Sunday, August 29, 2004

Twenty-First Century Mayo Seventy Minutes Away

I understand that Pat Spillane has written in this morning's Sunday World that the standard of yesterday's All-Ireland semi-final replay between Mayo and Fermanagh was not as high as the standard of football played at Junior B level. I don't know, of course, as An Spailpín doesn't take the Sunday World, but I would suggest that if the standard of junior football around Templenoe and environs is that high, then Pat ought to stand by the county he served so well by alerting the current Kerry selectors, who could always do with more souls before the mast.

And yet, I can't get it out of my head that this junior football that is played at the same level as the best game An Spailpín has seen in the Championship this year is not played in Templenoe, nor Kerry, nor any other county in Erin; it is much more likely to be played in some fantasyland rather like that described by James Stephens' in his lovely and lyrical novel The Crock of Gold.

Pat, as is his custom, is more than likely pulling the nations' leg. As the GAA's leading voice of harmless mischief, Pat is firing his usual fusillade that begins "back in my day…" Pat must be closing on the fifty now - how tiring this act will be should he persist with it when he really is an ancient.

Kerry have added a hint of steel to their play since the two years when Armagh and Tyrone so traumatically questioned their manhood. Other than that, this is pretty much Kerry as we have known them over the past number of years. Interchangable genii at inside forward - what other bench could boast Johnny Crowley and Mike Frank? - and a fine midfield led by Dara Ó Sé, but an unremarkable back division notable chiefly for their investigations into the tensile strength of the O'Neills' jersey, and a half-forward line remarkable for being not remarkable in the slightest. A far cry from Denis "Óige" Moran and P. Spillane himself.

Mayo have their problems too, of course. The fullback line creaks like some very old floorboards, the goalkeeper is undergoing a long dark season of the soul, and all Mayo teams must by their very nature fight against the sheer weight of history, expectation and that peculiar level of psychosis that all Mayo people claim as a birthright.

But, at the same time, Mayo are the form team in the country. They are strong up the middle, with Heaney, Nallen, Brady, McGarrity, McDonald and Mortimer; they have the best player in Ireland in McDonald pulling the strings in attack and in Conor Mortimer they have the finisher of whom they always dreamed in the dark days.

Mayo are a work in progress, and what a wonderful position to be in with four weeks to kill before they finally find out if they are to end that fifty-three year wait. How terrible it would be if they had peaked in that marvellous performance against Galway - instead, only nine or ten survive from three months' ago, and, by the time the referee blows his whistle at five to five on Sunday, September 26th, 2004, there could be even fewer.

From a man who was accused at having lost at least one title on the sideline, if not two, John Maughan, with the aid of selectors George Golden and Liam McHale, has developed into a wily fox indeed. And a tremendously brave one as well.

A rumour swept through Mayo like a burning flame on the eve of yesterday's game that there had been a huge fight between Maughan and David Brady, David Brady being known as a man that doesn't care to hide his lights under a bushel. The benching of Brady and the presence of Fergal Kelly in midfield with McGarrity gave truth to the stories, but, when Mayo's fat and fate were both in the fire, Maughan, to his eternally credit, put personal issues aside and sent in Brady. And to David Brady's eternal credit, he too put the county first with another outstanding display.

This determination and unity of purpose is not something that Mayo are used to in the past half-century, and it's not something that Kerry have seen in this year's Championship either. The Kingdom has been said to have breathed a sigh of relief after Tyrone followed Armagh into that good night in the quarter-finals; one has to wonder are All-Irelands that easily won.

The cobwebs are not gone from the Mayo psyche just yet, as witnessed by their freezing under the harsh spotlight of favouritism against Fermanagh last weekend, but Mayo are unlikely to be encumbered by that tag again. After all, where else but in Kerry or in Dublin would a forward be considered one of the most dangerous in the county after only returning one point in four games? This is Mayo's year.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Twenty-First Century Mayo One Step Closer to Sam

Mayo 0-9
Fermanagh 0-9

It was not immediately obvious to the Mayo hoard tramping through the rain after Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final muttering "that feckin’ Brady/McDonald/Mortimer/Maughan is only a bollix, I always said it, I always knew it," but a week’s reflection will instruct them that Mayo have, in fact, laid the foundations for their first All-Ireland win in fifty-three years.

This is a bold statement after a game where Mayo played as badly as the Grand Guignol horrors of Mayo supporters’ worst nightmares; when Mayo lost James Gill to a sending off; when it seemed that, to borrow a phrase first coined by a Charlestown man about a Castlebar man, if Mayo had ducks, they would drown.

The fact of the matter is that Mayo did not drown. Mayo, as Championship contenders, are still in the Championship. Previously, when Mayo put on an exhibition of choking, of which Sunday’s exhibition was well down there with Mayo’s lowest standards of the past, that was the ball game. This time, Mayo did not suffer the ultimate sanction, which is loss, and elimination from the Championship. This time, Mayo drew, and live to fight another day.

Punditry will start its reflections on the game with "All credit to Fermanagh," and Punditry will be wrong, as usual. For Fermanagh, the drawn game was a disaster. Fermanagh had Mayo writhing on the ground, but they failed to deliver the fatal kick to the head. Mayo selector Liam McHale and Mayo manager John Maughan both said after the game that it was a game that Mayo did not deserve to win, that Fermanagh should now be in their first ever All-Ireland final. The reason that McHale and Maughan know this, of course, is because if you substitute Fermanagh for Twentieth Century Mayo, you have the whole sorry Gaelic football history of Mayo in the past half-century, the team that never pulled the trigger in fifty-three years. Maughan and McHale know exactly what it is to leave it behind them, just as Fermanagh did on Sunday.

Mayo had an absolute disaster in Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final, when so many of the players on whom Mayo had built their church were blinded by the light. Burke had another nightmare with his kickouts, the Mayo fullback line looked soft, Brady was the Invisible Man without the bandages, Gill got sent off, the clown, Dillon anonymous, Conor Mortimor bottled it and Brian Maloney was cook too. The triumvirate of McHale, Maughan and Golden are not to escape the lash in this regard either, blatantly failing to make the changes that were necessary once the smell of fat frying became known to all with noses to smell. One of the indicators in the Championship so far that the era of Twenty-First Century Mayo had dawned was the speed with which the sideline make switches, such as the springing of Peadar Gardiner in the Connacht Final when Gary Mullins was getting trimmed by John Tiernan. On Sunday, nothing stirring on sideline as they watched in horror.

But here’s the thing – in previous Championships, when whatever it is in the Mayo blood or psyche or water that causes this choking, Mayo choked against teams that did not let them away with it, like Cork, Kerry or Meath. Fermanagh did let them away with it, and, as the week wears on, they will have plenty of cause to wonder about what might have been. It’ll be interesting to see how that impacts on Fermanagh’s Freewheeling Football the next day.

Nobody who choked did it deliberately, of course. By saying that certain players choked, I’m not saying that they disgraced their family or the proud old jersey that they wore – I’m saying it as a self-evident fact, just as rain being wet is a fact, or that match traffic is a bitch. That’s just the way it is.

How to react to that choking is the interesting thing. Lots of different, and often terrible, things happen in life, and that will always be the case. It’s how we react to reverses, rather than the reverses themselves, that will determine who we are.

An Spailpín knows all about nerves – as one of nature’s True Cowards, I have been known to jump three feet in the air should a butterfly clear its throat. Before the teams lined up for the parade, I saw Conor Mortimor in animated conversation with Kieran McDonald, and I now wonder if Mortimor had a touch of the collywobbles beforehand, as can happen to anyone. The thing to do in this case, then, is to go to the young man afterwards, and say "remember those collywobbles you had at the start of the game Conor? Didn’t you do well after all that to nearly win it for Mayo at the end? Well done, kid." For what do we fear but fear itself?

In picking the bones of the game, everybody will have formulated their own theologies about what should be done, whom should be benched and whom should be called to the colours. It quickly becomes an unfortunate exercise in what-aboutery – I could cite the appalling weather, or the pernickety refereeing of Michael Collins, who was sufficiently prissy to make one suspect he editorialises for the Irish Times in his spare time. Personally, if I were managing the team, I’d have hauled Brady ashore after fifteen minutes, and have hauled off Peter Burke immediately after he kicked out over the sideline. If I hadn’t taken him off, when Burke did it a second time I would have thought very seriously indeed about a pitch incursion to go as far as him to give him a good shake.

There will be tubs thumped all over Mayo this week saying this man should play and that man should play. Again, everyone has their favourites and their bugaboos. But to rend the Green and Red garment now while Mayo are still in the Championship, while for once Mayo have dodged a bullet instead of taking one behind the ear as is their custom, is folly. For Twenty-First Century Mayo, the dream continues.

POSTSCRIPT: Logical consistency appears to have no role to play in GAA analysis. Paul Curran and Kevin McStay have just been on The Sunday Game. The boys reckoned that Mayo were cook, terrible, rotten, whereas Fermanagh are a fine team of footballers who’ve been hatefully underestimated all season. They did not go on to explain why, if one team was horrid and the other Godlike, the match finished in a draw. Nor did they explain why, when asked to chose who would win the replay, both men were as one in picking terrible, rotten Mayo to beat Godlike, fantastic Fermanagh. Who will analyse the analysts themselves, as Juvenal might have wondered if he’d been a GAA man?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Tickets and the GAA

How interesting to note on that the GAA have been shooting themselves in the feet once again as regards their bizarre system of ticket allocation.

The situation is that, because "word went out" that last weekend's quarter final football games between Armagh and Fermanagh and Tyrone and Mayo were sold out, people actually believed it. As such, the GAA lost 175,000 of potential revenue from tickets that could have been sold, but weren't.

Isn't it interesting to note that notion of word going out too early? The Croke Park source quoted in the story isn't bothered that the word that went out was a downright lie, that the game was sold out when it wasn't sold out at all, or anything like it; what concerns this backroom buachaill was that word went out too early. If only the boys had been able to keep a lid on it for another twelve hours, we are to understand all would have been well.

What sort of thinking is this? What business model are the GAA following in the way they sell tickets? If the tickets for the quarter-finals were on general sale just like apples or any other commodity are on sale, the GAA would always sell out their games because they have a product people want to support. The arcane chicanery that goes on with regard to ticket allocation - tickets going out to clubs, tickets coming back from clubs, tickets going out once more to clubs and so on - is supposedly in order to keep the games pure, that only the f´i;orghael may attend. Harumph - ask your local tout on All-Ireland final day what club he's affiliated to and let me know your answer. I'd be interested to know.

It couldn't be because certain GAA administrators like to lord it with the Golden Tickets at All-Ireland time, could it? That'd hardly be the case. The following story is surely just a figment of An Spailpín's imagination: Once upon a time, a certain county had reached the All-Ireland. And this certain county had a secretary (which is where the real power lies, by the way - none of your oul' chairman nonsense) who was rather idiosyncratic in his ways. So idiosyncratic that it was not unusual, in the fortnight before the big game, to see a queue of people outside the door of his house, his private residence, waiting for him to condescend to open the door and sell a ticket. When he felt like it.

And he didn't always feel like it. One punter, after waiting for hours, finally got to meet the great man, and asked for two tickets. "Why two tickets," An Runaí asked him, "have you got two arses?"

And we're meant to shed real tears then when they make a balls of their schemes and end up down money on the deal? Well boo. Hoo. Hoo.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

How Mayo Can Beat Tyrone and Shock the World on Saturday

Tyrone will run out in Croke Park on Saturday as red-hot favourites in their All-Ireland quarter-final against Mayo, and rightly so. They are All-Ireland Champions after all, they’ve decimated all opposition since their Ulster Championship wake-up call from Donegal, and the Tyrone system of play is as revolutionary as the Down revolution of the ‘sixties.

However, the notion that Mayo County Secretary Seán Feeney should telephone the GAC to arrange the walkover would be mistaken. For, although he may not realise it now, it will eventually dawn on as astute a student of the game as Mickey Harte that Mayo will present Tyrone with as varied a set of headaches as Tyrone will present Mayo, and those punters who enjoy an enticing investment with their bookmakers would do well to take the points on Mayo, if not the generously-priced 5/2 shock win.

These are two teams that the country hardly knows. The chief reasons for this is the tokenism and sloth that characterises the majority of GAA journalism, when the old shibboleths associated with all teams – teak-tough Northerners, fancy-dan Mayo, whatever you’re having yourself, this is on expenses – are routinely trotted out, and it also has to do with the nature of the teams involved themselves. A Fermanaghman once told your correspondent that the difference between a Southerner, or a Free-Stater, if you really feel like straight-talking, and a Northerner is the difference between the good china that you keep for the station and the mug from which you drink your own tea after a hard day in the bog. Free-Staters watch the Tyrone horde swarm around the man in possession in such numbers that the opposition player quickly disappears is the everlasting grip of the Red Hand, and they wonder: what the Hell has got into those guys? It is a level of commitment and belief with which Southerners are unfamiliar, born of a lifestyle where the wearing a parish jersey was to risk an anonymous bullet in the back on a quiet country road. In the North, this is not just a game.

Belief has the basis of the Armagh and Tyrone All-lrelands of 2002 and 2003. Armagh set the standard, but then Tyrone, who had been disappointed on the highest stage for so often, reached and surpassed that level of desire. That’s what’s so frightening about the prospect of playing Tyrone for Southern teams – it’s not that the players are so much superior, as they’re not, but because the system seems so impregnable. You may be able to beat fifteen men, but how do you beat an idea, a belief, a creed?

By developing a creed of your own, of course. We don’t know if the new Mayo system has evolved or been planned, but whatever its origins, the remarkable way that Mayo have played in the Connacht Championship of 2004 is the greatest challenge to the Tyrone hegemony that we have seen in the past two years.

Since the Tyrone system was first seen in its full effect in the semi-final against Kerry of last year, the one Pat Spillane memorably described as “puke football,” people have said that the correctly struck pass will beat the Tyrone system. The laws of physics dictate that a kicked ball will always travel faster than a man; if the ball is gone when the massed defenders arrive, or better again in just that split second before they arrive, then the Tyrone homestead, in front of the Tyrone goal, is a fold suddenly exposed to the wolves.

Kieran McDonald is the man to hit those balls. The enticing of McDonald back to the Mayo fold is the single most important thing that the Mayo brains trust of John Maughan, Liam McHale and George Golden have done this year. Against Galway and Roscommon, McDonald played at a level which the football public had never seen before, combining the best elements of the midfield general of soccer and the stand-off half of rugby to dictate play in a way that no one man has dictated play since the era of Mick O’Connell – that same era that was cut short by the Down revolution, incidentally.

Mickey Harte will spend this week trying to figure out how to stop McDonald. The first solution, in this craven world, is the cynical one; however, people have been trying to burst McDonald since he was a schoolboy player, and nobody’s done it yet. It would be nice to think that the referee, whomever he may be, would make it a point of his afternoon’s duties to protect an obviously targeted player, but this Spailpín’s romantic heart has been broken once to often to believe that will be so.

Presuming that McDonald is allowed play, from where does he get the ball? This is what makes the game on Saturday so fascinating. The country hasn’t realised it yet, but the way Mayo play now, with McDonald conducting the Mayo orchestra, is every bit as revolutionary as Tyrone. Brian Dooher is Tyrone’s scavenger in chief? Three of Mayo’s six starting forwards are picked to win breaks in midfield, with pointscoring a secondary consideration. Two can play at that game. If the Red Swarm stay in the defensive third of the field, behind their own fifty yard line, they will have only two Mayomen for company, the Mortimer boys, and the rest of the Mayo team will be feasting on midfield possession, the possession that the Swarm normally win to feed Mulligan and O’Neill so they can get the points that win games. If the Swarm come out to root and scurry for possession, the idea is that whatever scraps Mayo’s five-man midfield can win will be fed to McDonald, who will then set up one-on-ones with a Mortimer of his choice and a suddenly isolated and lonely Tyrone defender. And it will be interesting indeed to see how that pans out.

After fifty plus years of disappointment, Mayo people nearly fear success as much as failure. Sunday’s draw did as much as any draw that’s happened this summer to add to the whispers that the fix has been in for the Qualifiers, but that is an argument for the long and football-less winter. In the meantime, Mayo can only dance with the girls in the Hall, and that means Tyrone on Saturday. Because Tyrone are the only possible opponents for Mayo now they are therefore the best possible opponents, and what finer way could there be for Mayo to announce their return as a football power than by the destruction of the Champions? If the bizarre and unprecedented Mayo formation, of a two man inside line, one man on the fifty, and three big and two small men i lár na pairce, can negate the Tyrone system, then that Tyrone advantage, which brought them their All-Ireland, is suddenly denied them, and then it’s just a question of who’s got the best players. And who wouldn’t ask for that?