Mayo’s lat­est de­sign son Sam off to a storm­ing start

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

Of course there was a tem­pest, and nat­u­rally there were power cuts through­out the heart­land. It wouldn’t do for Mayo to go pub­lic with the lat­est hopes and dreams of win­ning the Sam Maguire on an evening of bog-stan­dard Oc­to­ber weather – nine de­grees and scat­tered show­ers.

Thurs­day night and the RTÉ re­gional cor­re­spon­dents are dressed like Ge­orge Clooney in The Per­fect Storm and fight­ing to make them­selves heard by the na­tion over the howl­ing gales, the crash­ing waves and the deaf­en­ing blather of the pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls. Mean­while, in Mayo, they are talk­ing about foot­ball.

It was prob­a­bly a co­in­ci­dence that Mayo hap­pened to present James Ho­ran, the new man­ager of its se­nior foot­ball team, on the night in ques­tion. But it was also ap­pro­pri­ate.

For while Ho­ran was talk­ing about his de­ci­sion to step back into the hottest of hot seats, the draw for next year’s cham­pi­onship was tak­ing place in RTÉ. It’s al­ways a bit of a jolt to hear the brassy, up­beat theme for The Sun­day Game in the depths of au­tumn. There’s no real good time to hold the cham­pi­onship draw, and the GAA’s think­ing is to get it out of the way early so that ev­ery­one knows where they stand.

And you have to like the way they keep the show fairly sim­ple. There’s no big, flashy Na­tional Lottery-type ap­pa­ra­tus into which the teams are di­vided, with balls to be drawn ran­domly. In­stead, the as­so­ci­a­tion makes do with two big glass bowls, which look as if they were swiped from the cook­ery depart­ment in RTÉ at a minute’s no­tice. The strips of pa­per de­not­ing the teams are placed into what look like old pho­to­graphic film con­tain­ers. The All-Ire­land cham­pi­onship may well be a mul­ti­mil­lion euro com­pe­ti­tion but that’s not to say you can’t run off the draw on a bud­get of some­where be­tween 30 and 50 quid. It’s all kept very ca­sual. “Gerry, work your magic,” in­structs Marty Mor­ris­sey to the pres­i­dent of the Con­nacht coun­cil, who stands some­what wor­riedly over bowls one and two. “Give it a good spin there.”

And Gerry obliges, vig­or­ously stir­ring the five coun­ties of Con­nacht like so much pan­cake mix. But, for all his ef­forts, there is just no way that the GAA cham­pi­onship draw, tra­di­tion­ally held dur­ing the off-sea­son, can cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion. Yes, we tune in and du­ti­fully watch GAA stars past and present dressed as if they are about to dash off to the afters of a wed­ding re­cep­tion as soon as the show is over. Still, ev­ery­one is go­ing through the mo­tions. It’s like the mo­ment in Meet the

Par­ents when Robert De Niro’s CIA agent, Jack, mas­querad­ing as a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist, du­bi­ously ac­cepts from Ben Stiller’s Greg, his prospec­tive son-in-law, the gift of a plant which, he learns, with reg­u­lar wa­ter should bloom in about six months or so. “Oh,” Jack says flatly, “we’ll look for­ward to that, Greg.”

Emo­tional in­vest­ment

The thought of Tyrone and Derry or Dublin and Wex­ford to be played on some yet-to-be-es­tab­lished time in June gen­er­ates the same en­thu­si­asm. The gen­eral global un­cer­tainty – Brexit, planet tem­per­a­tures, Trump – au­gurs against early emo­tional in­vest­ment in Leitrim v Roscom­mon. It’s just too far away to care about right now.

The other trou­ble is that Dublin’s com­ple­tion of a fourth con­sec­u­tive All-Ire­land ti­tle was so daunt­ingly com­fort­able that many sports fans out there have al­ready writ­ten off next year’s foot­ball sum­mer as a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Dublin’s dom­i­nance has pro­voked many dire warn­ings that foot­ball it­self is dy­ing. It isn’t. And it won’t. Drive through the towns and vil­lages and sub­urbs any Satur­day or Sun­day and count the kids on the fields. Gaelic foot­ball is a beast. Un­like Lehman Broth­ers, it’s too big to fail. Still, it would make the cur­rent pe­riod of the cham­pi­onship more en­ter­tain­ing if some county could pro­vide a real ob­sta­cle to Dublin’s march to his­tory.

En­ter stage left. The last time James Ho­ran wore the Mayo man­age­rial garb was on a dusty Satur­day evening in Lim­er­ick and the af­ter­math of that an­ar­chic 2014 semi-fi­nal se­ries against Éa­monn Fitz­mau­rice’s Kerry – the team no­body saw com­ing that year un­til it was too late. Ho­ran stepped down min­utes after that epic de­feat. And although ev­ery­one as­sumed it was the end of some­thing – Mayo had man­aged to com­press two All-Ire­land fi­nals and that epic Kerry en­counter into the space of three short, dra­matic years – the squad sim­ply made the me­ta­mor­pho­sis into an equally com­pelling and un­yield­ing force in the years af­ter­wards.

They’ve both drawn and lost by the nar­row­est of mar­gins two more fi­nals then. Ev­ery­one knows the de­tails, can still see the con­tro­ver­sies and re­call the heart­breaks. Stephen Rochford de­parted in much the same way as he ar­rived: un­der­stated and dig­ni­fied through the mad tu­mult of it all.

Tri­als and tac­tics

The de­tails – the tri­als and the tac­tics and what-they-have-to-do – are for down the road and will shorten the win­ter in the county. But it’s not so much what Ho­ran had to say as how he said it that was sig­nif­i­cant. It is clear that his – and, by ex­ten­sion their – be­lief hasn’t been dam­aged one iota. If any­thing, next year’s pur­suit will be more hell-bent than ever be­fore. The only real news to emerge from Mayo this week is that there will be no re­tire­ments: that ev­ery­one is on board for another tilt at this thing. It’s tempt­ing to stretch that rev­e­la­tion into a dec­la­ra­tion that Mayo have done away with re­tire­ments in gen­eral and re­placed them with a kind of cham­pi­onship con­scrip­tion so that ev­ery­one who ever donned the green and red is the­o­ret­i­cally ready to ac­cept a call to arms: Wil­lie Joe re­splen­dent in blood­ied tourni­quet, McHale in full July tan, McDon­ald in braids.

But it’s enough for the Mayo crowd for now to hear that noth­ing has been quenched within the vet­er­ans of the squad and that they are al­ready begin­ning to plot their way through next year’s mis­sion. For the only way to think about this Mayo bunch is not a foot­ball team so much as the weather-beaten crew of a vin­tage fighter jet plane, prob­a­bly a Spit­fire and al­most cer­tainly called the Spirit of ’51. The di­als aren’t work­ing, the ma­chine sputters along on one en­gine for most of the trip and the body­work’s all shot up from a dozen pre­vi­ous bat­tles. And far away on the shore, the crowds are gath­er­ing, anx­iously scan­ning the hori­zon for the first sight or sound.

They are some­where out there, with miles to go and with a fair few storms to nav­i­gate. A lit­tle bit ex­citable, per­haps, and al­most cer­tain to give the fam­i­lies a few scares along the way. But then, sud­denly, it is Au­gust with blue skies and there they are, back in the fight and in your tail-view mirror, gun­ning away.

It’s not what Ho­ran had to say as how he said it that was sig­nif­i­cant. It is clear that his – and, by ex­ten­sion their – be­lief hasn’t been dam­aged one iota

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