Saturday 21 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'A Mayo All-Ireland and Liverpool title would be emotionally intense in a way seldom matched in sport'

Ma;yo's Kevin McLoughlin celebrates Allianz League success and (inset) Salah and Firmino
Ma;yo's Kevin McLoughlin celebrates Allianz League success and (inset) Salah and Firmino
‘Mayo’s return to form last Sunday suggests that a proper championship finale may once more be in the offing and that if Dublin are to make history they will have to be at their best to do so’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Springtime sport is seldom so satisfying as it was in the early hours of last Sunday evening when Mayo won the National League and a late goal kept Liverpool's title hopes alive. Viewed logically perhaps these victories shouldn't have seemed quite so special. Ahead of Mayo lies a whole championship summer by the end of which the identity of the league champions is usually all but forgotten. The odds still seem to be against Liverpool overhauling Manchester City.

All the same there was something massively stirring about both triumphs. As Mayo closed in on the victory in a national final which had eluded them for 18 years, it felt like summer had arrived early. And when Toby Alderweireld scored his 90th-minute own goal, the jubilant stream of unintelligible Scouse which gushed forth from Jamie Carragher seemed a perfectly appropriate response.

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It's not just that Liverpool and Mayo command the affection of an awful lot of neutrals, it's that those neutrals feel passionately involved in their struggles in a way which is unusual when your primary allegiance is elsewhere. They are teams who just sweep you along with them.

Why do we love them? Let us count the ways.

It's because of the nature of the quest on which they are engaged, the nature of the sides themselves, the places they come from and their supporters. Their current managers also help add to the excitement.

There's a certain irony about the fact that both teams came closest to breaking their duck while under the stewardship of managers (Brendan Rodgers and Stephen Rochford) who were not quite of the first rank.

Their successors are much more impressive figures. James Horan almost single-handedly propelled Mayo to unlikely victory in the 2006 All-Ireland final, his eight points from play over the two games a significant and often overlooked achievement. As manager, he inherited a team which had slipped out of the top echelon in Connacht let alone Ireland and brought it to an All-Ireland final within two years.

Before his resignation Horan had seemed the most likely manager to bring Mayo to the promised land. Since his return he has borne the unmistakable air of a man determined to conclude unfinished business.

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Jurgen Klopp too gives the impression of a man on a date with destiny. His emotional heart-on-the-sleeve approach seems perfectly suited to a club where more bloodless technocratic approaches would be out of tune with both fans and city. He is an exciting manager for an excitable club. And like Horan, a likeable man with a likeable team.

What Klopp and Horan also have in common is an apparent deep personal investment in redressing what has come to seem like a historical injustice.

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Manager James Horan shouting the instructions. Pic: Sportsfile

Its uniquely tantalising nature lends a particular poignance to Mayo's 68-year drought. Eight final defeats in 22 years is a run without parallel in GAA history. Single-point losses are not that common in football finals. There were just three, for example, between 1940 and 1981. Mayo suffered three between 2011 and 2017.

Liverpool's 29-year spell without a league title seems short by comparison even if it constitutes a sporting eternity for a club with such a pedigree. Yet you can make a case that the current agony of both teams began around the same time. There was little talk of a Mayo famine in the '70s and '80s, just as there's little talk of a Kildare or Cavan famine now. The county was too clearly off the pace.

It was the narrow 1989 All-Ireland final defeat by Cork which set Mayo dreaming in earnest and encouraged the exhumation of hoary old tales about curses. And it was the 1989-90 season when Liverpool won their tenth league title in 15 years which has proved to be their last to date.

Few then would have thought that the day would come when Liverpool would be cherished as plucky underdogs. Yet central to the appeal of both the Reds and the men in Red and Green is their identity as rebels against an imperious ruling class.

Dublin's rule of Gaelic football has become wearing. Without the presence of Mayo it would have been completely unbearable. Two years ago Dublin arrived in the final after a championship campaign of almost unprecedented dominance, their average winning margin almost 15 points a game.

It was left to Mayo to save the competitive honour of the championship. But they did more than that. That 2017 final may have been the finest game of Gaelic football ever played. And its final ten minutes, with momentum ebbing and flowing, the lead changing hands and everything being done at maximum pace and intensity, was a kind of apotheosis of the game.

Dublin have never been, and probably will never be, any better than when overcoming a two-point deficit with six minutes of normal time left that day. They needed Mayo to force them to new heights. After Mayo lost to Kildare last year there was no-one to save a championship which petered out to a predictable conclusion and utterly failed to capture the public imagination. Without real rivals the Dubs seemed diminished, their capture of four in a row an oddly quotidian achievement.

That's why Mayo's return to form last Sunday created such excitement. It suggests that a proper championship finale may once more be in the offing and that if Dublin are to make history they will have to be at their best to do so.

Liverpool are providing a similar service for the Premier League, whose title race last year was just as dull as the All-Ireland football championship. Manchester City's record-breaking season was full of interest for the statisticians but poisonous for anyone who regards competition as being the essence of any sporting contest.

Going into this season, a long vista of unchallenged City dominance seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. In challenging the oligarchs, Liverpool have already given us a great title race. No matter what the outcome they have rescued the league from competitive irrelevance.

They have also served the champions in the same way that Mayo have served Dublin. Should Guardiola's men win a second title in a row, this season's victory will be infinitely more impressive than last season's.

Both Mayo and Liverpool seem peculiarly well suited to the role of plucky insurgents against an overweening dictatorship. The almost religious intensity displayed by the fans of both teams derives in large part from a sense that they come from a part of the world which has been harshly treated in the past and is even today the subject of metropolitan condescension.

Detractors may deride this worldview as containing an element of self-pity. But while neither Liverpool nor the West of Ireland are strangers to the attractions of mythologising yourself, this is understandable enough given that their perceptions may not be entirely incorrect. This lends a certain mystique which adds to the appeal of the teams and the passion of their fans. Believing in Mayo or Liverpool is not only about football.

That's why the scenes following a Mayo All-Ireland or Liverpool title win would be emotionally intense in a way seldom matched in sport. When we see them go well, we picture those scenes in our mind's eye and imagine how good they would be to witness. Yet the obverse of this is how tragic it will be if both teams fall short again in the coming months.

Every time Mayo play an All-Ireland semi-final, for example, you're torn because of the realisation that while a final with them in it will be a much greater occasion, there is also something terrible about the prospect of another fall at the final hurdle.

And when time ticked away at Anfield last Sunday and the camera panned over the faces of fans apparently resigned to the fact that the title has just been handed to Manchester City, their obvious devastation was hard to look at. One more fallow year was about to be added to the pile. Then Mo Salah headed the ball across goal and Hugo Lloris and Alderweireld contrived to slobber it over the line.

A man had ridden up on a horse and handed a reprieve to the head of the firing squad. The dream was not dead after all. You felt, as you'd felt when Ciarán Treacy nailed down the victory at Croke Park with Mayo's third goal, like echoing Frankenstein's shouts in the 1931 movie, "it's alive, it's alive, it's alive". Only Mayo and Liverpool can do this. Last Sunday every little thing they did was magic.

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