Not so very long ago, Mayo footballers took to the stage like Beyoncé; all angel wings, backing singers and brass bands. A battered band of brothers that were the toast of the nation. They were representing. They were woke. Men who knew them drank deep and were silent. They were the honourable, the unsullied, the beatified.
The beat poets of a sporting generation, fighting for breath in a pop culture atmosphere suddenly suffocated with the excesses of blanket defences, alleged financial inequality and ubiquitous endorsements. Dublin may have taken home the Grammys, but there seemed to be a million Kanyes grabbing the microphone saying it should have been Mayo.
They were the people’s champion, the cause célèbre, the housewives’ favourite. For the best part of this decade, for the sporting public at large, Mayo were the Sunday in every championship week. These days, the westerners no longer resemble Beyoncé, but the beleaguered members of Spinal Tap, wandering aimlessly, unable to find the stage.
The Sunday columns no longer laud, but lambast, fatigued by what they now regard as unearned adulation. The reservoir of sycophantic hyperbole has dried to the point of drought. Mayo have suddenly become the apartment everybody bought in Bulgaria and bragged about, that ultimately never got built.
Up to a point, you couldn’t blame their detractors. Mayo went so hard for so long, when the curtain fell on them in Newbridge last June, it almost seemed a fitting, if unjust end. If this were an NBA team, it would have been the end of the ‘process’: time for the team to dismantle, only to reunite a decade later for the inevitable 30for30 documentary.
That night against Kildare, they died with their boots on with no shame — just tired, broken bodies and an appreciative public. It was a moment to take pause, reflect and look to the future.
James Horan certainly seemed to concur and tried through his public utterances to appeal for patience and calm ahead of this year’s league. Dismal performances against Dublin and Galway exercised the very tolerance he urged. If the manager was to promote youth, Mayo people would have to come to retrain their brains that late summer runs to Jones’s Road were not a right, but a privilege.
Alas, after Mayo beat Kerry in a league final, there were lads from Bangor Erris booking flights home from Australia for All-Ireland final replays in early September.
The on-board-again media looked for reasons that this time it would be different, choosing to focus on youngster Ciarán Treacy’s ice-cold goal finish at the death of that game, when a flick over the bar would’ve sufficed.
This is it! The new Mayo! Youngsters unburdened by baggage! He stuck a goal because he is too young to remember Mayo just don’t win this way! With Mayo, we were reminded, everything has significance. Especially the really insignificant stuff.
So, the bandwagon rolled west, across the Atlantic, to the Bronx, via Times Square, where even the doubters gritted their teeth and bit their lips and watched as Mayo serenaded the Big Apple with Saw Doctors verse.
The game itself was nothing but a sidebar to a festival of soundness that threatened to bankrupt a dozen rural Credit Unions, Italia ‘90 style.
Ten months after being pronounced dead, Mayo were back, and everyone was in love with them again, sort of. The summer needed Mayo, we were told, and who were they to refuse?
Then, right on cue, a very Mayo thing happened. Sailing very close to the wind against a readied Roscommon, Mayo figured they could close a game they never had control of without a free-taker. Like a 747 headed for a runway without its landing gear. The free-taking issue may seem a tad too obvious a stick to beat them with, but sometimes if it walks like a duck, it’s unlikely the duck is going to kick your clutch frees, because it’s a duck.
With that loss, the mockers mocked, and the haters hated, but amidst all the vitriol, there remains truths which will haunt them however long this summer lasts. Cillian O’Connor has become Gaelic football’s answer to Howard Hughes, such is his precocious talent and predilection for reclusiveness due to persistent injury. Mayo need him, and that reliance does not point to progress.
Similarly, the goalkeeping issue is one that has haunted them since David Clarke lost his legs, and too often Robert Hennelly has lost his nerve. If you could sew the two of them together, you’d have the makings of a decent keeper, but the bigger issue is how no alternative has been scouted and developed since the evidence has plainly suggested a succession plan was required.
Which brings them to Newry, a place James Horan surely hoped never to see on a summer Saturday evening, lest it was for some discount baseball caps at JD Sports. Down are a team who showed promise in their outings against Armagh and will undoubtedly relish the opportunity a wounded Mayo presents to kick-start a much-anticipated revival in their fortunes.
It was Down, incidentally, and not the image-conscious Mayo, who first cornered the market on celebrity fandom, when literary giant Brendan Behan landed in New York with an “UP DOWN” rosette pinned to his chest, and went straight to the boozer to meet poet Allen Ginsberg for a few swift halves. Not exactly a regular at league games for the Mourne County, the rosette was probably deployed to illicit a question as to its significance, thus initiating a soliloquy on oxymorons.
Mayo are close to becoming a sporting oxymoron. Not so much at a crossroads, but at a broken bridge. Tonight, in Páirc Esler, they either fall over the edge, or rev the engines and jump it. In doing so they would do well to remember Ginberg’s words, “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness”.
Mayo are who they are. It may be too late this season to change it, so best roll the dice and embrace it.