Mayo Rocking into the Semi Finals?

“You better stop, look around
Here it comes….
….Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown”

– The Rolling Stones, “19th Nervous Breakdown”

“Me nerves can’t take this. I’ve to go for a walk”. A direct quote from my 85-year-old grandmother who can no longer stick the pace of a Mayo match in the knock-out rounds. And who could blame her. August in the wide open plains of Croke Park isn’t for the faint-hearted. And it certainly doesn’t make for safe television viewing for Octogenarians. But to borrow from a group of lads who are pushing eighty themselves, sometimes you have to stop and look around. Look around at exactly where Mayo football is right now, and how excellence at senior level has become the norm. How consistency of performance has resulted in a fifth consecutive Connacht title. How unflinching discpline and unmatched desire has delivered a crack at a fifth straight semi final appearance.

These truly are heady times for supporters of Mayo football, and it’s been a privilege to witness their development and evolution as a unit. They’ve certainly come a long way from that dark afternoon over here in Ruislip when they were dragged to extra time by a feisty London outfit. From that point on we saw the real stamp of the James Horan era and the emergence of All-Star talents like Lee Keegan, Cillian O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea, Keith Higgins and Colm Boyle. Just that snapshot of the squad highlights the quality which we’ve been spolit with over the past half a decade. Excellence the norm, and yet…

And yet, facing into Sligo in the Connacht final there were a few murmurs of trepidation. Not loud, and certainly not drastic enough to expect a loss, but a fear of getting “caught cold” rattled around the back of one or two minds. Sligo had disposed of a much vaunted Roscommon side. (Well, at least by those east of Ballyhaunis). The dangerous full forward line. The bad pitch. The high ball. The lack of hunger after a fifth year on the road. And yet…

And yet, the performance in the Hyde was more of the same provincial dominance. More of what we had come to expect but were fearing was going to become less frequent. The old clichĂ© “champagne football”, didn’t do it justice. This was hard liqour. It was swigging Jack straight from the bottle. It was speakers to eleven. It was rock and roll, and the man in number eleven was hogging the spotlight. Swagger of Jagger, creative chaos of Keith Moon. 26 points to spare in a provincial final. And yet…

And yet here we are again. Thursday before the game, nerves are jangling. A very fine Donegal team on the horizon, one we’ve had a couple of memorable battles with over the past few years. One more memorable than the other to each set of fans, for obvious reasons. As the first clash of two of the generally accepted “big four”, it’s arguable that Saturday’s encounter is the first of any genuine substance in this year’s championship. Murphy, McFadden, McBrearty, McHugh and the bros McGee. Higgins, Keegan and the bros O’Connor and O’Shea. Hard-edged competitors. Outstanding talents. Mayo’s “all court press” – a term I believe Billy Joe Padden may lay copyright to, although he’ll no doubt owe a royalty to Liam MacHale – versus the entrenched defence and swift transition of Donegal. It should prove to be a fascinating tussle, and one I’ll unfortunately be watching from afar as I play tour guide bringing a group of English friends on their inaugural tour of the Atlantic coast this weekend.

The bookies may edge us slightly, but I objectively couldn’t split the margin between the two. Heart says the green and red will prevail. Just don’t rule out 19 nervous breakdowns between now and the final whistle. You might want to go for a walk.

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