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Murph's Sideline Cut: Mayo manage to ignore fatalist panic of fans

Mayo are different, but supporters have been trained to expect the worst.

‘MAYO HAVE CHANGED.’

That’s nearly been the catchphrase of the summer nearly.  This Mayo team is not like other Mayo teams.  And despite a major wobble in the first half of their semi-final against Tyrone yesterday, that fact is slowly dawning on their own fans.

image©INPHO/James Crombie

Mayo people have a reputation for losing the run of themselves when their footballers are going well.  But when I talk to Mayo fans now, as I did before throw-in yesterday, what I get is this extraordinary air of fatalism.  They had every right to be confident going into yesterday’s game, and yet that confidence seemed to be the very thing that had everyone sick with worry.

‘Everyone is saying we’re going to win, so imagine how hard this is going to be when we lose’ – it’s no kind of attitude to have, when you’ve been the form team in the country.   I got a text message after 24 minutes of the first half that read simply – “not our day”.  Mayo were three points down!  Plenty of time on the clock, plenty of good footballers on the field.

Rattled

It’s one thing watching Mayo on the telly, but it’s another thing to actually go to the games and sit among the fans, watching every fluctuating emotion.  It’s a testament to the job James Horan has done that his team could ignore all of that blind panic pouring down off the terraces in the second quarter, and do their jobs.

They did look rattled in the first half, it should be said – but the three points (from Chris Barrett and Lee Keegan) just coming up to half-time were the vital scores that got them back into the game.  It was obvious that Tyrone had looked at that Mayo half-back line as the key line to try and stop, and they were very successful for the first 30 minutes or so.  But when Mayo needed scores, it was their defenders who still managed to dig them out of a hole.

They were blessed to go in at half-time only a point down, but the clinical way they stepped up through the gears in that third quarter, and the pace they were able to keep up right to the very last, is a reminder of the quality of this team.  When things were going badly, they had plenty of lads who wanted the ball, who wanted to take the hit and drive through tackles, and take responsibility.  That’s a pretty big weapon to have in your armoury.

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©INPHO/James Crombie

The big story in Mayo for the next four weeks will be Cillian O’Connor’s fitness.  It’s always disappointing to see a player leave the field injured, but there’s an extra dose of sympathy for a man suffering a recurrence of an old injury.  When you don’t know what’s just happened, you can always hope for the best.  When you know exactly what’s just happened, you steel yourself for the worst.

He’ll be a huge loss in the final, if he can’t make it back.  And in his absence, do Mayo have enough up front to win an All-Ireland?  Alan Freeman had a breakout game yesterday, hitting his frees, and coolly slotting home the penalty that won the game for his team.  Andy Moran is still finding his way back to last year’s form, and the returning Mikey Conroy will add punch – but O’Connor was their key man.

They can’t get too fixated on that injury though.  They have a really top-class midfield, with Seamus O’Shea every bit as good as his younger brother yesterday.  And Mayo’s brilliant set of swashbuckling defenders are a joy to watch.  There’s a lot that’s wrong with gaelic football at the moment, but the sight of Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan or Colm Boyle with ball in hand is not one of them.

The nature of the performance, and the O’Connor injury, will certainly dampen expectations.  Dublin might provide the sterner footballing test, Kerry perhaps the bigger mental test – either way, winning the final won’t be easy.  They wouldn’t care so damn much about it, if winning it was easy.

I was trying to tell every Mayo person I met beforehand that Galway would kill to be in an All-Ireland semi-final, and to just relax and enjoy it.  But football has long since stopped being about enjoyment for Mayo.  It’s about winning the effing thing now, not to put too fine a point on it.  And until they do, maybe it’s unfair on the rest of us to be asking for a bit of perspective.

This Week Murph Was – sympathizing with Kevin McLoughlin and Enda Varley, the two Mayo players unfortunate enough to miss 14 yard frees in Croke Park yesterday.  Having done it myself, it’s a pretty mortifying experience.  It wasn’t in Croke Park mind, but it was into the town goal in Tuam Stadium, in a senior club championship game, and I was wearing white boots at the time.  Not something I was allowed to forget in a hurry.

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