Let’s dissolve two narratives taking root at the moment. They are that Mayo are fortunate to be in an All-Ireland final and secondly they have had a handy run there.
Narrative number one is Mayo are in another All-Ireland final because six of the seven teams they have met so far weren’t good enough to beat them. This is despite Mayo playing what can be considered “good” football for about 35 minutes in total.
Narrative number two is that beating teams from Divisions Two and Three as well as one heading to Division Four is less than heroic. And Kerry or Dublin … what of them?
The Kingdom have beaten Clare twice and Tipperary once. With a small bit of good fortune, they could have reached an All-Ireland final by not leaving their own province at all. So far they have flexed against two Division Three teams.
The Dubs have steamrolled two Division Three teams and a Division Two team before meeting a tired Donegal in the quarters. But it’s Mayo that has had it handier, we are told: strange indeed. I would say most Mayo managers would gladly opt any day for a system that by beating Clare and Tipperary you are guaranteed an All-Ireland semi-final place.
The Mayo footballers and the Galway hurlers did something similar last autumn. The symmetry between those two teams is appealing. Both seen as great prospects, both regulars in Croke Park big days and both always stabled in the runners-up enclosure.
Both make great copy for the press and media and both wear their pain and joy on the sleeve for all to see. Machiavellian writers waited for the fall of both.
Somehow or other Galway escaped without damaging their new manager too much. Mayo, though, took a different approach. They removed the safety net. They flung a rope across a gorge and tied it to wooden stakes.
The new manager and his bunch of gnarled warriors have seemed an odd fit up to this week. Both wedded to each other and with no scope for another divorce.
A truculent and dull league full of excuses saw Mayo do enough to keep their almost twenty-year run in that Division intact. Cork, who hosed both Mayo and Monaghan, fell through the trapdoor and they stayed up. Such are the vagaries of fate when the gods smile upon you.
Attempts at a defensive set-up have in the main looked pitiful but Mayo get by. Barry Moran looked as comfortable as a giraffe on skis against Tipperary but made two mighty catches at pivotal times that took the wind out of Tipperary. Mayo have a screen in front of their full-back but, ironically, they don’t appear to have an actual full-back at all.
Each team they have played so far would have looked for Mayo as opponents; each team beaten by Mayo could legitimately ask how come they then lost to them, particularly Tyrone. It’s a question Mayo pre-2011 often had to ponder themselves.
So, in a non-vintage football wise year, Mayo have taken advantage of the poor soil and, without ever blossoming themselves, are now in the garden for the final day fête. Better Mayo teams in the past surely must scratch their heads.
The men of 1996 – a forward line that possessed James Horan, John Casey and a free-taker of the calibre of Maurice Sheridan, with Kevin O’Neill tethered to the bench and, a year later, the mercurial Ciaran MacDonald – must surely ask … why not us?
But football doesn’t go that way. Mayo are in this year’s football final because they deserve it. In fact the Mayo minors are the only team from Mayo, club or county, that has failed to reach an All-Ireland final in 2016.
Ardnaree, Hollymount/Carramore and Castlebar respectively graced the Junior, Intermediate and Senior club finals. Mayo U21s won their All-Ireland final, the county Juniors lost to Kerry in the final and the teachers won the Inter-Firms final. For good measure, the hurlers won the Rackard Cup.
So you’d have to conclude that we haven’t done half bad, sir. Throw in our ladies and the football of Mayo, despite the senior’s dirty oil and backfiring engine, is actually alive and well.
Will we win in September? John Healy that great Mayo writer of the Irish Times always said he knew when Charles Haughey would retire and when that time would come, Healy would tell his colleagues. I am of the great Healy’s vintage now, age-wise I hasten, not writing ability.
Born a year after the 1951 albatross year, I felt it my destiny to say when that great day would come, if ever. Now that we are in final number eight since 1989, a twenty-seven year spell during which time only Kerry beat us for final day gigs, hand on heart I cannot honestly come to a conclusion.
This team, this season, has defied every ounce of football nous I thought I possessed. They are unfathomable. Having crossed the fraying tight rope, an end is in sight.
The fall is steep and the consequences harsh but, in Mayo, despite what others think, we ourselves are our own harshest critics. Like the 1989 final against Cork, Cork again in the 1993 semi-final, ’96 against Meath, ’97, 2004 and 2006 against Kerry, the Sligo/Longford debacles of 2010, Donegal ’12, Dublin ‘13, Kerry semi-final replay in ’14, Dublin ditto in ’15, Mayo people will head into the winter whatever the result, and come January they and their mighty football men will saddle the pony once more and head back into battle.
Can every other county and the many writers that criticise us say the same? I don’t think so. Whatever this September’s outcome will be, Mayo won’t be going away.