Rarely do we dip our toes in the realm of Gaelic Football. On the long list of things we know little of, the some might say, lesser of the Gaelic games is at the top. However, after yet another day of incomprehensible twists, the type you find in a too clever for itself novel, Mayo’s footballers have left the country simultaneously breathless and perplexed. US sports would kill for a story like that of the Mayo football team.
Clearly, at this stage, this Mayo team has been instilled with an unmatched level of relentlessness and defiance and to that end, Stephen Rochford and his management team deserve due credit. How though, less than a year removed from the Robbie Hennelly debacle, could Rochford have deemed it a good idea to place Aidan O’ Shea on Kieran Donaghy for the purpose of contesting a handful of high balls?
As against Roscommon, when Lee Keegan was moved to full-back to follow Enda Smith, Mayo chose to play into their opponent’s hand with an unnecessarily conservative move. O’ Shea has been the driving force for Mayo since their Connacht championship exit and along with Cillian O’ Connor the sole reason they advanced through qualifiers against Derry and Cork. So, why then would management try to solve a problem that had not yet presented itself? Donaghy had thirty good minutes against a novice Galway full-back, and Mayo pissed the bed accordingly.
Donal Vaughan seemed the logical choice to shadow Donaghy early on and unlike O’ Shea, a forward by trade, the former has the capabilities to stick to the veteran Kerry forward and make life a touch more difficult, the way Dublin have in the past. Jackie Tyrrell wrote recently in the Irish Times of how the traditional full-back had been eschewed in hurling and that the role had now become undefinable. Now, obviously they’re different sports but a traditional full-back can’t be created with a couple of stop-gap performances in the National League. And, that is clearly what Mayo were looking for. Vaughan himself would have been somewhat of a novice in the role though he has probably man-marked forwards on hundreds of occasions at this stage of his career. What person then, who has yet to take leave of their senses, sends a bulldozing forward back to do the most specific of man-marking roles?
In any event, this unusual and unsuccessful selection shall be dissected over the coming week but in the midst of the discussion, it should not be lost on us how this current iteration of Mayo have thrilled in a way that few other teams can ever claim to have done.
Obviously, Dublin are the dominant force and Kerry are permanently there or thereabouts but relentless victories do not make for compelling, head-scratching, compulsive viewing. The Atlanta Falcons, who spectacularly blew the biggest lead in Superbowl history last February have chosen to omit any mention of this calamity on their quest to claim this year’s title. Frankly, that sounds like one of the worst approaches we’ve ever heard. How in the world do you erase memories of the biggest day of your life, regardless of the outcome? Surely, in some way, you learn from these demoralising days.
In any event, it seems unlikely that this approach could be applied in Mayo. Imagine asking players and supporters alike to eradicate all discussion of the heartbreak of 2014 in Limerick, which involved some shocking refereeing, a flopping Kieran Donaghy and a surely unprecedented double TKO involving two Mayo players. Or the Twilight-Zone like beginning to last year’s final where Mayo presented the best team of the decade with a two own-goal head start. Or indeed, in the replay dropping one of the best goalies in the country on the basis of…. well, no one really knows.
Mayo are now eight games deep in this year’s championship and in the space of almost eighty crazy, helter-skelter minutes, they’ve managed to steal all the thunder from an unprecedented All-Ireland hurling final pairing, a bizarre non-suspension and most impressively of all, the upcoming semi-final between Dublin and Tyrone.
In a piece of unwarranted bombast, usually reserved for the likes of Bono, when talking about Bono, Waterford county board chairman, and Austin Gleeson cheerleader Paddy Joe Ryan humbly offered that, “The county needs him (Gleeson), the game needs him and the country needs him”. Mr Ryan probably could have stopped that sentence after four words, particularly in the eyes of Cork and Galway supporters but you can understand that it was a week high on emotion in Waterford.
What the country does need, however, is for this Mayo team to maintain the unquantifiable levels of relentlessness, perseverance and, of course, pure drama in the quest for their elusive goal. Who knows what surprise Rochford and his team will produce next week? Keegan on Donaghy? An entirely new midfield? Whatever it is, the country will watch on in fascination, guaranteed to be left breathless by this unrelentingly entertaining side. And should Mayo notch two more victories in the next three weeks, their very own 30-for-30 documentary is in the bag. The Yanks would lap it up.