Billy Keane: 'Signs of a new era as people's champions slay Croker demons'
Mayo of the so many sorrows found joy unconfined on a winning final Sunday. The bravest team of them all beat Kerry to win silver at last in Croke Park.
Yesterday was the first Sunday of new time and maybe the beginning of a new era.
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Mayo are the team of the decade in so many ways.
Their journey has been one where they never reached their chosen destination but now they have won the Allianz League after a final of such drama the game will surely be made in to a play some day.
The game was in the intersection of extra-time and normal time. Sean O'Shea laid on a goal chance for his pal David Clifford but somehow Rob Hennelly, who has suffered so much here in the past, arched his back and stretched his hands above his head to make the save of his life.
In that winning second half Mayo played with perseverance, pride, courage, enthusiasm, flamboyance and no little skill. I realise some of these words mean much the same thing. Hyperbole is only blown up when the truth is forsaken for the hype. Mayo deserved every accolade.
They were poor in the first half, which made the win all the more meritorious. Mayo regrouped. They knew the chances would come. As a Kerryman, I think I can say we have no excuses. We were beaten by a better and more experienced team.
Just under us here high up in the Hogan Stand, the Mayo fans are singing, kissing and hugging. They have been the most loyal in the land. They came in big numbers but it took me a while to figure out just why it was that Croke Park was only about half full.
There were three league finals played out yesterday yet there were gaps in the stands as wide as missing front teeth. The cordoned-off Hill was as lonesome as the forlorn lakelands homes of the Children of Lir. The Dubs were missed.
On the way up yesterday morning, we didn't see one Kerry reg. The reason was the love we have for our mammies. Mother's Day came first. It was moms and flowers before the green and gold.
One man I met was undeterred. He did not buy the usual flowers for his wife. "She's not my mother," he said. "But isn't she the mother of your children?" I said.
"She is all that," he conceded, "but she's still not my mother." I would say the same man would have been a Tory pro-Brexit MP but for the fact he was born on a small enough farm near enough to Killarney.
It's no wonder we didn't win.
There were other reasons that were perhaps more valid. Diarmuid O'Connor scored two far-out points from close enough to the lobby of the Croke Park Hotel. Then he scored a goal. Mayo scored three in all in that frantic second half.
Kerry looked beaten but fought back bravely. Croke Park in defeat may be seen as the birthing suite of hope for a young team still in its infancy. Kerry will have learned more from this than a year's training.
Kerry can score goals. That much is given.
David Clifford was about to overplay the ball but he quickly realised one more hop and he was whistled. He dropped the ball on to his foot like a street performer on Las Ramblas. He laid off to Gavin Crowley, who scored with a bendy rasper that would take the fingerprints of a goalkeeper.
But Mayo could have had three goals before the three they did score. They opted for punched points, and Kerry goalkeeper Shane Ryan made a great save.
Kerry's marking was good when the game slowed but too often the backs were caught ball-watching. It could be Peter Keane's young guns will develop in to a shoot-out team for this season.
The Kerry tackling has improved immensely but when Mayo went long, some of the Kingdom backs were far away from their men. There were too many chefs and not enough washer-uppers.
Both teams are contenders, make no mistake about that, but the Dubs are still some way ahead and they will take catching when they wake from their winter hibernation.
Mayo are the more likely. They have a better team now than the one that pushed Dublin to the limits. Every game unearths new stars. Fergal Boland was very good under the high ball and once again Matthew Ruane scored a goal against Kerry.
Aidan O'Shea, as ever, led the team, and at times ferociously so. Ruane is his clubmate. He does much of the running for O'Shea, who will surely give the gold medal to his Kerry mom for Mother's Day.
Lee Keegan had a hold of O'Shea throughout. It was awful stuff. Patrick Durcan also held the youngster off the ball after Keegan was booked. That apart, the officials had a very good game in letting the play flow.
Mayo have the template now to win the All-Ireland. Their manager is vastly experienced. He lifted his boys at half-time when all seemed lost and Mayo were missing scores.
Kerry must now consider playing a sweeper. Stephen O'Brien was our best player and maybe he should be sacrificed. Mayo could have scored seven goals. One-on-ones in front of goal is not the ideal set-up. One sweeper doesn't exactly make for puke football. O'Brien is the perfect fit.
Kerry will improve hugely.
Mayo just need to stay the same and Sam could be theirs. Jim Gavin will have been watching. He knows now Mayo have not gone away. The drive for five is the only competition left now in what could be the most eventful season in GAA history.
But let's have none of this 'it's only the league' talk. Mayo, we salute you. Mayo, you were always the people's champions. Bring the cup back home now, and enjoy every minute of a mighty victory.