Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mayo's Deliverance

Boyler takes an O'Neill's
Size 5 into custody
Colm Boyle – your correspondent’s pick for the next Garda Commissioner, if Clarkie doesn’t want it – was interviewed after the defeat of Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. Boyle was asked how Mayo were going to prepare for the All-Ireland Final. He seemed a little puzzled by the question – “just like we always do,” was Boyle's reply.

Some years ago, a great GAA man and friend of the blog remarked that Mayo’s best chance of winning their fourth All-Ireland was to go through a series of semi-final replays. So many replays, in fact, that they would have only one week to get ready for the final itself, and thus insulating themselves from the sort of anguish that seemed to descend on the county at these occasions.

There was a certain logic to that at the time, but events have moved on. When Mayo appeared in their first All-Ireland Final in 38 years in 1989 the county went bananas from the thrill of it all, and stayed bananas until that great team were felled once more by that terrible hoodoo that once lived at St Jarlath’s Park, Tuam some eight months later.

Those days are gone. There are children growing up in County Mayo currently for whom the road to Croker is as well travelled as the road to school. There is no novelty about Croker anymore. There is no novelty about winning in Croker anymore. For this iteration of the Mayo Senior Team, there really is only one last box to tick.

It was once the case that Mayo had two choices. Either consider the All-Ireland Final the Most Important Day Of Your Life, and seize up with nerves, or else consider it just another game, and then be stunned and run over by another team for whom it was, in fact, the most important day in their lives.

That doesn’t apply to Mayo 2017. Has there ever been a team as seasoned in the Big Time as Mayo who haven’t won an All-Ireland? Dublin are certainly a very great team, but Mayo aren’t quite chopped liver either. For this Mayo generation not to have won at least one All-Ireland already is astonishing. To think they will finish like Moses, within sight of the Promised Land but never crossing into it, is very difficult to believe.

It is right that Dublin are favourites on Sunday of course. But while Mayo haven’t beaten Dublin in quite some time, Mayo certainly have put it up to the navy-and-sky-blue machine over the years. What will it take to make the difference?

Dublin have two particular vulnerabilities. The first is, through no fault of their own, every game this summer has been a stroll in the park for them, with the exception of a gallant Carlow challenge. A team wiring it up to them will come as a shock, because you can’t think yourself up to a certain pitch of action. By the time you have to command your body to move up the gears to a challenge you weren't quite expecting, it may already be too late.

The other interesting thing is that Dublin’s greatest strength is their greatest weakness. All Dublin’s church is built on the rock of the Cluxton kickout. Every brick, every wall, every buttress. If that kickout can be disrupted, will the edifice stay together or will it all come crashing down?

Now these could all be thoughts in the air, of course. It may be that Tyrone were actually very good this year but that Dublin have evolved into a different football dimension. If so, it might get ugly for the green and red support as Dublin ascend further towards the summit of greatness and Mayo are yet again churned beneath their heels.

And then again, maybe Tyrone just didn’t have anything in the tank, and Dublin could be the ones shouting at each other around half-past four on Sunday, wondering what’s going on as a nightmare begins to take form into material reality before them. We’ll just have to wait and see. Up Mayo.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Aidan O'Shea, Fullback

Your correspondent is very confused by the response to Mayo playing Aidan O’Shea at fullback in the All-Ireland against Kerry on Sunday. This tweet from Matt Cooper is typical of the reaction:

“Disaster” is an interesting choice of words here. Any Mayo follower worth his or salt is able to list successive disasters and rate them out of ten going back to 1925 and the All-Ireland lost in a boardroom instead of on the pitch. Where does the playing Aidan O’Shea at fullback stand in this miserable pantheon?

Nowhere. Because it’s not like Mayo lost, is it? Mayo are still in the Championship. Mayo went into that game as 5/2 underdogs, and Matt Cooper is annoyed they didn’t beat Kerry out the gate? Extraordinary.

Malachy Clerkin of the Irish Times reckons 2-6 of Kerry’s 2-14 can be attributed to Donaghy. Maybe so, maybe not. It is, however, a fact that one single point is all Donaghy scored from play. Donaghy scored two goals in the All-Ireland Final of 2007 as Kerry whipped Cork 3-13 to 1-9, but the Cork fullback on that day went on to win an All-Star at fullback that same year.

So having Donaghy score two goals on you in the All-Ireland Final doesn’t cost you an All-Star but having him score one point on you is the reason Mayo didn’t beat Kerry on Sunday? Clear as mud, my Lord.

One of the reasons put forward for Mayo’s playing of Aidan O’Shea being a “disaster” is his incalculable loss out the field. And this doesn’t quite add up either.

Reader, how many previews of Sunday’s game hinged on Kerry’s terror at the havoc Aidan O’Shea was going to cause in among the Kerry backs? Contrast that not-very-high number with the number of times you’ve read about Mayo’s lack of forward quality.

It would seem that in the space of seventy minutes Mayo have gone from lacking a quality forward to having the damn things falling out of the trees – Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor – the current top scorer in the Championship with 3-52 and counting, by the way – and now Aidan O’Shea, Destroyer of Worlds.

Remember all that stuff you read during the year about Aidan O’Shea being distracted by being on that Toughest Trade TV show, or playing basketball, or having selfies taken with children, or not looking up, or running with his head down and not letting it in? All in your imagination. Nobody ever thought, wrote or podcasted any such thing at all at all. In actual fact, the very sun itself rises from Aidan O’Shea’s not-at-all-fat-perfectly-athletic-in-fact bottom.

Are there questions that could be asked of the Mayo management? You betcha there are questions, but not one of them has anything to do with Aidan O’Shea playing fullback on Sunday. Not one. The very worst you could say about it is that the case is not proven, and if there are problems in the way Mayo set up it’ll take more than a straight swap between Aidan O’Shea and Donie Vaughan to solve them. Up Mayo.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Ballad of Diarmuid Connolly

Jim Gavin Lambastes Pat Spillane and 'The Sunday Game.' Irish Times, June 25th, 2017.

The Ballad of Diarmuid Connolly

A great crowd had gathered, in Mercs and Land Rovers
The lawyers of Dublin would soon earn their fee
For inside in Central Council, a brave son of Dublin
Was tried for his summer before the C-C-C-C

Our gentle young Diarmuid, who plays hurling and football
Stood proud in the dock like a true Dublin man
While before him in judgement sat a big gang of culchies
Their minds already poisoned by Patrick Spillane

The legals and the eagles could do nothing for Dermo
Neither Clucko nor Fento nor the rest of our Champs
Now Dermot has nothing to do for the summer
But hang sponsored boots off the Five Lamps

God’s curse on you culchies, you cruel-hearted monsters,
Look what you’ve done to our football scene – oh!
But we’re not defeated, we’ll beat you in winter
Because our real hero is J Mourinho.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Mayo v Galway: The Lonesome Road to Salthill

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn'd round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

The Mayo fan has no fear of frightful fiends. Why would he or she? What chills the Mayo soul in the lead-up to Mayo’s trip to face Galway in Salthill are entirely more rational and comprehensible than the slimy things in the slimy sea that so bothered the Ancient Mariner.

Billy Joe Padden, in a typically excellent preview of events in the Mayo News, outlined how Mayo can beat Galway. Billy would like to see a sweeper, ideally Kevin McLoughlin; he’d like Aidan O’Shea to start, ideally somewhere in the middle of the field; he’d like Andy Moran to finish the game, rather than start it, meaning Andy must come on as a sub, and above all Billy would like to see Mayo attack in numbers from the middle third.

Your correspondent sees the merit in every one of these arguments. My own personal contribution to Mayo’s Heroic Path to Immortality would be to play Aidan O’Shea at full-forward, rather than in midfield, but it’s not something I’d fall out with people over, least of all someone who knows so much more about these things than me, as Billy Joe does.

However. What does make me wonder just whether or not a frightful fiend doth close behind me tread is that we have seen no evidence at all of Mayo playing in the way Billy suggests all year, and there’s no reason to expect them to change their ways now.

There is a growing trend in GAA discussion that suggests anyone outside the team and its back-room team – henceforth referred to as “The Group” – has no business questioning any decisions made by The Group. Such questioning is, in fact, as near to treason as makes no difference.

Your correspondent takes an opposite view. Your correspondent thinks that the Mayo edifice – players, trainers, even the Board – have a duty to keep the fans reasonably informed of what’s going on with the county team. That does not seem unreasonable. It’s so reasonable, in fact, that Darragh Ó Sé made a case for it in yesterday’s Irish Times:

Supporters need to be led. They need to be given something to believe in. They need big players and big personalities showing them the way. Not giving them a reason to shrug their shoulders and decide that this is just how things are.

Where are the Mayo supporters being led right now? Your correspondent is more than eager to hear something, anything, from The Group in response to the following questions that have been rattling around my noggin:
  • Why has Kevin McLoughlin spent the entire league at corner-forward if he’s going to play sweeper in the Championship?
  • If McLoughin isn’t going to play sweeper, who is? Will Mayo play with a sweeper at all? And if not, why not?
  • Why start Andy Moran when you need him most in the final twenty minutes?
  • Why didn’t Robbie Hennelly start one home game in League? We all know David Clarke is the Number One choice but Robbie is still No 2 to a keeper who isn’t getting any younger and who has a history of knocks. Hennelly is going to catch Hell from the fans whenever he starts, so why not start him in the bleak midwinter and get it over with.
These aren’t the only questions that need asking, but they’ll do for now. If they’re not being asked aloud, people are certainly thinking them – by the time these things dawn on your correspondent they will have long ago dawned on better football people. And, like anything that’s supressed, the reaction will be greater the longer it has to stay underground.

If, God forbid, Galway should win in Salthill you can expect these questions to come bursting forth. You may say that’s unfair, but fair has nothing to do with it. The price of playing at the great height at which Mayo have played for the past six or seven years is that the fall is steeper.

And there is the awful truth that, for all the long and wonderful summers, Sam did not come home. Sam’s not coming home is more than a detail; Sam’s not coming home is why the depths of Mayo’s fear and trembling are so much greater than Galway because, even though Sam hasn’t been in Galway for sixteen years, that’s as the snapping of the fingers compared to sixty-six years, and counting.

Kildare never really came close to Galway in the Division 2 Final, but Kildare, with all due respect to them, weren’t really that great. Equally, Galway laid an egg the size of the Rock of Gibraltar in losing to Tipperary, something for which they did not get anywhere like the roasting a Mayo team would have got. Of if they did, they kept it quiet.

A seasoned Mayo team on the top of its game has nothing to fear from Galway. But a malfunctioning Mayo team, whose identity is slipping away for whatever reasons, will always walk in fear and dread. Let’s hope that walk to nowhere doesn’t start on Sunday. Up Mayo.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Football Championship - A Pageant, Not a Product

The Championship: Philly seems to like it.

Positing the notion that a two-tier Championship is inevitable in Tuairisc earlier this month, the great Dara Ó Cinnéide wondered in passing how anyone could have the idea that the Championship could ever be a level playing field, with county demographics and traditions being what they are.

In light of this, it’s interesting to remember just why the back-door system was introduced in the first place. The original idea was that many teams were denied either the Championship itself or a good long summer run by the vagaries of chance, with the Cork footballers of the 1970s being the most frequently cited example. Had they not had the ill-luck to share Munster at the same time as the Kerry Golden Years team, who knows what could have happened?

And that’s why the back-door was introduced. Not to level the playing field for all, but in the hope that no more should a flower like that Cork team be born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air, as Mr Gray might have put it.

The back-door is with us sixteen years now, and the Law of Unintended Consequences has kicked in. The back-door Championship was introduced at a time that the economy was booming and the enforcement of the GAA’s amateur ethos grew increasingly token. So an initially-flawed idea – Cork were going to have face Kerry at some stage, after all – mutated into an even worse one and left us the mess we have today, where the GAA is having an existential crisis without properly realising it.

The whinging about the format of the Championship that (correctly) bothers Ó Cinnéide is based on the idea that the Championship is a sports entertainment product competing in a marketplace with other sports entertainment products like European Cup Rugby and the English Premier League. But it’s not. It’s something completely, uniquely different to that.

The things that make the Championship great cannot exist as part of a sports entertainment product. The Championship is written about as if the GAA exists to present a sports entertainment product. That is not why the GAA exists. The GAA exists to allow as many people as is practicable to play Gaelic Games as often as they wish. The inter-county Championship is a by-product of those thousands and thousands of games. The Championship is accident; the club games are essence.

This fundamental point is being lost in the hubbub as the GAA striates further between the haves and have-nots, and the separation will get even worse when the Super Eight series are introduced next year. The people running the GAA think the increased revenue will improve the Association. It will not. The increased money will destroy the Association by creating a professional division that will leave the ordinary club players behind. The ordinary club players and members who, after all, comprise the vast majority of the membership of the Association in the first place.

Under pressure of money, propaganda and carelessness the GAA is inching along a road where the needs of elite athletes will be prioritised over the needs of the thousands and thousands of fat bucks, slow bucks, clumsy bucks and hungover bucks who need and deserve the regular games that the GAA can provide them. The prioritisation should be the reverse.

Ewan McKenna, a man never afraid to speak truth to power, tweeted this after Tyrone walloped Derry yesterday:

But McKenna misses the point. The GAA isn’t about providing yet another dish to the armchair fan’s sporting feast. The moment its raison d’etre becomes the production of a sports entertainment product it’s all over for the Association.

McKenna will have his two-tiered Championship then. There may be two or three Dublin teams, two or three Ulster, two Connacht, two Munster, two Leinster. They won’t be counties though – they’ll be Lions, or Kestrels, or Wolfhounds instead.

There will be transfers and big money signings. The media will get proper media access, where players will dutifully remark that today’s performance was no surprise as everybody in the unit knew that if they executed their process everything would come right on the day. Hurling will go the way of having grammatical Irish in programmes – a fond yet distant memory.

Is the situation doomed, then? Is there anything that can be done?

Happily, the cause is not yet lost and there is something that can be done. Three things, in fact.

Firstly, close the back door. The Championship is a knockout competition like Wimbledon or World Championship Snooker. If you lose, you lose. Get over it.

Secondly, the GAA needs to remember it’s an amateur organisation, and that means bread-and-water diets for those who’ve been spending like sailors on shore leave. Either a budget cap or, better again, revenue-sharing as in the NFL of the United States. No more lawyering up to escape bans and most of all, proper and painful sanctions for those who would flout these laws.

Finally, it’s perfectly possible to accommodate those who want a more equal inter-county playing field by reconfiguring the League. Three divisions, home and away, promotion and relegation of course, maybe playoffs for the crack. The better players in each county get to test themselves against teams of the same level. The great Kieran Shannon of the Examiner has made the point many times that reworking the League will do more to address the uneven playing inter-county playing field than a hundred tweaks to the Championship.

The League can be run off between January and June, and then July-August-September are free for the pageantry of the Championship. Sports scientists and protein-shake aficionados will know that the best team is the one that does best in the League, while the Championship retains its ancient glory and stays true to the notion that a commoner may challenge a king, and that one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Seán Fitzpatrick Trial Collapses - Irish Media Lets the Nation Down

To an institution, the Irish media made the wrong call yesterday. Everybody – Morning Ireland, all the papers, Newstalk and the rest – saw the Manchester bombing as the most important story of the day. It wasn’t. Not in Ireland.

The collapse of the Seán Fitzpatrick trial was the more important story from an Irish perspective, and the across-the-board failure to cover that properly is another erosion of the public’s faith in the institutions of the state – an erosion that can lead to the washing away of the state entirely if it’s not addressed.

Seán Fitzpatrick was the face of the Irish Economic Crash. He was chairman of Anglo-Irish Bank, the bank that lead the field in terms of funny business, and which had over-extended itself to such a degree that the Government felt it had no option but to guarantee all debts of all Irish banks in 2008.

For the past ten years, the feeling has existed that the crash was due to reckless banking practices and it seemed right and just that certain reckless bankers should pay for that. But the collapse of the Seán Fitzpatrick trial suggests that’s really not going to happen.

The reasons why the trial collapsed or whether or not the law that deals with white collar crime is fit for purpose are questions for another day. What I’m concerned with this is the media’s inability to realise the importance of this story concerning Seán Fitzpatrick and the collapse of his trial.

In trying to come to terms with how someone so very unsuited to the job is currently President of the United States of America in Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks had some fascinating things to say about the phenomenon of alienation. It was, after all, the alienated who voted for Trump – those traditional Democratic voters in Wisconsin whom Hillary Clinton could not be bothered canvassing, for instance.

Angry voters made a few things abundantly clear: that modern democratic capitalism is not working for them; that basic institutions like the family and communities are falling apart; that we have a college educated elite that has found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible, that has managed to transfer wealth upward to itself, that crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views.

Does that sound at all familiar?

Fianna Fáil suffered the most catastrophic election result in its history in 2011 as a result of the electorate’s anger at the crash and, despite a recovery in 2016, the party is still struggling to regain lost ground. The electorate, meanwhile, disenfranchised with the last government because of a Labour betrayal and a tone-deaf Fine Gael slogan, remains in hostile mood as it still struggles to understand if democracy works in this country.

That’s what makes the Seán Fitzpatrick trial so important. The nation was going to come to terms with what happened through that trial. The nation would have become more educated in how banks and the state interact, the system would be able to strengthen its regulatory powers, all sorts of good and healing things would happen.

Not only will those things not now happen, the establishment of the state – and remember always that the media is the Fourth Estate of the Establishment – doesn’t even seem to register the nature of the crisis.

People are quivering with anger over the collapse of the Seán Fitzpatrick trial. They turned on Morning Ireland yesterday morning to hear about it and all they heard about was Manchester. The papers were all Manchester, and that’s how it continued throughout the day.

Micheál Martin told the Dáil yesterday that the collapse of the trial was a damning indictment of the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement, and the Taoiseach agreed with him. But what does that mean, really? What is the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement? Where is it? Who’s in charge of it? To whom does it answer?

We don’t know. The Office seems just another quango, that just exists for the sake of existing, without ever doing anything. The nearest we came to finding out what exactly the ODCE does was from RTÉ’s Orla O’Donnell’s frankly terrifying account of why the trial collapsed which gained no media traction, not even in the “National Broadcaster” itself.

If your correspondent were in charge, Ms O’Donnell’s story would the front page story on my newspaper, the first story on my radio show. Instead; silence and the shrugging of shoulders.

The media are enjoying the soap opera of the Fine Gael leadership race or else hand-wringing about when we’ll have a Labour Party progressives can believe in. In the meantime, the poor sods who get up and go to work and pay tax and send the kids to school and hope they’ll have some future look at all this and wonder: what’s going on, and why doesn’t someone do something about it?

In their alienation, the citizens of the US took a chance on Trump. In whom will the Irish place their trust when the time comes?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mayo Championship Preview 2017

One of the perpetual debates that take place where two or more Mayo football folk gather is the one that looks back at the different teams that reached the All-Ireland Final in recent years, and wonders if that particular team let one slip away or if they were blessed to get there in the first place.

1996, above any, is seen as one that slipped away while 2004 vies with 2006 as years where Mayo were lucky to get as far as they got is the general feeling in the county.

Your correspondent, however, is nothing if not a difficult man and would argue that the 2004 and 2006 teams are under-rated, and it is the fact of their failing so badly on the big day that causes them to be judged more harshly than they deserved.

For instance, the 2004 campaign started in Castlebar with Galway going 1-3 to 0-0 up in the first ten minutes, and friends of your correspondent at the game contemplated turning to Buddhism, leaving all possessions behind and wandering the world with a begging bowl, anything but to have to watch any more of this.

But Mayo came back, helped in no small part by the arrival of David Brady from the subs’ bench, and later that summer put the All-Ireland Champions, Tyrone to the sword, again inspired by David Brady. You may cavil that Tyrone were still mourning their fallen hero, the great Cormac McAnallan, and of course that’s possible. But equally we’ve heard narratives going the other way too, that after a tragedy there was no way such-and-such a team were to be denied. Again, it’s one of these things that is only knowable in hindsight, and never at the time.

All of which is a long way of coming around to ask the critical contemporary question: did Mayo deserve their place in the All-Ireland Final last year, or where they lucky to get there?

Last year’s final was the reverse of the usual Mayo paradigm where Mayo play beautifully during the Championship and then blow up like the volcanic island of Krakatoa in the final. Mayo played like a drain all through last summer, only to rip off the disguise and give Dublin the fright of their lives in the Final. There was one Mayo supporter who could feel the hot tears of pride welling in his eyes looking Mayo’s defiance against Dublin. I know, because I was that Mayo supporter.

And then they lost, again, and then came this year’s League.

This year’s League wasn’t great. Armagh’s Oisin McConville was fairly withering in his assessment of Mayo on the Second Captains podcast after Dublin disembowelled Mayo on a Saturday night in March, and it was hard to argue cogently against any of the points he made. Where have Mayo got better? Why should we believe that Mayo are ready to that extra yard that has eluded them for so long?

The return of Galway to football’s top table casts a considerable shadow over the Mayo summer. Hopefully the team’s mind is focussed solely on Sligo, whom Mayo face this coming Sunday, but every supporter is thinking of that journey into the claustrophobic confines of Pearse Stadium, Salthill, three weeks later.

This isn’t the first time Mayo have gone to Salthill nervous after a poor League. James Horan’s second year in charge was such a time, when Mayo responded by buttering Galway up and down the seaside. But that was then and this is now. Mayo were young and hungry then; they’re not that anymore.

Mayo’s visit to the back-door last year was their best-ever campaign in the wilderness, but the difference between the front and back-door Championships for a team with Mayo’s miles on the clock can’t be underestimated.

In the front door, Mayo’s experience stands to them. Everyone they play knows who they are, has been watching them on TV for the past six years. There’s nothing the opposition can do that Mayo haven’t seen and aren’t ready for. If Mayo play a team with less experience, that’s what the young team will see.

But if Mayo play a team with less experience in the Qualifiers, what are the young lads thinking? It depends on who knocked the other team out. If they lost to a Division 4 team and half the panel are already in the States, they’re cooked.

However; if they’re Kildare, say, and they lost to Dublin, what have they got to lose? Dublin were always going to win but win just two more games are they’re back in Croker in high summer, exactly where they want to be! Isn’t that what we want boys? Isn’t that what all those long winter nights were about? Now come on and put these losers out of their misery!

Or whatever. Getting to Croker is a big deal for the up-and-coming team in a way it can’t be for a veteran team like Mayo. To be still playing football in August is an achievement for nearly every team in Ireland. It doesn’t mean diddly in Mayo. Sam or the Void for Mayo. There is no in between, and that’s a hard mark to make.

You may say that the Qualifiers did Mayo no harm last but there’s one more year’s mileage on the clock and fellas have to be wondering. Some of the selections and tactics have left supporters scratching their heads. If the team are scratching their heads too, Mayo are not long for the summer.

The Championship is about momentum. If Mayo beat Galway in Salthill, Mayo have some momentum.  They will still have to find an identity, but the League form will be on the summer breeze and another golden road opens up before them.

If Mayo lose or, worse, get hammered in Salthill, their momentum is zero and any young team with ambition will see them only as prey when Mayo are taken out of the pot. So; another light-hearted and carefree Championship in store for the sweet county Mayo, the finest county in Ireland.