Sport Gaelic Football

Monday 19 August 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Only predictable thing about Mayo is their unpredictability'

Loyal to the core: James McCormack of Mayo mixes with supporters after the final whistle in Newry last Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Loyal to the core: James McCormack of Mayo mixes with supporters after the final whistle in Newry last Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

To rob and gut an old Samuel Johnson line: if you're tired of Mayo, you're tired of life. If you're tired of Mayo football, you're tired of unpredictability, of certainty, of a constantly changing storyline, of nothing changing at all.

For Mayo to go from National Football League champions on the final day of March to scrapping for their championship lives on the final Saturday of June is as surprising as it isn't.

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Mayo make a fool of predictions so let's jump to the end and work backwards: if Mayo beat Armagh in Castlebar tonight what will we know?

We'll know that Mayo can stare down another doomsday scenario which is code this week for an injury crisis. When Mayo were beaten by Kerry in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay, James Horan - in what was his final game in his first coming as Mayo manager - was asked about controversial refereeing decisions.

This was a game where the bad luck for Mayo ran down to a level where Aidan O'Shea and Cillian O'Connor took each other in a horribly unfortunate collision. "I'm not looking at referee's calls because it's not good for the soul," Horan said that day. When his captain Diarmuid O'Connor suffered a fractured wrist in training on Tuesday night, it would be forgiveable if Horan was left wondering if this was good for the soul.

Horan had already lost one of Mayo's best players in the league when Matthew Ruane - the kind of young player Mayo have been desperate for - broke his collarbone in training earlier this month. Mayo's midfield options were already running low with Tom Parsons still sidelined and Seamie O'Shea working his way back to full fitness.

But to lose O'Connor - possibly - for the rest of the championship? The man who captained them to their first piece of national silverware in 18 years. The man who emptied himself when Mayo were knocked out of the championship in Newbridge last summer.

If Mayo win tonight, they'll show they can work through those kinds of set-backs. If Mayo win, they'll show that Armagh's rising sensation, Rian O'Neill, might have been a danger man but he wasn't the difference. It's been a long time since optimism and Armagh were linked-in but it's happening.

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It's not just the hope around O'Neill. Armagh had 13 different scorers in their qualifier win over Monaghan last weekend. There's Jamie Clarke. There's Jarly Óg Burns. There was even Down manager Paddy Tally predicting an Armagh win.

"Even we found out last week that you could keep in touch with Mayo right throughout the match," Tally said on OTB AM about Down's defeat to Mayo last weekend. "They were susceptible to being opened up at the back which wouldn't have been a trait of the Mayo team a number of years ago."

If Mayo win well tonight they'll remember it as another occasion when they could write off being written off. They'll remember it for the packed house. For the heat. For making MacHale Park a fortress again. And they'll remember what happened the last time they beat and played Armagh in a championship game.

It was the 1950 All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park. It was the year Mayo went on to win an All-Ireland. What's the point of hope if it doesn't come with a bit of hype?

But if Mayo lose to Armagh what will we be left with? We'll be left wondering if winning the league final was the worst thing to happen to them in the context of the championship. There's no way you could have thought that if you were in Croke Park last March.

Remember Andy Moran and the way he slipped the ball to the unmarked sub Ciarán Treacy to score the killer goal. Rob Hennelly and the way he saved an effort at the death from David Clifford. Horan and the way he said they could have won "by 10 or 12 points" if they took all their chances. The possibility they were again going to be the best bet to put it up to the Dubs. The excitement over the potential of the younger players.

"The greatest thing for all of us is that the competition is going to be absolutely crazy for the next four weeks," Lee Keegan said after that final win. "That's something we've probably missed for the last few years is having that pool of talent coming through and now they've got exposure to what they can do against the big teams. And now they're going to put the foot down again."

How did the foot miss the pedal so badly between then and the defeat to Roscommon? Even though Horan continually says he's close to a return, why is Cillian O'Connor still sidelined? It has led to speculation there was a disciplinary issue which Horan denied last weekend. There was the loss of Ruane and a championship debut for Fionn McDonagh for the qualifier win over Down but Horan reverted to experience with starting places for Moran and Colm Boyle, moves that seemed to puncture the hope that the younger players would be ready for this level.

And what is it with Mayo picking up injuries at training? "It's the latest in what can only be at this stage described as a litany of injuries that have occurred on the training ground," John Gunnigan of the Mayo GAA Blog said on the Mayo News podcast this week.

"There has to be some kind of explanation as to why we are suffering this level of damage in training. Because if this was par for the course, I would expect every other county to be suffering the same kind of haemorrhage from their squad. This looks like we're discharging bullets into our toes to be honest with you".

Following this latest injury setback to their captain, it leaves Mayo with a look that they're on borrowed time while Armagh go to Castlebar looking to pull off a heist. What we know about Mayo is what we don't know. It's the price we pay for the thrill of watching and waiting to see just what they will do next.

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