Mayo playing sweet music in the house of pain

Every time, you look for a sign. Each time, it’s more of a stretch.
Mayo playing sweet music in the house of pain

Still, when the time comes for Mayo to win the All-Ireland, you kinda always knew there would be a new Teenage Fanclub album out the same week.

The Fannies were born in 1989, same as Mayo’s modern lament, when the first of the latter-day seven went south.

Their 10th album lands after 27 years, the Guardian summarised, “of them being considered British rock’s unluckiest nearly-men.”

There were unfashionable times when they became, like Andy Murray, more Scottish than British, but they still accumulated more critical acclaim than Mayo along the way — Kurt Cobain once called them the best band in the world.

But they’d probably have taken a bit more success, in so far as you can measure such a thing in cash.

On their very first single, Everything Flows, they more or less called how things would go.

“You get older every year. But you don’t change. Or I don’t notice you’re changing.”

By their fourth album, the influential American magazine Spin — which had preferred their second, Bandwagonesque, to Nirvana’s Nevermind as the record of 1991 — was looking for more in the way of change and turned on them, saying “the Fannies have no guts and little relevance”. The kind of talk the Mayo lads have endured too.

But TF are still at it. Still churning out what NME would once have called ‘sublime harmony-drenched slices of pop ecstasy’.

Good songs, to the rest of us. With a tinge of wistfulness about them.

“It’s a place we can’t help coming back to,” Norman Blake tells the Guardian. “It’s the place we all know.”

These men, you’d have to think, have achieved, on some level, peace of mind.

Of course, the crucial difference between music and sport is that lack of mainstream success in the music game only sweetens the deal for the fans you do have.

Heightens their own sense of well-being, to be among the few who appreciate.

On the other side of that equation, when Mayo do lift Sam we’re unlikely to hear too many people express a preference for their early stuff.

But until they do, their Gaelic footballers have other people’s baggage to carry, in a way 50-year-old Glaswegian musicians can largely avoid.

Some of these Mayo players face a first final, many weren’t born for the start of the sorrowful mysteries, but all of them have blasted into the sidenet with Anthony Finnerty, watched one bounce over the bar like John Madden, or been unfairly singled out like Liam McHale.

They all laminate the same CV, bulleted with big day disappointment, that Kenneth Mortimer has printed out. And they have all misjudged the clock, like Cillian O’Connor.

On the field now, perhaps the burden is most visible on Colm Boyle. The great agitation in Aidan O’Shea comes from someplace very deep too. But Boyle’s is a quieter hurt. He is brilliant, durable, robust. Everything you want. But just a shade short of implacable. Something in his face betrays the things this man has seen. Like Koscielny at Arsenal.

David Brady described the debilitating effects of the baggage in Keith Duggan’s great book House of Pain, as he puzzled over the 2006 no-show.

“I know our lads were so physically fit, but they seemed to be genuinely drained of energy and motivation. If they were racehorses, you would be questioning if they were drugged. There was something preying on them.”

Most of the modern crop have shaken the worst of that torpor. But still, something made that Keegan shot drop short against Dublin last year.

As valuable as The Savage Hunger reliably is to GAA teams, there is a misconception that you can store up hurt well beyond its sell-by date.

Duggan described how Jack O’Connor came into the Mayo dressing room in 2006 and nailed that lie right there.

“He explained that the one, single year Kerry had been waiting since their All-Ireland final loss to Tyrone had been more cutting and salty than the half-century of constant keening that accompanied Mayo teams. He explained Kerry’s need had been greater.”

Mayo only craved what Kerry knew they were entitled to.

I got it badly wrong in 2012, in these pages, looking for a sign. The year before, the Mayo GAA steering committee had carried out our old friend, the root and branch review.

The group produced an ambitious Mayo GAA Strategic Action Plan, which was promptly rejected by the Mayo County Board who opted instead, the steering group alleged, for “a Galway plan with a few bits crossed out”.

Back then, you couldn’t help feel a loan of somebody else’s identity, even Galway’s, mightn’t do Mayo any harm. And it got them so far. But that was not true peace of mind.

Like the Fannies, there is a place they can’t help coming back to, the place they all know. They just need to feel at home there.

To carry onto the field the locks-in-the-wind effervesce of Willie Joe Padden, the take-me-or-leave-me effrontery of Ciaran McDonald, the high-spec audacity of Kevin McStay.

They can look around and touch it in the high-stepping ebullience of Andy Moran or the race-you-over-a-cliff bravery of Keith Higgins, or the high-spec audacity of the O’Connors.

And what of big Aidan?

Watching him grumbling and rooting and getting involved in every class of sideshow on the field, you could figure he carries every burden going.

But in that lovely, easy chat on TV with 1951 survivor Pádraig Carney, you’d like to see a man content to rummage in the baggage of the past for inspiration as much as distraction.

Maybe Enda Kenny got it wrong this week, in his emotional address, when he told them it was time to grow up.

Maybe they all did that in last year’s coup, when they took the future into their own hands, as well as the past.

It should be impossible too, to make too much of a tragedy out of Mayo’s modern setbacks, once word reached of the death of Greg Maher, who endured disappointment in 1989.

The outpouring of grief and love and respect and gratitude is something else they can all share, anyone who has worn the green and red.

Even with sport fans, there is a lot more than winning and success.

Amid the sadness, that too should give them peace of mind.

From there, everything flows.

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