Mayo look set to continue to frustrate and delight in equal measure

When the time comes for the movie to be made about Mayo football, the first words you will see with the opening credits will read “Loosely based on actual events”, as the reality of the last 30 years has been far too bizarre and nonsensical to properly fit a credible narrative.

Pity the grandfather who tries to tell his grandchildren this story:

“So, grandpa, after the management crisis of summer 2018, and the players got old and tired, surely then they were finished??”

“Not quite kids. You see, the following spring, Horan came back, and we won the National League!”

“Was that before or after the pushing cars around the car park thing??”

“Hmmm...”

It’s only last July that Mayo usurped the back pages and gave the ponderous championship summer some hippie crack by becoming the story-in-absentia with its latest constitutional calamity.

Nine months. Nine months since their senior footballers discovered golf courses and summer festivals.

Nine months since Stephen Rochford paced his kitchen floor, waiting for a phone to ring. Nine months since the epitaphs were written and the lime pits dug.

To be fair to those holding the shovels, the skepticism was justified. It wasn’t that outlandish a thesis to contend this Mayo side had come to the end of the road.

Too many bumps, too many bruises, and though they might still gorge the odd matador, this bleeding bull was for the butcher’s block.

Yet, in the most Mayo move ever, one pregnancy cycle later, they are in a league final.

Despite the prospect of a first national title in 18 years, it is impossible know just what the truth is.

There were occasions this spring that Mayo gave oxygen to the obituaries, not least their abysmal performances against Dublin and Galway.

Indeed, regardless of what happens tomorrow, it is those performances that will linger till either one or both those rivals are vanquished this summer.

It seems daft to say, but Mayo beating Kerry has become such a habit it almost doesn’t represent progress anymore.

The only progress at this point is an All-Ireland. Which says a lot about how far they have come.

Medals always matter though, and winning tomorrow will be a welcome, if unexpected, conclusion to Phase I of this season.

How then, have Mayo found themselves back in Croke Park in spring when the expectation was, they should be in La Manga working on their truck-and-trailer?

One can’t ignore the beneficiary of Rochford’s aforementioned kitchen-pacing, James Horan, who despite public protestations to the contrary, did not come back believing anything other than he could win All-Ireland with this team, this year.

To his credit, he has given fresh faces an honest try and the hope within the county is that if Mayo do win tomorrow, they will do so with those that dug deep and won in Tralee and Omagh playing — this would mean no Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Cillian O’Connor (admittedly injured) or Andy Moran on the starting fifteen, a notion unthinkable twelve months ago.

It was during Horan I that the nucleus of this panel evolved to be the players they are.

He inherited a sunken ship in 2010, trusted in youth and quickly raised the vessel.

When he departed, he left an enabled and combative bunch who emerged from one coup of their own initiating (the Holmes/Connelly affair), and another of the board’s (last year’s bungled Rochxit) undeterred in their objective: win Sam.

The ease with which Horan’s teams cantered to four successive provincial crowns suggested that Theresa May and Boris Johnson could have negotiated Mayo’s successful exit out of Connacht back then.

However, the reemergence of Galway as this current team’s bête noire has put paid to the notion of safe passage through summer. Any complacency to the contrary is long gone.

While newcomers Matthew Ruane, Fionn McDonagh and Brian Reape have added some much-needed febreeze to things, it is two others who best represent what might be different about Mayo this summer: Kevin McLoughlin and Fergal Boland.

In a galaxy of stars, McLoughlin has been one of the best footballers in the country this past five years without many noticing, or at least, many not noticing they noticed.

It was he who kicked Mayo to safety against Donegal 12 months ago — a telling intervention that negated the tiresome prospect of Division 2 football as being one ask too many for some of the more seasoned stars who may have taken some convincing to go again.

Inevitably, if he motors, Mayo do too. His form in the last few rounds of the league suggest this year could see him peak.

His quiet demeanor screams anti-hero, and if he is Shane, well, fellow forager Fergal Boland is more Sgt Brody from Homeland, as it appeared he had been taken captive since his impressive debut half-season back in 2017.

Whatever the reasons for his disappearance, his reemergence as a ball player has provided Mayo’s attack with some much-needed élan, and crucially removed the burden of link play from Aidan O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor.

His ability to kick pass will offer Mayo an alternative to their half-back dominated running game and provide inside forwards with quick service.

Mayo loyalists will be hoping he avoids capture this time round.

The crux remains the same with Mayo, however. That thing Freud never actually said about the Irish being impervious to analysis, applies neatly to the westerners.

They look set to continue to frustrate and delight in equal measure, immune from any algorithm or deep dive scrutiny.

If this league campaign has proved anything, it is that they have returned to their loveable, duplicitous best — they are the paramour you drive five hours across country to break up with, only to emerge 72 hours later, squinting in the sunlight, engaged to be married.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, it was left to Michael Fassbender — one of the few living Kerry men in his forties not to have an All-Ireland medal — to utter the line “There is a special rung in hell for people who waste good scotch...” and though you could never say this journey has been wasted, it would be criminal for the top-shelf vintage that is Mayo to be poured down the sink without getting another shot at glory.

It may not be Croke Park in autumn, but a National League title in spring would be a damn good place to start.

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