Ewan MacKenna: Aidan O'Shea and Mayo have been spat on by many - but they are lions not lambs
In the unlikely event that you've happened upon the cult-ish film 'Poolhall Junkies', there's one scene that will immediately come to mind.
It's classic Christopher Walken as he gives a pep-talk with that considered style and clingy meaning that few actors have the ability to achieve:
'You watch those nature documentaries on the cable? You see the one about lions?
'You got this lion. He's the king of the jungle, huge mane out to here. He's laying under a tree, in the middle of Africa. He's so big, it's so hot. He doesn't want to move.
'Now the little lions come, they start messing with him. Biting his tail, biting his ears. He doesn't do anything. The lioness, she starts messing with him. Coming over, making trouble. Still nothing.
'The other animals, they notice this. They start to move in. The jackals; hyenas. They're barking at him, laughing at him. They nip his toes, and eat the food that's in his domain. They do this, then they get closer and closer, bolder and bolder.
'Till one day, that lion gets up and tears the shit out of everybody. Runs like the wind, eats everything in his path. Cause every once in a while, the lion has to show the jackals who he is.'
It's a story that reminds of Mayo, but not because of the ideology that more and more are being indoctrinated with. This isn't about them some day getting up and running like the wind and showing who they are, for they've been doing that for so long already.
Year after year. Summer after summer. Knockdown after knockdown. How many times have they been barked and laughed and nipped at? How many times have they stood tall and been one of the best teams in our sport?
They are a lion. The annual and heart-breaking runners-up in the presence of near-perfection couldn't but be.
Football will break you for good if you let it, but your ability to climb back off the canvas and keep on going to the final bell is the sign of excellence too. We tend to forget that for the worst of reasons, as in recent times this Mayo are a group that have become the punchbag of laziness and it raises the question of how much clickbait can influence the masses.
It's as if they're the only pot for ex-players in our media to stir when it's all too calm, so many pundits purposely court controversy in a self-serving way. Lose on Saturday against Dublin and, even if it is only the league, the reaction will be one more scalping disguised as a haircut.
Speaking to a member of their camp recently, they put it down to 'that mentality in Irish sport, especially football, where unless you have won a Celtic Cross your achievements or opinions or actions are without any basis because you lost the All-Ireland by a point instead of winning it by a point. Basically, we are used to it and can't stop it until we win it out.'
It shows remarkable strength to take it all on the chin and, more so, to keep schtum unlike the Harte and Gavin who've felt hugely slighted over far less.
Nor is it just the players for the management, the support, and the funding needs to be there too. If the bow breaks then the cradle will fall, but they've never let themselves drop. We bemoaned the lovable losers of previous generations, yet when this lot refuse to be losers we bemoan them for it also. It shows massive hypocrisy on our part and a need to kick those who are down.
They don't want defending and definitely don't need it, but in this climate it doesn't mean they don't deserve it. The reality about this Mayo is that they've had seven different players that started four All-Ireland finals (not counting the replay but they started that too). That means since 2012, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle, Aidan O'Shea, Keith Higgins, Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O'Connor have all lined out on more of the biggest days in Irish sport than Peter Canavan and Kevin Heffernan, than Seán Flanagan and Seán O'Neill.
It's an astounding achievement that doesn't fit a growing mob of mockery, as that's a much easier go-to than a complicated reality. Of course coming first takes priority but when did second place become worthy of laughter?
After taking a beating from Joe Frazier in the late rounds in 1971, Mohammad Ali didn't get such a bitter reaction, rather he was lauded for going the distance in the fight of the century. No one is comparing him directly, but how many games of this century have Mayo been in? How dull would recent years have been without them? Think of 2017 and how they tore down the boredom and were the one real plot the game had going for it.
If we are to say this Dublin era is greatest ever - and it's a strong argument - how can we criticise the only team to go up against them and essentially match them on an annual basis? If we are to say this Dublin era has more natural and artificial advantages than any other in history - and there is no argument - how can we criticise Mayo when 18 of their panel are travelling cross-country from the capital to give it another go, something not one of their biggest rivals in blue have to endure?
But we do. Despite the fact Mayo would bury themselves to show they could handle a shovel, despite the fact they still haven't quit when every nerve and sinew must have screamed it over and over. In fact if you don't agree with how badly they have been and are treated, consider Aidan O'Shea for he has become the microcosm of just how his county is spat on regularly by many.
In October 2015, he was abused for being the face of player-power. By March 2016 he was, and still is, sneered at for taking the chance of a lifetime to go and test himself in the NFL combine as part of a television show. Then came the hailing from a Gatling gun before they began the last Connacht campaign as if pre-mediated, with many piggy-backing on his name.
Bernard Flynn went on RTÉ to cut him to shreds for signing autographs after a challenge match.
"I stood back in amazement with a few friends of mine who watched and a certain individual who was close to the Meath team said, 'That’s exactly why Aidan O’Shea plays the way he does'."
And Fergus Connolly, a sports psychologist and former member of Jim Gavin's backroom team, brought it to new and nastier depths.
"Write this down! Put it in block capitals! AS LONG AS I'M ALIVE MAYO WILL NEVER WIN AN ALL IRELAND. You've that attitude for a start. And a midfielder, Aidan O'Shea, rushing around doing TV shows. What the fuck? You wouldn't see it in Kerry. You wouldn't see it in Dublin. Why? Because you win your medals and then talk about it. There would be no media. It's about The Team, The Team, The Team, not what I can do for myself. Aidan O'Shea does media for himself. He's not doing it for the team. It's bullshit."
No Fergus, that lot is bullshit, not that it has stopped the tirades. Granted, Joe Brolly was at least on the tame wing lately when saying, 'While Aidan O'Shea is in that Mayo team, you're not going to win an All-Ireland because I don't think you can afford passengers come the key phases of big games'.
If you knew nothing about football you'd think this was a loser yet O'Shea at 27 has as many All Stars as Diarmuid Connolly and Michael Murphy. And if you knew nothing about football, you'd think Mayo were a side that offered nothing and gave back nothing. Yet over the past six years, in terms of anecdotal evidence there was Dublin 2012 and their broken dreams; the dismantling of Donegal en route to the one-point All-Ireland defeat of 2013; the epic draw and madness of the replay against Kerry in 2014; the two classic semis of 2015; the bounce back all the way to the nail-biting deciders of 2016; and more of the same in 2017. It's the most captivating script in Irish sport since Saipan.
The empirical makes damn good reading too. Since 2012 – and with nine starters from that year playing a part in last year's final – compare their championship record with the best out there. Dublin have won 94pc of games and have only been beaten by two others, including Mayo; Kerry are at 80pc and have been beaten by four others, including Mayo; Donegal are at 73pc, losing to six teams, including Mayo; Tyrone are at 68pc, losing to six teams, including Mayo. As for Mayo, they stack up well at 78pc, losing to just four others, and their 29 wins is only second to Dublin. On top of that it's taken the eventual champions to beat them every time in that spell and if four champions have been dethroned they've been responsible for half.
What would you give for your county to have done all that? What would you give for your county to have just one of their six semi-finals or four finals? Yet while in other places they'd make 30-for-30 style documentaries to highlight heroes, so many here just do derision.
There's another story you probably didn't hear about O'Shea and it's telling that so often it's been bypassed so we can get back to what's becoming an agenda. On the the morning of the Derry qualifier in 2017, he heard about his childhood friend and former clubmate David Gavin who had drowned in Canada, and days after he walking around Galway with a bucket to help fund the search for his body. It didn't fit the artificial narrative but while nice guys don't always come first, this nice guy never came anywhere close to last.
Maybe he and Mayo never will get over the line. Maybe when this group are gone, only then will they stop going so far and losing so painfully. But it'll be then in their absence that the rest of the country might finally realise what we have lost.