It’s another day closer to our All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Roscommon, a match that could, for this wonderful team of ours, prove to be a defining one. Or not.
Sport, like much of life, tends to be analysed in terms of competing – often contradictory – narratives. The football championship, which goes on for several months but only sees teams – in particular the leading ones – play a small number of matches, is particularly susceptible to being dissected in this fashion.
Talking heads have been on the scene – including within the GAA – for decades. In recent years, though, it appears that everyone and anyone is a football analyst and punditry is a game that can be played by all-comers.
I include myself in that, by the way, and I’d be the first to admit that my skills in that department have been found wanting more than once. What do I know? What, come to think of it, do most of those making pronouncements on the game and on teams really know?
Plenty of people are lining up right now to have their say on Stephen Rochford and his team. Many – including some from within the county – have come to bury the manager and his players, not to praise them.
More than once this summer, the detractors have been poised on the edge of a decisive I-told-you-so moment. But every time the lads have found themselves in the crosshairs, they’ve managed to extricate themselves and dodge the bullet heading their way.
The narrative about us has evolved over the summer, in a campaign where we’ve remained in the limelight for the simple fact that we’ve been in action so often. Kerry are safely into the All-Ireland semi-final having played just three matches, we’ve played twice that many and we’re not there yet.
After Galway we were finished. In an ironic twist of fate, however, Galway ended up getting tipped overboard in this year’s championship last weekend while we’re still hanging grimly in there.
After Derry, Clare were given an outside chance of taking us. After Cusack Park we were widely expected to see off Cork without too much trouble, though there was plenty of hindsight scrambling to come up with a half-plausible explanation as to why Cork damn near did for us in Limerick.
Going into last weekend it was all about our experience versus their youthful enthusiasm. Coming out of it the debate was on who had got on top tactically and whether it was Stephen Rochford or Kevin McStay who had the advantage going into next Monday’s replay.
(Time for another mea culpa here: I bemoaned our man getting outwitted by McStay when leaving Lee in on Enda Smith in the second half but failed to give him due credit for putting Lee on Smith in the first place, a move that paid spectacular dividends for us in the first half. See: what do I know?)
So, on we plod towards Monday. Our lads are now, or so the accepted narrative of the moment goes, working on muscle memory, grizzled old fighters past their best but still in the game, still up for a final, fading shot at glory. Great entertainment value but will someone please put the poor superannuated buggers out of their misery?
Tell that to the likes of Brendan Harrison, Paddy Durcan, Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor or Conor Loftus, lads who are all the right side of 25. Tell it to Footballer of the Year Lee Keegan or to Donal Vaughan or Tom Parsons or Kevin McLoughlin or Aidan O’Shea or Jason Doherty or Cillian O’Connor, all of whom have a bit to go before celebrating their thirtieth birthdays.
Sure, the Class of 2006 – a quintet comprising Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle and Seamus O’Shea (Barry Moran also belongs to that cohort but hasn’t featured at all this year) – along with David Clarke and Andy Moran all remain key players for us . Even then, though, it’s only the last two in that list who are approaching their mid-thirties, the others are all no older than 32.
Lookit, we all know this remarkable team – the best Mayo team I’ve certainly ever seen play – won’t go on forever. It’s reasonable too to acknowledge that the end is coming for at least some of the current playing panel.
What’s not reasonable is to write these lads off while the team is still in contention for the main prize this year. Beat Roscommon on Monday – an outcome the bookies are confidently expecting – and we’re into the final four, a place we expected to be at the start of this year.
Maybe this expectation will prove unfounded, maybe the end will come for us – though only for this year – on Monday. If it does, no doubt the I-told-you-so contingent will enjoy telling us all about how such an outcome was always going to happen.
But, perhaps, this won’t happen. Maybe, just maybe, the narrative will be forced to shift again, as it’s always forced to do when events diverge from the predicted outcome.
This year, we’ve been obliged to expect the unexpected from the lads in Green and Red. Is there any reason for us to doubt now the team’s ability to continue confounding all those who would proclaim to know what’s going to happen when next they take the field in this year’s championship?