Sport Gaelic Football

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Joke isn't funny anymore

Eamonn Sweeney

When things go well for a team people tend to indulge in what I think of as The Teleological Fallacy. On this reading, everything the side achieves is inevitable and every previous event in the season was a signpost pointing the way towards future glory. It's a bit like James Joyce's line from Ulysses, "A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery."

But perhaps we should resist the temptation to feel that Mayo's season has gone exactly according to a cunningly conceived masterplan. Because, unless he possesses a supernatural amount of self-confidence, the chances are that as London held on to a one-point lead with a minute left in the Connacht championship first-round game at Ruislip, James Horan would have been worried.

In fact, he might well have been considering the possibility of hiding out somewhere in the lonely blanket bog around Nephin Beg until such time as this defeat was forgotten. Which would have been about a hundred or years or so. Then Kevin McLoughlin kicked the equaliser and Mayo haven't looked back since.

Jim McGuinness might also have been wondering what he'd gotten himself into when Donegal found themselves trailing Sligo by eight points in the second half of their opening National League match at Ballybofey. Being drubbed at home by one of the weakest sides in the division seemed to indicate that a grim struggle against relegation lay ahead for the new manager. But Donegal fought back and earned a draw with a last-gasp Stephen Griffin point. Had that equaliser not been scored, Donegal wouldn't have made the Division Two league final. Instead they reached it, won it and have kicked on from there.

Last weekend we saw just how far both Mayo and Donegal have progressed from those shaky beginnings. The former's dethroning of All-Ireland champions Cork and the latter's Lazarus impersonation against Kildare were impressive enough to suggest that, whatever happens next, their tyro bosses should be in pole position for the Manager of the Year awards.

Mayo's position in Gaelic football is an odd one. At the final whistle on Sunday, I thought of a conversation I had at the start of the season with one of the shrewdest judges of Gaelic football I know, a Mayoman transplanted to Cork as it happens. "They'll give plenty of teams a lot of trouble," he told me, "but they'll get no credit. I don't know what's wrong with people, they make a laugh out of Mayo for losing All-Ireland finals when there are plenty of teams that don't make any All-Ireland finals at all."

I knew what he meant. Because Mayo's achievement in making four All-Ireland finals in the past 15 years has been serially belittled. Yet in the same period of time Dublin, for example, haven't reached one. Neither have the likes of Derry, Monaghan and Laois. Kildare and Down could muster just one final appearance. Only Kerry during that period have managed to make the big day more times than Mayo.

It's not irrelevant that all those trips have ended in defeat for the men in red and green but the fact remains that the likes of Andy Moran, Trevor Mortimer, Keith Higgins and Alan Dillon, all outstanding last week, have time and again proved themselves to be better than 90 per cent of their peers. Mayo were doing to Cork what they did to Tyrone in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final and Dublin in the 2006 semi. Yet respect for these players has been conspicuous by its absence. Because when Mayo fail on the big stage they are not analysed by the pundits so much as mocked. The big television guns are unable to resist the temptation of sneering and sniggering at Mayo as if the county's footballers are one big joke that the entire audience is in on. It's a boorish and unlovely spectacle.

Donegal haven't been treated as a laughing stock to the same extent yet they also know what it's like to be the butt of media humour. The disciplinary infractions, which another county would have been cute enough to brush under the carpet, made the team seem like a Pogues song decked out in togs and boots. And their short-passing game, which is shared by most inter-county sides these days, seems to be regarded as a personal affront by some pundits.

There's an air of holding the nose and wielding a tongs when dealing with Donegal which made Jim McGuinness very cross early in the championship. As late as the half-time break last Saturday, the team were still being criticised as purveyors of some kind of barbaric anti-football which might lead to the implosion of the game as we know it.

There's not much love out there for Donegal. Yet last Saturday it struck me how many players on their team you'd automatically think of as good footballers, the likes of Karl Lacey, of Kevin Cassidy, of Michael Hegarty, of Christy Toye, Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and the McGees. Because it hasn't been all underachievement for Donegal. They weren't far off the pace in 2002 when they might have beaten Armagh in the Ulster final and Dublin in the All-Ireland quarters. They should have made the final the following year but came out on the wrong end of some borderline refereeing decisions in the semi against Armagh. The following year they beat the reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone. There was a National League title in 2007. Two years ago when they looked completely out of sorts they still made it all the way to the All-Ireland quarter-final, bettering the performance of 75 per cent of inter-county teams. Even last year they took the Down team which went on to the All-Ireland final to extra-time in the Ulster championship and should have won that game too.

Yet, though Horan and McGuinness had some promising material to work with, they came in to teams whose morale was at a low ebb. Mayo were as bad as they'd ever been when exiting last year's championship after defeats by Sligo and Longford, while Donegal's trouncing by Armagh in the first round of the qualifiers was the kind of heart-

less capitulation which had given the eye rollers and the head shakers such copious ammunition in the past. The two counties didn't even rate their customary mention as 'championship dark horses' when the previews were being drawn up.

Perhaps the key to the renaissance is that the Two Jims don't believe in the legend of Mayo incompetence and Donegal flakiness. They don't believe because they embodied diametrically opposite qualities during their careers. Horan's spectacular five points from play in the 1996 All-Ireland final replay against Meath may be the most ignored great individual decider performance of all-time, while McGuinness's battle against the Armagh tide in the 2002 Ulster final, capped by a fantastic goal, epitomised his tendency to be at his best when things were going against his team. Having rebuked the doubters on the field, they wanted to do the same thing on the sideline.

It's worked so far. But they, and Mayo and Donegal people in general, will know that it will take only one bad performance for the Kings of Comedy to come out of the woodwork again. They'll also know that, whatever happens, enormous progress has been made this year. And they won't worry too much about purist complaints concerning the defensive style of play employed by Horan and McGuinness.

Because it's easy to be a purist. What's hard is watching people laugh at your county. This week, at least, that joke isn't funny anymore.

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