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Mayo must keep driving on

Sean Rice

Seán Rice

IT’S been said that long ailments wear out pain and long hopes, joy. Perhaps.
Mayo’s quest to close a lifetime gap, coupled to the pain of so many narrow defeats at the final hurdle would seem to bear out the sentiments conveyed in that old maxim.
But as we wriggled off hooks throughout the championship, as hopes subsided and flared, tumbled and soared we can only marvel now at a season of rare contradictions. A time when our minds were unable to absorb all that was thrown at us. A season with conclusions as unforgiving as any of the past six . . . and, ironically, as wonderful!
How it ended will touch a raw nerve in the players. And deep down few will be exercised by speeches that promise the fight will go on. In the end it will be for them to decide to relight the fuse, to find in the marrow of their bones the motivation to re-start. Just now it is but another layer in a memory overloaded with emotion.
Whatever decision they arrive at mental monuments to a Mayo the likes of which we have never seen are already under way. Their steel, their unremitting application is an enduring memory, each squad member personifying the confidence Stephen Rochford had invested in him.
Whatever the future holds for Mayo football it must ensure there is no return to the swamplands of the past. That is the message and the challenge this Mayo team has tacked to the hearts of those who follow in administration and on the field . . . that there is no going back, that Mayo will continue to be in the forefront of every championship campaign until their ambitions are realised.
The tactical cynicism of Dublin in those final minutes has raised questions about the real worth of their victory. But the records will not reveal the mob incidents in which they indulged to close out the game.
It didn’t come to that on Sunday, but I can’t ever imagine Mayo resorting to such unsavoury tactics as wrestling with every opponent within sight of the ball, or clasping him in an iron embrace in the full glare of the referee’s blind eye, or throwing aside the goalkeeper’s tee to kill time.
Maybe they should. Victory would seem to justify whatever it takes. And Dublin are old hands at pushing the boundaries. All the sweeter for the larceny!
Some day an upright and fearless referee will decide to punish such behaviour by awarding a free kick to the victims 35 metres out from the goal of the offending side, irrespective of where the fouls have been committed. When that happens it will be the end of it.
But where is the referee?
All the speculation just now centres on whether Andy Moran, given new life by Stephen Rochford, will continue. And whether Rochford himself remains at the helm. The close bond established between Andy and supporters is profound. He is their darling. The ovation for him as he left the pitch in Croke Park bordered on adulation. Theirs is a kind of mystical relationship and it stems from his brilliance all season.
You recall the doubts that surrounded his return to the team when Rochford took charge two years ago. His reincarnation says as much about the acumen of the manager as it does about the fine scores Moran has sculpted to keep Mayo hopes alive. Of course he’ll be back.

But Rochford is essential to the package. His management, and that of his team, contributed enormously to Mayo’s climb back to the final. Uncalled for criticism and other pressures have urged him to take time out to reflect and contemplate his future. It is to be hoped he will find reasons to give it one more year.
You think of the pageantry of the All-Ireland, the intensity of the exchanges, the pressure, the strain, the suspense and those guys spilling out onto the pitch, the sweat and energy of their toil built up over the years, and the thrills and heartbreak that come with it.
Think of all that as the players return to work this week and compare what monetary gain there is for them for their efforts against the astronomical rewards earned by professionals across the water.
Next Sunday they return to their clubs as the county championships re-commence and player loyalties divides. It’s a different scene. Those who strove for one another in Croke Park will be against one another at MacHale Park and elsewhere, each as stern an enemy as if he were lining out for Dublin.
The club and its social importance in the parish is still an abiding love, and a county title an aspiration as attractive to county players as a Connacht senior title. For most players it is their All-Ireland.
Mayo’s progress in the championship has disturbed club preparation those past few months.  But on Sunday they’ll dive into their respective challenges with a springtime enthusiasm. And hopefully talent will emerge to supplement the county panel in the months ahead.
The clubs to which they belong will benefit from the training regime county players have been through all season. Breaffy’s big win over Castlebar Mitchels in their league clash on Saturday evening was credited in no small way to the return of the three O’Shea brothers.
All three were essential cogs in their 10-point win, Aidan’s performance in particular a tour-de force.
Other than re-introducing Barry Moran in the last fifteen minutes, the Mitchels did not include their county stars. But they will welcome the return for the championship of the big man who looked lean and sharp.
Moran has been a central figure in the Mitchels’ success those past two years and on his shoulders much of their prospects lie if they are to retain the title. Not since the fifties have Castlebar won three-in-a-row. And all year they have been gearing towards that goal.
So one can understand why a full team was not fielded on Saturday evening. In the final round of their championship group on Saturday the Mitchels clash with the old enemy Ballina Stephenites at Knockmore. And the memory wanders back through the mists of time to days when finals between the two were never without controversy.
It will be a tamer clash on Sunday as the Stephenites come through a lean period and are bent on making a big impression this season. They are leading their league table and Saturday’s joust will reveal more about their ambitions. A big game for the two!
Breaffy travel to the Centre of Excellence in Bekan for their final group game with Ballaghaderreen. Lying at the bottom of their league table, Ballagh’ look vulnerable, and they will be hoping to have Andy Moran back.
If he plays, it should ensure stiff resistance to the Breaffy challenge.

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