The high point of Mayo’s football summer arrived as Aidan O’Shea gathered the brother’s long outfield ball shortly before half-time in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal.
The two sleeping giants of west of Ireland have shared a sharpened attitude towards All-Ireland glory in recent years.
When the counties met in the All-Ireland final 2012, old defensive ghosts haunted the early part of the day for Mayo and they fell short again. They were back in a year later and lost by the narrowest of margins to Dublin and in the summer of 2014 they finished up on the wrong side of a raw semi-final battle against Kerry. By then, the question was unavoidable: what does this team have to do?
The answer, it seemed, fell from the sky along with the ball sent in by Séamus O’Shea. In a matter of seconds his younger brother had shaken off the attentions of Neil McGee to deliver a brilliant goal that sent Mayo on their way.
Although Aidan O’Shea had given an absolute clinic as a traditional full forward against Sligo, at once unstoppably powerful in his ball-winning and velvety in skill, this was a different kettle of fish. Here, he had outplayed the reigning All Star fullback and goalkeeper and scored against a team that guarded their goalmouth as if it was the last secret of Fatima.
In that instant, the horizon never looked clearer for Mayo Not only was the deployment of O'Shea at full forward a success, the novel selection of 6ft 5ins Barry Moran as a sweeper was helping to limit the effectiveness of Donegal's Michael Murphy. Nobody was questioning the team's management pairing of Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes.
So what has happened since that early August weekend? In short, Mayo are not the All-Ireland champions.
took over in 2011, he not only took charge of the team, he implemented a sense of manifest destiny. He succeeded in changing the mental approach towards winning Mayo’s first All-Ireland since 1951 from if to when. Big defeats were written down as experiences and Mayo regrouped for the next season stronger and more willing. They were and remain a team of absolutists.
And they weren't – and aren't – delusional. Cold hard results told them that they were right there. But this summer was season five of the big push. Nothing lasts forever, however wonderful. The Sopranos had a mere seven seasons!
Even if it was left unspoken, the Mayo players would have been aware of a rhythmic ticking of a clock. They had learned all they could conceivably learn through losing big championship games. The time had come to win them.
It is as if the wheels have come off Mayo football this weekend. Firstly, the vote of no confidence in Holmes and Connelly made it impossible for the two men to continue. It is impossible not to have sympathy for the pair: former players with their own searing All-Ireland regrets, hugely committed to Mayo football and, above all, decent men.
Thursday evening’s startling show of unity by the squad, when 30 players reportedly showed up for a meeting with the Mayo county board executive, was nothing short of a peaceful revolt which ultimately led to the resignation of Holmes and Connolly on Friday night. Viewed from afar, it can easily be interpreted as a cold and unfair way to treat Holmes and Connelly. The senior Mayo players will be aware of this. They didn’t arrive at this point casually. After all, they spent all of last year training under Holmes and Connelly; they travelled to Portugal for a training camp, shared dressing-rooms, celebrated a fifth provincial championship and were a score away from eliminating the eventual All-Ireland champions (again). One assumes they shared a few good times during that period.
But this isn’t personal.
It is simply a question of time. There isn’t much of it left for this current Mayo team and if it breaks up without landing an All-Ireland, then the disappointment should be greater than the combined pain of all those September losses from 1989-2013. In short, it will be unconscionable for the international army of Mayo football supporters if this team falls the way of his predecessors simply because they are good enough to win it.
Or are they?
As it turned out, O’Shea’s raid on Donegal was a deception rather than a portent. It was fool’s gold. Not once over the course of two games against Dublin did Mayo succeed in delivering anything like that pass into their figurehead. Clearly, O’Shea could reap havoc but only if he was given the scythe.
But bothersome questions remained: how come they always get taken for goals in big games? How come their scoring rate deteriorated from 2-11 from play against Donegal to 0-6 from play in their next outing against Dublin? And what happened when they had Dublin reeling and facing demons of their own?
Clearly, the squad feels the ultimate answers to questions like these lay with the management. Certainly, Mayo did not look as rock steady as they did under Horan. Win or lose, Mayo were steadfast in their gaze during that era. But there was something uneasy about the atmosphere around MacHale Park on the cold Saturday night when Dublin pulverised Mayo. It was only the league but we had come to believe Mayo would not take a pummelling like that anymore.
And as well as the Moran improvisation worked against Donegal, it was still just that: an idea hatched from left field. The big man was gone for the next match, replaced by championship debutante David Drake. When you win, these innovations are hailed as tactical masterstrokes. But when you lose, they seem like the inverse of innovation – making it up as you go along.
After last night’s events, at least the dispute has been resolved. The Mayo team will have new management in place next year. The big question is, who? Who is out there that can make the tiny difference that will change the galaxy for Mayo football people?
Perhaps the players know. Players are players: they have to believe they are good enough or else they are already finished. They have to believe the fault lies elsewhere. This particular team have earned nationwide respect for their commitment but this is a radical step. And it makes one thing clear. If there is an element of coldness about the way the players have conducted themselves, then that is the very quality they will need to summon next summer when they are back in the same place; so close to the unforgettable fire that they can all but feel it.
The new management will need to clear away all obstacles and give them a clear vision of how. But it will be up to the players to take that last step.