we don't want to be pitied. There's nothing to pity us for. We are having the time of our lives.
“All this, ‘Ah, poor oul’ Mayo, more heartbreak’ stuff. That’s what really annoys me. I have to keep reminding people of our record, of the tiny, tiny margins that have been the difference between us having an All-Ireland in the last few years and not having one. Our memories of this era from Croke Park and wherever else are overwhelmingly good ones.
“Look, if we win, if we eventually do it, great. We’ll have different things to talk about. But we’re not any the lesser for it all just because an All-Ireland hasn’t happened. Why would thousands of us keep going if we didn’t enjoy it? So that’s why I don’t go for this ‘Poor Oul’ Mayo’ stuff at all. It’s just not reflective of our experience.”
He has a point, of course. It is a statement of pure, inarguable fact that you could be doing far less fulfilling things with your life than following the Mayo football team around the place. The excitement alone is of a colour unseen and unseeable in the vast majority of counties.
Since the start of the 2011 championship, Mayo have been involved in four games that have gone to extra-time. That’s more than Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone, Donegal, Galway, Cork and Monaghan combined. Of their last 12 games in Croke Park, eight have either been drawn or decided by a point.
In that six-and-a-half season stretch, their supporters have got to enjoy/endure 18 games that ended with no more than a goal between them and their opposition at full-time. For comparison, Dublin have had 13 such encounters, Kerry have had 11. Only Donegal, with 19, have been involved in more knife-edge matches in that time.
We will have bedtime stories out of this era for decades to come
In every season since 2012, it has taken the winner of that year’s All Ireland to put them out of the championship. In three of those years, it’s happened in the final. In the other two, it’s happened after a replayed semi-final. Sympathy? For what? Life being too interesting?
"We will have bedtime stories out of this era for decades to come," says Murphy, who hosts the Mayo News GAA podcast. "No matter how it ends, we're going to remember things like that Cork game last week, like the Derry game, like league games against Kerry in Tralee where we booked out every hotel room in the town. That's what you want, ultimately.
“Partly, it’s because we’re a storytelling people. All rural people generally are to an extent but we certainly love our stories here and we’ve got so many of them from this. We’ve got tons from this.
“The atmosphere after the defeat against Dublin last year was really gut-wrenching. I was looking around me in the stands, seeing multiple people crying, multiple people distraught. But even that was so, so different to 2004 and ’06 when the main emotion after those finals was anger. In those days, it was, ‘We have to win to prove ourselves! And now that we haven’t proved ourselves, we’ve disgraced ourselves!’ That’s gone, thankfully.”
It’s gone, in the main, because the need to prove anything has passed. All-Ireland or no All-Ireland, they’re one of the teams of this decade. If it’s hard to imagine anything will surpass the spectacle of their replay against Kerry in Limerick in 2014, it’s a fair bet that whatever does will probably feature them. They are the game’s ultimate drama queens.
And everywhere they’ve gone, the front-row seats have been peopled by a support base that for the most part can’t believe its luck. One that knows it’s owed nothing by its team and who owes it nothing in return. When Gunnigan says it has a “Munster-rugby-ish kind of feel” just now, he means it in the best possible way. That entirely unfaked sense of connectedness, of shared purpose and mission. Of a responsibility to each other, too.
That bit took its time in coming, truth be told. James Horan caught some heat across the county in the winter of 2013 for taking a swipe at the Mayo support on that score. The bone he had to pick was that the dread feeling of anxiety from the stands in the closing stages of that year's All-Ireland final against Dublin had been of no help to the team.
“When I was thinking back through the game it was interesting about how deathly silent it was,” he said. “That’s something that stuck out for me at the time. With eight minutes to go, we were two points down. It was like someone was dead in the stadium.”
It got a dander up here and there at the time but many who were in Croke Park that day knew he had a point.
“He was totally right,” says Anne-Marie Flynn, one of the founders of Club 51, a sort of supporters’-club-cum-friends-network that was set up in the wake of that game.
“That loss in 2013 was a turning point for us as supporters. James Horan made reference to that eerie silence that was in Croke Park as the game came to a head and it was something we had being saying ourselves.
“I was there on the day and I was on my feet trying to urge people on and I had people around me saying, ‘Will you just sit down? The game is over.’ Like, how defeatist can you get? It was ridiculous.
“So that October, we got together and had a look at what we could do. Part of it was making up some flags and banners and that sort of thing to bring to games. But as well as that, it was a conscious decision that in games there would be a push to rally the troops and if things weren’t going well, then supporters would have a responsibility to step it up just as much as players. That has grown and grown and the effect of it now is really evident. When Mayo are in a tight spot, there’s never silence any more.”
Anyone watching Stephen Rochford’s side claw a path through their qualifiers over the past month knows that to be true. Even last Saturday night, as Cork took a lead into half-time in extra-time, the general rhubarb-rhubarb of the crowd in the Gaelic Grounds morphed into a full-throated Mayo-Mayo-Mayo chant during the turnaround. It proves nothing, of course. Except that the players know who has their back.
They always know. Only two counties in Ireland have the GAA’s season ticket pass closed for new sales – Mayo and Dublin. They’re all stocked up with takers in both counties, with death the only apparently viable prospect for a place opening up. It led to a slightly tragi-comic scene in Salthill for their recent Connacht championship match whereby the majority of the main covered stand was filled with Mayo fans even though it was an away game.
They lost that day, of course, and exited to their near neighbours for the second year in a row. Though both defeats left the support poleaxed, the consequent qualifier runs have added a spice to the whole thing.
Part of it is a desperation, as though it wouldn’t be right for a team that has made its mark on such massive days in the recent past to see its summer end in a provincial ground on a Saturday night. Part of it too is the knowledge that this won’t last forever.
"We know this isn't normal," says Gunnigan. "We're not stupid. We all know in our heart of hearts that the light is fading in this team. We are over the crest of the hill and on the way down. Roscommon are a cracking team, Galway are good now as well. We know there's a Love In The Time Of Cholera feel to it now.
“As a result, we know that what we have now and what we get from this team now starts to get even more precious and we don’t want to let it go. You look at that game against Derry – that team was beaten. The shoulders were dropping.
Mayo people haven't been at a loose end on July 2nd for fully seven years.
“And I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It was as if the crowd said, ‘We’re not going to let this happen to ye. We’re actually not going to allow it.’ Every wide they kicked that day – and all those wides were horrendous – there was never a prolonged groan in the crowd or a big, ‘Aww no, Jaysus lads.’ It was, ‘Next ball, next ball.’ The support carried them that day.”
Flynn remembers a point in that Derry game where the thought suddenly struck that she hadn’t a clue what she was going to do with the rest of the summer if the worst kept coming to the worst. It was July 1st. Mayo people haven’t been at a loose end on July 2nd for fully seven years.
“You get to the point where you just don’t really have a choice,” she says. “It throws you in the air, it puts your heart through the ringer. I remember against Tyrone last year, the tension of it, the agony of it, the release of emotion at the full-time whistle. I was a physical wreck of a person.
“But I was so, so happy. So I just don’t buy it. Why would we need sympathy? We’re blessed and we know we’re blessed. Save your pity, thanks.”
Last Sunday morning, with the Cork game still swirling through the heads of Mayo people everywhere, Murphy bumped into a fella in a shop in Ballinrobe. The following is a word-for-word transcript of the conversation.
“Well. How are you?”
“Oh God, sure how could I be?”
“Will it ever end?”
And the chap left the shop without another word. They never mentioned Cork or Mayo or football or anything. But they both knew what the other one was saying and thinking and hoping and dreading. A deep and true slice of human connection. What more could you want out of life?
Scorn not their ethnicity, these poor Mayo folk.
If only we all had it so bad.