Tuesday 20 August 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Why Mayo are the most important team in Gaelic football'

Donal Vaughan of Mayo celebrates after scoring a late point
Donal Vaughan of Mayo celebrates after scoring a late point
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Watching Mayo playing football is like watching Amir Khan boxing. The knockout could come at any moment.

This fallibility is what has made them the most entertaining team in Irish sport for almost a decade, and what makes their games unmissable. Before the throw-in, after the ritual strangulation of the anthem, the announcer should say "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a safety notice. Would all patrons with weak hearts please leave the ground."

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I was in Newry for their contest with Down and it was another classic Mayo adventure. Down had played catatonically boring football for most of the year, but Mayo do not permit this type of thing. They attack and charge and play brilliantly for a while, then they lose their nerve and collapse and concede goals and before you know it, you are in the middle of an emotionally draining melodrama. The sole downside is it only lasts 80-odd minutes, or in the case of certain referees, 74.

There is really no other way to spend a Saturday evening, so when they stumbled over Down, it was merely a matter of setting the satnav for Castlebar, sitting back and enjoying the ride against Armagh. And what a ride it was, Mayo winning a game where no-one had a clue what might happen next, by a point. But only after Jamie Clarke scuffed a golden chance and Rory Grugan had gone round David Clarke and missed an open goal.

Satnav set for Limerick. Tonight was like another home game for Mayo, their supporters outnumbering Galway 5 to 1. Mayo supporters are an emotional soundboard for what is happening on the pitch, which must exert enormous pressure on the Mayo players as their supporters' fear and joy is beamed onto them with full force.

The downside of Mayo's huge entertainment value is that they find it quite impossible to control a game, so when they went seven points up after 18 minutes, no-one was saying "This game is over." Like the seventh round of a championship fight where Khan's family are watching and he is six-rounds-to-nil ahead, Mayo supporters were smiling nervously to each other and feeling jittery. By half-time, they were 2-7 to 0-7 up.

If this were Dublin or Tyrone or Donegal, the game would be dead. By the 46th minute, they were eight up again, at 2-10 to 0-8, but still no-one was leaving. In the next 15 minutes, from nowhere, a poor Galway duly outscored Mayo 0-5 to 0-0 and had missed a penalty, taken with zero conviction by Liam Silke. 61 minutes and Mayo were only three ahead.

In the end, Mayo won by three points  — with Galway's injury time 21-yard free to the net taking the bad look off the scoreboard — having been by far the better team.

James Carr of Mayo celebrates after scoring his side's first goal
James Carr of Mayo celebrates after scoring his side's first goal

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It is a relief to see Galway gone. Galway teams should not play like Fermanagh and this was a team and manager in its death throes. They played, as we knew they would, with zero imagination.

They soloed and hand-passed and ran up blind alleys and by the 46th minute not a single Galway forward had scored from play. The problem was exemplified by the plight of their Corofin contingent.

These superbly talented, imaginative footballers who light up our screens every March look like pub players in this Galway set-up. Martin Farragher (scoreless) was taken off. Ian Burke (scoreless) was sent off. Liam Silke wasn't sure what he should be doing, so soloed and hand-passed just like the others. Shane Walsh kicked one lovely long free but that was as good as it got for him. What a waste of good players and what a middle finger up at the traditions of Galway football.

At half-time, the big idea was to bring Damien Comer on and kick hopeless long balls in on top of him, which yielded precisely zero return. I have never been sure about the kid but no man is an island and in fairness to him, he has been forced to labour in a non-forward-friendly environment since he became a Galway senior. On the few occasions when he won the ball, he tried to break through three or four defenders and got nowhere. At no time in the game did Galway produce a free-flowing move, relying instead on potshots outside the scoring zone to maintain respectability.

At times, Mayo played brilliantly. Young Carr's great solo goal; Cillian O'Connor's incredible free off the outside of the boot in the 64th minute; Darren Coen's three epic points from play (to go with his 0-5 v Roscommon before mystifyingly being taken off, and his game-winning 0-3 against Armagh against the wind); Jason Doherty's point in the 45th minute after a brilliant move, assisted by a wonder catch and lay-off from Cillian O'Connor. Another top-class exhibition of goalkeeping from Clarke, who runs like a dressage horse but doesn't put a foot wrong. But still, they left the door open for Galway and the better teams would have gone through it.

When they were eight up (24 minutes), and six up (35 minutes, 51 minutes, 61 minutes, 68 minutes) and eight up (45 minutes), they showed no composure — again. With eight minutes to go, James Horan had his head in his hands and the Mayo fans were experiencing the agony in the garden again. 

It is, in truth, good news for Galway that they are out. Time to start afresh for this great footballing county. The new manager will have an embarrassment of riches to work with. Perhaps Divilly, or Joyce, or even Rochford. As for Mayo, it is a delight for all neutrals that they are through. Last year we missed them sorely. It is not about the winning, but about the way you play the game.

Which is why Mayo continue to be the most important team in Gaelic football.

Satnav set for Killarney.

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