“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”— Don Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III
Imagine trying to convince somebody that, after 68 years of trial and epic failure, the prize they crave so badly will never be theirs, always beyond them.
Try explaining that to expect it to happen now, after all these years of near and very far misses, is emotionally negligent. You would hope that the intended recipient of your prescribed dose of reality might relent, break down and accept their fate. But the mind is its own place — and, as we learned in Castlebar Saturday night, none more so than the Mayo mind.
No amount of totems to the contrary could convince these players and their faithful followers that they were anything but All-Ireland contenders. You’d have some chance in the depths of winter, when joints are creaking and resolve is weak, but the closer we get to buying the school uniforms, the more tunnel-visioned they become.
Objectivity replaced by misty-eyed defiance. As the tail-backs to MacHale Park began in Balla early on Saturday evening, you realised everything that had gone before - the mid-spring slump, the National League title, the Roscommon apocalypse, the Galway renaissance and the humbling in Killarney — were all just prologue. To paraphrase Mike Scott and the Waterboys, that was the river, but Donegal on a dirty night in Castlebar, this was the sea! The sea, it turns out, is emotion incarnate; a cruel merciless, beautiful beast that has no regard for the acute longing of its potential victims. Mayo prevailed, at first sprinting for the shore, in the end, gasping for air, but very much alive.
Donegal went the way of Jacques Cousteau.
As is their way, most of the issues you felt Mayo needed to address to survive, they somehow contrived not to. Three obvious areas that had haunted their summer campaign were their kick-out, an over-reliance on the old guard and poor free-taking.
They will head to Dublin next week barely the wiser. The goalkeeping affair continues to have all the hallmarks of a subplot, where the posh protagonist can’t make up his mind which Mayfair heiress he is actually in love with, and so alternates regularly. David Clarke is perhaps the one half of the best goalkeeper in the country; but lately, his prowess as a shot-stopper has been overshadowed by his inability to execute Mayo’s kick-out strategy — assuming there was one. His late withdrawal due to injury allowed Robert Hennelly a pop at redemption.
Short of erecting a billboard in Breaffy, advertising same to their opponents, his selection served as a telegram that Mayo were going to kick long and often. Previous missteps would ensure Hennelly would not kick short unless forced to do so. On one of those occasions, he kicked straight to Ryan McHugh and Castlebar held its breath. McHugh bizarrely butchered the chance to punish. It was indicative of Donegal’s night. They were kicking and screaming but barely keeping their heads above water, somehow lost at sea.
Hennelly did kick long, and more often than not it was the immense Jason Doherty who did the ugliest work better than anybody else. Doherty was like a Platoon Sergeant consistently digging his lieutenants out of the shit. Few of the on-the-whistle match reports even mentioned his name, but while he was on the pitch he best epitomised Mayo’s dogs-of-war mentality. Cruelly, he went off after suffering a bad injury. Doing what? Winning a filthy kick-out at a key moment. Kevin McLoughlin replaced him and assumed his burden ably.
With the tourniquet applied to the restarts, you felt Mayo needed a huge night from Darren Coen, to alleviate the pressure on Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran. A month ago it looked as if Coen and James Carr were about to release a cover of Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’, such was their joie de vivre. On Saturday night, Coen, suffocated by the intensity, could not get a shot away. The shepherd’s hook came for him after 26 minutes. His replacement, Andy ‘Madiba’ Moran, arrived and did all the things Moran does - win bad ball, hold it up, link, run to a standstill, kick two smart points, smile. Coen’s day will come again, you’d hope, but Saturday was a night for survivors.
As for the free-taking? Well, better best forgotten. Cillian O’Connor put in a huge shift, and conditions were poor, but it was Mayo’s wastefulness for all their epic endeavour that somehow contrived to keep Donegal in the game.
Their improvidence was contagious, however, as Donegal proved just as careless when they got to within one point. It mattered not. Mayo’s spine stiffened with resolve as Donegal, through a defiant Michael Murphy, rallied in the second half. Paddy Durkan, Com Boyle and Aidan O’Shea put in such belligerent performances they would leave you wondering what evil twin had occupied the jersey up to now.
Which makes you wonder just how Mayo continue to confound and survive. What do they practice that allows them to do so many things wrong, yet somehow endure?
Blind faith is not something you can apply in training. Though a widely practised discipline in Mayo, you would think it would be confined to the stands and speakeasies. It almost seems Mayo are adopting it as a tactic.
Whatever, if it is faith that is keeping the ship afloat, so be it. They sail east. Imperfect, stubborn and defiant. The river behind them, the raging sea ahead.
The tempest awaits.