The venerable pundit had seen something in their eyes. “That heady mixture of weakness and power, certainty and indecision, courage and fear.” And he thought they were in that elusive place that he has seen many underdogs reach, on their day.
“Believing fully you can win — but not really expecting to — is the perfect state of mind.”
On that basis Noel called it for Mayo. And even if they gave it a fair old rattle, both days, he hasn’t been seen in these pages since. Can’t be coaxed out of his Ballybore bolthole until he has rectified whatever small gap in his knowledge caused this miscalculation.
The likelihood is, of course, that Noel wasn’t wrong, as such. That he was right at time of going to print. But that something critical went astray in the days and hours before throw-in.
Something tipped the balance, from courage to fear, or back. Loose talk from a pundit maybe, most likely David Brady. Or not enough loose talk. One too many sheep painted in the red and green perhaps. Or one too few. The wrong kind of video gone viral. Or no clicks on the right one. Or maybe something an oul lad said, the night before, to Des, about the curse. Or what he wouldn’t say, to Gráinne.
Maybe #thingsleedid trended an hour too long before the replay. Turned a protest Maurice Deegan couldn’t ignore into one he had to ignore.
The margins are fine and the vibe is delicate in Mayo. Mere undergraduate students of philosophies such as Corkness or Tippness have long years of postdoc research ahead to have any hope of getting to grips with them.
So we can’t know for sure if they are right this year, if they are in that place. And maybe that is what will do the trick for them, eventually. The knowledge that we’ll never know them. Or what place they are in.
If Noel can’t read them, what hope have the Dubs?
As the saying almost goes, maybe they had to lose another one, to eventually win one. Or lose another few. Who knows?
Could it be the known unknowns that will finally prevent Jim Gavin controlling the controllables?
Just as all the dropped keepers and bizarre tactics and Hill 16 takeovers and tunnel rendezvous’ have Jim on high alert for the next big stunt.
Maybe this is the final where the big stunt is that there is no stunt. Or maybe there will be so many stunts, nobody will know which one is the big stunt.
We haven’t a clue.
Mayoman Colin Sheridan won the All-Ireland for Galway, in this paper, by reminding them a fortnight ago that Galway city couldn’t care less whether they won it or not. It was surely worth three points to them, in pressure lifted or umbrage taken.
And Shez has done further remarkable work convincing us that Mayo might be better off never winning it at all, that it might be the worst thing that could ever happen them; the end of the quest.
It has taken hold out there, this idea that the destination can never match the epic journey. This week, the Irish Times’ Frank McNally worried that, if they win tomorrow, “Mayo people will thereafter struggle to find a meaning in life.”
This new lack of urgency, this studied ambivalence, has also found a voice in their final song, Bring Sam Home by Avril Rushe.
Mayo have typically struggled to hit the right note with their final songs. The confidence, in Mayo Anthem ‘96, to the tune of the Banana Boat Song, that Sam Maguire “was coming home to Mayo”, belonged to a different era, an age of innocence. They were never again as jaunty as on Up for the Match that night.
The following year, Mayo Inside so Strong, a Labi Siffri adaptation, perhaps leaned too heavily on the idea that they are a persecuted, downtrodden people with high barriers to climb. Sure they knew that too well already.
And that Bocelli job, Time to Say Mayo, by the youngsters at Brendan’s College, Belmullet couldn’t keep its promise that “this would be the time like no other”. Maybe it drained them of emotion, the kind of number you can only safely sing when you have it won, like Leicester.
But this year, Avril reminds us that “it takes a lifetime to bring Sam home”.
That there is no great panic. That all the defensive blunders and own-goals and missed frees, and going for goals when points would do, and taking a point when you need a goal, are only staging posts on the long road. Stitches in the tapestry. Lessons from scripture that will one day make sense. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not.
Against all that, there is plenty of fodder in their 72-page newspaper supplements telling us this is last-chance saloon. Now or never. They remain unknowable.
On one hand, the Mayo GAA Blog tells us the build-up is fierce low-key, but on the other, they are still producing the 72-page supplements.
In case we got the idea they aren’t embracing it, they are making a great fuss about a woman from Congo dying her hair red and green. Although that would once be considered entry level hi-jinks.
And then, this week, they pulled the most cryptic move of all. A masterstroke or a blunder? Who knows?
Findings emerged from the Mayo GAA Oral History Project that there was never any curse. That the team never travelled through Foxford together in ’51. And there was no funeral on that day anyway.
This revelation could be regarded as a critical psychological boost ahead of the final. Though it also begs an important question that Dr Arlene Crampsie and her research team don’t shy away from: If it isn’t the curse, what has been causing this small delay in following up that success?
Lack of self-belief topped their conclusions.
So was Noel wrong, last year? It’s obvious that Stephen Rochford is working hard on their self-belief every time we see Colm Boyle trudging to the sideline with the game still on.
In defying them to win matches without this great, defiant man on the field, he was plainly getting them to imagine what they could do if Boyler was still in there amongst them. Eventually Boyler had to make sure they got the job done early against Kerry, just so he could go the distance.
But we still don’t know if they have the unbelievable belief. Maybe they believe they can win it once. But we hear much about the Dublin bench and you get the feeling they’re not sure if they can win it twice, as they might need to.
And yet more and more of them are prepared to tell you they just have a feeling. As Edwin McGreal of the Mayo News put it, “just don’t ask me for cold logic”.
But logic is the last thing they need now. Jim Gavin eats logic for breakfast.
Noel, if he got his own confidence back, would probably tell us they travel expecting fully they will win — but not really believing.
An imperfect state of mind. But the place that suits them best.