Mayo have been one of the great mysteries of the GAA world. The ‘nearly men’ of the modern generation.
A county cursed.
They’ve been beaten by the eventual All-Ireland champions for the past six seasons and have become arguably the best-supported football team in the country.
More recently, they have been one of the games real football forces, appreciated by more than their own people for the resilience and fighting spirit they have consistently displayed when their backs have been pinned to the wall.
But these Mayo lads were a quandary. They posed for selfies after games when their team-mates were in a huddle; a clear indication for some critics they were far more interested in their Twitter and Instagram profiles than truly dedicating themselves to winning. They were infatuated with themselves — an obvious reason why they couldn’t ever seem to close the deal in September.
Their forwards were too flunky as well apparently. No marquee names at the sharp end of their attack to get the job done in crunch time went the narrative. But somehow, despite being written off on an annual basis, they were always there, constantly knocking on a door that would never open for them.
They’ve dropped their goalkeeper, threw their GPS at it, and had untimely sending offs at crucial times in big games as recently as last year. They’ve self-destructed right before our eyes in high summer only to build themselves back up again by the following January.
It all added to the allure.
Despite their perceived failings, they have always had leaders, though some would see it differently.
They stood together as a group of players and demanded a change of management when they felt that standards of preparation had dropped considerably under Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes a few years ago.
That leadership didn’t start there, but it was the first time the public got to see an overt example of it.
They got lambasted from some for being selfish and egotistical for their ruthless take-down of two honest GAA men.
Their act breathed new life into the negative perception around the idea of ‘player power’, and revealed their darker side. Was there really something rotten about players finding their voice and backing themselves?
I said it then, and I’ll say it now: I thought it was a hugely courageous and ballsy move on their part. They took ownership of a situation they felt was negatively impacting the chances of achieving their ultimate goal.
In doing so, they placed greater demands on themselves and on those around them. They wanted to be better.
That unapologetic desire for improvement had painted a huge bullseye on their back for every knocker who wanted to use them as the epitome of all ill in modern GAA.
They were seen as the most recent GAA example of those creamy white suits that David James thought would be a good idea for the Liverpool players to wear to the 1996 FA cup final. The perception was that they were flashy but lacking in substance.
I saw it very differently; the easier option was to choose the more cowardly path. They could have kept their head down, said nothing, and ploughed ahead with a management team that they really didn’t believe in.
That unity stood them in good stead, it pushed them close and gave them a shared purpose that kept them coming back for more year in year out. It remains to be seen whether last Saturday’s defeat in Newbridge is a comma or a full stop in their story.
Either way, it’s over for them for now, and there is a large chunk of irony about what powered and galvanised their hosts in their magnificent victory over the weekend.
Cian O’Neill might have been the face of the Kildare fury that raged about the venue last week, but make no mistake, ‘Newbridge or nowhere’ was all about player power. Yes, their manager and county board stood firm by their side, but those players in the Kildare dressing room refused to buckle and insisted on bringing Mayo into Newbridge.
They gave us a proper Mexican stand-off and had to be prepared for the worst case scenario. The GAA could have dug their heels in and awarded the game to Mayo if the Lilywhites refused to show up at Croker.
But they showed backbone and chose the more difficult path, they backed themselves because the wanted the very best opportunity of achieving success.
It gave them a crusade. A purpose. Suddenly, this was about something much bigger than just winning a football game. Those Kildare players had done just what the Mayo players had years previously, they took ownership of their own situation and demanded better.
The GAA public loved it. Everybody admires the story of the underdog who reaches up and smacks the big guy in the chops.
The public perception was that this was all about finance, while the GAA maintained it was more concerned with the health and safety implications of playing the game in a ground the size of a shoebox comparatively speaking.
Either way, Kildare had put themselves under the brightest of spotlights by their actions and there was no chance they could come out and not deliver their very best.
Whatever about winning the game in the fashion they did, they had backed themselves into a corner and simply had to come out with serious fight, reflective of what they had invested off the field during the week.
It was an epic contest. A game played at a ferocious pace in scalding temperatures that had all the skills on show.
There was a motivation and a relentlessness to Kildare that we haven’t seen all year.
That type of incessant drive doesn’t come from a manager banging a table or screaming and roaring about doing it for the jersey. That stuff is only superficial noise. It hardly scratches the surface of what really motivates people to
The type of gutsy performance that Kildare delivered Saturday was about a group of players who discovered what it means to play for something more than just themselves.
They have found their cause, and it will be fascinating to see if they can harness it in the way Mayo did for so many years without ever reaching the summit.
Player power doesn’t have to be a blight on the game, it can be about finding a collective purpose, something more significant than just a result, and using it to squeeze every last drop out of potential out of your group. Kildare can build on it now to drive on to the Super 8’s at least.
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