Why it's different this time for Mayo

Why it's different this time for Mayo

IN THE PAST, when Mayo would have a big win in Croke Park, the rest of us would scold them for attaching too much importance to it, for getting carried off on a swell of hype and hope and exaggeration.

Now that the Mayo camp is a place of justified and grounded confidence, it is the rest of us who must check ourselves as we assess what this team might achieve.

There is a story doing the rounds that when Andy Moran was asked by a youngster at an informal Q&A whether he would ever win an All-Ireland with Mayo, he calmly replied: “I’ll win three before I finish.”

And watching them take a 22-point lead over the All-Ireland champions — the team who, we were told this time last year, could not be beaten — the thought occurred that there is a chance he might be right.

There is something utterly compelling about watching this Mayo team function as a multiple of the sum of its parts, about watching men who would rank as solid but unspectacular inter-county footballers a few years ago play like men ready to harvest a clatter of All Stars, and perhaps even Celtic crosses, in the seasons to come.

We have known for some time, for instance, that Colm Boyle is as brave a defender as there is, but like every Mayo player, his ability to perform the skills of the game at pace, under pressure, and, most crucially, off both sides of his body, has improved beyond recognition.

He has gone from being dropped from inter-county football by John O’Mahony to slaloming past three Donegal players at full tilt, soloing off his right before lashing a wonderful point off his left.

Then there is Aidan O’Shea. There was a time, recall, when his name seemed conjoined to the word laziness, when he was a “good footballer, but…”. On Sunday he delivered one of the great midfield performances in Croke Park, a fear láidir who also got through 32 intelligent possessions, like some kind of freakish cross between Darragh O Sé and Brian McGuigan.

Donal Vaughan makes question marks about his ball-playing ability seem laughable now. Lee Keegan is long since back to his irresistible 2012 form. At a time when Alan Dillon should be past his peak, he kicked two glorious points when the contest was still a contest.

Cillian O’Connor is starting to give the lie to the assertion that Mayo lack a superstar forward — whether the chance falls on his left foot or his right foot, he is finishing like the Gooch.

And for all the accurate admiration for Mayo’s outstanding fitness and tackling, it is this comfort on the ball that makes them so much better than most other teams. They bear the hallmarks of men who do not practice a skill until they get it right, but who do so until they can scarcely get it wrong.

They are transferring the ball at blistering pace past good footballers and over the bar defended by good football teams in a manner possible because the basics of Gaelic football have become a matter of muscle memory to them.

And if this was 2010 or maybe even 2011, we would write that you might as well hand them the Sam Maguire now and let their 62 years of waiting and wishing be done with.

But it is 2013, and just 12 months after we were told that football had been solved as if it were some mathematical equation, Mayo are only one of two teams that are playing the sport in thrilling, expansive fashion.

Dublin, too, are making seasoned and tough football teams look foolish.

They beat Cork by five points on Saturday night but those old warriors in red would not have had much cause for complaint if the margin had been 15.

And for all Mayo’s brilliance, it is easy to see Jack McCaffrey and Michael Darragh MacAuley and their mates running at the Mayo defence and fashioning havoc; they have already done it twice this year.

These two teams are playing such refreshing and brilliant football that it would almost seem wrong if they were not to meet. It is fitting that they must dispose of Tyrone and Kerry, the standard bearers of the previous decade, to make it so.

We suspect it is a case of when rather than if. Mayo and Dublin are playing too well to slip up now, and if it comes to pass that they are the last two of the 33 left standing, we are in for a fourth Sunday of September to savour.