“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the days their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves”
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
OK, the Love in the Time of Cholera thing may be a touch heavy for a Tuesday morning in March. And, I know, in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis, the “Love in the time of Corona” joke has already been made. And the notion of figurative rebirths? All a bit pretentious in the sports pages. Many people are worrying about staying alive and here I am bloviating about being born again. Fair point, but it’s the penultimate round of the Allianz Football League this weekend, and the champions, Mayo, are perched precariously on the edge of the abyss.
The premise of Marquez’s novel — set in Colombia at the turn of the 20th century — is one of a tortured yet poetic life unfulfilled. The story of Florentina Ariza, whose love for the beautiful Fermina goes requited, but cruelly forbidden.
If you haven’t read it, you can guess the rest. To deny her courtship to the lesser man, Fermina’s family send her away.
The ensuing lovesickness that befalls the protagonist, Florentina, manifests itself in physical and emotional ways, its affects as bad as cholera, the coronavirus of its day.
In the absence of his true love, Florentina does all sorts of crazy stuff: Pushing cars around car parks, winning random national league titles, losing qualifiers to Kildare, hopping in with everybody and anybody — from wealthy benefactors to innovative defensive coaches from Kerry.
OK, mixed metaphors aside, the straight “where are Mayo at” piece should point out the following: Based upon the onfield evidence presented over the course of the last 12 months, Mayo are on the slide.
This, despite winning the league last spring. Despite quality Super 8 wins over the future All-Ireland champions, Galway, and a difficult Donegal. Despite celebrity endorsements from golfers Justin Rose and Jon Rahm.
Despite usurping an unpopular county executive, and then usurping the usurpers. Yes, despite these many morsels of hope, the accumulative is somehow not enough. The nature of the losses to Kerry and Dublin last summer pointed to a team caught between being too young and green, and too old and grey.
Or at least too weary.
The off-field drama that played out like an episode of Made in Chelsea all winter long would have undoubtedly done little to allay the concerns of those who had tested and tasted the Mayo tonic down through the decades. In Mayo footballing terms, drama, like lovesickness in Marquez’s Colombia, can be more deadly than any contagious malady.
James Horan — a man who regards any distraction to be the work of the devil — has used this league campaign to blood some much-needed talent, but at what cost? Mayo have three points, and with Galway and Tyrone to come, the devotion of their faithful is set to be tested.
Though All-Ireland glory has eluded them, their fans have become accustomed to the finer things in life. Last season, despite patchy league form, they won the competition. The year before, they were saved by a last-ditch equaliser from Kevin McLoughlin in Ballybofey.
This year, it seems not even a global pandemic can keep them from the drop. League final glory against the Kingdom in April is one thing; an away trip to Longford on a bleak Sunday in January quite another.
So what then, is the problem? As ever, we on the outside can only speculate, but some fundamentals remain unanswered.
Whatever the merits of Stephan Rochford’s rationale to bench David Clarke in the 2016 All-Ireland final replay, his decision spoke to a glitch that some five years on, has not been fixed. Granted, that fateful Saturday night was not the time to correct it. Clarke’s qualities as a “classic” goalkeeper have never been in doubt: Brilliant shot-stopper, fearless, wears big reassuring gloves.
But, his legs — you know, those pesky limbs goalkeepers require for kicking the bloody ball out — well, they seem to be gone. Pity Tom Parsons and Aidan O’Shea standing still, waiting for Clarke’s delivery to drop from the sky like a slowly deflating helium balloon at a kids’ party.
All the while half of Dublin waits to smash them from behind. Similarly, his short kickouts have little zip. They snag and grip the turf, often putting the recipient under pressure.
Clarke is 37 this year. Nobody expects him to develop a howitzer kick at this stage of his career, but Mayo’s restart strategy seems to rely — like many of the top teams — on a keeper who can kick quickly, reliably, and accurately.
Of course, restarts involve half the team — Clarke is far from the only culprit — but he has to quarterback it. However difficult that may seem in spring, it is in summer that Mayo has paid the ransom again and again, often left holding nothing but a head in a box.
Robert Hennelly — who has a right leg Clarke would likely die for — lacks his rival’s assured presence between the sticks. It’s a catch-22 made all the more frustrating because this is not a problem that appeared this morning. Admittedly, you can’t magic a top-class keeper from blackthorn boots and spit, but you can develop one.
Mayo can point to injuries, too. Cillian O’Connor, Chris Barrett, Jason Doherty, and Colm Boyle would enhance any team. But, the best ability for Mayo right now is availability. A subconscious byproduct of these absences seems to be poor free-taking, which, if you’re from Mayo, you’ll tell yourself is no big deal, because soon Cillian, much like the beautiful Fermina in Colombia, will come back, and everything will be OK again, like it was before.
This waiting ignores the reality that Mayo’s biggest problem is the crocodile nearest their boat: Galway in Salthill on Sunday.
Two great rivals. One team on the up, buoyed by new management and overly appreciative press corps; the other uncertain of themselves, struggling to recall the swagger that saw them (nearly) always find answers when they needed them.
A Galway loss would most likely not define the Tribesmen’s season, but it might ignite Mayo’s.
As for the lovers in Colombia? Well, in the end, Fermina did come back. And Florentina, like Colm Boyle chasing down a maroon jersey, wore her down eventually. Even then, the only way he could keep her to himself was to sail her down a river in a boat flying a yellow flag warning all before them that those aboard had cholera.
Far be it from me to suggest Mayo do something so devious to get what they want in this time of Corona, but whatever they decide to do, the time for rebirth has come; it has to be now.