View from the Hill
We welcome Dublin fan Neil Franklin into our guest spot as we build up to the big match on Sunday.
I don’t know what my real attitude towards Mayo football is. I’ve never been excited by it in the way that I was excited by Down’s early 90s flair and swagger, or Galway’s late 90s version of the same qualities. I’ve never admired it in the way I admired Tyrone or Armagh’s defiance, I’ve never feared it in the way I feared Meath and Kerry. For a long time it barely registered on my radar. When it did, it came with baggage weighing it down, and it generally made for an uncomfortable watch.
On the day that Mayo demolished Donegal in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final, I began reading Keith Duggan’s book “House Of Pain”, finishing it three weeks later, the day before Mayo beat Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final. The aim of that book may not be to fill people from other counties with pity for Mayo, but unfortunately that is the inevitable outcome of reading it. Everybody wants Mayo to win an All-Ireland. The truth is, we want you to get it over with so we can stop feeling guilty about cheering against you.
But I’m also jealous of Mayo in some ways. That may sound strange coming from somebody from a county with 24 All-Ireland titles against Mayo’s mere three but to me, it’s rational. Kind of.
I’m jealous of what it must feel like to have a whole county unite and go into the Lion’s den and face Hill 16 and 50,000 Dubs in their own backyard. Jealous of being from a county where GAA is part of the fabric of everyday life in a way that it will never be in Dublin. Jealous of being part of a people and a cause in a way that we will never know. Jealous of being an underdog. Jealous of the chase.
Mayo people want to end the chase, and go back to being a normal county unencumbered by the nation’s pity and “God help us” tags. The chase can only be worthwhile if the prize is won.
The only insight I can gather into what it must feel like to be a Mayo person as Sam Maguire comes into view in the distance and then disappears yet again is from being a Liverpool fan in April 2014 as 24 years without a League championship promised to end in a glorious climax, and then blew up in a manner that left me feeling despairing, bitter, yet empty. It’s not the same though. Liverpool FC is a basically a television-inspired, one way love affair for me, not much more real than Taylor Swift or Jessica Alba. Mayo football to Mayo people is not that and never will be.
Dublin’s chase, the longest in the county’s history, lasted 16 years, exactly one quarter of the current length of Mayo’s.
Winning in 2011 was great. The manner of it was better, coming from behind as underdogs to overhaul your greatest rivals and beat them in the championship for the first time in 34 years.
I knew then and I know now that that was as good as it could ever get following the Dublin football team. The 2013 semi-final came damn close, but again, that was Kerry. Kerry are the one county who will always be able to waken even the most sated Dub from his well-fed sloth and turn them into a ravenous, bloodthirsty animal again.
I didn’t particularly enjoy the final. September 22nd of two years ago almost felt too perfect and ultimately, it could only disappoint. Closer to the shortest day than the longest, in most years it would have been the hottest day of the year, although perhaps not in that glorious summer of 2013.
I stood beside Donegal, Derry, Armagh and Tyrone people in previous years as they experienced the agonising final minutes before their first All-Irelands, so I’ve seen and even felt what it brings out in people. Being in opposition to that is a strange, conflicted feeling. There was a different kind of tension in the air in 2013 to 2011. I felt our tension and I felt Mayo’s tension as a group of Mayo supporters stood near me on Hill 16.
As Cillian O’Connor lined up that last free, it was difficult to know what to think. I didn’t know what I wanted to happen. Probably for one more play to be allowed and for Mayo to get a draw. That was not to be.
When Joe McQuillan blew the whistle from Stephen Cluxton’s kickout, there were celebrations, flares, flags and blue smoke, but it wasn’t like 2011. There was real disappointment and real emotion in close vicinity and it was hard not to feel some of it.
It’s hard not to laugh at Kerry and Kilkenny people who tell me they know disappointment too. Sure. They don’t even know what it felt like to be a Dublin supporter during our barren spell. Never mind Mayo, never mind counties who have never won the All-Ireland such as Monaghan.
Dublin people perhaps know more disappointment than Kerry or Kilkenny, but it’s still different for us. Winning does strange things to you. Winning when you have an almost obscene population and money advantage, and now talent advantage over virtually every county, as Dublin have, does even stranger things. Dublin should be winning and are winning. You find yourself becoming apathetic, bored almost, as the latest hapless victim lines up to be squashed like a bug. Every match in the cavernous new Croke Park, metaphorical tumbleweed blowing around the place, Dublin people fattened on success, some too bored by the sheer inevitability of it all to even bother clapping never mind cheering, the match day experience usually as stale as a loaf that left Oul’ Mr. Brennan’s factory a fortnight ago.
As a kid growing up, for me Dublin’s year generally revolved around one day – often the last Sunday in July, Leinster final day, sometimes earlier, in which case it would be the unofficial but real Leinster final day, when we would inevitably meet Meath. That day would determine whether the year was a success or a failure.
All this time we in Dublin would have considered Mayo not much more than a joke, a team that might have an outside chance of sneaking through to make up the numbers in the All-Ireland final in those triennial years when Connacht teams got the “soft” draw of the Ulster champions in the semi-final.
The things began to change. The GAA decided to give teams a second chance and rivalries and certainties blurred. Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Armagh and London came onto Dublin’s horizon. Kerry returned to it. And then, later, came Mayo. Respect wasn’t something that came naturally to Dublin people when they thought of Mayo. Mayo have had to earn Dublin’s respect.
The 2013 final was the apex of what is mainly a modern rivalry, but it is pockmarked by the far apart yet symmetrical semi-final meetings of 1955 and 1985 to which this year’s edition is the latest descendant. Both took place in the midst of decades in which Ireland was blighted by emigration and both ended in draws. The circle turns again.
1955 was a key year in Dublin GAA history. It was the first year of what we now know as “The Dubs”, the first time a Dublin football team made up entirely of Dubliners, most of them St. Vincent’s men, won a Leinster title. With Kevin Heffernan starring, a 20 point humiliation of Meath led to an All-Ireland semi-final meeting with an ageing Mayo team trying one more time to get back to the summit they had reached in 1950 and 1951. Although famous names such as Tom Langan, Paddy Prendergast and Sean Flanagan were still there, they were shorn of their star forward Padraic Carney, who had left for the USA the previous year to pursue his medical career. In rain and thunder and lightning that made conditions almost unplayable, the teams drew 1-4 to 0-7, Dublin eventually drawing level late on through Nicky Maher.
The replay went ahead in much better weather as the second part of a double-bill with Kerry and Cavan, who were also replaying their semi-final. This time Dublin took the initiative early and would never really lose it after Ollie Freaney’s first half goal cancelled out Jimmy Curran’s effort. Despite Curran’s efforts in hitting every score of Mayo’s 1-7 tally, Dublin’s 1-8 was enough to win by a single point. They would lose the final to Kerry, the first chapter in a storied rivalry which has rarely relented ever since.
1985 is remembered mainly for two things – Padraig Brogan’s screamer of a goal in front of Hill 16 and John Finn having his jaw broken. A whole other article could probably be written about that, but we won’t go there …
The drawn game of 1985 was significant in that it marked the first, tentative step towards Mayo being a genuine national force in the game since the corresponding semi-final 30 years earlier. An eight point replay defeat turned out to be their lot, but the genesis of the 1989 final team was there in those matches. Again, Dublin lost the final to you-know-who. In fact all four Dublin-Mayo semi-finals since 1955 have seen the winner go on to lose the final.
The semi-final of 2006 was the day the modern day rivalry of Dublin and Mayo really began. Before the match had even started, farcical scenes almost reminiscent of a Benny Hill Show sketch had the crowd laughing and shouting angrily in equal measure.
Mayo weren’t the first team to warm up in front of Hill 16 in an All-Ireland semi-final. Tyrone did likewise in 1984, and subsequently were made to pay in a comprehensive beating.
But that was a Dublin team who were reigning All-Ireland champions and were never going to be undermined by such nonsense. In 2006 Mayo knew that while they weren’t a champion team, neither was it a champion team they were facing, but one with a soft underbelly which could be exposed. While it would be fatuous to claim it genuinely affected the result, Dublin having their territory claimed undoubtedly rattled them. It was the ridiculous prelude to the sublime as the game of the year and possibly the decade ensued.
It was Mayo’s day of blond ambition. Conor Mortimer led the way, but Ciaran McDonald’s contribution is undoubtedly the more enduring.
Like Mayo football as a whole, McDonald had to earn people’s respect. Now considered an almost mythical, mystical figure of Mayo football, a diffident, avant-garde, mysterious leftfield genius, it’s hard to believe that for a long time he was treated as a bit of joke figure. A flash harry, a “Swedish Maid”, as Joe Brolly once called him. That changed in 2004, shortly after Brolly made those comments during a Connacht championship clash with Galway. Mayo made the All-Ireland final where, despite McDonald’s not inconsiderable efforts, they were no match for Kerry, but skewered All-Ireland champions Tyrone along the way. That day McDonald made sure nobody would ever fail to take him seriously again.
His performance in that semi-final against Dublin in 2006 seemed as extraordinary at the time as that Mayo team was ordinary, and a look back at the video confirms first impressions didn’t lie. McDonald controlled that game like a matador. In the midst of a Dublin whirlwind, he was like a Gaelic football equivalent of Maradona at the 1986 World Cup, controlling everything, dictating the tempo almost nonchalantly. And at the end, delivering the exquisite coup de grace.
But in truth, that 2006 semi-final was a battle to be runners-up to one of the best Kerry teams ever.
Things had moved on significantly by the time the 2012 semi-final came around, with a sprinkling of survivors on both sides peppering two largely new, and better teams, even if the match didn’t quite attain the all-time classic status of six years before. The flair of McDonald may not have iced Mayo’s cake this time, but it was clear that their power and pace were the framework of a more formidable overall unit.
In saying that, the Dublin of 2012 were not the Dublin of 2011, or 2013, feeling the hangover of All-Ireland success, Pat Gilroy unable to rouse them like he had been a year earlier. It was only the prospect of a humiliation that did so, but the roar when it came threatened to engulf Mayo. That last 20 minutes was one of the most devastating bursts of football that this Dublin team have produced, and had Bernard Brogan slotted a gilt-edged chance past David Clarke with five minutes left, the result would likely have gone the other way. He didn’t, Mayo advanced to another losing final and Brogan stored his disappointment up for 2013 when he would face a different Mayo goalkeeper.
The record shows that Mayo have always troubled Dublin. In those five times the counties have crossed paths since 1955, on the initial day there have been two draws, two Mayo wins, and a solitary Dublin win by one point, Dublin’s 1955 and 1985 replay wins coming by one and eight points respectively.
Which leads us to Sunday.
Dublin at times have looked unstoppable this year, and the league rout in Castlebar in March was one of those occasions. But lately, they’ve been looking vulnerable. Stephen Cluxton has been doing a fair impression of Iker Casillas at last year’s World Cup. Paul Flynn appears hampered by injury. Michael Darragh McAuley’s engine appears to be running on ordinary rather than premium at the moment.
Mayo people would be foolish to take any of that at face value. This is a champion Dublin team with the ability to explode.
Mayo’s early season form is now forgotten, their performance against Donegal as complete as any they’ve put in since 2011. James Horan did a superb job in his four years, but perhaps the fresh voices of Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes, who have won an All-Ireland under-21 title with many of this team, and a fresh role for Aidan O’Shea, can make the difference.
“Miles on the clock”, say the detractors, given that those under-21 players of 2006 are all around the 30 mark now. But if this was a Kerry team, it would be classed as vast experience, and that’s what it deserves to be classed as. Both teams have that experience and a superb, free flowing style at their best, and it’s as tantalising a clash as has been played in the football championship since the great Kerry and Tyrone teams of the last decade met in their two All-Ireland finals.
It’s rare to have a great atmosphere at Croke Park these days. League and Leinster championship matches there are usually a depressing prospect.
Sunday will be different. It’ll be full on and then some. Semi-finals generally provide the best atmosphere of any match in a given year, as Croke Park is filled with supporters from the competing counties rather than the large proportion of neutrals that attend the final. And for Dubs it yet again it provides the prospect of a moment which is exclusive to the patrons on Hill 16 (we’re like the good folk at Augusta, just noiser and with a more colourful vocabulary). Five times in the new Croke Park Dublin have lost semi-finals. On each of those occasions, at the final whistle, the roar that went up from the other three sides of the stadium has been incredible and genuinely spine tingling. Eerily quiet around you, the rest of Croke Park becomes deafening, a wall of noise that Phil Spector couldn’t reproduce. Horrible yet beautiful at the same time.
Few counties have a Dublin diaspora like Mayo. The pubs will fill with them from Saturday evening, and as I wait at my Dublin bus stop on the main road in from the West on Sunday morning, cars and buses zooming past with their green and red flags will signal the main invasion.
Whereas in previous decades, Dublin supporters used to wait for the last Sunday in July, it’s now the last Sunday in August we wait for as the day when the real business begins. This is the type of day you wait all year for. But for both teams it’s only a bridge to September. For Mayo, the chase will continue past Sunday, either way.
The big dog versus the underdog.
Every underdog surely has his day eventually.
Neil Franklin loves hurling (especially the golden 90s era), soccer (especially Liverpool), darts, poetry, wine and song. If he had a paper cut he would bleed blue. Follow him on twitter at @hill16bhoy