The Netflix documentary Last Chance U tells the extraordinary story of the East Mississippi Community College football programme. The area is a run-down wasteland, but rising out of this dilapidated wilderness is a gleaming football stadium and pristine college.
hey are the most successful college football franchise in the nation. Their secret? They take the problem kids who have been ejected from the bigger schools or can't get in at all, then turn their lives around.
Slowly, they transform losers into winners. Off the field, the boys are nourished with a diet of love, respect and dignity. Brittany Wagner, the head of the education programme, is one of the finest human beings I have ever seen. She weeps at the boys' setbacks, cheers their successes and is with them at every step.
One of the students might as well be her adopted son. When Ronald Ollie was an infant, his father came to the mobile home where they lived, shot his mother dead then turned the gun on himself. Wagner coaxes and cajoles the giant Ollie through school, when every fibre of his being is telling him to flee back to the ghetto. He flourishes. On the field, it is tough, tough love. The head coach, Buddy Stephens, prays with the team before every game. On his signal, they drop to one knee, heads bowed. The first prayer we hear runs as follows:
"Dear Lord, help us to play this game tonight in a truly vicious and violent manner. We know you want us to bring it to them real hard and with your blessing Lord, that is what we intend to do." The boys respond, "Amen."
When I saw it, I thought of Mayo and the fact they have never gone the extra mile and the way they surrender every time it is brought to them real hard. And I thought to myself, those spoiled, sponsored, mollycoddled blame-everybody-else brats badly need a bit of Buddy Stephens.
Jimmy McGuinness wrote a column in June this year headed 'The five simultaneous game-plans needed to beat Dublin' which would have confused Stephen Hawking. Just last week, previewing today's final having dropped the five game-plans position, Jimmy said, "All last weekend, through the back of my mind, I was wondering, what is left for Mayo to try? What? To be honest, I don't have the answer." What hope is there when Jim's Theory of Everything doesn't include a way to beat the Dubs?
I like to text football people before big games with a simple question: Dublin or Mayo? Oisín McConville texted back immediately: "Dublin handy." "Why?" I texted. "For f*** sake Joe, do you want me to right (sic) your column for you?" "Not until you learn to right," I texted. One after another the messages came in from football men across the country:
"Dubs by four."
"Mayo to stick with them for 60 minutes then fall away."
"Can't think of a way for Mayo to win."
"Dubs to hammer them."
I got the following response from one ex-county player: "Mayo." "Why?" I texted. "Not sure," he said, "just have a hunch." Another texted: "Tell me I'm crazy, but I'm going for Mayo." "Why?" "Just think it's their year."
I rang Rob Carroll, perhaps the game's pre-eminent analyst and statistician. Maybe, I thought to myself, there is something in the statistics that could help Mayo to win. Chatting with Rob is always fun. I imagine him sitting in a room surrounded by a bank of screens like the situation room at the Pentagon.
"What about scoreable frees conceded, Rob?" A split second later, he answers: "Not good for Mayo on this front, Joe. Mayo have conceded an average of over 10 a game in their last three championship games. Eleven against Tipp." "The Dubs?" "Hardly any, Joe. Against Kerry in the second half of the semi-final they conceded only one in scoring distance, and the game was a dogfight."
"What about the notion that Mayo would have success if they push right up on the Dublin kickouts?" "Makes no difference on the stats, Joe. Since Gavin took over, Dublin have massively won their own kickouts regardless of the opposition strategy. Mayo pushed up in the 2013 final and Cluxton killed them with long low kickouts to the runners at midfield and in the half-forwards. This year, Donegal conceded the kickouts to them and Dublin scored 1-11 starting with a kickout to the corner-back."
"What about dispossessions in the tackle?" "Mayo have coughed up possession in the tackle 50 times this championship. Dublin just 13 in total."
And so our discussion went. On and on and on, without a statistical crumb of comfort for Mayo.
The Dubs are like Gennady Golovkin. From the opening bell, he goes for his opponent, fully absorbed in his work. He does not flinch. When he gets hit hard on the counter, he shakes his head and immediately gets back in the groove. And he just keeps coming and coming and coming until the opponent crumbles. Think Mayo in last year's replay. Or Kerry a few weeks ago.
They are at the height of their powers now, a perfect storm of tactics, strategy, individual self-expression, athleticism, skills, impact substitutes and confidence. In the second half against Kerry they outscored a really hardened, vicious and smart team by 0-13 to 0-6. Importantly, a team with a recent All-Ireland and the greatest winning pedigree of any county. Yet, the Dubs more or less crushed them in that second half, calmly, ruthlessly and with great creativity.
As Dave Hickey put it to me last week, "They are completely lacking in conceit, completely focused on performance rather than result. The result is that they know if they perform they will win the next ball, make the next play and be ahead at the end of the game."
Mayo will play a sweeper to avoid the goals that ruined their chances against the Dubs in 2013 and 2015. Those moments are deeply stamped on every Mayo person's psyche.
But Kerry did precisely that, using Aidan O'Mahony as a more or less full-time sweeper on the D. When they did so, Dublin's two corner-forwards went wide and Dublin simply took their points. Twenty-two of them to be precise. In the last 10 minutes against Kerry, Dublin took eight shots, scoring seven points. In that same time, Kerry got one shot off. Another stat: in the last 12 minutes against a Tyrone team afraid to attack, Mayo didn't take a single shot. In the stadium, we could smell their fear.
Dublin's sweeper isn't really a sweeper at all, just a number six who drops off as the attack advances. They play with a full complement of forwards and man-mark at the back. So they are not robbing Peter to pay Paul. They are the smartest team in the game with players who are trusted by management and in turn trust themselves. So, on top of everything else, they are unpredictable in their creativity. And they play ferociously.
When people say "I think Mayo can do it," and can't explain why, it is because they know, as I do, that Mayo are indeed good enough. It's just that they have never played ferociously for 70 minutes in the biggest games. Aidan O'Shea, for example, has been content to mash up weak teams, but disappears when it is brought to him hard. Philly McMahon brought it to him. And Aidan O'Mahony. And Rory O'Carroll. And he wilted. He has never done it against Kerry or Dublin on the big day. The best he achieved was against a Donegal team last year that was already doomed.
The same goes for Keith Higgins and Cillian O'Connor and Andy Moran and all the rest of them. Even Lee Keegan. In the replay against the Dubs in the semi-final last year, Mayo were four points up entering the last quarter. 1-11 to 0-10. They needed to get to the magic five-point lead. The chance fell to Lee. Clean through, only 21 yards out, he tamely kicked the ball into Cluxton's hands, signalling another Mayo capitulation. The Dubs went on a feeding frenzy, scoring 3-5 to Mayo's 0-3 in the final stretch.
Mayo got a goal to level the 2013 final against Dublin then, just four minutes later, conceded a soft winning goal. How pathetic. Against Kerry in 2014, they had them on the verge of defeat a few minutes into extra-time, then Kevin McLoughlin tapped a ball over the bar instead of driving it to the net. More oul scared shite. It should have been in the onion bag and if it had been there would be no more talk of a Kerry hoodoo. I could go on and on.
Mayo are celebrity losers. Since 2012, this team has won every game that didn't matter and none that did. How many chances do they need? Players would give their right arm to have the opportunity once. They are not prepared to give anything. When we went to Croke Park in 1993, we felt our very lives were on the line, which in a way they were. We played furiously, refusing to wilt. The scoreboard was irrelevant. The only thing that existed was the game. Like all high-level sport, it was about us and what type of men we were.
These Mayo players don't go to that place. They never have. Only in short bursts. Keith Duggan wrote a book about them titled House of Pain. He should have called it House of No Pain. What type of men are they?
Glory doesn't come with a safety net. Mayo need to push up on the kickouts. They need to drive at Dublin in twos and threes, with men surging off the shoulder. Their greatest moment was in the second half against Kerry in the drawn game in 2014 when, for once, they played with ferocity. A man down, four behind, they drove through Kerry in an unforgettable 15-minute spell.
I thought to myself, "these boys are ready to become men." Sadly, puberty was postponed. Into injury-time and leading by four points, they conceded a bad goal and a simple point and lost the replay when Kerry brought it to them real bad. Mayo? It was just too painful in that second period of extra-time. Kerry were too tough. Easier to quit, then blame someone else and go back to their sponsorship deals and their All-Star trips and their self-pity.
Today is Last Chance Mayo. Today is about boys becoming men. It's not really about winning an All-Ireland. It's about Mayo footballers throwing every fibre of their being into this and refusing to yield. Tackle like they never tackled. Make support runs when they haven't a breath in their body. Forgetting everything else except the battle. As Buddy Stephens and his ghetto kids know, the Lord can only help them if they are vicious and violent and bring it real, real hard to the Dubs.
I am not a religious man, but if they do it, at the final whistle I will don the Mayo jersey, kneel in the RTE studio and say "Amen".