As a young man I worked on a lighthouse for a number of years. Also I had the propensity of falling in love every month or so. One of those romantic liaisons was the real deal or so I assumed. The problem was that four weeks in-lighthouse, miles at sea, didn’t lend itself to long-term relationships. One night I got a phone call of the “Dear John” variety, it ran along the lines of “it’s not you, it’s me”. I was blown out.
My lighthouse colleague saw the welling tears and flushed puss as I laid the phone down. We went for a walk around the rock, “there are more fish in the sea” he quietly told me, trying to console a scalded heart. “She’s the only fish I want” I blubbered. All went silent as the lighthouse beam searched across the nearby rocks and ocean. He knew he was wasting his time. Shrugging his shoulders he grunted “C’est la Vie” and headed into the warm open coal fire to watch Coronation Street.
Those words remained with me since, “Finality… end of… no more to be said…take it or leave it” shrug of the shoulders kinda stuff. They carry a resonance and I often smile at my youthful passion and how I actually survived and caught a few more fish before I was finally hooked myself.
The Mayo Advertiser carried a story after Mayo’s draw with Donegal. The manager or part of the managerial duo, Pat Holmes, uttered those words “C’est la vie” in the vox pop. The amateur psychoanalyst in me thought it revealing and worth exploring. Other exotic French, Italian and Spanish words also convey a message. Bon voyage, Adieu, Arrivederci, Ciao, Vamoose, Mañana etc. also contain a subliminal message when put in a certain context.
With the League over, it’s time to pause, reflect and to take stock. Luckily we have measurable facts to work off. This is a seasoned team: four successive All-Ireland semi-finals, two All-Ireland finals and three successive League semi-finals are testament to the work laid down over those years. Experience should be a calling card.
The managerial set-up taking over from James Horan had two choices and one essential task. The choices were either to break up the squad or remain true to it in the main. The latter was chosen.
The essential task was to keep the fire lit and the bus on the road. You can judge that outcome so far for yourself. Mayo failed to reach a league semi-final despite having the stats in their favour and outcomes in their own hands. Progress is measured by either advancement, stagnation or falling back. We are not yet advancing.
Stop reading here if you are of tender disposition, because you won’t like what you are about to see. Ger Loughnane on taking over Clare put it this way “Clare were like Mayo… afraid to win”. Naturally I bristled, and then I figured it out.
Ger didn’t compare us to the likes of Wicklow, Sligo, Kildare or Monaghan – no, he saw us as contenders but cursed with a fatal flaw. In fact he was using us as an example of what not to be at the final level – close but no cigar.
He is/was correct. We have a manic propensity to either blow leads or barely stumble over the line and squander a huge lead. There are countless examples of this. Here are a few.
Galloping away in the 2009 Connacht final, we almost handed the match to before Peadar Gardiner took the bull by the horns. The All-Ireland semi final of 2012 saw a 12-point lead whittled to two before the size 12s of Clarke stopped a goal-bound effort from Brogan hitting our net. Seamus O’Shea added the insurance point, not before a few heart attacks as we stumbled over the line, the joy of victory covering something huge.
Go back to 1996 and our capacity to croak twice with six-point leads, the 2001 Connacht final when a boot into the nearby Hyde graveyard would have ensured a title before a bout of stupid embroidery by us allowed Lohan to fire a goal , thus wiping out a two-point lead at the death. Anybody welcoming Roscommon back to Division One should recall that day as hankerchief-headed, red-faced Rossies, pints in hand, sang from the pub doorways “Home to Mayoooooo” as they mocked our retreat from that town.
I could go on but the salient point is this. We choke with leads, we feel burdened and unsure, and we have a fragile centre. We lack a Darragh Ó Sé or a Dooher or a Cavanagh to calm the nerves when the pot boils.
An example of this is the league against Tyrone in Castlebar a few years ago. Two points up, the clock in injury-time, Deegan refereeing. O’Neill comes out the field to try and wrestle something back for them. He wins the ball. One of our players closes in on him, lurches a tired tackle, misses and Stephen fires it into the square. A Mayo defender places a stray hand on a Tyrone back and before you can say Dunboyne, the whistle peeps and the penalty hits our net.
Don’t worry, I blamed Deegan but I blamed our guy out the field more for not hauling Stevie down. WE DONT LEARN…EVER! And let’s not go to Croke Park last summer against our nemesis Kerry as we conspired to allow Donaghy rehabilitate his career.
Frees, those things that are supposed to reward you for the other side being bold, are a particular pain to us. Go back to the 1948 All-Ireland final and the great Padraig Carney had a fourteen-yard free charged down at the death. How can a fourteen yard free be charged down? We lost by a point.
All-Ireland semi of 1969. Mayo, behind by a point but all over Kerry, get a twenty-one-yard free at the death. Joe Corcoran has kicked frees all day for fun. Now another forward decides he should kick this one, the most vital one. What can possibly go wrong? Boom … wide and Mayo sunk without Connacht trace until 1981; Kerry won that year’s All-Ireland final. Twenty-one yards in front of goal but a chasm with a decade plus one year of oblivion ahead for us.
Rather foolishly we decided the team of 2011/14 was the best since ‘51. The further we move away from them, the less this appears. What would we give for a Sheridan now and his deadly boot? Or a Horan from 12 firing long-range points to beat the band?
The Mayo minors of 2005 got a trimming from Down, a year later the Rossies turned up in headquarters and after a draw came home with the cup. Galway did the Gaisce a year later and we arrived in town in both 2008/09 and went home empty-handed.
Ironically our 2008 vintage conspired to boot a 14-yard free wide at the outset. When a bit of basketball was needed at the death, we went for a racking forty-yard pass out of defence, lost it and ultimately the replay. We don’t handle big day heat well, Ros and Galway did what they had to from single outings, we need multiple before landing a salmon.
In 2009 we also got off to a missed 14-yarder before unluckily losing to a highly rated Armagh outfit. Those misses cost. I read that in our last three matches we have had misses from that range. We shouldn’t be surprised.
In the 1997 final the great MacDonald booted a close in one casually wide, we lost by three. Against the Rossies in 2013 another 14-yarder went a-begging amid smiles due to a comfortable lead. Against Tyrone in that year’s semi an atrocious miss from that spot even fooled the RTÉ cameras, so sure were they that they had panned back out the pitch before the commentator noted “he’s missed it”. Not funny.
Tight leads and tight finishes result in the team that maximises its opportunities and cuts down its errors being the winners. We are prolific wasters of simple shot selection. Not just this year or last year but for as long as I can recall.
Our style lends itself to glorious opportunities when we have a full wind in the sail. But when we get dragged into a fight we are brittle. Now we can ignore that, you can disagree with me as a bitter bollox who only sees doom. Trust me, the need for me to see my county win Sam is as big an ache that I can carry. However I will never subscribe to the fantasy we sometimes create around us. I did for many years but like the punch drunk boxer stumbling down Clonliffe Road, I stopped.
Our present managerial combination has chosen this deck of cards. That’s their choice. I can agree with it or disagree. I believed Mayo needed something new, a different set of variables to advance -fresh heads, fresh blood and feet and new challengers for the team.
Four of the possible starting fifteen have been beaten in Minor and U21 finals plus four senior finals along with three League finals. Do we honestly believe that they are getting bigger, faster, stronger and cuter? I don’t but I do believe the scars of final day defeat of that magnitude has to be corrosive.
Alan Freeman was head and shoulders above anyone in 2010. Since then I believe the lad has had to prove himself time over time, his confidence has had to have taken a knock. I always watch him in the belief that he plays with one eye on the bench. Freeman should be a leader today, instead he has slipped down the pecking order.
Michael Conroy announced his arrival in a dismal day for Mayo, the All Ireland final massacre of 2004. He rattled in 1-1 and looked the first plank for our future. That was eleven years ago and we are still awaiting that explosion to unlock his undoubted talent. Others have flattered to various degrees whilst never exploding on final day.
To suggest that we will win on the basis of turning up on an almost monotonous basis is folly. Down have turned up six times, winning Sam on five, Donegal three times and going home to the Hills and the bonfires with the canister twice. Tyrone have won three times between 2003 and 2008. There is no rule saying long service will be rewarded. A faint heart never won a fair lady.
After our 2013 demolition of Donegal in that year’s quarter-finals, Joe Brolly saw no-one able to stop us. Intriguingly when it came to a single match, us or the Dubs, Joe wasn’t as sure. Three matches back we were odds on to him but with a single hurdle left Joe had seen the horse limp on the ring walk-about. And that’s us. We would surprise nobody by reaching another final but we would shock everybody by actually winning it.
Really, we are cursed alright but not by a priest in the early Fifties. We are cursed because we don’t really believe. What’s belief? Brian Cody, Ger Loughnane, Jim McGuinness, Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, Heffo, Micko and a hundred others. You buy into them, you share the vision, the belief and will spill your own and others blood to achieve it. Imagine a Mayo manager dropping Marc Ó Sé? Me neither.
Look back at the 2008 final. Devine, the keeper’s father, passed away on the Saturday. Big McConnell and his size 12s came in. The left corner-back was dropped; Big Joe McMahon went from auxiliary number ten to right corner-back to snuff out Tommy Walsh. But the big fish was the introduction of a ring-rusty Stephen O’Neill, twelve months retired and parachuted into the squad. How the previous number 14 must have loved that or number 30 as he slid out of the squad.
Tomas Ó Sé was bemused because he stayed at home marking the old Stevie, by the time he figured that the new Stevie was a busted flush, Sam had left the building on the road to Omagh.
I say this because I don’t see any Mayo manager or board with cojones like Harte. And that is sad because we are a mercurial and free-spirited county that deserves to be trusted and occasionally unleashed. Contrast Mayo v Donegal in 2012 and the Mayo that fired them around like a rag doll less than a year later in the same arena. How come and why? Do finals really neuter us like eunuchs?
Coming up on the outside are Roscommon – promotion, a day out for the League final, a day out maybe for an U21 final, a day out for a colleges A final, forwards scoring for fun and no pressure. Throw in their U21 runs over the last four years. Throw in Brigids toppling of a few giants. They no longer fear us.
Galway are in a better place than last year. Shay Walsh, Cummins and the Corofin contingent cannot wait until they cross us. One win and it’s into the provincial final for them with a minimum last 12 spot and knockout football on offer.
Our better players are getting caught up in the loosening slates. Higgins, a prince now burdened with leadership along with the captaincy, has made uncharacteristic errors. Aidan O Shea is serially fouled but is it because he tries too hard and won’t lay off the ball. Our forwards with the exception of Cillian O’Connor can be put in a bag, shook and whatever four comes out are paired with Aidan and Cillian. Does it matter if it’s Dillon, Andy, Doherty and Conroy or Freeman, Ronaldson, young O’Connor and Sweeney? Six of one and a half dozen of the other to me.
So I see the end of an era. Perhaps this team will ram it down my throat, who the eff gives the likes of me the right to criticize when I’ve never smelled the white paint and green grass? But that’s the rub – we all are in this movie and we all want a happy ending. For the first thirty years of my life Mayo won four senior Connacht titles: ’55 ’67’69 and ’81. For the next thirty they added a title virtually every second year, fifteen in all.
The big one has eluded us and I do recall the ’67 and ’69 teams, a shade behind Galway and their three-in-a row outfits. They should have done the deed – Rooney, Morley, Prendergast, Joe Corcoran, Langan, Cribben McGee, Fitzgerald, Carey, Early, Flatley and others. They are senior citizens now, some passed on but I recall them in glorious Technicolor and hot tar sticking days – white O’Neill’s ball, green, red, maroon and white shirts, all tussling in Castlebar and Salthill, all seeking immorality. I can rattle them off like my tax take but we all sadly mourn one thing, the failure of final day redemption.
The man who locates Mayo’s inner soul and grabs it, will be the man who breaks the mould. Happy summer folks, did I hear a cuckoo sound in yon meadow?