I recently proposed to my long-term girlfriend and long-suffering Galway GAA fanatic (2017 aside). Unlike Mayo of the last decade, she didn’t leave me sweating and with my heart in my mouth and said yes after repeating thrice “you’re messing…is this serious?” No, I’m just on one knee for the good of my health.
You would think that that moment would have been the most nerve-racking part of the holiday and it was – up until our flight home. After smooth sailing from Faro right up until we were nearly back at base – the pilot stuck on the seatbelt sign and announced over the tannoy that we were hitting the tail end of Storm Alex.
I’m not a good flyer. Light turbulence turns me whiter than Christmas but I thought it was another festive day, April Fool’s, when the pilot told passengers to “re-familiarise themselves with the card on the seat in front of them in the very slight chance that we might land in water”.
But before I had time to comprehend what was said, the plane began violently shaking back and forth and up and down like a funfair ride.
But unlike Funderland there was no nice man operating the lever to whom I could plead “mister, I’d like to get down now”, and thus began what must have been about 20 minutes of hell in the sky.
You could say I experienced a lot of the emotions during that period that I have also done when Mayo have been playing 90% of their games over the last 11 years.
Head in my hands; palms sweating; nails bitten; fists clenched; eyes closed; finding myself on the edge of my seat before a sudden action pushed me back against it again, near tears in my eyes and – only for I was too busy concentrating on not passing out – there would have been a lot of expletives used too to express my dislike of the situation I had found myself in.
We didn’t land in the water but rather descended on Dublin with a screaming plane that felt like it was going down at the speed of a rocket. Even though I was at the window seat and could see the pieces of beautiful green land whizz by as we got closer and closer, I still refused to believe that this was happening.
With the force we smacked the tarmac, though, I wasn’t long realising again it was real life. The pilot swerved from left to right trying to control this mess we had found ourselves in after what had been a peaceful run of the mill performance until the final hurdle.
Similar to many Mayo displays, it was only when I was in the pub several minutes later when I was able to compose myself and ask “how did we manage to get out of that one to live another day?”
And unlike Mayo games – or most flights for that matter – nobody clapped for the pilot who had saved the day.
None more than this year has Mayo’s exhibits on the pitch been turbulent.
Twice giving our neighbours a six-point advantage before rightly being handed our Connacht exit followed by a lucky Monaghan win and a “where were we in the first half” smash and grab against Kildare.
Kerry manager Jack O’Connor came out a few days ago and said Mayo’s qualifier route reminded him of theirs in 2009. Yes, Kerry did win that year after coming through the backdoor and, no, you’re not allowed get excited at the comparison.
To bring it closer to home, it remind me exactly of our 2016 campaign – A gutting from Galway, a banana-skin game against an Ulster team and a questionable penalty decision (that once again went our way, just at the opposite end of the field – has enough time passed now to maybe just suggest that Aido did make the most of that…?) and a win over Kildare that we made hard work of.
I’m a hay fever sufferer. My eyes watered and itched and my nose did the same during the Kildare game at Croker and by half-time I found myself for the first time ever wondering should I just give my poor head, which was trying to concentrate so much despite the high pollen count, a rest and head for the exits.
I text one of the many group chats I’m involved in, whose world revolves around GAA, and said “I think this is the worst I’ve ever seen Mayo play in a half, I’d nearly just call it and head for the door” – to which my good friend Kenneth replied “I was behind the goal for the first half of both Mayo Kerry games in the mid-noughties, you don’t have the right to use that sentence”.
There’s that uniquely Irish phrase of “it could be worse”, X could be happening. No matter what situation you find yourself in, there’s always someone who’s able to show you that you may just be overreacting slightly.
I was never really going to head for the exits. You can’t. And even if the day came where “it couldn’t be worse” you still wouldn’t head for home just for fear that things might turn around despite no alternative being given as a lifeline like the times before.
I’ve cried with happiness three times in Croke Park. Two of those times involved playing and beating Kerry. The League Final in 2019 and the semi-final replay in 2017. As I write this now, it almost triggers the same tear ducts to release that flooded my eyes that day.
If you break a child’s heart, you scar them for life.
In 2004, I was a pre-teen who had never lived through the euphoria of Mayo reaching a final. And what I and the county had talked about for a month was over within 15 minutes.
I watched it in The Clock Tavern in Westport with my family and innocently told everyone there that there was still hope. They probably smiled at this first-timer in what was more of a “poor boy, he’ll soon learn” than a “how cute” type of manner.
Two years earlier after Ireland lost on penalties to Spain in the 2002 World Cup, my mother tells me that I took off the Irish jersey and fired it on the sitting room floor before storming off to my bedroom – I was “done” with Ireland.
In 2005, Kerry beat us by three points in a quarter-final, two years older but still none the wiser in 2006, I thought the final would be closer because of the previous year’s results.
My friend Kenneth was right, how dare I complain when we’ve lived through torturous games like ’04 and ’06. I watched that final in Darby’s in Cuslough. I like to think young me would have never fired his Mayo jersey on the floor after a crushing loss – and not just because he was in a packed public house!
But if you make an adult’s day, he’ll remember and replay it for a lifetime.
The joy of beating Kerry in ’17 and ’19 was doubly as jubilant because of the above younger heartbreak. You have to understand I went nearly two decades of following Mayo and never seeing them conquer the Kingdom.
And you can be sure I was hoping for a similar result a few months ago. Instead it was almost like a therapy session where I was transported back to my nine-year-old’s self GAA counsellor chair except the dartboard with the holes in it had Clifford on it this time instead of Cooper.
We don’t like the favourites tag. It never suited us. But there’s no doubt who is the underdog on Sunday. Kerry fans are already looking to the Dubs in the semis, the bookies are making sure you won’t win too much betting on the Green and Gold and there’s no one from Mayo shouting too loudly either.
The easy answer is to say that Kerry will wipe the floor with us. But Mayo don’t take the easy answer and we have multiple matches to testify to that fact. It’s the hope that kills you they say but you’d have to be hopeful that:
- Mayo are peaking gradually
- Kerry are coming in cold
- Kerry have their eye on the next round but we have our eye on the prize.
There’s some that might be hopeful that Clifford isn’t 100% fit, such is the speculation at the moment in the papers. I’d be more so hoping that Horan and Co have their game plan for him sorted.
How do you solve a problem like Clifford? Look at the Sigerson Final of this year where the UL man was kept scoreless from play for the whole game by the Kelly brothers and Co who didn’t leave Clifford one-on-one once with his man. Instead, a second and even at times a third man was ready to pin him in and put a stop to his flourishing footballing skills.
He’s not a one-man job and Kerry are by no means a one-man team either. Mayo are currently facing a ‘whack-a-mole’ situation where they may hit the nail on the head with the Clifford problem but then see the likes of Geaney, Spillane, O’Connor or O’Shea’s head pop up immediately after.
It’s a headache facing this Mayo team for sure but in order to be the best you have to beat the best.
And in previous years, against all odds, we have beaten the best on our day.
The easy option would be to keel over to Kerry but Mayo won’t do that and you’d hope that when Kingdom come, we’ll have the keys to unlock the gates.