It’s been a while since I put pen to paper for this blog. April to be precise. David Brady’s Laochra Gael had just aired and we faced into an indefinite number of months without sport.
It was a tough slog, we kept ourselves entertained with 5km challenges, zoom quizzes and reruns of Reeling in The Years and Love/Hate. My housemate and I took to the local park where, thankfully, GAA goal posts resided. Despite living a two-minute walk from Dublin’s iconic Lorcan O’Toole Park, the gates were firmly shut there until July.
A shame because the nets behind that goal were a huge help whenever the ball managed to go over the black spot – what’s rare is beautiful.
They would swallow the O’Neills up just before it took flight into one of the houses’ backyard that stood over the far side of the wall.
It wasn’t flawless though. There was one big hole in the net which I used to aim for every time because, knowing me, it would curl either to the left or right of that. And any time it went through it, I got a sense of pride that you can only get from smacking the top corner of the goal or perfecting the idyllic outside of the boot shot, thinking to myself ‘well you did aim for it, in fairness’.
But when that shut up shop, my housemate and I took to the local park. We’d take ten shots on the right-hand side of the pitch between the ’21 and the ’45, ten in the middle and ten on the left.
No nets, so whoever wasn’t kicking was catching and the phrase ‘watch the hop’ was on repeat like a damaged record. Because if you didn’t smother the ball before it met the hard pre- and mid-summer time ground, it was trampolining its way onto a busy main road in south Dublin. There were a few casualties.
I tried not to think about it. It still played on my mind every day not having a summer of GAA. When the Government and NPHET pressed the pause button, we were poised to be relegated against Galway in Tuam or Pearse and as horrific the idea that was at the time, I often thought how much better it would have been then no football at all.
And then the memories would flash up. ‘Do you remember this time last year, two years ago, four years ago’, as far back as Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and your iCloud could take you.
In more recent years it was the rush of travelling to a different county which filled the flashbacks, not knowing what sort of mood you would be in leaving the place but secretly confident enough that you’d be heading back home, wherever that may be, to celebrate another step on the ladder for Mayo.
My friends and I would be lit with the thirst – sussing out the taxi situation as men hopped into the shower and swapped THE shirt for another shirt. Rinse and repeat and go again next week.
All of that was unfairly – but in the circumstances rightly – ripped from us this year, however you celebrate a Mayo victory or reflect on a Mayo defeat.
I’m not afraid to say my highlight of the year, especially the summer, is Mayo. The thrill of never knowing where you might be heading next weekend as you wait for the Monday qualifier draw.
The thought of heading home for a Super 8 game and seeing your family and friends before and after you park the car at Michael Davitt House, making the nervous walk into the Castlebar fortress.
I’m not afraid to say I was a bit lost this year. Lost until we slowly started seeing the Premier League come back and the GAA club games come back and getting a run out with our own. Before being fully rediscovered once again in the lead-up to the Galway v Mayo game in Tuam.
There’s something sweet about beating the Tribesmen, a feeling that you can imagine would only be matched by beating Kerry or Dublin. Our oldest and closest foes. And to hammer them in that manner was as surprising to one Mayo man as it was to the next woman.
And then you start to believe again. The thoughts of ‘it’s only the League’ being replaced with, ‘imagine what we’re going into Connacht with’ before plummeting back to earth against Tyrone.
That game was the first real test of what this year’s Championship will be like. Seventy minutes, you win you’re safe, you lose you’re out. And in true Mayo style, after making it as hard as possible on ourselves, I thought we were going to carry out another Houdini exhibition and retain our long-running League status.
The first time in a long time where Mayo had bitten off more than they could chew in terms of leaving it until the last minute. But still a statement of intent from James Horan and his men and a real reflection of where we were at and what we’re working with.
One thing you’ll never be shy on under Horan is an attacking presence. Even our set-up against Tyrone was very much a case of a forward gung-ho. Very much focused on racking up the scores and we’ll worry about the opposition scoreline after. And as Michael Owen gets regularly slated for saying “if you score more than the opposition, you’re more likely to win the game”.
After chipping away at the large deficit, they were one or two scores away from changing the dynamic of their League campaign. And that direct focus on attack, attack, attack is why we love watching Mayo.
It did cost us crucial scores against a strong Ulster forward line with Conor McKenna, who would walk into any football team, leading the charge for them. But it’s the Mayo way under Horan and it’s as exciting a brand of football as you’ll see in the whole of Ireland.
No full-forward in Ireland is going to want to see the likes of Oisin Mullin, Keegan, Boyle or Higgins – whoever may fill those positions – jetting off on an adventure from their full-back line. It’s a dangerous line for our full-backs to cross but they do so with brilliance, more often than not executing a score that started at their own house.
They cause unwanted nightmares. And teams must think if that’s what your back three are doing, what about everyone from 5-15?
Another thing that impressed me against Galway in the League was our lack of wides. I think in the first half we had 21 chances and scored 19 of them. A scoring percentage almost unheard of for Green and Red teams. And where were these scores and chances coming from? Young lads.
There was always that fear in Mayo after the Newbridge knock-out in 2018 – when pundits scribbled down their eulogies of us – about the changing of the guard and what was coming through once the giants of 2012 onwards became ghosts.
That question has been answered now. A ridiculous stat was flying around on Twitter during the week pinpointing that only 4/5 players from the 2017 defeat to Dublin started against Leitrim. It’s an exciting time for Mayo that reminds me of the 2010/2011 period where hotshots who had been talked about for years, were finally bursting onto the scene.
Oisin Mullin, Rory Brickenden, Eoghan McLaughlin, Mattie Ruane, Conor Loftus, Bryan Walsh, Jordan Flynn, Ryan O’Donoghue, Tommy Conroy, Mark Moran, Michael Plunkett, Darren McHale, James Carr – lads all under 27 and some of whom are on the right side of 20 too.
We are currently watching the next 5/10 years of Mayo in the making.
Ruane and Loftus in midfield was a partnership that few saw in what was a problematic situation at times for Mayo last year due to injuries. And they’re almost operating as defensive and attacking midfielders respectively too in the way they play as well as doing the donkey work in the middle of the park.
The Neale’s Tommy Conroy, not the ‘Kiltane goals Conroy’ that many journalists and commentators keep referring to him as but equally as prolific that the name might stick, ‘Goals 2.0’ perhaps – the same amount that he already has in the bag in the last three games.
Another lethal finisher in Mark Moran who’s not afraid to be clinical coupled alongside his Westport counterparts Brickenden and McLaughlin and Ballintubber workhorses in Plunkett and Walsh whose engines last longer than any Duracell battery. These are all lads whom Horan has trained at club level, he knows them inside out and knows their worth.
When you add that alongside the current stalwarts who are so legendary to Mayo they don’t even need to be named, the blend of youth and experience could be enough to see us go on for great things in the future.
And that’s the sort of squad James Horan is going with against the Rossies who were a thorn in our side last year and almost caused a huge upset in 2017 when they burst into an unexpected early lead.
Chris Barrett back in the middle of the back three, Diarmaid O’Connor getting a start in his usual number 12 position coupled with a troublesome Aidan O’Shea and an on-form Cillian O’Connor who is the best forward in Ireland on his day from play and placed kicks.
It’s a strong looking Mayo side that remains unchanged besides from the win against Leitrim. And if we’re looking for that spark in the final third, or if we want to hold what we have, the old guards of Boyle, O’Hora along with Plunkett, Flynn, James Durcan and Carr will give us that extra kick to drive on and see them out, hopefully.
In the last four years, Mayo have stepped into the Connacht Championship gingerly, knowing that a loss wasn’t the end of the world. That comfort blanket has been snatched this year and it might just be the kick needed to see Mayo finally reclaim the JJ Nestor cup.
We need to break the Roscommon-Galway chain first, though, a combination that has dominated the western competition since 2016. Knockout football suits Mayo. We know this. Years of qualifier routes will testify on the matter too.
Mayo have already been allowed one slip-up in what was a do-or-die game this year. They’ll have learnt from that and be ready to kick on.
This Championship is an unusual one for most, including myself, who don’t remember pre-2001. But, it is also a ruthless one that can take the so-called ‘top dog’ and throw them out in their arse. Just ask the team who knocked us down to Division Two.
A headline in one of this morning’s papers read: “Mayo for Sam, Joe Biden for Uncle Sam”. By Sunday, we should know if Biden has conquered his wildest dreams and we’ll also know if Mayo are a step closer to theirs.
And with this current combination of Mayo players, much like the year 2020, it might just be something a little different.