Tuesday 18 June 2019

Despair cannot last forever

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The story of Mayo football in recent times is not so much a tragedy as a kind of Kafkaesque black farce designed to apprise the county's followers of the futile nature of human longing. Rumour even has it that when Sisyphus was given a chance to quit his old job and become a Mayo fan instead, he replied, "No, I'm alright here with the oul' rock lads. Thanks anyways."

Just look at the poor devils. When Mayo lost the 1996 and 1997 All-Ireland finals, they were the first team to lose two on the trot since Meath in 1990 and 1991. But that wasn't so bad for the Royals because they'd won the 1987 and 1988 finals before that. The Cork side which lost the 1987 and 1988 finals went on to win in 1989 and 1990, the Dublin team which lost the 1984 and 1985 deciders had already won in 1983. The Galway team which lost the 1973 and 1974 deciders contained two players, Jimmy Duggan and Liam Sammon, who had already won medals in 1966.

Only one team in the last century matches the unmitigated final failure of that Mayo outfit, the Cork side which lost the 1956 and 1957 All-Ireland finals to Galway and Louth and was made up entirely of players who never had and never would win an All-Ireland. But their story isn't quite as bad either.

Because Mayo then lost the 2004 and 2006 finals to make it four losses in 11 years. Rather surprisingly, Kerry have lost four of the last ten finals but they've also managed to win four. The Dubs lost an incredible four between 1978 and 1985 but they had victories in 1974, 1976, 1977 and 1983 to cheer them up. Galway lost a quartet between 1933 and 1942 but picked up a pair of victories as well. So when it comes to a run of final failure, Mayo's miserable four-timer between 1996 and 2006 has no rival in the history of the game.

Throw in their 1989 loss to Cork and Mayo's five consecutive losing football final appearances is also a championship record. Nobody has ever failed so consistently on the big day as Mayo. All other stories of September misery pale into insignificance by comparison. It's hard not to look at Mayo's supporters without thinking of Philip Larkin's lines, "Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf." For a Mayo fan, their last four finals contained all the fun and happiness of a Joy Division boxed set.

And the worse thing is that the bare statistics, damning as they are, only hint at the horror of what has happened in those games. The agony of 1996 when they were denied victory by a freakish last-gasp point the first day and were beaten by another late score in the replay; 1997 when they appeared to have the winning of the game if they only played well for ten or 15 minutes but couldn't even manage that. And then the humiliation of 2004 and 2006 when Kerry finished the game early and the Mayo hordes were forced to sit there in agony for the rest of the afternoon like someone being shown video evidence of spousal infidelity by a private detective.

There is no no-show like a Mayo no-show. They are the opposite of Kilkenny, a team who will always find a new way to lose. Yet, frustratingly, this is only true in finals. Take finals out of the equation and Mayo are enjoying a golden age. Today is their fifth in the past 16 years. Only Kerry have been there more often. Dublin have gone to the big dance just once, Tyrone and Meath and Galway a mere three times apiece. But they have all won. In that whole period Down and Kildare are the only other counties to lose a final without winning one. But their appearances were mere one-offs. Mayo on the other hand have had agony quadrupled.

The worst thing is that all those losing Mayo teams did enough to suggest they could have lifted Sam Maguire. In 1996, they defeated the Kerry team which won the following year's All-Ireland. In 1997, they beat the Galway team which won the following year's All-Ireland. In 2004, as they did this year, they dethroned the reigning champions. Those losing teams were all good teams.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

Yet their final failures mean that Mayo never get the respect they deserve. The pattern was set in 1997 when they lost the All-Ireland final by just three points and got fewer All Stars than Kildare who'd been knocked out in the Leinster semi-final. It's become traditional that a losing Mayo team is not just criticised in the media but lampooned. There is a special form of jeering, derision and unpleasantness which seems reserved for the men in red and green in the aftermath of a big match defeat. You'd shiver to think what lies in store for them this evening if the bookies are right and another defeat awaits. Even the narrowest defeat for Mayo will lead to the usual blanket dismissal of the county's footballing culture.

There is a reminder of past final indignities in the presence of manager James Horan, who in the 1996 final replay gave one of the greatest displays seen by a forward in a decider, kicking five great points from play. It's also perhaps the most forgotten great display because of that aforementioned respect deficit. But an even more poignant sideline figure will be cut by James Nallen, the emblem both of the myriad excellences of those four so-near-but-yet-so-far Mayo teams and the heartbreak which was their fate.

Perhaps only Kieran McGeeney can challenge Nallen's claim to be the finest centre half-back since Tim Kennelly but these days what you remember about the Crossmolina man is the fact that he played in four finals and won none. I can't think of another footballer who's endured the same fate and the thought of Nallen experiencing yet another defeat, albeit from a different angle, makes me wish fervently that Mayo defy both odds and pundits today.

For, in a strange way, the great historic breakthroughs are often victories not just for the teams which achieve them but for those that came before. Thus Clare's All-Ireland victory in 1995 changed the Munster final defeats of 1977 and 1978 from missed opportunities which might never come again to steps on the way to ultimate success. And when Armagh won their first Sam Maguire in 2002 and Tyrone theirs the following year, the losing finalists of 1953 and 1977 for the former and 1986 and 1995 for the latter were retrospectively ennobled. Should Mayo win, Nallen's reaction is one you'd really like to see.

The triumph would also lend greater meaning to the past heroics of the likes of Willie Joe Padden and Liam McHale, Ciarán McDonald and David Brady.

Of course Donegal have hardly been spoilt in terms of All-Ireland success either and they'd be the neutrals' choice against any other opposition. But who could bear to see the Mayo fans go home disappointed once again? These are no mean people. Through thick and thin they've made the team one of the best supported in the country, turning up in numbers at league matches which put more successful counties to shame. They've also shown a remarkable capacity for undimmed enthusiasm.

A Mayo fan may be submerged in despair in the immediate aftermath of defeat but it doesn't take long for him or her to decide that next time they're going to get it right. When two years ago the county hit rock bottom after successive championship defeats by Sligo and Longford, you wondered if it might not be a blessing in disguise. Finally Mayo fans could be freed from the tyranny of optimism, a situation summed up by the words of the John Cleese character in the film Clockwise, "it's not the despair, it's the hope I can't stand". But here they are again. Hoping.

It's fitting that the central symbol of Mayo is Croagh Patrick. Because ever since 1951 Mayo football fans have endured a painful penitential journey up a steep, obstacle-strewn slope in the hope that some day their faith will be rewarded. Their feet are torn, their lungs ache, their hearts are tired and they feel they can't go another step but now the summit is in sight. One last push and they'll be there. Because the Mayoman is nothing if not a believer.

Mayo, God help them. Please. They've enough penance done.


Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw-In: Dublin hurlers come of age, who will stand up for Offaly and Anthony Cunningham's unique record

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport