And so it came to pass that in the week before an All-Ireland football final, the most intriguing stories come out of Mayo, writes Paul Rouse
Mayo may not have made the final this year, but the lack of general public interest in the meeting of Tyrone and Dublin demonstrates again just how central Mayo have become to the story of Gaelic football in the past decade.
To dispatch the irrelevant first of all: Talk of a curse and of that curse being rendered null and void by the fact of Pope Francis signing a Mayo jersey is, of course, just a bit of fun.
The idea of religious curses dooming teams to failure has thrived since the very first All-Ireland finals in 1887 when the hurlers of Meelick (representing Galway) were said to have been condemned to eternal defeat by a priest who saw a group of hurlers slip out early from Mass on the morning of the final.
Meelick duly lost that final and the club slid into torpor. As is the way of these things, the story of the curse only emerged decades later.
Naturally, the second story out of Mayo is much more serious.
The resignation of Stephen Rochford came as a surprise, but not a complete surprise.
It remains the case that, in the popular mind, the management of an inter-county team is focused on one individual.
The reality is much more complex.
It is more appropriate now to think in terms of a management team, than of any one individual, so when Rochford lost Tony McEntee and Donie Buckley earlier this summer, it came as a significant blow. Both men had travelled far to work with Mayo and it feels natural that they should have wished to stop when they did.
However, their stopping left a hole in the management structure that created instability and talk of uncertainty.
The fact that there was even speculation that the former Donegal manager Jim McGuinness might be interested in taking over in Mayo only added to that uncertainty. It is difficult to see McGuinness in charge of Mayo, however.
His passion for Donegal remains so intense and is so obvious that managing another county seems unlikely.
As for Rochford, he deserves only immense respect for his work with the Mayo footballers. It should be noted that when he took over as Mayo manager, the team was considered to have missed its best chances of success and to be on the slide.
Against that backdrop, his management team constructed a truly meaningful challenge to Dublin and brought a degree of colour to the championship that saved it as a spectacle.
That Mayo fell short means that his term will be designated as a failure. And that Mayo did not win an All-Ireland over the last three years remains the bottom line, but to dismiss those three years as failure is a crude, simplistic, narrow reading.
If there is one obvious thing that binds the curse and the resignation together it is the raw, unrelenting desire for Mayo to win Sam.
When you have climbed up the mountain so often, scaled many rockfaces on the way, pulled yourself by your fingertips to the summit, begun even to catch a glimpse of the other side, the pain of failing to reach the other side is always more acute. The emotions that are provoked are also more acute.
The result is that the enduring soap opera of Mayo football has entertained neutrals in a way that nothing else in football does.
Over the last two finals, it entangled so many in the fortunes of the team that some people from other parts of the country felt the pain of last year’s defeat (in particular) in a way that can be considered unprecedented for a county that is not your own.
There is none of that this year... and it raises a big question: If you are not partisan to one team or the other, is much of the football played now
actually worth watching?
Obviously, the answer to that question is ‘yes’ for those who are obsessed with the game and are seeking to mine it for any new knowledge or insight.
There is also the habit — called tradition to make it seem grand — of many who will tune it simply because they always have done.
However, it is worth asking what impact the current trends of Gaelic football have on the casual observer.
This question is asked, not because the game should be dictated to by this impact or because players/management have any responsibility, rather because it offers an understanding of the wider standing of any sport within society.
And the run-in to this year’s All-Ireland final makes plain that it is not one that is enthusing the wider public.
Why is this? Partly, it is to do with the teams that are playing. Dublin have evolved from a swashbuckling past to a cautious, relentless present, which is hugely efficient, but could never be considered thrilling.
Also, the public have seen the ultra-defensive approach of Tyrone in recent years and have not warmed to it. That the style has evolved somewhat this year has not brought any significant change in perceptions of the team.
To be blunt about it: It has been most striking to hear so many people say that they don’t really care who wins this year’s All-Ireland senior football final.
What, however, about the participating counties?
There is no doubt that there is excitement in Tyrone at being back in the final, though that excitement is not the same as that which attended the breakthrough team of the early 2000s.
That is a little inevitable, as there is no time like the first time.
There is also the fact that Tyrone are significant outsiders and that in itself
creates a different atmosphere.
Sally’s Nightclub in Omagh was filled with passionate football people late last Wednesday night.
There was a fundraiser on for Drumragh GAA club and the crowd enjoyed the casting of Joe Brolly as pantomime villain.
He didn’t disappoint.
The room was packed to bursting with people who love Tyrone football, but a couple of things were clear.
The first is that it’s easy to get tickets.
The second is that the general cost of those tickets for Sunday was exercising people. To put it bluntly: The unanimous view was that €80 per ticket for an All-Ireland final was considered far too expensive for amateur sport.
The third was that the Super 8s — for all that they had obviously profited Tyrone — were clearly, unambiguously opposed as being inimical to championship football.
Overall, the Tyrone people were utterly committed to their team, but you couldn’t present this commitment as being laced with the type of wild excitement that might be expected when it is the first final in a decade.
Down in Dublin, meanwhile, there is next to no excitement at all. When
Dublin played Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland football final, there was a broad sense of engagement with the game. Streets across the capital were filled with houses and businesses that were decorated with flags and bunting and other ephemera.
There is almost none of that now. It is a routine thing that Dublin are in an All-Ireland final and, while of course there are Dublin GAA people who are looking forward to the game with relish, there is nothing like the sense of excitement that was previously the case.
There are more papal flags up in the city than Dublin ones.
This brings us back to Mayo. It was apt that they should return to the news in this of all weeks. It is a timely reminder of what they have brought to the championship over the past decade, not just to their own people, but also the neutral and to the game as a whole.
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