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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 21 March, 2019
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'I think all of us Mayo supporters saw our footballing lives flash before our eyes in Semple Stadium'

The ‘true believers’ are on the road again with Stephen Rochford’s men, writes Eoin Butler.

John O'Neill reads a match programme before Mayo's clash in Thurles.
John O'Neill reads a match programme before Mayo's clash in Thurles.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

STRANGE HOW AN outlier, an anomaly, a single aberration from anything that came before or since, can sometimes permanently skew our expectations of normality.

Last Christmas, my mother binge watched eight episodes of The Crown on my laptop.

Ever since then, Netflix has been offering me such helpful tailored recommendations as The House of Windsor, The King’s Speech and Diana: In Her Own Words.

Apparently, six years of watching Narcos and old Ken Burns war documentaries counts for nothing with these people. Short of joining the IRA, I’m not sure what I can do to convince Netflix I’m not an avid fan of the British monarchy.

In a similar twist, 20 or 30 cold and rain-sodden years from now, I suspect many of us will still be expressing disbelief at the fact that we didn’t get an opportunity to dust off our barbecues, paddling pools or Factor 40 sun cream over the course of an Irish summer. ‘But why?,’ our children will ask us. ‘Irish summers have always, and will always, be wet and miserable.’’

At which point, we’ll toss our Werthers Originals in the air and set these young whippersnappers straight. “Not ALWAYS,” we’ll say. “There was this one summer, back in 2018, when the sun came out in April and it hung around so long…Well, long story short, it had to be succeeded by Mary Lou McDonald. That was the only way we could get rid of it.”

Today’s sports headlines today dominated by the dispute between Kildare county board and the GAA over the venue for Saturday’s qualifier with Mayo. Hopefully, this controversy is resolved by the time this column is published. From a Mayo fan’s perspective, the GAA can stage the fixture in Croke Park, St Conleth’s Park or Itchycoo Park for all we care. We’ll still turn out in numbers.

Our fervour for this team been one of the minor sports subplots of this long, hot summer. In May, there were 29,449 people, mostly Mayo supporters, in McHale Park on a scorching Sunday afternoon for our Connacht semi-final clash with Galway. You’d think that defeat might have cooled our ardour.

But when my uncle George and I landed in Limerick for our subsequent qualifier, four weeks later, we were greeted by the unforgettable sight of 10,000 Mayo supporters sitting on benches and garden walls the length of the Ennis Road, eating ice cream and rubbing in sunscreen.

Thurles last weekend was the same. True, Tipperary supporters made up slightly more than Limerick’s 0% audience share. But the crowds thronging Hayes Hotel was and the surrounding pubs and fast food outlets in the hours before the game were 80-90% Mayo supporters. Before he left the house, my uncle George put a cheque in an envelope. It was money he owed a builder, another diehard Mayo supporter, who’d done some work for him.

When he spotted the builder in the stand at Semple Stadium before the game, George handed over the envelope. “Now,” he said with a smile. “That just saved me the price of a stamp.”

Jason Doherty talks to the media after the game Mayo’s Jason Doherty talks to the media after the game last weekend. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The footballing heatwave Mayo supporters are currently enjoying didn’t begin in April or May of this year. It began in 2012. At this point, it’s an annual summer odyssey that begins with high-jinks in Connacht each May and ends in high drama in Croke Park each September. The history books will remember that this current Mayo side have never won an All-Ireland. And that remains a source of bitter disappointment. But they’ll never fully record all the fun we’ve had along the way.

Without this annual rollercoaster of controversy and camaraderie, there are friends and relatives I wouldn’t see from one end of the year to the next, old acquaintances I’d lose contact with entirely and children I’d have never witnessed growing up. Hell, the primary means by which my closest group of friends and I keep in touch with each other all year around is a Mayo supporters WhatsApp group.

We don’t want it to end. Yet if we’re honest, I think all of us Mayo supporters saw our footballing lives flash before our eyes in Semple Stadium last Saturday. It’s not like we’re not accustomed to flying by the seat of our pants. Last year, we were taken to extra time by Derry and Cork and it took a replay to overcome Kerry.

But although our Tipperary never led by more than two or three points in Semple, that doesn’t do justice to how thoroughly they dominated long periods of that game. We were dropping balls. Our passes were being intercepted. We were being turned over. We were being made to look very, very ordinary. By half-time, some of that WhatsApp supporters group were predicting the worst.

These were the guys sitting at home watching on Sky, with a bottle of beer in front of them and a child or two hanging off of them. They’d turn up in Croker for the semis, probably in premier stands or corporate boxes. You don’t discount these guys’ opinions entirely, because they have access to TV replays you don’t see. But they aren’t the true believers.

By mid-way through the second half, with things having not improved, even us true believers in the stands were beginning to beginning to have grave doubts. With the unthinkable seeming on the cards, I thought of the lonely figure of Sir Bedivere, in Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur, as he contemplates not just military defeat, but the demise of the only life that he has ever known:

Whither shall I go?

Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?

For now I see the true old times are dead,

When every morning brought a noble chance,

And every chance brought out a noble knight.

But now the whole Round Table is dissolved

Which was an image of the mighty world;

And I, the last, go forth companionless,

And the days darken round me, and the years,

Among new men, strange faces, other minds…

But then, somehow, things just turned out alright for us. Three new attacking options have emerged for Mayo this summer in the shape of Conor Loftus, James Durcan and Cian Hanley. Durcan was the player who pulled the sword out of the stone for us on Saturday with a goal that turned the game around. (Yeah, it was a fluke. But who gives a shit?)

But it was the often underappreciated Jason Doherty, a long established player whose place in our starting line-up that trio probably have in their crosshairs, who really saved our bacon. He scored three points from play in one of his best ever performances in a Mayo shirt.

In the car on the way home, my uncles George, Shane and I listened as Kerry ruthlessly picked apart Cork in the Munster final. This, lest we forget, was a Cork side who had only, weeks earlier in the semi-final, steamrolled the same Tipp side we’d struggled to beat today. Logically, that suggests Mayo are a long way off the pace this year. But logic has never come into it with Mayo football.

We live to fight another day – wherever that turns out to be.

  • Before I go, there’s one other issue I want to address. In last week’s column, I made a few jokes at rugby’s expense that caused some controversy in the comments section. I don’t wish to apologise for anything I said, per se. But as an olive branch to anyone who anyone who was offended, I do wish to make the following statement… Craft beer is shite too. You’ll never take me alive. Yee-haw!

Analysis: Mayo’s perfect kickout game, improvements in attack and big decisions for Rochford

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About the author:

Eoin Butler

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