This article first appeared in the ‘Mayo GAA – A Decade in Review’ tribute supplement published by the Western People.
A simple plan
It was all going to be so simple.
A Mayo football fan, in some shape or form for most of my adult life and someone with an urge to write that badly needed scratching, this looked like the perfect opportunity. Blogs were all the rage back in 2007, Mayo – beaten twice in All-Ireland finals the previous three years – had just reappointed the Prodigal Son, John O’Mahony, as manager. It looked like one big, determined push to get us over the line was in prospect. I could, I reasoned, be there writing about this march to glory on my newly-minted blog. What could possibly go wrong?
I can still picture in my mind that February morning – now approaching thirteen years ago – when it all began. While I’ve been welded ever since to the creature that I created then, that era into which the Mayo GAA Blog was born now appears almost impossibly distant. It was a world in which online activity – especially where it came to GAA issues – wasn’t anything like as all-encompassing as it is now, coming as it did long before the rise of social media. It was, in so many ways, a more innocent time. A kinder time too, perhaps.
But for all the change that has taken place since then some things have remained stubbornly constant. Like Mayo giving their all and more to win the All-Ireland but ultimately falling tantalisingly short. By the time I started the blog we’d already developed a solid reputation for losing finals, having by then fallen at the final hurdle five times since 1989. Little did I know when I started the blog that we’d more, much more, heartache still to come. But pride too and performances like I’d never witnessed before from the team in Green and Red.
Investment advice usually contains the caution that past performance is no guarantee of future success. So it was for me with the punt I took on Mayo in 2007. I glimpsed the summit, so near one could almost touch it, and I believed that one mighty shunt engineered by Johnno would see us collapse with glee into the Promised Land. Sadly, though, like the Irish economy, the late Noughties saw Mayo’s trajectory turn instead sharply downwards, hitting rock bottom in the qualifier defeat to Longford in 2010.
All of which meant that at the start of the current decade, I’d had very little football success to crow about on the blog. One Connacht title victory, two National League final losses and two All-Ireland final defeats at Minor level. The lad running the Kerry blog must be having an easy time in comparison, I mused, with a constant stream of success to write about.
But, by then, I’d realised that I was, in effect, in a field of one. There were no other fan-based blogs of this kind, in Kerry or anywhere else. The odd one appeared online here and there but none of them ever stayed the distance, with a Galway version hitting the rocks little more than two months after it had announced its arrival on the scene.
I could understand this because, three years in and with the team having done very little to shout about, I already knew what a hard road this was to tread upon. It took a certain amount of cussedness and no small amount of stubbornness to keep going, especially when, from a content point of view, the project was being sustained on such meagre rations. I can see now, though, that this was a vital proving ground for me. I kept the blog going at a time when the easiest thing to do – at a time when not too many people knew about it and when the team’s on-field exploits were, literally, nothing to write home about – would have been to jack it in.
But I kept going, continuing to put in those hard yards, even if the temptation to walk away from it became, on more than one occasion, very difficult to resist. But resist I did. Then James Horan was appointed manager, the team’s fortunes were all of a sudden transformed, and, for me, the task of writing about all this became far easier. Finally, I had a team to write about.
In terms of the life of the blog, I’ll always look back on James’ appointment as an inflection point. On the blog I’d argued strongly in advance that he should be given the job – the first time I’d ever interposed my own viewpoint on a current Mayo GAA issue, where I sought to influence the outcome – and once James was in place it soon became clear that he was intent on making Mayo compete at a far higher level than we’d been used to. Life would never be the same for the county’s support base and – with those fans now spending ever more of their time online – neither would it be for me on the blog.
The web traffic levels I’ve recorded every year since the blog’s inception bear this out. Measured in terms of page counts (or ‘hits’), traffic grew from a miniscule 12,293 hits in 2007 to just over quarter of a million in 2010. In James Horan’s final year in his first term, 2014, the hit count had soared to 1.4 million. This year annual page views will top 3.5 million, with the cumulative total since the blog was founded approaching 20 million.
Needless to say, I never – truly – expected this to happen. The blog was intended as a pastime, a fleeting interest to which I might devote some spare time but which would inevitably wither and die. After all, that’s the fate that awaits most blogs, at least 99% of which fail, most having attracted little or no web traffic to them.
So what’s different about the Mayo GAA Blog and why is it, all these years on, surviving and thriving? My firm conclusion – one that I believe those traffic figures bear out – is that it has all been to do with the team’s performance on the field. Without the county’s footballing stock climbing to new heights over the last decade, I’ve no doubt that the blog’s popularity would not have been as great as it has been. The two have gone hand in hand.
The days of our lives
What times we’ve had together. From that breakthrough, coming-of-age win over Cork in 2011, the tension-filled triumph over Dublin the following year, the destruction of Donegal in 2013 and the pure unbridled satisfaction of besting Kerry in 2017, we’ve had great days on the big stage at Croke Park in recent years.
There have been a fair few tough days too, of course, in particular those four heart-wrenching All-Ireland final losses, three of them agonising one-point defeats to Dublin.
Following Mayo over the last decade has been a veritable rollercoaster for all the county’s supporters. For me, at the helm of a website that was with each passing year itself becoming an integral part of the Mayo GAA story, the wild and unpredictable ups and downs were further amplified.
I was writing all the time, I joined forces with Rob Murphy on the Mayo News football podcast and so I started, weirdly, to become a recognised voice at Mayo matches. The Mayo story was one that surrounded me constantly. This had become much more than the pastime it was supposed to have been.
Along the way, I learned how easy it was to bash out exuberant match reports right after the team had performed well and we’d won. I discovered too – starting blankly at the laptop screen at five in the morning following yet another All-Ireland final loss, after a night where sleep had utterly deserted me – how difficult it can sometimes be to write even the simplest sentence about a game of football.
There’s always next year, of course – in the GAA world, that refrain will never lose currency – but taking this past decade as a complete body of work, I can, I know, look back on those years with enormous gratitude. In so many ways, the Mayo GAA story, where there truly never has been a dull moment, was the hottest topic of the decade. It was my good fortune to have created a vehicle that found itself careering along in the wake of this riveting sporting experience.
The unwinnable battle
Taking an even longer view, I can also see that the blog’s existence now spans two very definite eras. It was born into that quiet, peaceful world that once existed before social media took hold. The world that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest now, for good or ill, shape and dominate is a very different one from that which preceded it. While debate and discussion has undoubtedly been opened up by these platforms, it’s also true that too much public discourse nowadays is fuelled by anger, hatred and the sowing of division.
I’ve seen plenty of this online and I’ve seen a good bit of it wash up on the blog’s shores too. While I’ve done my utmost to promote fair and reasonable discussion on the blog – where a large, often boisterous, community has come together over the years – I often feel I’m swimming against the tide. Far too many people commenting online at the present time think it’s perfectly okay to post hateful, abusive content. Even worse, they consider it their God-given right to do so. My battle has been to ensure that the debates swirling around about Mayo GAA are calm and fair-minded – and a real battle this has been – but this is a battle that never seems to go away and it’s one I’ve no real chance of winning over the long-term.
Where to from here?
Which, I suppose, begs the question – where to from here for the blog? That’s one, I’m afraid, I’m in no position to answer. The blog has, almost despite myself, become part of who I am. Were I to walk away from it now, I’m not sure I could just revert back to being the often languid supporter I once was.
I guess, with 2020 approaching fast up ahead, I’ll just keep doing that which I’ve done every year this past decade and more – approach what I do on the blog one match at a time and see where this leads me. So far it hasn’t given me the chance to record my thoughts on winning the big one but, where Mayo are concerned, it’s always best to expect the unexpected.
‘Mayo GAA – A Decade in Review’, the newly-published tribute supplement by the Western People is on sale now, priced €5, and is available widely across the county.