Sunday 25 February 2018

Mayo added an extension, a loft conversion and several sheds to their house of pain

29 September 1996; Referee Pat McEnaney sends off Mayo's Liam McHale. Photo: Sportsfile
29 September 1996; Referee Pat McEnaney sends off Mayo's Liam McHale. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Watching Mayo win an All-Ireland semi-final is a bittersweet experience for the neutral. On the one hand it's great to see their dream of finally getting hold of Sam Maguire again staying alive. But on the other it raises the grim prospect of another All-Ireland final defeat for the red and green.

How much disappointment can one county take? Quite a lot it seems when you're talking about Mayo. Through a series of well nigh unbearable reverses, the county's supporters have been a loyal, passionate and uncomplaining marvel.

One of the worst things about a Mayo final loss is that anyone with a semblance of imagination has projected the scenes which would follow a victory. There's no doubt it would be a highpoint to match even Clare's hurling win in 1995. In terms of raw emotion it would be up there with any of the great days of Irish sport. With every year that goes by, the pressure builds and the potential joy bottled up inside the Western volcano grows larger.

Yet according to the bookies, the pundits and pretty much everyone outside Mayo, another defeat looms today for the men who pronounce bag to rhyme with vague. Which would make it three final defeats in five years. That wouldn't be a record - Galway's defeats in 1940, 1941 and 1942 and 1971, 1973 and 1974 continue to be the gold standard for decider failure - but add in the defeats of the previous two decades and you have an unparalleled knack for falling at the last hurdle.

Lose today and it will be seven final defeats and no victory in 21 years for Mayo. No county in the history of the football championship has ever endured a run like that. The closest there's been was Dublin going 1-6 from 1978 to 1994, but they did at least have a win in 1983. The county was already a byword for heartbreak when Keith Duggan wrote his fine book on the subject House of Pain back in 2007. Since then Mayo have managed to add a sizable extension, a loft conversion and several sheds. If they lose today you can look forward to the reissue 'Housing Estate of Pain' with perhaps the lines from Philip Larkin 'Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf' as the epigraph at the front.

This record has given rise to the notion that Mayo 'bottle it' on the big day. It's an accusation which bears investigation. I don't think it can be levelled at the Mayo teams who were trounced in the finals of 2004 and 2006, both of whom were clearly inferior in terms of personnel to their Kerry conquerors and would have been outgunned no matter how they'd played.

The 1996 defeat against Meath is often adduced as evidence for the prosecution in this case. Yet Mayo had been completely written off going into the first game and came within a fortuitous hop of the ball of winning it. They did kick away numerous chances in the replay yet were shockingly unfortunate with the early sending off of Liam McHale (pictured), the best player on the field in the drawn match, after the mass brawl that day. The referee had his pick of players to send off; unfortunately for Mayo he chose, as James Horan pointed out, to send off their best footballer and Meath's worst (Colm Coyle). Mayo's rally into the wind that day was heroic, but in the end Meath were a better team and went on to be probably the best of that particular era.

Perhaps the closest Mayo came to an outright bottle was in 1997. There is no doubt that Kerry were there for the taking that day and the losers' shooting degenerated into utter wildness in the second half. Yet Mayo had shot like that all year and ended up in the final thanks to a terrific defence and a powerful midfield. Perhaps it wasn't bottling as much as a simple case of players who weren't very good at shooting, not shooting very well.

Fast-forward to 2012 and you have the two-goal start handed to Donegal. Yet few would argue that Donegal were not a better side than Mayo that year. In 2013 Mayo opened like winners before handing a goal to Bernard Brogan. Bottling? Perhaps. Or perhaps, as occurred yet again against Kerry in 2014 and Dublin last year, just a lack of top-class defenders. Tempting though it may be to ascribe Mayo's final travails to psychological ills, the fact is that in recent times a weak full-back line prone to conceding goals at vital times has been their bugbear. Supposed hang-ups and hoodoos usually have more prosaic explanations.

Today Mayo look weaker, man for man, than Dublin, though the unsung Brendan Harrison has been a defensive revelation and a lot could change if the O'Connor brothers find the really big game which is undoubtedly in them but hasn't emerged so far this year. Should they fall short, their failure will have more to do with ability than history.

A friend of mine, a fervent Mayo fan, reckons there's a streak of religious mysticism in the county character and cites Croagh Patrick, the Knock apparitions and the House of Prayer in Achill. Perhaps the loyalty of their fans stems from this tendency towards faith.

It has to be rewarded sometime. Doesn't it?

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