Mayo's latest designs on Sam Maguire off to a storming start

New football manager James Horan to lead senior team’s hot pursuit of All-Ireland in 2019

Mayo football manager James Horan at the GAA media event in the  Greenway Cafe, Lough Lannagh, Co Mayo. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Mayo football manager James Horan at the GAA media event in the Greenway Cafe, Lough Lannagh, Co Mayo. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Of course there was a tempest, and naturally there were power cuts throughout the heartland. It wouldn’t do for Mayo to go public with the latest hopes and dreams of winning the Sam Maguire on an evening of bog-standard October weather – nine degrees and scattered showers. Thursday night and the RTÉ regional correspondents are dressed like George Clooney in The Perfect Storm and fighting to make themselves heard by the nation over the howling gales, the crashing waves and the deafening blather of the presidential hopefuls. Meanwhile, in Mayo, they are talking about football.

It was probably a coincidence that Mayo happened to present James Horan, the new manager of its senior football team, on the night in question. But it was also appropriate.

For while Horan was talking about his decision to step back into the hottest of hot seats, the draw for next year’s championship was taking place in RTÉ. It’s always bit of a jolt to hear the brassy, upbeat theme for The Sunday Game in the depths of autumn. There’s no real good time to hold the championship draw, and the GAA’s thinking is to get it out of the way early so that everyone knows where they stand.

Big glass bowls

And you have to like the way they keep the show fairly simple. There’s no big, flashy national lottery-type apparatus into which the teams are divided, with balls to be drawn randomly. Instead, the association makes do with two big glass bowls which look as if they were swiped from the cookery department in RTÉ at a minute’s notice. The strips of paper denoting the teams are placed into what look like old photographic film containers. The All-Ireland championship may well be a multimillion euro competition but that’s not to say you can’t run off the draw on a budget of somewhere between 30 and 50 quid. It’s all kept very casual. “Gerry, work your magic,” instructs Marty Morrissey to the president of the Connacht council, who stands somewhat worriedly over bowls one and two. “Give it a good spin there.”

And Gerry obliges, vigorously stirring the five counties of Connacht like so much pancake mix. But, for all his efforts, there is just no way that the GAA championship draw, traditionally held during the off-season, can capture the imagination. Yes, we tune in and dutifully watch GAA stars past and present dressed as if they are about to dash off to the afters of a wedding reception as soon as the show is over. Still, everyone is going through the motions. It’s like the moment in Meet the Parents, when Robert De Niro’s CIA agent Jack, masquerading as a horticulturalist, dubiously accepts from Ben Stiller’s Greg, his prospective son-in-law, the gift of a plant which, he learns, with regular water should bloom in about six months or so. “Oh,” Jack says flatly, “we’ll look forward to that, Greg.”

Emotional investment

The thought of Tyrone and Derry or Dublin and Wexford to be played on some yet-to-be-established time in June generates the same enthusiasm. The general global uncertainty – Brexit, planet temperatures, Trump – augurs against early emotional investment in Leitrim v Ros.

It’s just too far away to care about right now.

The other trouble is that Dublin’s completion of a fourth consecutive All-Ireland title was so dauntingly comfortable that many sports fans out there have already written off next year’s football summer as a foregone conclusion. Dublin’s dominance has provoked many dire warnings that football itself is dying. It isn’t. And it won’t. Drive through the towns and villages and suburbs any Saturday or Sunday and count the kids on the fields. Gaelic football is a beast. Unlike Lehman Brothers, it’s too big to fail. Still, it would make the current period of the championship more entertaining if some county could provide a real obstacle to Dublin’s march to history.

Enter stage left. The last time James Horan wore the Mayo managerial garb was on a dusty Saturday evening in Limerick and the aftermath of that anarchic 2014 semi-final series against Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s Kerry – the team nobody saw coming that year until it was too late. Horan stepped down minutes after that epic defeat. And although everyone assumed it was the end of something – Mayo had managed to compress two All-Ireland finals and that epic Kerry encounter into the space of three short, dramatic years – the squad simply made the metamorphosis into an equally compelling and unyielding force in the years afterwards.

It is clear that Horan’s – and, by extension Mayo’s – belief hasn’t been damaged one iota

They’ve both drawn and lost by the narrowest of margins two more finals then. Everyone knows the details, can still see the controversies and recall the heartbreaks. Stephen Rochford departed in much the same way as he arrived: understated and dignified through the mad tumult of it all.

Trials and tactics

The details – the trials and the tactics and what-they-have-to-do – are for down the road and will shorten the winter in the county. But it’s not so much what Horan had to say as how he said it that was significant. It is clear that his – and, by extension their – belief hasn’t been damaged one iota. If anything, next year’s pursuit will be more hell-bent than ever before. The only real news to emerge from Mayo this week is that there will be no retirements: that everyone is on board for another tilt at this thing. It’s tempting to stretch that revelation into a declaration that Mayo have done away with retirements in general and replaced it with a kind of championship conscription so that everyone who ever donned the green and red is theoretically ready to accept a call to arms: Willie Joe resplendent in bloodied tourniquet, McHale in full July tan, McDonald in braids etc.

But it’s enough for the Mayo crowd for now to hear that nothing has been quenched within the veterans of the squad and that they are already beginning to plot their way through next year’s mission. For the only way to think about this Mayo bunch is not a football team so much as the weatherbeaten crew of a vintage fighter jet plane, probably a Spitfire and almost certainly called the Spirit of ’51. The dials aren’t working, the machine sputters along on one engine for most of the trip and the bodywork’s all shot up from a dozen previous battles. And far away on the shore, the crowds are gathering, anxiously scanning the horizon for the first sight or sound.

They are somewhere out there, with miles to go and with a fair few storms to navigate. A little bit excitable, perhaps, and almost certain to give the families a few scares along the way. But then, suddenly, it is August with blue skies and there they are, back in the fight and in your tail-view mirror, gunning away.

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