Saturday, May 20, 2023

By Aonghus Ó Maicín 
All is calm. Folks are going about their lives without the unnecessary near-coronaries that come with following Mayo.
No drama. No tension. No carnival. After a spring that saw few expectations converted into unrestrained excitement and hope, the mood of the county has thankfully tamed. It could be suitably described as a belle époque, the term used to describe the period of peace across Europe that preceded World War I.
The provincial championships turned out to be even more uncaptivating than it’s most stringent critics had anticipated.
And with Mayo on the sidelines since the beginning of April, the denizens of the county have been left to search elsewhere for their kicks. Some have returned to pandemic ways and began perfecting their sourdough recipes.
Others have taken advantage of the good weather and turned to painting and gardening. Yours truly has even heard of a couple of Mayo fans who stumbled into a Leinster game of all places.
Anything to pass the time But the relative calm of the moment is about to be replaced with fire and brimstone as Mayo head for Killarney this weekend, intent on reigniting their season against the reigning All-Ireland champions. In a way the clash with Kerry represents the beginning of a second season within the calendar. The pre-season, league and championship opener against Roscommon all ran into one another without anyone being afforded the opportunity to breathe momentarily.

Mayo footballer and autism advocate Padraig O’Hora with four-time Kerry All-Star David Clifford in Croke Park for SuperValu’s launch of the All-Ireland SFC where they highlighted the role of GAA communities in making Ireland a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming country for all.

As it happened, Mayo largely excelled in this relentless environment, finishing the spring as the most exciting team in the country before Roscommon caught them in the rain in Castlebar.
But Kevin McStay will have cherished the chance to bring his men back into the solitude of their camp to reassess, pause and plot a summer campaign that will see more championship games than ever. And there is no more difficult place to start the campaign than in Killarney, a venue where Kerry haven’t lost a championship game since the 1995 Munster final.
To call it a fortress would be a colossal understatement.
Its reputation makes Minas Tirith seem like a motte and bailey. Even when Cork overturned the Kingdom back in 1995, Kerry were only an up-and-coming side.
The Leesiders were meanwhile targeting their third provincial triumph in-a-row, a title Kerry hadn’t won since 1991.
Only a nuclear apocalypse could deny Kerry going four years without a Munster title these days. Even then, you’d still expect them to rustle together a few handy footballers from bunkers around the county to add another title to the cabinet.
But the challenge facing Mayo is very different to the one facing Cork in the mid-90s. For Kerry are now the established order with Mayo the coming force still figuring out where the summit of their potential actually is.
Greatness is defined by different standards in the Kingdom.
Average Kerry sides have won All-Irelands. Good Kerry sides have won more than one All-Ireland. Only the great sides have won back-to-back All-Irelands and this Kerry side has been earmarked as potentially great ever since they began streaming through at minor level. But “potentially” is the keyword in that sentence.
Kerry’s successes are driven not only by talent but by the fear of spending a winter among the unapologetically febrile Kerry population who feel they need All-Ireland titles to survive almost as much as water and oxygen. A Kingdom without the Sam Maguire Cup may as well be a barren desert.
So, Mayo are facing what may seem like an impossible challenge. Central to the league champions’ tactics will be finding a suitable candidate to mark David Clifford who will arrive into the game on the back of a Munster final man-of-the-match display which saw him register 2-6.
The obvious candidate for the job is David McBrien, the full-back who spent the spring keeping tabs on some of the most prolific scoring threats in the country. But Saturday afternoon will also be the Ballaghaderreen man’s championship debut. As baptisms of fire go, this is as volcanic as it gets.
Galway captain Sean Kelly is regarded as one of the best man-markers in the country and was adjudged to have done reasonably well on the Fossa man in last year’s All-Ireland final. And yet the Kerry forward still scored eight points in yet another man-of-the-match performance.
The Clifford conundrum is the most unsolvable phenomenon in GAA right now: you get too tight to him and he’ll get the better of you physically, you give him space and he’ll beat you for pace. And that’s without considering the manner in which he sees plays develop well in advance of everyone else in the stadium. His weaknesses are proving as elusive as the Ark of the Covenant.
The only feasible way to beat this Kerry side then, it seems, is an offensive of relentless and all-out attack. Take the punishment at one end and just try to ensure more punishment is inflicted at the opposite end. It’s a simple game, after all.
Of course, Mayo have plenty in their arsenal too to cause Kerry issues. Foremost among the traits that will benefit Mayo is the fact that this is a new, albeit very talented, team under an ambitious manager who has yet to show all his cards.
Mayo had valid excuses for their loss against Roscommon too, which is more than can be said for the rest of the counties harbouring All-Ireland ambitions. There isn’t a team in the country that hasn’t suffered from slip-ups over the past few months.
Whatever happens, Mayo’s spring form suggests there shouldn’t be a repeat of Mayo’s last trip to Killarney in 2019.
Back then, after going through their warm-up beneath a glistening summer sun and standing attentively for Amhrán na bhFiann, James Horan’s side were promptly thrown into the Kerry mincer.
The game was as good as over by half-time. That was the beginning of the end for many of that team’s servants who were finally running out of ideas after the best part of a decade on the go.
But you get the sense that only the surface of McStay’s playbook has been scratched. The journey to Killarney will, if nothing else, be a fact-finding mission for Mayo as they continue to search for their summit.
McStay’s reign has already been proven to be a treasure chest of surprises – a win in Kerry may just explode the lid clean off its hinges.

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