Tag Archives: Mayo

Here it comes, ready or not!

One of my enduring benign memories of Croke Park, benign because most of the memories from Jones’s Road are anything but, was of going to see Ireland play Australia in what I still think of as the Compromise Rules series in 2000. While Australia won handily enough it was an enjoyable day out, and a real treat to be in a crowd of 57,289 (says Wikipedia) who were all rooting for the same team. Before the game we had the equivalent fixture between Ireland and Scotland in hurling/shinty and when that finished the Jocks, replete with names like Fraser Colqouhoun and Alastair Campbell-McDonald that would have flagged what school they went to, took a lap of honour around the embryonic cathedral. It was impossible not to have a wry chuckle at the contrast with what the equivalent venue in Scotland must be like. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

Impossible, but how wrong-headed was such smugness. Quite apart from being a little bit rude, this weekend we’ll see what has built Croke Park and it has very little to do with hurling. Ian O’Riordan wrote an article in the 2009 Munster hurling final programme on the occasion of the 125th edition of the match where he noted that the GAA had two objectives when it was established: to revive 1) the Irish language, and 2) the ancient game of hurling. In those terms, the GAA has been a failure as both the teanga and the iománaíocht languish in ghettos. So it’s just as well that a lesser objective, that of tearing people away from the pernicious British sports of association football and rugby football that were beginning to put down roots, was so successful.

While researching the results archive, it struck me how the GAA once scrupulously maintained its calendar at inter-county level in such a way as to give everyone the chance to play both sports. Football and hurling never clashed during the League season. That’s no longer the case, and in truth it probably wasn’t ever that big a deal in a practical sense as proper dual stars were a rare beast. Still, the principle was there and an outsider might wonder why such respect was being accorded by the majority sport to that of the minority pursuit. This is especially true considering the scoffing that hurling supporters frequently come out with about the self-evident superiority of hurling in every sense – skill, excitement, drama, history, even skills with foot to ball after Nicky English’s goal in the drawn 1987 Munster final. Much as with the Irish language, it’s probably a reflection of the reluctance to abandon those early aspirations of the GAA that the football 80% (approx) of the association hasn’t told hurling to paddle yer own bloody canoe, you’ve got the equipment with which to do it.

We’ll see it large this weekend. The tsunami that is going to sweep out of the west upon Dublin is going to be epic. You might argue that mere numbers don’t matter, that the excitement will be a question of never mind the quality, feel the width. But this is going to be a truly national experience. Only the most arch of anti-GAA bigots could fail to be intrigued by what is going on, two teams who have cleared multiple difficult hurdles to find themselves 70 minutes away from fulfilling the dreams of generations of their fellow county men and women – or alternately crushing them once again. It’s going to be great, and despite being a hurling man first and foremost, it’s a pleasure to be a part of it.

Also sprach Zarathustra

There are two me’s when it comes to the GAA. The online me, the one that fancies himself as the descendant of Déiseach and who has been carrying the online Waterford GAA flame since 1999. At the very least I’d like to think of this blog as being part of an embryonic 32-county community of Gaeldom with me ploughing a lonely furrow for Waterford now that Up the Déise is a shadow of its former glory. And there’s no doubt who owns the house that is known by the trees in this notional community – ‘Willie Joe’ (not his real name) of the Mayo GAA Blog. It’s a smashing resource for supporters of Mayo football, and it almost made me weep to see a recent post on Twitter where he said he’d had over 6,000 hits in one day. Speaking of weeping, it’s been a tough ride over the years for Mayo supporters – their loss to Meath in the curtain-raiser to our match against Kilkenny in 2009 is still fresh in my mind – so it would be marvellous for them in general and Willie Joe in particular were Mayo to finally land the Big One 61 years after they last won it. Hey, that’s how long Ireland went without the Grand Slam! It’s meant to be, isn’t it?

Well, no. For facing them in the opposite corner is the featherweight that has beefed itself up into a heavyweight. Watching Donegal sweep Cork aside in the All-Ireland semi-final was a gobsmacking experience. Jim McGuinness got a lot of stick last year for the destructive manner of their style of play, but that was just a prelude to the well-oiled machine that Donegal have become. While they’re clearly a fit team – I enjoyed the comment of one wag on the GAA Discussion Board that “Chuck Norris was first to puke when he trained with Donegal” – that alone does not explain the bewildering array of angles that each of the Donegal players takes when not on the ball. Any time a Donegal player was in possession he could be confident that there would be two or three team-mates in the vicinity, usually making a beeline for the opposition goal. All the talk on the Mayo GAA Blog and on Twitter about how Donegal are over-confident does not mean that Donegal have nothing to be over-confident about. Everything has to go right for Mayo for them to end that 61-year wait, and luck is not something you associate with Mayo.

Not that feeling Donegal are going to take some stopping is a reason to hope they win. No, it is because of the other me that a victory for Dún na nGall would be a great thing. Note that it is ‘Dún na nGall’, not ‘Tír Chonaill’, because Tír Chonaill does not include the Inishowen peninsula. I know this because it was explained to me by my best friend Pól, the best man at my wedding. Were Donegal to win the All-Ireland it would mean so much to him and it probably mean even more to his father, a man whose wool is so GAA-dyed that he saw fit to invite me to see the Donegal Minor footballers take on Derry in a friendly match in Celtic Park on the one occasion I was at the family homestead in Letterkenny – a vote of confidence in me if ever there was one. I know (of) many Mayo people online thanks to Willie Joe. I know one Donegal family in real life thanks to Pól. Will I be rooting for the needs of the virtual many or the substantive few? I’ll find out on September 22nd.

What was that? Who will I be cheering for this Sunday? Don’t be daft. Come on the Tribesmen.

When black is white, and the underdog is the favourite

It took me a while to ‘get’ Twitter, and even now I can’t quite get my head around the desire to tell everyone about your most recent visit to the latrines. Still, it’s very useful for getting an instant snapshot from people with the same passions as yourself. The dream of even the lowliest tweeter must be to start a trend, or at least establish a commonly used hashtag. It’s highly likely that #mayogaa was brought to prominence by the indefatigable Willie Joe of Green and Red. It is through that hashtag that I’ve being following the collective delight in Mayo at the supposed dismissive attitude of the entire punditocracy at their chances of beating Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Oh, just what Mayo were looking for! This would get them fired up like nothing else, and besides shure don’t Mayo approach a match best when we’re underdogs, right?

Wrong. There might be a smidgin of merit in the notion that trash-talking a team beforehand gives them an added incentive to ram such talk back down the throat from which they originated, but it’s a microscopic smidgin. Conor Counihan will be a little irked at such talk on the basis that there’s no need to leave any hostages to fortune, but it’s hard to believe inter-county players routinely operate at below-capacity levels of effort (NB for the purposes of this piece, please ignore Galway’s performance last Sunday). If they do, they’re not doing it right. Lots of players would be offended by comments to the effect that the likes of John Mullane is great because he always gives it his all, as if the rest of them don’t give it their all. The reason the other players don’t take umbrage is that it’s just a corny media cliché trotted out to spare hacks the need to come up with anything original, something that will only get worse now that they can’t hack phones.

An idea with even less merit is the one which states that a team prefers to come into a game as underdogs. Waiting in the long grass, coming in under the radar, nothing to lose, no pressure. Listen folks, there’s a reason Mayo are underdogs against Cork and Waterford are underdogs against Kilkenny – Cork and Kilkenny are the better teams. That’s not to say neither Mayo or Waterford should bother turning up, but the superiority of the opposition players means an awful lot needs to go their way for the respective underdogs to upset the odds and no amount of deflecting pressure onto said opposition will change that.

There’s a simple way of looking at it. If Waterford/Mayo were to play Kilkenny/Cork one hundred times, we/Mayo would be doing well to win twenty times. Those are ball park figures, and in a lame attempt to avoid drawing the ire of #mayogaa I’d hazard that Mayo could probably expect to do a bit better than that. But all we/Mayo can do is prepare well and hope that the next match is one of those twenty occasions. By all means embrace the underdog status as a means of preparing for the worst. But saying ‘we’re underdogs and that’s the way we like it’ is nonsense. We’ve been underdogs more often than we’ve been favourites, and given our record . . .

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. . . I wouldn’t mind giving this ‘favourites’ thing a lash.

Update: since I started writing this post, John Fogarty of the Irish Examiner has put up a better summation of the lack of mileage to be had from constantly invoking slights as motivation. Money quote from Kieran McGeeney:

It’s never put to bed listening to some of the punditry! Somewhere along the line you’re going to lose and what they say about you is gonna be right.

As they say on the stage, never argue with the man with the microphone.

One more for luck

To the eternal surprise of no-one, Davy Fitzgerald has been reappointed as Waterford manager. What on earth takes place in these interviews? Willie Joe over at the Mayo GAA Blog was cynical about the way the interview for their manager’s position was panning out:

It’s not at all surprising that John Maughan pulled plant when he did.  He’s an army man, after all, and he can spot an ambush far better than us civilians could ever hope to.  That interview panel had ‘ambush’ written all over it, especially where the candidacy of John Maughan was concerned.  There would have been little point in the big man going through the charade of an interview with that line-up across the table from him and so he’s better off disengaging from the process at this stage.

There was a surprise in Mayo with James Horan charging up the inside rail to pip Tommy Lyons at the post, but it would have been much more surprising had the  Waterford County Board followed suit as it would have involved unseating an incumbent, one who had led us to what is only our fifth senior trophy in nearly fifty years. The scornful words of Vincent Hogan would have been perused by all, and you really have to take admire the way in which Davy endured the process of having to apply for his own job. Clearly he wants to be with us, and that in itself is enough to make me feel more cheerful about the year to come.

All eggs in one basket

Recently there was a thread on the GAA Discussion Board about an article in the Irish Times by Seán Moran where reference was made to the vicious circle generated by past failures in the GAA:

As one sports psychologist once explained: “If you’re a player with an unsuccessful county, you’ll have been reared going to matches, watching them lose and returning home in the car listening to adults slagging off the players. It’s hard to shut out the negativity.”

Again, history matters.

There followed an illuminating discussion about the horrors faced by players and supporters trying to overcome that appalling feeling of inadequacy, mostly concerned with Mayo but I got in my two cents on how it feels to support Waterford. And maybe with all that in mind I should be more upbeat about the footballers prospects today. There are three scenarios – a win or a draw in Fraher Field, or Limerick losing to Leitrim – which will see Waterford go up. What’s not to be upbeat about?

Yet I can’t help but feel that things are going to go sour for Waterford. Put simply, both Clare and Limerick know what it is like to be successful at this level. Most, if not all, of the Clare players will remember their county winning the Munster title in 1992, while Limerick were dishing out hidings to the likes of Meath as recently as two years ago. The Waterford players are going to be nervous wrecks this morning as they set out to do what no Waterford team has done in my lifetime, if it’s ever been done. It seems harsh that if they beat the butterflies they’ll then have to beat Clare, but they’re the obstacles they must overcome if they want to reach the summit. Clambering over the bodies of the dead . . .

Update: of course, one way to overcome the nerves is to drill the opposition so far into the ground that there is no late drama. This is what Waterford did to Wicklow a few weeks back and they did it to Clare today. At one stage the score was 0-6 to 1-3. The next time I tuned in it was 0-18 to 1-4! A late Clare penalty didn’t take the shine off as they ran out 0-20 to 2-5 winners. Heartiest congratulations to all concerned.

Counties That I Don’t Hate – Dublin

(No 1 in a series of 2)

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Jerry Seinfeld once made the observation that when it comes to sport, we are ‘rooting for laundry‘. When Michael Owen was playing for Liverpool he was a hero to the Kop – his outside-the-outfit-y-fronts were slightly skid-marked for effectively displacing uberhero Robbie Fowler, but he was still an object of veneration. Yet three years ago he was roundly jeered and even booed by most of Anfield. His crime? Wearing a Newcastle United shirt. Wearing different laundry.

We’re meant to hate. Nick Hancock – yep, my vision of the world is informed by the bon mots of comedians – put it well when he denounced the habit of having a ‘soft spot’ for a team. Hancock denounced such talk, saying that “football is not like religion, football is religion, and you don’t hear the Pope saying he has a soft spot for Islamic fundamentalism”. His addition to this quotable quote, that he was disappointed every weekend of the season that the optimum set of results – Stoke City winning and everyone else losing – didn’t come to pass, struck a chord with me back in the mid 90’s.

Now though, I’m not so sure. Even Nick Hancock would admit that Port Vale are singled out for special doses of venom – he must be having a right old time at the moment as Stoke sit comfortably in the Premier League while Vale languish in the depths of League Two. And once you admit that all teams are equally hateworthy but some are more equal than others, then there’s got to be someone you hate least. It might be due to geographical distance, or lack of competition, or lying down like a whipped cur whenever they meet your team – take a bow, Newcastle United. And my recent affection for the England soccer team has shown me that is possible to change your tune as you grow old(er) and mellow(er). So with all those caveats in mind, I’d like to record the existence of two counties that I like to see win, even feeling some disappointment when they fail.

The first of those is Dublin. I can imagine the splutters of outrage that would greet such a sentiment expressed anywhere else online or in the real world. The Jackeens! How could you like the soccer hooligans masquerading as GAA fans? And it would be fair to say that in the real world there is a divide between them and culchies. Many’s the time in my time in college in Dublin where I encountered situations where they looked down on everyone and everything from the provinces, as if the only difference between their home town and New York was that only one of them was still a capital city.

But in GAA terms, that sense of difference is something to be celebrated, not scorned. Noel Purcell was once asked when he would be heading up to Croke Park to watch the Dubs. Why, he replied, would he be bothered with a team of culchies? At the time I thought he was making some Hot Press-style cut at bogball and stickball. Now a little older and a little wiser, I can see that he meant that ‘Dublin’ GAA teams were stuffed to the gills with people up from the country who only played for the Metropolitans because it was impossible to haul themselves back home of a weekend to play for their real county. It would be hard for the native Dubs to get excited about a team like that.

Which is what made Heffo’s Army so exciting. The weight attached to this team in GAA history far outweighs their achievements. Four All-Ireland’s in ten years was a decent return, but Offaly won three All-Ireland’s between 1970 and 1983 and their legend is almost entirely based on one kick by Seamus Darby. The Dubs were different because of that soccer-style sense of razzmatazz and the townie ways of Tony Hanahoe, Brian Mullins et al. But they were the same too because, well, they loved Gaelic games (or one form of it, and how many of us genuinely devote equal time to both football and hurling?)

The Dublin GAA fraternity are our allies, not our enemies. When the rugger buggers were swooning because 20,000+ attended the decisive match in the 1993 All-Ireland League between St Mary’s and Young Munster, such hubris was slapped down by Robbie Kelleher who scornfully noted that the Dubs could get attendances like that at League matches. Whether this  is true or not – seems unlikely – it doesn’t change that fact that having the likes of Kelleher, a D4-type stockbroker, on our side against those who despise the GAA and everything it stands for, is something to be celebrated.

The charges laid against the Dubs are usually puddle-shallow. Supposedly they are all bandwagon jumpers because 70,000+ go to Championship matches while you’d be doing well (whatever Robbie Kelleher says) to get 7,000 at Parnell Park in the spring. This means they have an awful lot in common with the rest of us beyond the Pale. There were only 14,000 people at Waterford’s opening Championship match last year against Clare and a lot fewer than half of them were from Waterford (full disclosure: I wasn’t one of those present). Yet there must have been 50,000 people in Croke Park in September wearing white and blue. By that measure, it is the Déise ‘faithful’ who are the bandwagon jumpers, not the Dubs. These metrics – modest crowds far below the capacity of the venue in May / June, hysterical bleating that the diehards can’t get tickets in September – can be applied to every county in Ireland. Except Dublin.

Then there’s the whole soccer thing. It’s been a long time since liking soccer was considered an insult even among diehard GAA types. Almost everyone I know who is involved in the GAA, even those who are active in their clubs, has some interest in soccer, particularly (and ironically) English teams. Yet when the Dubs are involved their olé-oléing is instantly bracketed as some manner of crime against the memory of Michael Hogan. So what if the way the Hill supports its team is different to the rest of the country? Would people rather they were down in Dalymount Park?

So those are some defences against the Dubs. But there are reasons other than numbers and a shared sense of tribalism to like Dublin. In football, they are truly a bunch of the most lovable losers. Mayo are often cited (not least here) as a county whose inability to close the deal makes them attractive. Yet in 2006 Dublin managed to out-Mayo Mayo, throwing away a seven point lead against supposedly the most brittle county in the land. How could you hate someone who could implode in a manner that would make a British tennis player blush?

In hurling, sympathy for Dublin comes from another direction. Hurling is a sport constantly having to prove itself. With Laois completely gone out of the picture, Offaly and Wexford heading that way, and Clare, Galway, Limerick and Waterford continually flattering to deceive, the sport is desperately in need of some new blood.  It’s not a question of someone challenging Kilkenny. At the moment, we need Kilkenny to dip their standards for that o happen. But once that happens – and it will; it must – Dublin, with a lot of success and minor and Under-21 level, could be waiting in the long grass.

All this might change were Dublin to become any good. A team striding through the world would get old pretty fast, and there might be some justification to concerns that Dublin’s population advantage would make it invincible were they ever to get their act together. The thing about sleeping giants though is that they invariably tend to go comatose rather than wake up. Look at Newcastle United. Why have a down on a team for something that might, but probably won’t, happen? When the facts change, I change my mind. If Dublin become successful, I’ll reassess my attitude to them in that light. Until then, it’s hard to hate.

As I wrote this, it dawned on me that a success for Dublin could have immediate dire consequences for Waterford. If Dublin win Leinster and we win Munster then one of our rewards would be put in the same half of the All-Ireland series as Kilkenny. But you know what? I’ll take that chance. Winning Munster is an end in itself, and the odds are that we’re going to have to meet Kilkenny at some point if we want to win the ultimate prize – avoiding them until the final didn’t do us any good in 2007. So bring on a Dublin win in Leinster, a fitting reward for the efforts of those faceless drones that have dragged Dublin hurling up from the mire over the last decade. And when the capital joins the rest of us in embracing the joys of Gaelic games, you will all be grateful for what they did.

Mayo – A Warning from History

Image: An Spailpín Fánach

Where did that come from? I refer to the head of steam that has suddenly swelled behind the hurlers from within the county and is powering them towards Croke Park. No doubt it happens in other counties, and it’s marvellous to see something, anything, that can energise everyone in these economically nervous times. But after a week and a half or so of people poo-pooing the idea of Waterford coming away with the McCarthy Cup in the aftermath of the win over Tipp, the narrative seems to have turned right around. It can’t be that people have spotted chinks in the Kilkenny armour that weren’t there before. I fear that it’s simply a question of feeling that the Fates have decreed that, after 49 years and the near-misses of recent years, our time has come.

The reality is that life isn’t fair, that rewards don’t come to you just because you deserve it. And you don’t have to leave the island to see how true that is. When Mayo came within a whisker of ending 38 years of failure back in the 1989 All-Ireland final, Mayo fans would have been forgiven for thinking that it would only be a matter of time until Sam Maguire went way out west. This would be particularly true if you had told them they would make FOUR more appearances in the final in the next two decades.

Not only has it not happened, they’ve had enough sand kicked in their face to completely denude Tramore beach, whether it be losing to Meath in 1996 despite not being behind once in the first 135 minutes, watching John O’Mahony win two All-Irelands with Galway or being raised up by the thrilling comeback against Dublin two years ago only to be brought crashing back down to earth by Kerry in the final.

The moral of the story is that the assumption that our time has come is plain false. The match will be played on the pitch, not on the pages of some benign history. Just ask Mayo.