Not one day goes by where I don’t think about Mayo winning the All-Ireland in some shape or fashion – no joke.
It might be when I’m driving, it might be when I’m running/walking depending what sort of state of fitness I’m in. Sometimes it happens when a ball is in my hand but most of the time it’s when it’s not.
I’d dream about it from every perspective possible – the manager, the player, the supporter.
For the first two, I’d be front and centre of what would be my county’s biggest feat in 70 years. As a player I’d be lining up for the winning free in the dying minutes of a tied game or firing a bullet into the net good and high when we were two points down with time up.
As a manager, I’d have visions of making the genius last minute switch or half-time substitution that would turn a game on its head and be the winning factor in ending the famine.
I’d picture what it would look like to be down on the hallowed ground in Croke Park looking up at a sea of green and red whose voices would crowd out the RTÉ reporter’s question and maybe that would be all for the best because you’d need a few seconds more to compose yourself and get your emotions in order.
In my dream, plastered on the front page of The Irish Daily Mirror would read the words ‘Curse dead and Berry’d’ with a picture of me holding the cup aloft.
That’s the ‘player and manager’ fantasy.
It’s the latter of the above three though that I daydream about the most during these 365 thoughts that run through my head each year.
And it’s only just ever one recurring thought from the ‘fan’s perspective’ in my mind’s eye – ref blows the whistle, crowd erupts, play button pressed on The Saw Doctors.
Even writing that now floods the tears to the front of my eyes as I fight back the feeling of welling up. This hits me constantly. I could be shopping, I could be trying to sleep, I could be in a different country as many miles away from the sight of an O’Neills size 5 as you could get and it would only take one thing to trigger that emotion – a green and red door, bumping into someone from home, seeing that some team has won their first match or first trophy in their history – it all comes back to Mayo with me.
Like everyone else, I lost the plot when we beat Dublin. We celebrated that win like it was a final and rightly so. It was a final, a final hurdle that this crop of Mayo players needed to get over if they were to ever finally get the job done.
Dublin for too long had been our poltergeist and we were haunted by them. Nobody could utter the name of Mayo without fixing them side by side with the Dubs.
It’s like that unfortunate nickname you get in school after a stand alone incident that you can’t shake off even decades later. Mayo were coined as these ‘nearly-men’ against Dublin before a ball had been kicked. The nearest challengers but never champions, oh no not in a million years.
I was in a taxi in town the day before the game when a Dublin taxi driver just said after my revealing of my identity “poor Mayo… Kerry Dublin will be a good final”. Hang on a second there pal … but he wasn’t alone.
Einstein said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Sure it’s no wonder people thought we were insane to think we’d beat Dublin considering the history.
How many more examples do you want that shows you’re just not good enough?
If it was a girl you had tried to shift six times in a nightclub, you wouldn’t dare go back for the seventh attempt, but Mayo did and by god did we lob the gob this time around.
The place was electric. There was only 24,000 people there. For argument’s sake, we’ll say half of that was our own. Well it sounded like 120,000 Mayo people were inside. The Green and Red came on and we sang every note like we wanted the folks back in Westport to hear it clear as day.
I mentioned earlier about my pretending of being a player and how not being able to hear a question could come in handy for composure and holding emotion.
Not for Padraig O’Hora.
He didn’t hide back the tears. When he stepped in front of the RTÉ cameras and was quizzed about what it meant he looked tearfully up to the stands and said “just look at this place”.
And when asked about what was next in Mayo’s eye-line he didn’t stutter:
“We have only one plan.”
Words can’t describe how much I love Padraig O’Hora’s attitude. Forget about his footballing talents for a second. Just his mindset alone is something different from what this Mayo team has ever had before – certainly in my life time.
There’s no bullshit. There’s no ifs, buts or maybes. He plays like a winner, he thinks like a winner because in his mind there’s no alternative.
Padraig, lad, I’m behind you. I’m with you every step of the way. Count me in. If you’re a winner, I want to be a winner too.
This is the type of man that you’d die in the stands for, never mind on the pitch.
That Roy Keane-type ferociousness. You don’t earn that, you don’t find that in an underage academy, you don’t develop into that. You just have it, you’re born with it and the energy from someone like that not only feeds off to the players but it feeds off into the fans too.
Tomás Ó Sé said after the Kerry game that players like himself are a dying breed. Lads who say it straight, lads who aren’t afraid to give that dig when the ref isn’t looking. Lads who are positioned to do a job and execute that job just so that their team can win at any cost. The decorated Kerry man said they were few and far between but that POH was one of the last left on the modern day pitch.
When I rewatched his interview in the early hours of Sunday morning blurry-eyed after a flow of celebratory pints and he said those five words again, I told myself the big celebrations were to be stopped until the plan was completed.
It is hard not to get carried away though, never mind after something like that, but to have it mean that you’re into a final just doubles the hysteria.
I had managed to hide from it until I went home last weekend. Like the triggers I mentioned above, this was a perfect and obvious example of where one of my daydreams came from last weekend (albeit while I was driving which I don’t condone).
Even in Headford, there were Mayo flags dotted on the road alongside Galway ones almost as if to say the neighbours were uniting in support at long last. I was greeted with that all too familiar ‘Up Mayo sign’ that lies on the brow of a freshly cut hill near Shrule-Glencorrib.
Bunting across Ballinrobe and painted cars across Cross and green and red painted bales at McHales near the racecourse – In truth, I was afraid to get stuck in traffic anywhere in case some Yahoo came out with a paint brush and tins of green and red gloss.
It’s all I wanted to talk about when I threw my Mayo crested travel bag on the floor of my childhood home where I sobbed and celebrated over many a Mayo match during my youth.
“Will we do it?” “Do you know of anyone who has gotten a ticket yet?… Her? Sure she hasn’t been to a match all year”.
“At least it’s not Kerry” – my mother would chime in but God may pity the fool who thinks Tyrone will be a walk in the park.
I was happy Tyrone won. Not because it meant we had an “easier” final but because, just like us, they too were immediately dismissed as final contenders.
They called the GAA’s bluff with the Covid incident, they stood their ground and never once blinked. While Kerry, much like Dublin, were going around preparing for a final they hadn’t qualified for yet, Tyrone were simmering away in the background waiting for their moment to prove everyone wrong.
A kettle overflowing with water will make a big mess for sure but an empty one will explode.
Mayo was like the overflowing kettle with critics constantly filling them with so much hype and expectation but giving them no real hope still behind it all.
While Tyrone were like the empty kettle, forgotten about entirely until someone accidentally pressed the boil button and bang, soon Kerry were picking up the pieces.
The start of the game immediately reminded me of the infamous ‘puke football’ game of ’03 where Kerry bodies were being shouldered and pelted and swarmed and the green and gold gurrier would have only offloaded to someone for the same thing to have happened to them.
I wasn’t surprised at the way Tyrone came at Kerry but I was surprised at the way Kerry tried to step up to them. Running into tackles, down dark alleys with no way out but only a turnover in the opposite direction.
Any video of Dublin vs Tyrone in the last few years would give Mayo a good template of how to set up their stall on Saturday.
Plenty of width, packets of pace, and minutes of patience when attacking. Wait for that space to appear in the line and go for it. Have your runner off the shoulder ready to go and only touch the grass in spots while you’re at it.
It’s going to be a big game for accurate kickers too. When you get that chance, you take it no matter what the angle and just trust that your shooting boots are on – the likes of Darren Coen’s score against Dublin is the perfect example of that, you can’t defend those sort of scores.
Last thing you want to do against Tyrone is start playing keep ball too far up in their defence just to be smothered and for another chance to be gone a-begging.
In one sense, you’d nearly prefer a Kerry in a final. You know exactly what you’re going to get and where you need to focus – how do I stop Clifford and O’Shea foremost with the rest following after.
With Tyrone it’s very different.
A fast-paced game will suit Mayo but if Tyrone get their way and slow it down and get it dirty, it could become a messy game which would disrupt the Mayo flow which would fall right into their hands.
If you’re James Horan now are you planning a game around someone marking McShane from the start or are you looking to your bench to think about who could come on to match him when he’s introduced?
Our clean sheet against Dublin was instrumental in beating a team who we’ve struggled to keep out of our nets for so many years. What system is in place to stop the gaps for the likes of a Conor McKenna to come in and grab a three-pointer like he did twice against Kerry, granted a soft second one all the same?
It’s like looking into a mirror with the ‘keeper.
The caution of the tackle no matter how far out will be ever so more heightened now following the ball-blasting Niall Morgan and his superb point before half-time in the Kerry game. Any foul could now become a score.
We can learn something on the kickouts from both ends of the Kerry game though.
Kerry won every single one of their kickouts by going short while Tyrone were turned over multiple times by the high press which has been adapted by Mayo in recent years.
But just because Kerry were winning kickouts didn’t mean they were translating that into scores and more often than not were held up by the defensive structure that Tyrone had time to knock back into place because of the short give and go.
Rob Hennelly’s mix of long and short kickouts could end up creating a situation where Tyrone don’t always have that safety blanket to set up their great wall of Omagh at the back quickly.
On the flipside, there is of course the fear that Morgan would be strong enough to kick over our press too … I think whoever cracks the kickout code on both sides could unlock the key to the success in breaking down either team.
Morgan acts like a sweeper at times and an extra man for Tyrone and we need to embrace this as a possible pro rather than a con – if Mayo can muster up the high-energy press that they showed against Dublin in the last ten minutes of the second half and use it for the duration of the game against Tyrone, who knows what mistake he could be forced into many miles from his house?
We need to be a lot of things against Tyrone to win. We need to be smart, we need to be clinical, we need to be bullies and we need to be tough and physical.
There are going to be belts in this game, there are going to be hard hits and don’t be surprised to see 5 or 6 minutes of added time on each end with players going down with knocks all over.
Regardless of the score line on Saturday, Mayo have cemented their place for the next five years as a yearly contender for Sam.
I’m confident that we never have to worry about another RTÉ type obituary that was projected on our screens in 2018 after Newbridge.
The big question used to be “how can Mayo pick themselves up and go again?” We answered that year after year with “how could Mayo not?”
That thrill of getting to a final, hearing the Mayo roar and having days out like we did against Dublin would surely be enough for even a fringe player to push themselves that extra inch in the freezing cold of January.
I know exactly how Mayo will react if we lose. They’ll mourn, like us all and then they’ll bounce back like us all and we’ll be talking about the same thing verbatim next year.
I’d be more anxious about the unknown of setting up for next season as champions!
But the time for waiting is long over for Mayo. Seventy years overdue. The time is now.
Do it for yourselves.
Do it for the fans.
Do it for all of those who should have done it.
Do it for those who have longed to see it for decades and do it for those who didn’t live long enough to.
Do it for the ones who’ve known nothing but heartache and do it for the little girls and boys so they won’t ever have to experience such a famine.
Do it for the men of ‘36, ‘50 and ‘51 and most importantly for Paddy Prendergast.
And come Saturday, it will be job done finally.
Because we have only one plan.