I remember the first time I witnessed Cillian O’Connor in action, I was maybe six or seven and Ballintubber school were facing Killawalla, my school, in a Cumann Na mBunscoil game on our hallowed turf. That team was full of what would become future well-known Ballintubber stars but Cillian stood out a mile.
One of the teachers in our school, Ann Duffy, comes from a big Ballintubber footballing family and knew I had a fond interest in GAA despite being too young to participate in the competition just yet. She said to me ‘remember his name’, and I did.
Growing up playing for Tourmakeady, you’d often lock horns with Ballintubber and Diarmuid and Cillian would be head and shoulders above the rest. Or when the seniors would play each other and their brothers, Padraig and Ruaidhri O’Connor would feature and give amazing displays, there would always be whispers of ‘if you think they’re good, just wait ’till you see what’s coming through.’
Andy Moran recently described Cillian as one of the most underrated and unsung players on that Mayo team and he’s completely right. From the first minute he featured in 2011 against London when it looked like we were going to be thrown out of Connacht and become the laughing stock of the GAA, he turned the game around.
Injury and wear and tear have meant that in the last decade there has only been a handful of times where we’ve seen a fully fit Cillian O’Connor – and a fully fit COC is ruthless.
I’ve never once remembered a campaign where something wasn’t niggling at him, he was never 100%, but this year he has been at 110%.
We could recount any of his performances this year by way of example but I think the one movement that sums the nature of his beast was in the Tipperary game when he smashed the record for the most total points by one person in one game.
For the second goal, Cillian is bearing down on the target when a Tipp defender looks to shoulder him off balance. COC doesn’t just take the shoulder, he goes one better. He takes a step to the left before hammering into the Tipp man’s arm flooring him before firing into the net.
That’s the stuff of dreams – similar to Diarmuid O’Sullivan bulldozing his Limerick marker with a hit before smacking the sliotar over from what seemed to be nearly his own goal line.
Well, here we are again lads. Mayo v Dublin, the old foes clash once again with one major difference this time. I was lucky in the last few years that living in Dublin meant my trek to Croker was shorter and less complicated than the many making the pilgrimage from the west.
I’d get the bus into O’Connell Street with the jersey on show surrounded by Dubs all crammed into seats either spouting the “I wouldn’t mind if ye did it” or “yiz haven’t a hope lad, you should have stayed at home” lines.
And then it happens, something so magical and special that it nearly brings tears to my eye as I type it out just days away from the biggest game of our lives.
You hop off the bus and fall in line with thousands of other Mayo fans making their journey as the Green and Red army march into battle. It’s just that feeling of knowing nobody but at the same time feeling like you’re all the one.
I suppose it stems from living away from Mayo, there’s something so lovelyabout seeing one of your own where you currently live, never mind to see tens of thousands of them all heading in the one direction.
As the saying goes – when one goes, we all go to war.
But there’ll be no quick pint in Gill’s this year, no getting in early for the minor game, no “would you swap a Cusack for a Hogan?”, no storming of the Hill, no clattering of the blue seats as you jump up and down numerous times as chances and scores fill the seventy minutes.
Instead, those who would have made the trek take to their sitting rooms or local ‘dry pubs’ and restaurants to cheer on the boys. And in truth, the match goers have always been lucky. Now, we join in with the girls over in Oz who have to set their alarms at crazy o’clock to watch the game.
Or the builder in the USA who has to watch the game on a dodgy link in an Irish bar with signs of ‘Kilmaine 2km’ on the wall.
Eyes glued to a screen and no matter how small it is, it won’t take away from the value of how big this game is.
Strolling around my area of south Dublin, it’s hard to know that there’s even a final being played. Sure, there’s the odd blue and navy bunting or the ‘six-in-a-row flag’ but not streams of houses that would normally be covered like in previous years.
Has Dublin’s dominance started to sour people’s support? Or is it just the strange year we live in that some aren’t bothered? Sure, who’s going to see my flag with nobody visiting?
I (and try being the operative word here) go for a 5km run most days just around the area, always sporting my Mayo GAA jacket while I listen to a podcast or music.
No one bites, I don’t get any ‘come on Dublin’ roared in my face, but I did get one reaction. Just as I was circling back to the house last week, a woman beeped at me in a car and rolled down the window. I immediately thought I’d dropped something or ran out in front of her a mile back. No, instead she said ‘Mayo for Sam’ as she waited in the queue of traffic. I smiled and said ‘Please God now’ and she waved and rolled off.
I looked at the reg – ‘RN’. I don’t know, maybe she was a Mayo woman living in Dublin but I thought ‘Jesus, if the Rossies are supporting us, the country must be getting sick of Dublin’.
Johnny McHale’s in Castlebar will set the scene for my All-Ireland final this year surrounded by great friends as we hopefully bid to make some amazing new memories.
I don’t know if the hype in Mayo is the same as above. I hope not but I’ll soon find out when I drive down at the end of the week. One of my favourite ‘build-up’ memories involves a field near Shrule-Glencorrib. From 2013 onwards I started noticing it on drives home at the start of college and it continued well into my trips down from Dublin.
Greeting me on my right as I crossed the border would be a massive ‘Up Mayo’ in white sprawled across the freshly cut July/August grass.
It’ll probably be dark by the time I reach Shrule this week. I hope not, though, as I would love nothing more than to be greeted by that sign. To know that, just because Covid is here, doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten how the prep goes.
Is the no hype thing better for the players? Probably. No family members asking for tickets, no approaching them and wrecking their heads before of the game, no queues for autographs, no Up For The Match. It’s just another game: prepare and do your best.
The only thing is, it’s not just another game is it? It’s the biggest game of my and your lifetime. People are talking about splitting Dublin in 2, 4, 6, 8 but we don’t want to beat north Dublin, south Dublin, Fingal County Council or Tallaght Globetrotters GAA.
No. We want to beat Dublin. And so do the players.
And in recent years, we’re one of the few teams who have come close to beating them on the big day. Kerry, Donegal and us. Colm Parkinson from The GAA Hour compared James Horan’s style of play to Liverpool, calling it ‘Heavy Metal Mayo’ a phrase which Klopp used to describe his Scouse side’s footballing skills.
It’s go, go, go. It’s man-on-man. It’s break the line, get forward and get a score. And that’s why we love watching it, that’s why the whole country loves watching it.
Anyone who thinks Horan is going to change the modus operandi at this stage is sadly mistaken. Forget a defensive set-up or dropping players behind the ball, James believes his fifteen will be strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Ireland’s greatest team of all time.
And when your manager has that sort of belief in you, you’re going to pull on that jersey standing ten feet tall. But how do you solve a problem like Dublin?
I would hate to be in James Horan’s position right now. I’d say he’s had sleepless nights, 3am phone calls from Ciaran Mac saying ‘I wonder if we tried this instead’, hundreds of formations drawn on napkins, conversations going in one ear and out the other.
The latest rumour on how we’ll set up is that Stephen Coen might be deployed to mark Fenton in midfield. Sir Alex Ferguson said in his later years that, whenever his side played AC Milan, he would stick Park Ji-Sung on Pirlo.
Park’s role would not be to look at the ball or be interested in the play around him, just follow Pirlo and stop him from playing. I assume if the above is true, that would be Coen’s role too.
If Fenton tracks back, you’re going with him. When he goes into the changing room, you’re at his heels going down the tunnel. If he goes to the jacks, follow him into the cubicle!
As the Mayo News’ Mike Finnerty alluded to before, if you give Coen a job to do, he does it brilliantly. Right, that’s one problem … solved? Fixed? What about the other 14!
Who goes on Con O’Callaghan? Is Lee Keegan going to remain at full back or is he going to spring back into his normal attacking role in a surprise change? What’s the strategy for Cluxton’s kickouts … and what’s our own one? Does Aidan O’Shea stay put up front even if we’re getting eaten alive in the middle of the park and beyond?
I honestly think we have the best all round panel that we’ve had in the last decade. You’re looking at the starting fifteen against Tipp and there’s youth and experience. Lads who go out and play with no fear because they haven’t been burnt by the fire yet and lads who have been roasted by losses and have learned from it.
You look to the subs, and you think if any of those come on they could really make a powerful difference. Every Mayo fan is going into this quietly confident as they would every year.
But look, it’s going to be no surprise if Dublin hammer us like they have done with every team this year but it would be a sad way to end this ongoing love/hate affair. If we were handed a 10-point whooping, you couldn’t say you wouldn’t have seen it coming.
Last year’s semi-final was vintage Dublin v Mayo until suddenly it wasn’t. The first half was a classic but then 12 points in 12 minutes and game over. We weren’t within an ass’s roar of them, that’s not the battles we live for nor is it the one the players want.
Regardless of the result, we all want a good game of football and another Mayo-Dublin clash that hopefully goes in our favour for once. And this game is more than just a final – there’s another reason why all other thirty counties should be roaring us on.
Mayo beating Dublin would give hope for the GAA. It would show that the money machine can be beaten on its day, it would inspire the whole of Leinster, it would be a wake-up call to a Kerry or a Tyrone or a Galway that ‘we’re good enough to beat these lads too’. It would be the fairytale ending to the script, Mayo the heroes come in and save the day battling it out against their old foe.
Because if we can’t beat Dublin after years of being the second greatest team to ever grace hallowed HQ ground, it’s hard to see who would be able to for a very long time.
As for me, I’m a mess – honestly. I’ve listened to ‘To Win Just Once’ on my daily runs so often now that it’s beginning to sound like ‘Two Injured Swans’ in the chorus. ‘We Are The Champions’ came on by accident in shuffle and I nearly broke down on the side of the road just thinking about it.
It’s been so great to have the GAA this year to get us through some very dark lockdown days. You may be confined to your house or your 5km radius but imagination can take you much further than that.
I’m in my kitchen in Kimmage but my mind is in Johnny McHale’s, sipping on one of its finest pints and donning my ’80s Mayo jersey. I think about a neck-and-neck game with twist and turns.
I imagine a roar that would lift the roof and be heard throughout Castlebar as a Mayo goal hits the net. I envisage looking at the added time near the scoreline which shows Mayo leading by one. The full-time whistle blows and THAT Saw Doctors song starts to flow through the pub’s speakers.
Tears flow uncontrollably, you think about all the times you stood in Croke Park and heard ‘The Auld Triangle’ or ‘Molly Malone’ ring out, players walk by Sam, you can look at it but you can’t touch it.
No more years of hurt, ’89-’17 forgotten about and 69 years overwritten by one massive performance which will be talked about for years, slaughtering the stride for six. You see the squad one by one go up and lift Sammy aloft, Horan and Mac too, something they should have done as players but fate had other ideas.
You think, this win isn’t just for us or for the players, or for the management.
It’s for the fans who came before us, the ones who will come after us (who might even be made as a result of the celebrations), the players who could have won it, should have won it and those that did who look down from above. It’s for Paddy Pendergast who no longer is the only one with the Celtic Cross.
Coverage of the game comes to a close and Joanne Cantwell says ‘the wait is finally over’ and a carefully placed montage replays something from your wildest dreams. This wildest dream.
And then my housemate asks ‘So how do you think Saturday will go?’ and I snap out of it. If only he knew what I was thinking but, being a Mayo fan too, I can only imagine he’s thinking the same.
I always mention this and apologies for repetition but it is the truest words I’ve ever heard from a man who speaks nothing but poetic words of truth.
Michael Gallagher once told me that he often wondered what would happen when we reach The Promised Land. It’s like asking what do you get the person that already has everything.
What would I dream of if my dreams came true? I’m not sure but come Sunday morning, I’d really love to find out.