Mayo arrive in that strange land where finals no longer hold fear
Westerners already know worst that can happen and so feel pressure is off
Mayo supporters are keeping the excitement under wraps in the build-up to this All-Ireland final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Coming from as far south as the Mojave Desert on the Galway border and riding north-west up onto the Erris panhandle, savage war parties who rode great distances by moonlight across these boglands, ranging from their southern lodges, into the homelands of the great northern tribes, the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho or as they were known locally Mitchells, Davitts and Stephenites. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. (Tramp Press 2016)
Mayo’s ghost dancers will gather again on Sunday; the ex-managers, the former players, the microphone men, the newly hopeful and the well-haunted among the vast procession of supporters in the green and red.
It has gone far, far past the point of entertainment, this crack, and also some decades beyond the point of no return. You’d ask them if these weekends were enjoyable but that would be an insult. All-Ireland final days have, for Mayo people, become too complex and ultimately treacherous to allow for something as trivial as mere enjoyment.
Given the alternative – of not being here – then, of course: Mayo football people will want to see their team in an All-Ireland parade every single year. That is the grand ambition of every big football county and since 1989 Mayo teams have excelled at getting here. They will risk and later nurse the attendant emotions of a negative outcome.
Anyone drifting around the 30-years-old mark possesses either eye-witness or folk knowledge of all seven All-Ireland defeats: there are Mayo veterans of two September losses who still have to make their confirmation.
However deeply you choose to dismiss or believe in the “curse”, there is little doubt that Mayo football teams have been blessed with no luck on All-Ireland finals days and several moments of cosmic misfortune.
They are outsiders going into Sunday’s match against a Dublin team with a withering talent for revelling in their habitual role as crushing favourites. And in a way, that takes all the pressure off Mayo as a football entity. What, after all, is the worst that can happen? They all know that answer by heart.
All week long, people have been reading signs and tea-leaves for some intimation of what is different about this Mayo. They have been prosaic and almost anti-Mayo in their pilgrim’s progress this summer. Since losing to Galway, they’ve just gone about winning in a monotonous, joyless kind of way.
Go back to that windy summer’s day in MacHale Park against Fermanagh. The shock of losing to Galway was still fresh in all minds and with it the hunch that maybe a ferociously honest Mayo team had begun its arc of descent. The pressure on a novice management team was increasing by the minute.
In contrast, the Ulster men looked carefree and sort of insolent in the way they approached the game. Fermanagh had one of the great managers in Pete McGrath and for an hour it looked as if he might be on the verge of a masterstroke.
“For long periods we had them rattled,” McGrath remembers, sitting outside his home of Rostrevor in perfect sunshine, three days out from the All-Ireland.
“But I think Mayo are a more assured team now than on that day. Mayo that day were, I felt, a wee bit all over the place. I was obviously concentrating on Fermanagh but you weren’t really conscious of what Mayo were trying to do that day. It seemed to me they didn’t have any type of precise gameplan in place. It was a helter-skelter type of game.”
McGrath will be in Croke Park on Sunday: it is the jubilee year of the Down 1991 All-Ireland championship team. McGrath’s Down teams were the last word in Northern flamboyance. Playing in September seemed to liberate and heighten their sense of who they were: of what Down football meant.
In a way, the opposite has been true of Mayo. Has any Mayo senior team since 1951 played an All-Ireland final in a truly uninhibited way? McGrath thinks about this. He knows he belongs to a different province and he is always deeply respectful in his opinions of other football places.
“Over this last number of years when Mayo have gotten to finals this sort of thing, this burden comes up,” he says carefully.
“And it has made them everyone’s second-favourite team, outside their own county. That: ‘I would love to see Mayo win.’ It is almost a vote of sympathy. And the Mayo players would be aware of that. And sometimes that can lead to almost a soft underbelly in terms of mental toughness. In a sense, you are better going into these matches disliked but respected in a hard-nosed way.
“And the teams they play against – there is a hard edge about them. And sometimes you feel that Mayo don’t think they have that edge. That is only my perception and I think the history of recent decades and the sympathy they get each year from people outside their own county . . . I don’t think that has done anything to help them in terms of what is going on inside their heads.”
Martin Carney headed for Dublin on Friday. People will have heard him on The Last Word on Friday and know him in his regular role as television game analyst but its easily forgotten that Carney, after winning two Ulster titles in a decade-long career with Donegal, had a second football life as a Mayo player and coach who guided the county to two under-21 finals.
If you had been in MacHale Park for the Dublin-Mayo league game this February, you might well have been served tea or hot chocolate by Carney as he was helping out the local Mitchells club that evening.
“It was a diabolical night, really awful weather,” he says. “And Dublin won 0-9 to 0-7.” That made it an oddity.
“In the nine games the teams have played since 2012, Dublin have won five and drawn two. But they have scored 14 goals to Mayo’s five.”
He has commented on a lot of Dublin games in this championship. Panning for weaknesses is a thankless task and all of this week he has been wondering how Mayo can go about winning this.
“Dublin have this facility to put teams away in brief and specific periods of time, particularly in the third quarter. They won that period 0-10 to 0-1 against Westmeath and by 0-7 to 0-1 against Kerry.
“The one thing they aren’t doing is threatening goals. Maybe Bernard Brogan’s dash isn’t quite what it has been. And maybe Paul Flynn’s never-ceasing work rate has dropped a little. They may be issues that give a little bit of joy to Mayo. But then, Brogan has scored more goals against Mayo than any of the other Dublin players and he relishes playing us. They are just a very difficult team to beat.”
Carney’s last year as a Mayo player coincided with Mayo’s first All-Ireland final appearance since the enshrined year of 1951. In the five weeks of preparation for that ’89 final, the Mayo squad used both of the small dressing rooms in Castlebar for extra space.
The crowd attending training grew so big that one evening manager John O’Mahony was unable to make it from one room to the other.
The mood of uncontainable excitement became almost as much of a management task for O’Mahony as the game itself. How could any one person be expected to keep the emotions of an entire county in check?
He organised a weekend in Bundoran but as he wrote in his memoir Keeping the Faith: “It quickly became apparent that was a poor choice. The word spread. It didn’t help either that half the gardai in Donegal are from Mayo.”
The squad was swamped and the pre-match mood was euphoric. It is too easily forgotten that the ’89 gang reawakened the notion of Mayo as a big-time football county: a first final appearance in 38 years.
And Mayo performed well in the match: they came very close to winning it but just met a Cork team who knew their way around Croke Park very well after suffering two gruelling defeats at the hands of Meath.
“We had worked so hard to change the whole culture and mental capacity of the county and it really felt like we were on a mission that would only end in success,” O’Mahony wrote.
Above everyone, he understood just how much physical and emotional energy that squad had invested and privately he knew it would not be easy to replicate that in 1990.
“My sense of foreboding only increased when we got back to Mayo and were greeted by an incredible homecoming as over 10,000 people welcomed us at Knock airport. It was incredible sight to see people standing 10-feet deep at the fence surrounding the runway. But I knew this was a problem.”
In Kevin McStay’s evocative phrase: “It almost had the look of a massive country funeral.”
The problem was that the 1989 team had awoken something within the county that wouldn’t leave again: this idea of becoming All-Ireland champions. In the 27 years since, that high innocence has matured into a kind of stoicism. On Friday morning, the sad news began to break that Greg Maher, who played in that 1989 final, had died after an illness.
“The first time Greg made a start for Mayo was that ’89 final,” remembers O’Mahony. “So he had the distinction of making his full championship debut in an All-Ireland. He would have been on the ’85 All-Ireland-winning minor team and he was in the squad. He was a big athletic guy, a really good ball winner.
“He actually lined out at right-half forward in that final when positions meant more than they did now. He’d be a native of Claremorris and St Colman’s college as well. That would be Greg’s history football-wise and I know he kept in touch with a lot of that ’89 team.”
The funeral mass takes place in Dublin at two o’clock on Sunday. “It’s a tragedy that someone that young is taken, and for his brother Seán and his family,” says Martin Carney. “And for the wider GAA community in Mayo too, it’s a very sad thing. He’ll be on a lot of minds on Sunday.”
So much on Mayo minds tomorrow. You can flash through the well-dissected events of the finals of 1996/97, the coruscating experiences versus Kerry in 2004 and 2006 and the narrower, claustrophobic losses of 2012 and 2013. They lead on to this latest final.
Pete McGrath kept an eye on Mayo in the weeks after that Fermanagh game.
“I think since then the seminal game for Mayo has been the Tyrone game. They had to remain calm under pressure and keep their shape in those last couple of minutes. They look now, to me, to be a much more regimented team. Things they were trying then were half-baked and half coming off for them against us. But now, they look very, very organised.”
McGrath can’t bring himself to see past a Dublin victory but as he speaks about the game, he finds himself building a convincing case for Mayo too. That’s the thing about the 2016 crowd. They have kept everyone slightly in the dark as to their identity. They wear the green and red all right but apart from that, they don’t really look like Mayo.
An Spailpín Fanach described them best in his Western People column this week: “A team that knows it only has to be better than what’s in front of it, rather than the best of all time.”
The Western People went with a 72-page supplement to mark the weekend. The Mayo News published 64 pages and both newspapers had classic covers. Don’t think for a second that the county is shying away from this or not looking the challenge dead in the eye.
The worst has happened to Mayo so many times that it doesn’t matter. Persistence has been abiding trait of this team. Keep turning up. If it does happen on Sunday, then the point of all the isolated instances of ecstasy – from Pádraig Brogan’s thunderbolt goal against the Dubs in 1985 to Ciaran McDonald’s sublime moment in 2006 – will make sense. They contributed to the same idea. They were all leading to something.
No Mayo team has faced a tougher task in any September final. “I think they have to play in a disciplined way, yes, but with utter confidence and a sense of controlled adventure,” says McGrath.
“And you know, not be imprisoned by recent history.”
Here they come, with nothing to lose except another one. No matter what, they will keep going. In an odd way, All-Ireland finals can hold no fears for Mayo anymore.