Roy Curtis: 'Mayo have risen from the cold ashes of 2018 to become a real threat to the five-in-a-row'
IT filled the sky above Croke Park like a rumble of mega-thunder, a volley of delirious drumfire, the soundtrack of a tribe’s jailbreak from the prison of its own cruel backstory.
A sonic boom of “MAY-O, MAY-O, MAY-O,” the anthem of liberation marching across the coliseum like an advancing army, a bellows of sound sparking a fire of green and red joy.
Never had the last dregs of March tasted so like a full-bodied glass of September.
When a people have been so long trapped in a mineshaft of misery, the date on the calendar matters so much less than the first redemptive glow of sunlight on soot-stained faces.
When a county has such a black hole in its CV, when its family have sailed such an endless ocean of yearning, it hardly matters if landfall is made in March or September.
Yet, if there was a sense of rapture, it was not simply because Mayo, after all those backbreaking, strength-sapping, foiled-at-the-last hurdle attempts since 2001 to win a national title, were league champions.
No, the significance of what unspooled on Sunday ran so much deeper.
This was Mayo rising from 2018’s cold ashes, emphatically re-announcing their All-Ireland candidacy, advertising on giant, 96-sheet billboards their credentials to place a credible green and red roadblock in the path of Dublin’s historic drive-for-five cavalcade.
Summer just got so much more interesting.
Sunday’s cannonball amounted to a rebuke to those of us among Mayo’s legion of admirers who feared that their reel was just about run.
It sent us homewards to think again. Maybe this epic movie – the one that has the county pursuing the Holy Grail for 68 years now - is not after all doomed to end in anguish.
If the springtime losses to Dublin and Galway – a combined 21 games without beating either of these counties amounts to being held in a vice-like psychological grip – remain a concern, still, who can say now, that 2017 marked their last meaningful brush with the great summer carnival?
Not when James Horan has so impressively re-seeded, dressing the House of Pain in the upbeat uniform of fearless youth.
Matthew Ruane’s seismic springtime impact suggests some shrewd Breaffy scientist has brilliantly cracked and replicated the code of Brian Fenton’s DNA.
Ruane and a resurgent Aidan O’Shea – a colossus on Sunday, taking possession deep, breaking tackles, plucking ball from the sky and, in the third quarter, drawing gasps of wonder, when lasering a sumptuous, inch-perfect 50-yard pass in behind the Kerry defence – offer deep foundations on which a skyscraping summer can be built.
When Mayo required killing scores, when the moment came to cry freedom, it was other voices, the until now unfamiliar chorus of Darren Coen and James Carr, Fergal Boland and Ciaran Tracey who jumped on their Deliveroo bikes.
With their unafraid, game-changing interventions, the quartet combining for 1-5 (2-6 when Ruane’s towering contribution is included), any accusation that this is a jaded team, one relying on the same ageing faces, perished.
Diarmuid O’Connor already has an impressive back catalogue, one that includes back-to-back Young Player of the Year awards. But here, still just 24, he arrived at a whole new level of influence, shaping the contest over a quite untouchable second 35 minutes.
In O’Connor and O’Shea and Paddy Durcan, Mayo have a trio at the peak of their powers, a firewall of excellence against a return to the factory-settings of late summer devastation.
On Sunday, they announced that if all those near misses have invaded their psyche, they have not remotely conquered it.
Not only was this a cleansing afternoon, it might also provide a critical stepping stone to new heights.
Seven counties have won the league title since Mayo’s 2001 triumph. All bar one – Derry – also lifted Sam Maguire over that 18-year period.
Winning in spring begets winning in summer: Jim Gavin, the manager against whom all his peers are measured, has five league titles to go with five All-Irelands.
Cork’s 2010 All-Ireland was sandwiched amongst an NFL three-in-a-row; Tyrone’s glorious Noughties, a decade which yielded three summer Super Bowls, was immediately preceded by back-to-back league titles in 2002 and 2003.
The psychological value of a national title for Mayo can hardly be overstated. Sunday was a lottery win for self-confidence, unity of purpose, a conviction that Horan’s return and recalibrated style of play can take them to September’s mountaintop.
A new, direct kicking dimension to their game, allied with the familiar athletic thrusts from Durcan, Keith Higgins and Lee Keegan, may be the enriched uranium they have been seeking as they look to build a nuclear capability.
The diamond is not yet perfectly polished. On Sunday some of the old failings, from poor shot selection and decision making, to a difficulty, even with so much possession, in locating the opposition jugular, resurfaced.
Yet, their 3-11 tally was more than the best they could manage in any of their five All-Ireland final appearances (including the 2016 drawn game) since 2012.
The glass half-empty contingent will argue that confirms a porous Kerry defence. The more upbeat will contend that Mayo have found a greater offensive verve.
It is eternally true that on the sporting bond markets an NFL medal will never yield the same emotional dividend as the life-transforming Big One of a late summer Celtic cross.
But there is, at the very least, a growing suspicion that Sunday’s impressive remittance might well be the seed capital Mayo require to mount one last bid for the title deeds of summer.