Much as I’d love to have one, I can’t think of one singular moment when the GAA – and more specifically the Mayo Senior Football Team – became the regular soundtrack to my summer each year. I can probably narrow down the field to the mid 90s, with the memorable 1996 All-Ireland run being the obvious key catalyst. Prior to that I can vaguely remember Dad taking me out to watch various teams beginning with D coming down from Ulster to crush Dublin’s dreams in the earlier part of the decade. But when messrs Maughan, Nallen, Horan and the gang made that remarkable charge in the summer of 96 and I saw the way it energised the community of Mayo expats living in the South of England, the whole experience left its mark.
Following the GAA in this part of the world hasn’t always been the easiest exercise though. Luckily, a strong Irish community in Reading and London more generally always meant there was a plentiful supply of Irish pubs showing the big games growing up. The advent of Google into our lives has taken a lot of the fun and games out of planning your trip to find somewhere you could be sure was showing the game. If you’ve ever found yourself in an unfamiliar part of London, trawling the streets for a pub that looks even vaguely Irish and therefore might be showing the GAA, you’ll know what I mean.
Mayo’s recent taste for the qualifier route has brought the task of finding somewhere for the games into sharp focus. GAAGO has been helpful in this regard recently but life has never felt so wonderfully simple as during that glorious spell from 2011 to 2015 when you felt as though you could plot your route from Connacht Final to at least the All-Ireland semi-final and hopefully even beyond. Holidays and whatever else could be planned around where you might need to be on a particular date to make sure you didn’t miss a game. In the current climate you dare not commit to so much as a quiet pint with a friend for any upcoming weekends as you try to get your head around Mayo’s potentially treacherous route through the qualifier jungle and beyond.
Of course, this is as true for everyone in Mayo as it is for us poor souls stationed outside the county. That sense of sharing the experience is probably a major part of what makes us feel as though we’re in it together as a group of supporters!
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There are some experiences which can perhaps feel a bit more unique to this part of the world though. Watching the 2009 All-Ireland between Kerry and Cork was a moment which summed up the strange situation you can find yourself in when following GAA on these shores. A real Irish pub in this part of the world can be distinguished from something less authentic by the fact that you often genuinely feel as though you’re stepping into a ‘mini Ireland’ as soon as you enter the building. The atmosphere which the right group of people can generate in a certain place and time can have that effect – sometimes to the point that it can be a bit of a shock to the system when you step outside and remember you’re still in Britain. From a Mayo point of view, The Oxford Arms is just one really good example of this. Once in the door, it can feel a lot more like Castlebar than Camden.
This particular day anyway, as the all-Munster clash was just beginning, a pulsating game between Manchester United and Manchester City was dragging into injury-time in a screen on the other side of the room and you could see the tension coming a mile away! The pub was able to accommodate both games alright, but not two different commentaries. The clamour for comms to be switched for the All-Ireland reached fever pitch just as the anthems were moments away in Croke Park. Meanwhile, at the other end of the pub a sizeable group were engrossed in a classic Manchester derby with both sides locked at 3-3.
The bar staff were in a truly impossible position as they argued the merits of robbing Peter to pay Paul when Michael Owen found a dramatic winner for United deep into injury-time. In the ensuing melee, an unidentified member of the bar staff (almost certainly with Irish roots) took the opportunity to switch the comms to Croke Park and the Manchester derby gang – being largely made up of the red half rather than blue – were too delighted to kick up much of a fuss. Crisis averted on this occasion but the kind of culture clash which has probably cropped up plenty of times down the years in various places across Britain and beyond.
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Now at the tender age of 33, I’m also still (just about) old enough to remember the GAA highlights show which Channel 4 used to put out on Saturday mornings. Fronted by the ubiquitous Jimmy Magee and sandwiched between Football Italia and the Kabaddi highlights for a time – in possibly the most eclectic piece of scheduling in the history of TV – it was a bridge to another world. Imagine that for a second, a GAA highlights programme on ENGLISH terrestrial television. Looking back now, we were spoiled really!
Around this time Channel 4 would also broadcast replays (in their entirety) of the All-Ireland finals in both football and hurling. I can still remember the old VHS tape at home labelled simply ‘Cork v Mayo 1989 All-Ireland final’. In our house, that particular tape felt like it was matched in importance only by various Father Ted recordings and a low-quality copy of The Quiet Man.
In contrast, the Meath v Mayo 1996 recording which also sat on the shelf eventually began to feel like a bizarre ornament that you dare not touch, let alone actually watch – like something out of a horror film which contained ghosts best left alone. Somebody in the house must have watched it at some stage but personally I never found the need to ‘go there’.
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Of course, the landscape has changed considerably in recent times for a GAA fan living outside of Ireland. We’ve truly graduated from famine to feast. Whether you’re in the south of England or the south of Australia, the likes of Twitter and GAAGO mean the playing field is more level than ever before in terms of keeping up with your friends and family across the Irish Sea.
The Irish national newspapers are obviously now available online, with the advent of the smartphone another advance to help you keep in touch wherever you find yourself. Podcasts have exploded onto the scene as well in recent years, with the fine work of the Mayo News Football Podcast team proving that you don’t actually need to take a ‘bigger picture’ view of the Championship to ensure a large audience (although the ferocious global Mayo support base probably also has something to do with those numbers). This very blog also serves as an invaluable source of news updates and analysis for everything Mayo-related for so many in all corners of the globe. All of which combine to create a situation that is light years away from just a few decades ago.
The various ways in which you can follow Mayo and any county you might wish to will almost certainly continue to evolve. God only knows what new options we’ll have a decade from now!
Right now though it feels like there’s more ways than ever before to follow the roller-coaster ride that is the Mayo Senior Football Team from wherever you may find yourself …. and that’s just fine by me.