Almost a full month has passed since I last touched base here on the blog. College life got in the way big time, so much so that I spent my FBD days fulfilling my PRO duty and covering NUIG’s matches. I haven’t, though, lost touch with my green and red side completely. Mayo born boys such as Adam Gallagher, Steven Conroy, Eoin O’Donoghue and Stephen Brennan have been playing fantastic football for the college, a small reminder that the future of Mayo football is in good hands.
The months seem to trickle by, the January blues are almost over and we’re stepping into spring, which can only mean one thing: League football. One of my first posts for this blog was a piece commenting on the League and how it has become a benchmark in football.
The top teams want to be at the top table. Winning the Division One title boded well for Dublin, Kerry, Cork and even Tyrone, who then continued on their journey to capture an All-Ireland title a few months down the line. It’s the first real tester of the year and how it tested us last year.
Three straight defeats in our opening matches and it looked like we were condemned to relegation. Mayo have often pulled together as a team in order to salvage something from a game and the group of players last year rallied together in order to save their Division One status, something which they completed successfully.
It’s going to be just as hard this year: a League title is something that has evaded us for sixteen years now. We need to start demolishing these droughts, even in terms of the Connacht title. A year is far too long for Mayo to remain trophy-less in their province.
The sunshine supporters are still soundly asleep but the winter warriors were out in force against NUIG in MacHale Park on that opening round of the FBD and you’d expect no different against Monaghan in the opener of the league. They will no doubt face the long journeys to Tyrone, Kerry and Dublin. Wouldn’t it be worth every mile if it meant we could grab victories on the home soil of three of the other top four teams in the country.
To position ourselves in the top two places of the table, and propel ourselves into a final in Croke Park, earlier than what we’re used to, could just be the making of us. It could finally banish that folklore of recent years that, Mayo are chokers, they can’t do it in Croke Park on Final day. To lift a trophy, no matter what model it is, in Croke Park after winning a game of football would be a cherished experience.
Even to reach the final, and lose, could be a blessing in disguise. 2001 was the last time we won the Division 1 title. Our opponents on that day were neighbours Galway, and as far as I remember, 2001 ended up being a good year for them!
When I was on here last, I mentioned that I was in the process of putting together a radio documentary on Mayo football for college. Progress has steadily moved since then and I recently transcribed the thoughts of James Nallen and David Brady from pen to paper.
I idolise both of these men. They were animals on a football pitch – determined, hungry and passionate – and they personified the early Noughties of Mayo football that I grew up with. So to have the chance to interview them was surreal to say the least.
I interviewed David Brady in the Clarion Hotel in Dublin. His deep voice is distinct, and, in true Brady fashion, he told me the ins and outs of any question I put to him, with no punches spared and no opinion held back.
I asked him if our so-called golden period was heading for the exit door. I was soon put in my place.
It’s never about what you have, it’s about what’s coming up behind you. There’s no such thing as too young, or inexperienced, Neil Douglas, Liam Irwin, Matthew Ruane, Shairoze Akram, these lads need to be included in the panel this year coming, we have a better breed of football coming up in Mayo, it needs to be unleashed.
Something which also grabbed my attention at the time, and which I was reminded of when I went copying it out, was his thoughts on management.
I’m getting itchy feet, I will manage Mayo someday, no doubt about it and I don’t mean in a little capacity, I’m talking winning an All-Ireland with the Seniors. When? God knows, it need’s 100% commitment. I’d need to find the right balance between: work, football, life and the wife! But it will happen, and whether we win an All-Ireland before that, I won’t be leaving until I win one too.
My meeting with James Nallen was a different one, more relaxed. We sat down in his office in NUIG where he works as a technician and chatted over a cup of tea. James Nallen is a man whose fitness is still key in his life. It was my first time properly meeting James, but I have seen him around the college many time, mostly in the gym. Thoroughly stretching and exercising at a rate which I assume is just as high as it was in his playing days. His passion for Mayo football still burns strong and his eyes lit up at the prospect of talking about Mayo GAA in the middle of December.
I feel sorry for the current group, there is no question that they are good enough to be all-Ireland champions. People call it unfortunate, there’s no word to describe this group of Mayo players in terms of not winning an All-Ireland. They are the fittest, strongest, most talented group we have ever seen. They’re not unfortunate, they’re just in waiting.
He took the same stance of Brady regarding additions to the panel for the league.
It’s always good to keep things fresh. I’m not going to name names of who should come in but for sure there is room there for new additions. Majority of the time, training is challenging but it can get stale and that’s where you need to have an element of renewal and rejuvenation.
His final words are a carbon copy of most of our thoughts:
When the League comes around, you forget about last year, the pain, the hurt, the losses. It’s all forgotten, at that stage, it’s time to get excited again.
It is time to get excited again, it’s time to hit the reset button. It’s time to hang out the flags, wear the jersey, sing the songs and shame on you if you stopped in the first place! The long-term goal remains the same, as always. For the time being, however, we’ll look forward to and would settle for a top two finish in the League.
A version of this article appears in this week’s Western People.