By John Cuffe
We spent almost eleven years watching the neighbours in blue across the road, never envious, always keeping our house up to their standard.
True, they had richer benefactors, a bigger family, but in the overall scheme we were the only house on the estate that could put a lick of paint on them. As we watched through the net curtains we failed to check the back window. Other houses were being refurbished, a new conservatory, bathrooms etc. added on. New neighbours were also moving in, their houses were called The Red Hand, The Kingdom, another called The Tribesmen. Not noisy neighbours as Fergie might call them, pesky more like it. They too would now eye up the tired-looking house in blue. We would no longer have to carry the standard.
Where are we now? Back in action in early June, my, that seems such a waste of prime playing time for the extended panel man and the club players as Mayo awaits the hanky to fall from the top table signaling they can play ball again. So, like the old Guinness advertisement showing the patient islanders waiting for the porter boat, the clock ticking and old men muttering ‘tá said ag teacht’ ach an ceist cruadh…an bfuil Sam ag teacht?’, that’s just the question.
The interminable quest for Sam. Chasing the dragon. Has it choked our soul? Hardened our hearts? Taken the joy from us?
We might win our next game but to what avail? Do we really believe Sam will come to Croagh Patrick or Knock? Or are we adding more make-up to an already tear-stained face where the inevitable break up and recriminations await? We are not in a good place football-wise in the county.
For some it’s all systems go but for many it has taken the mantle of a long-running saga that always ends in tears. Watching Mayo footballers and those associated with it, let’s call it Club Mayo for the want of another title, I see men who have given it all, bleached of energy, cursed with injury, secretive, uncommunicative, stuck in a Plan A-only rut, grumpy and no clear path ahead.
Amid the support I feel a simmering darkness mixed with thanks and gratitude that comes with dining at the top table since 2011. Do we stick, do we twist or indeed, does anyone on high really care what we think?
Bad things come in threes. So depending how you count it, the league games against Tyrone and Kerry, in the final, and against Galway in the championship are the three. But if you count it from that league final loss then we are two into a trilogy. Previously in the back door we were the hungry hunter, a team with supreme athletes and more than a little football nous.
That was when we had Clarke, Cunniffe, Cafferkey, Higgins, Barrett, Vaughan and Boyle along with a fully fit Durcan and Harrison to pick from at the back. Next month we join the hunted. Does anyone think that any of the Ulster trio not winning their title will really fear us? Even Cork, Kildare and God forbid, Meath, or Micky Harte’s Louth would love to float their boat mid-summer against us. Mayo are the big lad in the yard that they all want to skewer.
The band Van Halen on their rider have pages and pages of documents outlining their requirements ranging from food at the gig to positioning of plugs, electrics and lighting.
Tucked away in the middle of the document is a request for a jar of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed. If Van Halen finds an errant brown M&M in the jar, the gig is immediately cancelled. Once in Texas they found a brown M&M and cancelled. The promoter went apocalyptic. That evening in the, luckily, empty arena, the lighting system over the stage that the arena itself owned, broke free from its bolts and crashed through the stage destroying a $50,000 basketball floor. Van Halen always figured that if attention to detail and the simple things are ignored, God knows what else has been missed. That brown M&M saved lives that night and proved the band correct.
For years I watched as Mayo had many M&M moments but as a man once wrote, ‘If it’s somebody criticising the board… then it has to be John Cuffe.’ Not true and unfair. Like all Mayo followers any observations I ever proffered were for the betterment of our county. I arrived in a place where proffering an opinion was akin to the Republican/Democrat or Tory/Labour question… either you are with us or against us, the net result being you are the enemy. I would love to have stuck in Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael as examples too, but alas they are both the same nowadays – a compendium of whatever you’re having yourself as long as it’s not Sinn Féin. And that also relates to sport as well. When the big behemoths combine the little ones get trampled and are made voiceless or portrayed as troublemakers.
The M&M moment? Those tiles. And the wall of whatever they call it. How in God’s name did those tiles pass a critical eye? That photo doing the rounds crystallised much of Mayo in the last number of years. Regardless of any other input but the inner circle.
Like, moody relations with the local media. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the local press has access all areas? But that’s not how it comes across.
Like, constant fundraising without the elephant in the room being addressed, namely the debt on MacHale Park. Ironically, it appears the time the debt will be satisfied will be 2051. Will it be 100 years since our last All-Ireland win?
Like, a meal to honour past players. Hands up here, fair play, even I’d contribute a few pesos to such an occasion but this one seemed strictly invite only and for not all players involved. We don’t know whether all players were asked, maybe they were, maybe not. Nor were the media yet the media were asked to publish photos. As Manuel at Fawlty Towers might say… que?
All this could be rectified by a living PR system.
Look at Klopp. Baseball hat on, beautiful teeth, funny, occasionally settling a score or planting a seed for the next referee but always witty, always warm. ‘Injuries Jurgen?’ Smile, teeth flash, ‘Yes… injuries, sure… no complaints though… big squad… the boy Origi, my God… what a lad… world class’. Noted and filed. No pain, no sourness.
‘Any thoughts on Sean Dyche, Jurgen?’ Another beam. ‘Sean… class man… have to have a glass of red with him soon… he won’t be out of work long… maybe his team mightn’t be as motivated in the tackle now with Sean gone… some lad’. Class, cute, everybody happy.
We aren’t stupid, we aren’t children, indeed many of my era switch off when managers blather but lots like to hear a few words. Water and feed your supporters via their press and media people… they aren’t the enemy. Listen Mayo, we weren’t entrusted with the effing Three Secrets of Fatima, Our Lady didn’t burden nearby Bekan also known as downtown Knock Shrine with anything too heavy either, so lighten up. It’s only a game. Light a candle.
I, until recently, believed change should come from the top table. I apologise for those thoughts. Why on earth should we expect volunteers doing an onerous job be expected to cover every base. They are possibly overloaded in their tasks. The top table are the representatives of the clubs, the people and the followers. They do their best. If we want change then we need that change to start at YOUR club first. Clubs hold the key but pass the buck most of the time. They are the real powerbrokers but often prefer powerlessness. We are where we are. If Mayo are to reset, regroup and progress, then it starts at the grassroots, a brand new canvas and paintbrush. Will I hold my breath? Then expect us to carry on as we have always done, detached when it suits, attached on All-Ireland Final day ticket quest.
Football formations came along the lines of 4-4-2 or 3-3-3-1. Occasionally we got Terry Venables’ Christmas Tree formation, or was that Hoddle’s? The ‘in’ one at the moment is the False 9. You are nobody if you haven’t a False 9 even though the player may wear 9. Here the formation code for the longevity of the length of the Mayo manager since 1984. It goes 4-4-1-2-1-4-3-3-1-4-1-3-4 and counting. Starting with Liam O’Neill all the way through to today. The first -1 we hit is Brian MacDonald in 1992, an early casualty of player power. A feature that would rear its head again. The ’95 season saw an interim managerial team and then came John Maughan. Pat Holmes did three as did Maughan second time around, before the next -1. Mickey Moran was removed after an All-Ireland final. Did the board move him, did Mickey walk and did the players stand up for him? Next came a spell of mainly frustration, hoping for the Big Bang but it never sparked. We finally arrived outside Eden’s gates, so damn close we could scent the roses from 2011 onwards.
And that begets elation, emotion, anger, happiness, great days, dog days, cursed days, blessed days. Somewhere along the journey you run out of days, you run out of time. Eleven years now and no nearer to salvation or slaked thirst on this run, like chewing gum that’s lost its taste, we look around figuring how to get rid of it. If we bin it, it’s a clean job, if we throw it on the ground it will affix to a shoe. Or a bird will eat it and choke. Time changes the taste of everything. It’s how we use that time that keeps things fresh.
Pat Holmes seemed to hit a few spots in his Western People column in the wake of Mayo’s defeat to Galway. Now, the only thing I have in common with Pat is that the generous sports editor allows me on the same pages. If we walked into the office tomorrow not alone would Pat not know me but neither would most of the staff. We keep our dealings professional. I remain in the field.
I read Pat’s piece and I have to say he stated nothing I hadn’t heard before. He noted the lack of a Plan B and referenced a meal for (some) past players. I suspect that Pat’s offerings are viewed along the Republican/Democrat lines, you are either with him or against him. Is he settling old scores or giving an inside view as a former top manager? As a manager who won a rare National League title with Mayo, a Connacht senior title and an All-Ireland U21 title in 2006 that gave the senior team O’Malley, Howley, Cafferkey, Higgins, Barrett, Cunniffe, Boyle, O’Shea Snr, Moran, Campbell, Ronaldson, Conroy and Kilcoyne. Serving a season as senior manager in 2015, his team came within a Keegan shot that would have widened the gap to five points and a running clock against the Dubs. The shot dropped short and history caught fire. To me, Holmes speaks with authority. We should listen.
Mayo football, despite what many think, is not a homogeneous moving single happy entity. It is like a typical family, squabbles, power plays and egotistic shimmies. The longer we remain trapped under the glass ceiling called Sam, the sourer the atmosphere up there will be. The day of thinking that one man will lead us to the Promised Land is long gone. The Codys, Gavins, Gilroys, O’Connors of this world have their coaching team close to the centre of events. Cian O’Neill came back to haunt us recently. Listening to Eamonn Fitzmaurice describe Galway’s first score was interesting, commenting ‘that was a play straight out of the Cian O’Neill playbook’. He should know. Under him Kerry had O’Neill in as coach and selector. A year earlier he watched with us as Donegal wrapped up their All-Ireland inside the first ten minutes. Clearly our tackling has suffered since Donie Buckley left and O’Neill left, that tidal sweeping ferocity displayed in 2013, ’16 and ’17 gone… silent. Either we adapt or we die.