Longing — wrote Don DeLilo in his opus Underworld — on a large scale, makes history.
The football championship returns in earnest tomorrow, beginning in Ruislip where London host Galway, before the party hits The Bronx, where New York and their pick of 20 million faces down the poor unfortunates from Mayo, for whom the art of longing has become much less a pastime and more a way of life.
It seems a little early in the year to be worrying about such weighty affairs — it’s barely May after all — as the collective bodyclock of the country continues to adjust to a more condensed summer of football.
Big questions abound. Will Dublin complete the five-in-a-row? Can Kerry merge young talent with a hard edge? Will Aidan O’Shea get cornrows in his hair for their opener? The beauty of beginnings is the promise for each team that this year may be better than the last.
The one exception to that will be Jim Gavin’s Dublin, who will gladly take more of the same. The news that Rory O’Carroll has rejoined the set-up is good news for nobody outside the capital. He will bolster a back line that may be losing its legs in a tiring Cian O’Sullivan.
The other subplot, almost etched in scripture is the Diarmuid Connolly conundrum, which likely will entertain more than anything that happens on the field to the Dubs this side of the Super 8s. Surely St Vincent’s will start playing him as a libero goalkeeper, to offset the boredom of a game that has long seemed too easy for him.
Regardless of whatever alchemy he may conjure on the club scene, it seems Jim Gavin is adamant to make history without him, as if winning with Connolly somehow puts an asterisk on their roll of honour.
Should Gavin fail while ignoring Connolly, he may need to justify omitting this generational talent in his prime years. The rest of the country will hope Connolly takes his talents stateside this summer. Ironically, perhaps the best chance the country has of seeing the Dubs fail, resides the far side of the Atlantic; rapper and serial hitmaker Drake (not one of the Drakes from Ballaghaderreen).
The Toronto native has developed an unfortunate and very accidental gift for cursing sports teams with his celebrity endorsement (Man City, Toronto Raptors, and Dublin’s own Conor McGregor).
Getting the nod from Drake is the equivalent of a Premier League manager getting the proverbial chairman’s vote of confidence, only to be sacked on Monday. It may seem like straw clutching, but nothing else — not even throwing electronic equipment at Dublin players mid action — has worked.
To more pressing matters, as championship openers go, Galway won’t relish the rough and tumble of Ruislip. London have had a fair league campaign by their recent standards, and notwithstanding the gap in quality you would expect them to be primed to suffocate Galway as much as possible. An upset remains unlikely, but Kevin Walsh will take a win and likely disregard the methods or the margin.
It remains difficult to judge just what represents progress this year for the Tribesmen. Long past the ‘team in transition’ tag, this is a group of considerable talent who clearly consider themselves All-Ireland contenders. What they have not done these last few seasons however, is die with their boots on, each of the last few seasons petering out despite regular flashes of brilliance mid-summer.
Damien Comer being absent injured might be no bad thing, as it will force others to step up.
His return in time for an anticipated Connacht final showdown with Mayo would be timely. The form of Peter Cooke throughout a decent Sigerson run for NUIG signals a maturing of a potentially destructive player. He — and Galway — need to come of age. They must watch with bemusement at the constant carnival that follows their noisy neighbours, Mayo. A team they have not lost to in four years.
Galway may not have the cult-following Mayo have, but if their victories in ‘98 and ‘01 proved anything, it’s that the collective longing of a county does not win championships, but the players on the pitch, and the brains on the sideline.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Mayo. League champions. Lambasted and lauded in equal measure for enjoying their victory over Kerry, they are once again subject to a mass overthink from media and fans alike. This season brings to an end a decade that began with them losing a qualifier to Longford.
That loss bookended a four-year period of a bottoming out Brendan Behan would’ve been proud of. James Horan has never lost a Connacht championship match. Many of his current team have never beaten Galway in a competitive match. If both teams stick to the script that Connacht final may ignite this championship summer.
This morning, in Battery Park, just off Vesey Street in Manhattan, some of the Mayo squad will attend a commemorative gathering at the Irish Famine Memorial. As sombre an occasion as that will be, there may be a temptation for some more sarcastic observers to have an ‘insert caption here’ moment. Famine is a word that follows this team around. ‘Mayo the Story’ is all the greater in it’s telling for those who perpetuate it, for Mayo continuing to fall gallantly rather than win has given oxygen to a sport, Gaelic football, that has struggled for a compelling consumable narrative in the shadow of Dublin’s dominance.
This weekend in New York will see the legend begin again. The Mayo story has undergone it’s very own emotional gentrification, a hijacking of an ideal that has seen the Mayo Misery economy become a popular one to invest in. If some had their way, there would be a Broadway musical and a famine memorial dedicated to the Green and Red, with Willie Joe, bloodied and bandaged, face contorted in anguish like the ghostly figure in Edmund Munch’s The Scream.
The players themselves have enough distance from this noise. Bolstered by a league title and, finally, a bench, hopes are once again high. Detractors will wait to hear Aidan O’Shea is appearing on The View with Whoopi Goldberg while in The Big Apple, and that Andy Morgan is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium — but the reality is that if Mayo do fall short it will not be because of the distraction of the cult of celebrity.
Not this team. Not under Horan.
Whatever, the scene is set. In two of the world’s great cities, the championship summer begins.