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This is no time for more drama

Sport

WHY ALWAYS US? A Mayo fan reacts during the ‘Super 8s’ match against  Meath at Croke Park last summer. Pic: Sportsfile

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Colin Sheridan

IT’S All-Ireland semi-final week, and for the first championship in quite a while, Mayo are not the story. So often the darlings, we have been relegated — both figuratively and literally — by a pair of outliers who have defied the odds to win the collective hearts of a nation starved of a cause to get behind. The Tipperary and Cavan tale of daring has provided a remarkable sub-plot to a season already afflicted by a plethora of novel digressions; the novel virus, the novelty of knockout football, the novel ways Galway has managed to wet the bed.
This summer saw the club game make a case to be taken more seriously by those who should have known better. This winter has seen Mickey Harte bid farewell to an empire he created, and Peter Keane and Kerry face the potential of a kingdom in revolt.
Dublin, meanwhile, trundle on, unfettered by the abdication of Jack McCaffrey, slaying all-comers with all too typical contempt.
Then there is Mayo, tired old grumpy Mayo, very much alive, but no longer the story.
Fine against Leitrim, better against Roscommon, lucky against Galway, this isn’t the type of report card that will trouble any of the three other remaining teams.
Tipperary, fresh from their ballsy victory over Cork, will see next Sunday's game as the opportunity of a lifetime. They are unburdened by history — a team populated by serial winners at underage, now peaking in time to make history. Mayo sit there, like an old Lion in an Attenborough show, showing glimpses of past majesty, but all the while just doing enough to get by.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think there’s something written in the stars about this year, but it may not be Mayo who has the sprinkles of cosmic dust.
Here’s the thing; knock-out football is great and all, but I think there’s also a place for pragmatism. Tipperary beating Mayo almost certainly hands another All-Ireland to Dublin.
A Mayo win at least gives the rest of the country some hope.
I mean, almost everybody you knew thought Bernie Sanders was the best candidate to win the Democratic primary in the U.S. twelve months ago, but nobody thought he was the best candidate to challenge President Trump.
Mayo is Joe Biden. We’ve hung back while others have bet themselves up and out.
We've shown form when it’s suddenly been required. We’ve sometimes sunk to the level we are playing at, forgetting words and mixing up names. We’re a little clumsy and have troublesome children.
We are not silky smooth Barack Obama, but we ain’t, “I’ll be out of the championship before the Galway races” Beto O’Rourke, either. We are good. We are better than most.
If we had a campaign slogan it would be: “better us than them”. You can have your Mayor Petes and your Elizabeth Warrens, but they ain’t gonna beat the bully.
Neither might Mayo, but they might.
The great debate stage is set for them this Sunday. James Horan and co need look no farther than Donegal’s treatment of Cavan (they literally waited for them to go away) to realise that Tipperary, like Cavan, are unburdened by reputation.
To that end, as swift and painless an end to the premier county would be most desirable. A dogfight, similar to that they endured against Galway, will teach them little even if they survive it, and be catastrophic if they should not.
Make no mistake, there will be no asterisks above this championship, whoever wins it.
The lack of fans matters only in the context of occasion.
The journey for each set of players no less meaningful or arduous than it otherwise might have been. The cross of absenteeism is borne solely by us, the fan. Suddenly, we are all emigrants, sitting in front of a TV screen, shushing kids being kids, cursing requests to make tea. Ballyhaunis might as well be Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.
We are voiceless, but our support is not worthless, it’s just expressed differently.
The absurdity of this season may just suit a team for whom orthodoxy has long been an unbearable concept. That there has been a championship at all has been a minor miracle.
The burden of expectation can only weigh heavy on Mayo footballers.
They wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. It’s ironic somehow, that those expectations have rarely been lower than in 2020, and yet here we are, hot favourites in a semi-final, facing an ingenue upstart with huge potential, but perhaps little street smarts.
It’s likely that Mayo will labour, but still emerge victorious. It’s far from definite, however.
Tipperary will care nothing that all that can befall them in a final against Dublin is an unmerciful hiding. History is their prize on Sunday.
Mayo must know the best path to the promised land is also the shortest; no voyage of self discovery with brunch in Aughrim and supper in Newry. For them, it’s up the middle with smoke. They are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the edge of the canyon. They don’t need to jump against Tipp, they just need to avoid capture.
How they do it hardly matters.
The leap of faith will come one week before Christmas.

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