By John Cuffe
Almost 70 and still a big child. The county player still makes me take in a deep breath.
Looking out the back window of my father’s bus back in October 1966, I espied Seamus O’Dowd outside his family’s pub in Ballina. O’Dowd has just captained the Mayo minors to All-Ireland victory a month earlier. Coming into town, the bus passed a garage called Casey and O’Boyle, two more Mayo legends. Occasionally the college would let us uptown and we would see all three play for Ballina Stephenites. No selfies in those days, just cast iron heroes. Simple lives.
Today with instant media access, every fabric of life can be sampled, sieved and dissected. No need to view the hero from the deck of a bus or a cold 1966 November in grey Ballina.
Today’s world is glittering technicolor, a world where a hot mic can end a career.
And yet, my childish respect, my simple wonderment, always and deliberately, kept me from directly accessing the GAA gods, that county footballer. It’s a status, a semi-God like handle. If you played for the county, you counted, you stood apart from the crowd. I still want to keep that innocent awe I was born with. That sense of respectful distance.
My grasp of time is skewed here, so bear with me folks, I will get to the meat soon, but in getting there I need to purge my hurt and anger.
It might have been October this year or November. Covid-19 time. I came out of Eason in Ballina and my eye caught a solitary man crossing the street. It was the doppelgänger of Joe Brolly or was it the man himself? My heart skipped a beat.
I’d like to chew the cud with the county man but decided to respect that gap. And maybe it was my imagination, maybe it was a doppelgänger. A few minutes later and across from Supermacs sat a man sipping tea, maybe coffee. Another doppelgänger or was it an ex-Mayo great, alone with a cup and his thoughts?
He gave me great days, maybe unfinished brilliance. I owed him a debt for what he brought into my life though. I observed his solitude and left him with whatever thoughts he was having. Respect. The county man. The standalone achiever.
On Sunday morning, December 20, after Mayo had succumbed to the inevitable the evening before, heroically in my humble opinion, I headed for the coffee counter, Sunday papers and peace.
Placing the Sunday Independent in front of me, sports section open, I was hit with a hammer between the eyes. There is an old adage and custom that you do not speak ill of the dead and recently departed. Mayo, the county, was mourning that morning, a short respectful few hours where we grieved and gathered our thoughts from the evening before. We knew as sure as Santa will come, so too would the critics, but for now, it was ‘house private’.
Now I’m a guy who has never been shy about, ahem, asking hard questions of my county on occasions but what I was about to delve into shook me to the marrow.
Front page, bold bannered: ‘Respectful Dublin are all that is good about life and sport – they serve something bigger’. I knew instantly that my coffee would need something stronger. Joe Brolly was the author, the stage entirely cleared for him. We were about to get a whipping.
And by Christ, whipped we were. Joe opened with a joke about Santa, a Mayo child, a unicorn and Sam. You don’t want to hear the punchline. The football analysis was summed up in a line revolving around the 50th minute, Cillian O’Connor and the rest being Dublin time.
To buttress Brolly’s analysis, Joe proffered a quote from someone called David Hickey who stated he “had no time for this Mayo team, they are a tragic outfit”. I won’t hurt you with what he said about All Stars and Player of the Year “and all that type of crap”. Safe to say, Hickey don’t much like us Mayo’s.
What Joe didn’t quote was Hickey’s opening line in the Irish Examiner article he was interviewed for. “When is this going to appear?” asks Dr David Hickey (of his interviewer John Fogarty), a flicker of roguishness in his query.
“Saturday? That’s okay then – so Mayo won’t have much time to read it.” Hard man Hickey was happy that his article would appear on the morning of the All-Ireland final. Real hard men wouldn’t give a feck when Mayo eyes saw it. The question I’d say most Mayo players would ask of that article, assuming they read it, is “Who is David Hickey?”
Joe once more relied on Dublin evidence to scuttle what was left of our pride. This time he quoted former Dublin manager Pat Gilroy who apparently was sitting close to Joe. Dragging Darren Coen onto the stage to make an example of him after a shot fell short, Joe quoted Gilroy thus: “There you have it, Joe. There you have it.”
That wouldn’t be the same Pat Gilroy whose last league match in 2012 against Mayo saw them soldered with a 0-20 to 0-8 hammering, and failing to score in second-half, or the same Pat whose last game saw Mayo lead his beloved Dubs at one stage by 0-17 to 0-7 as they and he slid from a 2012 All-Ireland semi-final.
Joe quoted Pat and by inference, indulge me here folks, we are to assume that Gilroy condemned Mayo to the same standards that Joe holds our county to. Now this is where I have a problem.
Two weeks earlier on The Sunday Game with Unctuous Des, the very same Pat Gilroy took the nation’s breath away in describing Mayo as the second-best team ever. This was in response to the clamour over Dublin’s financial and perceived other advantages. So, the question is simple here. Stand up the real Pat Gilroy. The one who told Joe “there you have it” or the one who described Mayo as a great team a fortnight earlier?
Yakking yak and on and on, the opening headline described Dublin as exemplars in sport and life. That’s a big leap. Joe zeros back in again. I’ve read this quote and have to say I’m still flummoxed.
“This Mayo group does not understand the joy of football, which is all in the journey, not in the anti-climax of a victory. They are a team that does not operate in the real world. They do not face the truth and deal with it.”
Joe has gone all Nietzche or Dostoevsky here. What is the truth? And does Joe think that a group of Mayo lads, heading to do seasonal work in Scotland, stop off in Croke Park and challenge the city slickers in a football match before heading to Dun Laoghaire and the boat to pick the spuds?
Joe talks about the journey. I’ll tell you the journey since 2011. Five senior All-Ireland finals, two League finals, minor, U20 and U21 finals, six Connacht titles, 64 championship matches in which they have beaten at least once every legitimate contender, taking out the three previous All-Ireland champions in successive years.
The ONLY team to go toe-to-toe with Joe’s Corinthian Greek gods. Split heads in Limerick, cruciate ligaments, broken legs, bust noses, head butts, hamstrings ripped from the bone, ankle severed from the rest of the leg, dislocated shoulders, spat at, assaulted in tunnels, disgraceful refereeing decisions.
Men travelling over 200 kilometres three times a week to training and 200 kilometres back to work. Men who work normal lives, men who have feelings, families and have to read such abuse about them.
Joe’s headline ‘Respectful Dublin are all that is good about life and sport’ leaves the obvious conclusion, Mayo are not.
To Dublin’s Batman and Bruce Wayne exist Mayo’s The Joker and Riddler, or so we are led to believe. Joe Brolly is fully entitled to believe and write as he chooses, the Independent newspaper group equally free to indulge him, however, there comes a time when you have to call a halt, stand and fight back.
If someone says something long enough, gets a platform (the Sunday Independent is the nation’s biggest seller), then people rightly believe they may be correct, especially when we never hear the counter-argument.
I myself on occasion have called out aspects of Mayo GAA that has pissed me off but I’d like to think I never landed on the shinbone.
Whilst Joe Brolly has shone a spotlight on the Mayo players, expressing his views on them, essentially Liverpool’s Spice Boys circa 1996 or Leinster’s LadyBoys, by lifting the spotlight an inch, it’s the Mayo County Board who gets it between the eyes. It’s their elite athletes who are in the firing line.
It’s their chosen managers who are straffed mercilessly, the implication being that James Horan indulged the group since 2011, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly didn’t, Stephen Rochford wasn’t strong enough, and all back to the status quo with Horan returned.
Either the County Board, who didn’t pull any punches earlier in 2020 when wielding a big stick against those whom they deemed to have fallen short of what they perceive as standards suitable to Mayo football, then those others who cast aspersions on the county of Mayo also need to be dealt with.
And how you may ask? Well, I won’t hold my breath here. After the 1996 All-Ireland final it would be fair to say that many Mayo people weren’t happy with the refereeing of those finals. Some years later, a group of Mayo influencers on a hill walk invited that referee along. Why? Did they feel that we owed him something? Said nasty things about him? I was surprised at the invite.
But then I’m a kid in the workings of realpolitik. Me? If he came into any room I was in, I’d simply get up and walk out. Nothing personal against him, just pride for the ground I revere and come from. So will Mayo County Board react? It’s them and their manager and players on the whipping post lads. I doubt it.
What should be done is simple. If the Sunday Independent does not disassociate themselves from the article, then all sections of the Mayo GAA coiste refuse to be interviewed or provide access to that paper’s journalists.
Likewise, the current television grouping that gives a platform to such opinions be also boycotted. I agree with Brolly here – and this may seem strange from someone who writes for newspapers – I believe Mayo and its players are too accessible to the media. In the flat season, you can guarantee Mayo players will fill dead space.
None of those media users, glad to hear them then, have once called out the handful of those who mock the county. In that, I also include The Sunday Game, whose 2016 offerings left Lee Keegan in an exposed position and some of its contributors seem to break into a cross between a leer and grin at the mere mention of the word Mayo.
If you want the GAA community to respect your players and managers, then as a County Board the gloves need removing. I for one have taken one headshot too many from those who ridicule us.
And a final thought, Joe. In demonising Mayo, it’s Dublin you are diminishing. Eight All-Irelands since 2011, do they look at the medals won in 2013. ’16, ’17 and ‘20 and say, ‘Agh, these are shite, Joe Brolly and David Hickey see them as wins against spoofers, spice boys’ or do they fondle the medals of 2011/15/18/19 and say ‘Agh, those are real gold, they were won against real men, the Kerry lads, the mighty Tyrone lads’. In essence, and in Joe’s head, Dublin have won only four ‘real’ finals. Sure, Leitrim or Antrim might as well have contested the other four.
And that folks is as daft as that type of thinking is. Joe Brolly or others will never shake the 12-year-old mind’s eye that recalled seeing my first superstar ever, Seamus O’Dowd. Respect.