Marquees, Myths and Reinvention

I spent some time at home over the Easter break, and with nothing better to do of a Good Friday morning, decided  to head out Westport direction to climb Croagh Patrick. Unfortunately, as I ascended the Reek the weather took quite a dark turn, with an ominous and somewhat strange cloud cover quickly closing in as I reached the summit. Visibility was reduced to zero in this eerie weather front; a dense fog hanging in the air. I had lost track of time as I wandered blindly in a vain attempt to retrace my steps, when all of a sudden, there was a parting in the gloom and a single shaft of light pierced through to illuminate a cavernous tent in front of me, not unlike a circus big top.

In front of the entrance, a small, wiry man looking out over his spectacles sat cross-legged on the ground. As I approached him, I discovered it was none other than Joe Brolly, bedecked in full ring master’s garb with top hat and tails.

 “You’ll never guess who’s hiding in here…” he winked at me, motioning behind the curtain.

In a trance, I stepped behind the drapes and into the hall to discover the rear of the tent – or marquee as I had come to discover it – was open to the elements and facing out to the Atlantic, now bathed in glorious sunshine. But what took my attention wasn’t the scenery, the tent or the ringmaster. It was the hulking colossus in the centre ring – an 8 feet tall heavyweight, Fionn MacCumhaill in Puma Kings, kicking size five O’Neill’s footballs clean out to Clare Island. I realised then who stood before me. The mythical marquee forward….

Of course none of the above happened. It’s a figment of my imagination. Pure fiction.

And yet the above seems less of a fairytale than some of the GAA punditry attempts over these past few months, and it’s not just Joe Brolly that’s the ringleader. Stick the words “Mayo Marquee Forward” into Google and you will discover 342,000 separate entries and I would wager most if not all of those articles can be boiled down to one single, broad generalisation. And that would be the lazy assumption that if Mayo had a MARQUEE FORWARD®  then they would have won at least one of their recent All Ireland final appearances. Let’s not take for granted that there have been three of those finals in the past five years by the way. In all, Mayo have played four finals in that period and lost them by a combined total of six points, which includes the last two by the bare minimum to arguably the greatest team of their generation. Not to mention a draw.

So the fact they have been so close begs the question – if all Mayo need is one single individual to make the difference and get them across the line, what does every other county need? The usual clichés are bandied about far too easily when this debate crops up. Names thrown about like confetti. Michael Murphy. Diarmuid Connolly. Colm Cooper. Peter Canavan. Stephen McDonnell. But of course what separates all of the aforementioned from say, Cillian O’Connor is the fact they are proud owners of a Celtic Cross. Winning hides a multitude of failings, and Canavan himself spoke eloquently on this topic in the past fortnight.

“Win and all those things are forgotten. Only the good stuff is recalled, like the big score or the great save. Everything else just fades away.”

Without the titles to match the talent, the Tyrone man would have been just another fine footballer instead of “Peter the Great”. Neutrals I speak to recall Cillian’s miss in the lost final against Dublin last year. Those of us of a Green and Red persuasion remember his superhuman effort both that day and in the first match; in particular his equalising score from 40 yards to salvage the draw. Such are the fine lines at the elite level. But it’s also worth remembering that for all the (deserved) hype and praise for footballers such as Murphy, the footballer of the year from Donegal’s 2012 success was Karl Lacey. Similarly Jack McCaffrey in 2015 rather than Connolly. Or indeed Lee Keegan last year. Ahem.

To claim Mayo lack MARQUEE FORWARD® is just too simplistic. I refuse to believe there is another team in the country that wouldn’t welcome either O’Connor brother into their side with open arms for example. What is arguably more critical in delivering success is a MARQUEE MANAGER ®. Someone who can take the parts at his disposal and make them greater than their sum. Unlocking potential that players, pundits or fans never knew was there. Reinventing and refreshing the collective.

The great managers and players look to invention and reinvention for success, never resting on what worked in the past. Liverpool’s “boot room” evolution from Shankly to Paisley to Fagan to Dalglish. Sir Alex Ferguson’s continuous rebuilding of sides at Manchester United. Muhammad Ali changing his style to the short term success but long term tragedy of his “rope-a-dope” later years. Brian O’Driscoll sacrificing flair for even greater defensive leadership in the latter part of his career. Cristiano Ronaldo demonstrated a more recent example in the knock out stages of this year’s Champions League, showing he had evolved from skinny skilful winger at Manchester United, to Real Madrid powerhouse forward, and now goal poacher extraordinaire in his twilight years. And there’s precedence in Mayo too, with Ciaran MacDonald’s transition from a young, mercurial “shoot on sight” forward to the passing, creative lynchpin he eventually became driving Crossmolina to All-Ireland success.

The reality is that there is no hidden talent in the County that can simply walk into this current Mayo team and deliver an All-Ireland title. But conversely,  it can’t be derived that one such individual determines success or failure. In the modern game, where the line between half forwards and half backs become blurred, a creative defensive player can deliver match-winning scores in the same way that hard-tackling, hard-running forwards can stymie a creative attack. Single-point losses to a superb Dublin side in two of the three recent finals is testament that this crop of Mayo players possess the collective to get very close to the line and it doesn’t – indeed couldn’t – simply hinge on the addition of a single individual to cross that line. The creative challenge isn’t for a one-off new talent – it’s for the management and players that are already in-situ. A bit of invention against the auld enemy on Sunday would be a good place to start.