By Aonghus Ó Maicín
At a time when Mayo are playing their best football in years, struggling to keep a lid on the hype and giddiness is entirely understandable.
During the last decade, the county cultivated a reputation for peaking late in the season – the second round of silage had usually been well tucked away in the pit before the county’s footballers began motoring.
And that approach served them reasonably well as they became the only side in the country that could live with the best team to ever play the game.
Yet here Mayo are in 2023, already contemplating a national final with nary a blooming periwinkle or daisy yet in sight.
And as well as claiming their first FBD League title in a decade, they remain unbeaten after five league games. If they manage to secure a spot in the Division One decider later this month, as they are expected to, it will be Mayo’s third consecutive league final (no finals were played in 2020 and ’21). A new decade, a new Mayo.
The most promising aspect of the county’s league campaign thus far is the fact that there is much to suggest that this blistering start to the year can be maintained.
Mayo have yet to produce a performance that has come close to a flawless 70 minutes of action after all, and they have still seen off some of the best teams in the country with ease.
They were en route to a record-breaking drubbing of Kerry in the third round of the league and though Kerry fought back, the seven-point victory perhaps didn’t do Mayo justice on the night. A 10-point win against Tyrone was also recorded despite a very slow start to the opening quarter that saw the Ulster men race into what seemed like a commanding lead.
The influx of relatively new faces into the squad has also piled pressure on the more familiar names meaning Mayo could have the rare luxury of an immensely experienced All-Star-laden bench heading into the championship.
But for all the intoxicating football on show over these past few weeks, several culture wars exist at once within the county. And it’s understandable, to an extent. Experience has perhaps taught Mayo fans to embrace hope with a healthy serving of caution.
One cohort of fans remain unconvinced by Conor Loftus at centre-back, another cohort are excited by bold new tactics which revolves around a deep attacking presence. Some argue that the veterans have done enough during recent seasons to deserve their spot in the starting XV, with others pointing to Mayo’s lack of a strong bench on big days in the past.
Once a tribe that spent the spring fretting about the prospect of relegation, the Mayo faithful are now divided on the merits of a league final a week before a much anticipated championship opener against Roscommon – especially given it could well be the Primrose and Blue they’re meeting in the final.
One cohort of fans feel more experimentation is needed to get game-time into the legs of some of the returning players ahead of a gruelling championship campaign that will have more games than ever. Another cohort are understandably fired up off the back of the county’s opening league run and are keen to build on that early momentum.
But momentum is a curious concept. There is perhaps no vaguer term in all of sport. It begs the question – does it even exist?
Is it the intangible element every player and team craves, or is it simply a form of jargon nobody really understands? Academic studies would suggest the latter.
For years academia has been looking into the concept that is widely regarded as essential to success across all sports. And almost all of them arrive at the same conclusion – the concept is codswallop. As far back as 1985, Cornell University investigated the “hot hand” that is regularly observed in basketball. After interrogating the data they arrived at the conclusion that the idea of attaining momentum was essentially a “shared cognitive illusion”. And yet despite the litany of studies that can be called upon, generations of sportspeople and fans haven’t been deterred from reaching for the term ad nauseam.
So do Mayo actually need to maintain their current pace for fear of losing their way?
Then again, there is a case to be made for winning every day, for embracing a ruthless streak similar to that exhibited by Dublin and Kerry in recent years, for wanting to claim every trophy on offer over the course of a season. Despite what several academic studies may state, taking the foot off the gas even momentarily sounds like a very dangerous tactic.
Of course, the diverging opinions of Mayo’s fan base will never make it into the soundproof walls of Kevin McStay’s dressing room. But the raging debates are nevertheless informative.
For all the talk in the off-season about Mayo needing time to build following a number of retirements in recent years and Oisin Mullin’s departure for Australia, expectations are high. Mayo fever has hit once again and the thousands of Mayo fans filling MacHale Park and other grounds around the country aren’t looking forward to a season that will see young lads earn some valuable experience in Mayo jerseys.
And the fans have every right to be excited. The new Mayo manager has found a way to blend the best qualities of his selectors together, the county has finally stumbled upon an embarrassment of scoring riches in their forward line, the new faces into the squad have adapted to intercounty football like ducks to water, Diarmuid O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea are reborn in new roles, injuries are being largely avoided and the prospect of enduring a couple of years rebuilding before contending seriously once again has well and truly evaporated.
The culture wars, it’s becoming apparent, are merely a by-product of high expectations – even if Mayo fans are loath to start flirting with the idea of playing late into the summer just yet.
Long may the culture wars rage, or at least until the last weekend of July.