By John Cuffe
We live in strange times. Believe me we do. Joe Biden comes to COP 26 in Glasgow displaying his green credentials on global climate meltdown and on return home his government auction off 1.7 million acres of water in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drillers raising almost two billion green backs. Black Friday morphed into Black Friday Week over here at Blanchardstown shopping centre and Colm Boyle retires. The first question the retirement of Boyle raises is simple: How come a team that earned around twenty defensive All-Stars from number one to number seven inside ten seasons didn’t once lay their hands on Sam Maguire?
When I think of Boyle I don’t see him in the singular, I see him in the plural. The consummate team man. But underneath our acceptance of Boyle the player we saw year in, year out, lay a man of deeper substance. Coming from that unique 2006 Mayo under-21 team, Boyle was given a run on the county senior team in 2008. Early 2009 saw him confined to the FBD where his path crossed with the likes of Pat Kelly whose county career was coming to an end. It could have ended for Boyle then, fallen off the cliff, slipping from the pack. Dodging a bullet in 2010 by panel omission, Boyle set about doing what he had to do in order to extract what talent lay within, be that at club or county.
Davitts’ run in the intermediate championship in 2011/12, culminating in an improbable All-Ireland final, was the catalyst that propelled Colm back into the county consciousness. Playing with stalwarts, like Boyle himself, hugely underappreciated by the county, players like Alan Roche, Pat Coyne and David McDonagh along with Micky Conroy were the demanding influences on the resurrection of the Boyler. Mayo had also clawed on from the tragi-comic run of 2010 and a few good men wouldn’t go astray within the panel. Missing from the county’s breakout season in 2011, Boyle forced his way back for the 2012 campaign.
After a tentative start to that season, Boyle grew into the role, not yet making headlines. Indeed you could say his entire career was headline free. However, the 2012 league semi-final win was significant for the county. Finally, Kerry were defeated in Croke Park by a Mayo team. Colm Boyle emerged from that game a hero, a position he would retain until his career ended. Gathering a high ball in the Kerry square, he was upended, and on his ascent up for air, managed to connect with his boot and score an improbable goal. It wasn’t the goal that mattered, it was the execution, its manner, carved from sheer guts and granite. Boyle had arrived.
Everyone knows the story from here on. Mayo playing six All-Ireland finals, losing them all in various modes of pain and fortune. Central to that incredible run was the team’s defence. Again I ask how could a county with defenders of the calibre of Tom Cunniffe, Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Donie Vaughan, Colm Boyle, Chris Barrett, Brendan Harrison, Paddy Durcan, Stephen Coen and Oisin Mullin along with a goalkeeper the likes of David Clarke not pick up the Golden Fleece?
The retirement last week of Colm Boyle is like the tide going out. We see what’s left on the shore, the focus on the past is sharpened and questions are asked, judgements made. Opportunity gained or opportunity lost for the county? Possibly one of the greatest half-back lines in the game ever, Keegan, Vaughan and Boyle, occasionally adding Barrett and Durcan as age, injury and tactics demanded, Mayo deserved more than what they finally obtained. The question now posed from the look back at that golden crop of players is how come the county were unable to fashion a cohesive plan of linking backs of that standard with forwards of a similar standard. In other words, was coaching based around having a group of highly motivated players with an assumption that Plan A – ball in hand. half-back line coming at you, line breaking – was the template for success? If Plan A failed, what was Plan B?
Winning a National League medal in 2019 as a sub, he then regained his place for the elongated championship run before the team ran out of steam against Dublin in that year’s semi-final when Boyle scored a point. Injury called in 2020, that mad Covid year when normality was sidelined. Stricken against Dublin in the league, an injury that seemed career-ending, was met with typical Boyle stoicism. The lockdown gave the lad the chance to rebuild the knee, dragging himself back into the panel that made a Christmas All-Ireland final. Then the retirements started. I expected Boyle to go with Clarke, Barrett, Vaughan, O’Shea, Parsons and Higgins, but he didn’t. There was work to be done.
Having decided not to retire in 2020, I’m assuming the goal for Boyle was game time in 2021. Unfinished business would have played its part in his decision. One last tilt at 34 for the final imprimatur that separates the greats from the rest would have been the driver. The Mayo machine at full tilt is a formidable sight. Fitness and ability are the basic traits needed to stay on board. Boyle possessed the required facets. Having recently fully recovered from injury, from being taken off in late stage matches in 2016/17, Boyle was clearly targeting 2021 as red-letter.
Making every panel for the truncated league and coming on as sub in three of the four league matches indicated a role for the boy. He was also a member of every match-day championship panel but apart from a cameo against Leitrim, that was it. Questions could be asked and shouldn’t be brushed aside as churlish, why have such experience listed within the chosen 26 and not use it? Would Boyle have lifted the roof with two minutes left as we shut out Dublin in that epic semi-final? Instead we got the already subbed and subdued O’Shea. Tyrone need rattling as we floundered shockingly in that final. The sight of an arriving Boyle into the defence would have lifted my heart. We would have gone down with guns blazing. A year earlier the failure to throw on the experienced Higgins against Dublin also left me wondering. Why include such boys if you aren’t going to deploy?
The exploits of Colm Boyle were recognised nationally with four All-Stars. He never took a step backwards. The soothing and solid blanket that came with a Keegan, Vaughan, Boyle half-back line was taken for granted. An ever-present until injury, a determination to wrest that last drop of sweat and blood until no more was left, was the boy’s calling card. We will travel a long road before we find such a man or men that put team above the ego. The departure of Boyler exposes what we have lost across that squad. It should also inspire those who would want to wear that No.7 jersey. Thank you for your service sir.