Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Current Political Situation

Whatever else is to befall the unhappy nation on this pivotal day in Irish politics, it has to be hoped that An Taoiseach has kept his receipt for the five million or so Euro he spent on a Strategic Communications Unit. If they hadn’t ballsed-up the Thursday messaging, the government would not be on the edge of a precipice today.

The minutiae of who read what email when doesn’t matter in terms of the government's survival. Fianna Fáil have been watching the government, and the government watching Fianna Fáil, since the budget. Both know the end of the confidence-and-supply agreement is close; neither wants to be left being reactive to the other when the thing goes wallop and it’s time to face the people.

The latest McCabe revelations resulted in Sinn Féin tabling a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste on Thursday of last week. This left Fianna Fáil in a dilemma; if they went against the Sinn Féin motion and something else broke about the state’s disgraceful treatment of Sergeant McCabe, Fianna Fáil lose ground to Sinn Féin.

Fianna Fáil cannot lose (further) ground to Sinn Féin because Sinn Féin will get a boost from a new face on the posters and from the fact that Sinn Féin represents the greatest potential change in the election anyway. Every electorate dreams of the far-away fields.

Therefore, Fianna Fáil had no option but to declare their own motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste. They missed a trick badly in not pulling the plug during the final days of Enda Kenny, when the disgraceful story about the breathalyser-fixing by the Gardaí broke. That would have been perfect, because the issue was so clear-cut and easily understandable. Fianna Fáil could not lose another opportunity.

In the light of this, the sensible play on Fine Gael’s part would have been to either keep schtum or else jettison Frances Fitzgerald with the greatest dispatch. You may say this would have been grossly unfair on Mrs Fitzgerald; reader, what’s fair got to do with it? This is politics, the dirtiest game there is.

Alan Shatter lost his job on the basis of political expediency. The noted moralists of the Labour Party defenestrated the Taoiseach that brokered the first ceasefire in Northern Ireland in a fit of political pique. Charlie Haughey, to echo Jeremy Thorpe’s famous quip about Harold MacMillan’s night of the long knives, laid down his friend for his life in 1990. That’s politics.

However. Fine Gael did not take this sensible option. Instead, Fine Gael went on the offensive, with Eoghan Murphy, a man without whom Leo Varadkar would not now be Taoiseach, delivered a studs-up performance in defence of Frances Fitzgerald’s honour on Prime Time last Thursday that bet the farm on Fianna Fáil backing down.

This was an extraordinarily naïve decision. All politicians like wriggle room, but Irish politicians need it most of all. Fine Gael’s public doubling-down on the Tánaiste means that any concession to Fianna Fáil looks like a climbdown. Sinn Féin had already closed off Fianna Fáil on one flank; Fine Gael’s outrage that anybody should look crossways at their Tánaiste left Fianna Fáil with no option but to light the fuse.

As Sarah Bardon of the Irish Times pointed out yesterday on Twitter, the messaging from the government has softened considerably since Thursday:

And that’s all fine, but Fianna Fáil remain in a Grand-Old-Duke-of-York dilemma. All these things have to be understood in the context of the general election that will be fought early next year, if not before Christmas. How will Fianna Fáil’s argument of being responsible and putting the nation first stack up against Sinn Féin’s constant attack of Fianna Fáil being part of an elite that is willing to stoop to anything to keep itself in power, instead of doing the right thing in the name of that good man who was wronged, Maurice McCabe?

Politics is broad strokes. How do subtleties about changes to the Department of Justice work as broad strokes? Badly, is the answer. For Fianna Fáil, anything less than the Tánaiste’s head is a Sinn Féin win. In the light of this, Fine Gael’s only chance of limiting the damage would be for Frances Fitzgerald to do a Sidney Danton before marching bravely to the guillotine, and hope to be avenged in the election after Christmas. A cobbled-together compromise means an early Christmas for Sinn Féin HQ as their long march to power comes three to five seats nearer.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Mayo Post-Mortem #66: Open Verdict

Recordings of both Sky and RTÉ’s coverage of this year’s All-Ireland Football Final sit on my Virgin Media box, like the regions of dark matter in outer space that so fascinate the astrophysicists currently. I have no intention of watching them, but I can’t delete them either. A situation that is bizarrely appropriate for this particular Final, suddenly the hardest of all Mayo’s many All-Ireland Final losses to come to terms with.

One of sport’s eternal debates is whether it hurts more to get hammered into the turf or to lose by inches. It’s the sporting equivalent of whether it’s better to get punched in the face or the guts. Neither is great, really, but is possible to make a case that one is worse than the other?

There’s something different about this year’s Final though. It’s not a question of so near and yet so far for Mayo, the way 1996 was, say. It’s something different. But what exactly that difference is remains stubbornly hidden in the dark matter that exists beyond the stars, and in the tortured psyche of the Mayo football public.

Partly it’s got to do with the mixed records of the two competing teams. The narrative is that a hairsbreadth separates them. The reality is that Dublin always win, and Mayo always lose.

Dublin, we are told, are one of the best teams ever, if not the best team ever. Mayo can’t win an All-Ireland Final, despite appearing in them with almost monotonous regularity. Other teams have risen and fallen in the past twenty years – Mayo keep regenerating to be almost there, but just not quite. Just that little bit missing, every time.

Is there a lesson there? Are All-Ireland generations essentially destructive, like the economic cycle? Is it the case that every boom must be followed by a bust? And is that why Mayo have never fallen from Division 1, because they never boomed sufficiently to go bust?

It’s a theory. One of many, and not the strongest. The reality of Mayo’s perpetual losing of All-Ireland Finals is more likely to be prosaic than metaphysical. The fault is more likely to be in ourselves than in our stars.

It’s that logical impossibility that exists in the two states of Dublin and Mayo that makes processing the 2017 Final so difficult from a Mayo perspective. If Dublin are one of the greatest teams of all-time, then surely the only team that’s put them regularly under pressure is also somewhere in the pantheon of all-time greats. But entry to that pantheon necessitates possession of a title, and that’s something that Mayo have failed to achieve. Armagh won. Cork won. Donegal won. Mayo ... lost.

A narrative has been proposed whereby, even if they were never to win an All-Ireland, the current Mayo generation would be remembered as one of the all-time great teams. A visit to a Galway football Facebook page a week or two after the All-Ireland Final would quickly disabuse the innocent of that theory. No Celtic cross, no nothin’. Plenty of teams that have won All-Irelands are disparaged as having won “soft” ones. How soft is the one that is not won at all?

And so we come back to the circle that can’t be squared. We have, in the green-and-red corner, one of the all-time great teams that not only can’t achieve what all-time great teams achieve – win multiple All-Irelands – but can’t achieve what legitimate-and-deserving-champions but not all-time-great teams do, and manage to somehow fall over the line. Cork fell over the line. Armagh were damnably unlucky not to win a second All-Ireland, but the Geezer generation got their Celtic Crosses. For this Mayo generation – nada. And for some on the panel it’s already too late.

There’s a new ethos in Mayo whereby any criticism of the team – who owe us nothing – is socially unacceptable, if not worthy of pariah status in cases where repentance is neither swift, clear nor suitably remorseful. On the other hand, there are underground criticisms, most notably those of a mystery man called Jimmy, surreptitious videos of whom are being transmitted through that most pernicious of modern curses, social media.

Filming anyone on the sly is a low act but it’s clear that Jimmy is a legitimate and well-informed student of the game. You may not agree with everything he says – I, myself, do not – but I prefer him saying it so that at least there’s a discussion going on, so that we can get some sense of closure about what happened, why it always happens and what else can be done to stop it happening, rather than people expected to become some sort of Stepford wife-esque cheering section.

For instance: the long and lustrous autumn of Andy Moran’s career reflects brilliantly on a man who is loved within the county and genuinely liked by nearly every other county. But how badly does it reflect on the rest of the forwards in Mayo that the county is so reliant on a man who has many more football years behind him than before him?

The bravest thing Stephen Rochford did was play Aidan O’Shea at fullback against Kieran Donaghy, not least as it took serious guts to back an unorthodox opinion after his most famously unorthodox opinion, that it was worthwhile to drop a goalkeeper for an All-Ireland Final reply, having blown up in his face. Rochford deserves huge credit for that, and surely owns the dressing room now in a way that was less-than-obvious earlier.

However. Rochford’s record on bringing players through is not good to the point of being bad. One of Jim Gavin’s many strengths lies in his regenerating his team without outsiders ever being able to see the joins. Rochford is now in danger of having to replace players en masse and that is a risky business. It is seldom wise not to plan ahead.

These are just two of the challenges facing Mayo as the long quest continues into another empty winter. Up Mayo.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mayo's Deliverance

Boyler takes an O'Neill's
Size 5 into custody
Colm Boyle – your correspondent’s pick for the next Garda Commissioner, if Clarkie doesn’t want it – was interviewed after the defeat of Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. Boyle was asked how Mayo were going to prepare for the All-Ireland Final. He seemed a little puzzled by the question – “just like we always do,” was Boyle's reply.

Some years ago, a great GAA man and friend of the blog remarked that Mayo’s best chance of winning their fourth All-Ireland was to go through a series of semi-final replays. So many replays, in fact, that they would have only one week to get ready for the final itself, and thus insulating themselves from the sort of anguish that seemed to descend on the county at these occasions.

There was a certain logic to that at the time, but events have moved on. When Mayo appeared in their first All-Ireland Final in 38 years in 1989 the county went bananas from the thrill of it all, and stayed bananas until that great team were felled once more by that terrible hoodoo that once lived at St Jarlath’s Park, Tuam some eight months later.

Those days are gone. There are children growing up in County Mayo currently for whom the road to Croker is as well travelled as the road to school. There is no novelty about Croker anymore. There is no novelty about winning in Croker anymore. For this iteration of the Mayo Senior Team, there really is only one last box to tick.

It was once the case that Mayo had two choices. Either consider the All-Ireland Final the Most Important Day Of Your Life, and seize up with nerves, or else consider it just another game, and then be stunned and run over by another team for whom it was, in fact, the most important day in their lives.

That doesn’t apply to Mayo 2017. Has there ever been a team as seasoned in the Big Time as Mayo who haven’t won an All-Ireland? Dublin are certainly a very great team, but Mayo aren’t quite chopped liver either. For this Mayo generation not to have won at least one All-Ireland already is astonishing. To think they will finish like Moses, within sight of the Promised Land but never crossing into it, is very difficult to believe.

It is right that Dublin are favourites on Sunday of course. But while Mayo haven’t beaten Dublin in quite some time, Mayo certainly have put it up to the navy-and-sky-blue machine over the years. What will it take to make the difference?

Dublin have two particular vulnerabilities. The first is, through no fault of their own, every game this summer has been a stroll in the park for them, with the exception of a gallant Carlow challenge. A team wiring it up to them will come as a shock, because you can’t think yourself up to a certain pitch of action. By the time you have to command your body to move up the gears to a challenge you weren't quite expecting, it may already be too late.

The other interesting thing is that Dublin’s greatest strength is their greatest weakness. All Dublin’s church is built on the rock of the Cluxton kickout. Every brick, every wall, every buttress. If that kickout can be disrupted, will the edifice stay together or will it all come crashing down?

Now these could all be thoughts in the air, of course. It may be that Tyrone were actually very good this year but that Dublin have evolved into a different football dimension. If so, it might get ugly for the green and red support as Dublin ascend further towards the summit of greatness and Mayo are yet again churned beneath their heels.

And then again, maybe Tyrone just didn’t have anything in the tank, and Dublin could be the ones shouting at each other around half-past four on Sunday, wondering what’s going on as a nightmare begins to take form into material reality before them. We’ll just have to wait and see. Up Mayo.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Aidan O'Shea, Fullback

Your correspondent is very confused by the response to Mayo playing Aidan O’Shea at fullback in the All-Ireland against Kerry on Sunday. This tweet from Matt Cooper is typical of the reaction:

“Disaster” is an interesting choice of words here. Any Mayo follower worth his or salt is able to list successive disasters and rate them out of ten going back to 1925 and the All-Ireland lost in a boardroom instead of on the pitch. Where does the playing Aidan O’Shea at fullback stand in this miserable pantheon?

Nowhere. Because it’s not like Mayo lost, is it? Mayo are still in the Championship. Mayo went into that game as 5/2 underdogs, and Matt Cooper is annoyed they didn’t beat Kerry out the gate? Extraordinary.

Malachy Clerkin of the Irish Times reckons 2-6 of Kerry’s 2-14 can be attributed to Donaghy. Maybe so, maybe not. It is, however, a fact that one single point is all Donaghy scored from play. Donaghy scored two goals in the All-Ireland Final of 2007 as Kerry whipped Cork 3-13 to 1-9, but the Cork fullback on that day went on to win an All-Star at fullback that same year.

So having Donaghy score two goals on you in the All-Ireland Final doesn’t cost you an All-Star but having him score one point on you is the reason Mayo didn’t beat Kerry on Sunday? Clear as mud, my Lord.

One of the reasons put forward for Mayo’s playing of Aidan O’Shea being a “disaster” is his incalculable loss out the field. And this doesn’t quite add up either.

Reader, how many previews of Sunday’s game hinged on Kerry’s terror at the havoc Aidan O’Shea was going to cause in among the Kerry backs? Contrast that not-very-high number with the number of times you’ve read about Mayo’s lack of forward quality.

It would seem that in the space of seventy minutes Mayo have gone from lacking a quality forward to having the damn things falling out of the trees – Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor – the current top scorer in the Championship with 3-52 and counting, by the way – and now Aidan O’Shea, Destroyer of Worlds.

Remember all that stuff you read during the year about Aidan O’Shea being distracted by being on that Toughest Trade TV show, or playing basketball, or having selfies taken with children, or not looking up, or running with his head down and not letting it in? All in your imagination. Nobody ever thought, wrote or podcasted any such thing at all at all. In actual fact, the very sun itself rises from Aidan O’Shea’s not-at-all-fat-perfectly-athletic-in-fact bottom.

Are there questions that could be asked of the Mayo management? You betcha there are questions, but not one of them has anything to do with Aidan O’Shea playing fullback on Sunday. Not one. The very worst you could say about it is that the case is not proven, and if there are problems in the way Mayo set up it’ll take more than a straight swap between Aidan O’Shea and Donie Vaughan to solve them. Up Mayo.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Ballad of Diarmuid Connolly

Jim Gavin Lambastes Pat Spillane and 'The Sunday Game.' Irish Times, June 25th, 2017.

The Ballad of Diarmuid Connolly

A great crowd had gathered, in Mercs and Land Rovers
The lawyers of Dublin would soon earn their fee
For inside in Central Council, a brave son of Dublin
Was tried for his summer before the C-C-C-C

Our gentle young Diarmuid, who plays hurling and football
Stood proud in the dock like a true Dublin man
While before him in judgement sat a big gang of culchies
Their minds already poisoned by Patrick Spillane

The legals and the eagles could do nothing for Dermo
Neither Clucko nor Fento nor the rest of our Champs
Now Dermot has nothing to do for the summer
But hang sponsored boots off the Five Lamps

God’s curse on you culchies, you cruel-hearted monsters,
Look what you’ve done to our football scene – oh!
But we’re not defeated, we’ll beat you in winter
Because our real hero is J Mourinho.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Mayo v Galway: The Lonesome Road to Salthill

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn'd round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

The Mayo fan has no fear of frightful fiends. Why would he or she? What chills the Mayo soul in the lead-up to Mayo’s trip to face Galway in Salthill are entirely more rational and comprehensible than the slimy things in the slimy sea that so bothered the Ancient Mariner.

Billy Joe Padden, in a typically excellent preview of events in the Mayo News, outlined how Mayo can beat Galway. Billy would like to see a sweeper, ideally Kevin McLoughlin; he’d like Aidan O’Shea to start, ideally somewhere in the middle of the field; he’d like Andy Moran to finish the game, rather than start it, meaning Andy must come on as a sub, and above all Billy would like to see Mayo attack in numbers from the middle third.

Your correspondent sees the merit in every one of these arguments. My own personal contribution to Mayo’s Heroic Path to Immortality would be to play Aidan O’Shea at full-forward, rather than in midfield, but it’s not something I’d fall out with people over, least of all someone who knows so much more about these things than me, as Billy Joe does.

However. What does make me wonder just whether or not a frightful fiend doth close behind me tread is that we have seen no evidence at all of Mayo playing in the way Billy suggests all year, and there’s no reason to expect them to change their ways now.

There is a growing trend in GAA discussion that suggests anyone outside the team and its back-room team – henceforth referred to as “The Group” – has no business questioning any decisions made by The Group. Such questioning is, in fact, as near to treason as makes no difference.

Your correspondent takes an opposite view. Your correspondent thinks that the Mayo edifice – players, trainers, even the Board – have a duty to keep the fans reasonably informed of what’s going on with the county team. That does not seem unreasonable. It’s so reasonable, in fact, that Darragh Ó Sé made a case for it in yesterday’s Irish Times:

Supporters need to be led. They need to be given something to believe in. They need big players and big personalities showing them the way. Not giving them a reason to shrug their shoulders and decide that this is just how things are.

Where are the Mayo supporters being led right now? Your correspondent is more than eager to hear something, anything, from The Group in response to the following questions that have been rattling around my noggin:
  • Why has Kevin McLoughlin spent the entire league at corner-forward if he’s going to play sweeper in the Championship?
  • If McLoughin isn’t going to play sweeper, who is? Will Mayo play with a sweeper at all? And if not, why not?
  • Why start Andy Moran when you need him most in the final twenty minutes?
  • Why didn’t Robbie Hennelly start one home game in League? We all know David Clarke is the Number One choice but Robbie is still No 2 to a keeper who isn’t getting any younger and who has a history of knocks. Hennelly is going to catch Hell from the fans whenever he starts, so why not start him in the bleak midwinter and get it over with.
These aren’t the only questions that need asking, but they’ll do for now. If they’re not being asked aloud, people are certainly thinking them – by the time these things dawn on your correspondent they will have long ago dawned on better football people. And, like anything that’s supressed, the reaction will be greater the longer it has to stay underground.

If, God forbid, Galway should win in Salthill you can expect these questions to come bursting forth. You may say that’s unfair, but fair has nothing to do with it. The price of playing at the great height at which Mayo have played for the past six or seven years is that the fall is steeper.

And there is the awful truth that, for all the long and wonderful summers, Sam did not come home. Sam’s not coming home is more than a detail; Sam’s not coming home is why the depths of Mayo’s fear and trembling are so much greater than Galway because, even though Sam hasn’t been in Galway for sixteen years, that’s as the snapping of the fingers compared to sixty-six years, and counting.

Kildare never really came close to Galway in the Division 2 Final, but Kildare, with all due respect to them, weren’t really that great. Equally, Galway laid an egg the size of the Rock of Gibraltar in losing to Tipperary, something for which they did not get anywhere like the roasting a Mayo team would have got. Of if they did, they kept it quiet.

A seasoned Mayo team on the top of its game has nothing to fear from Galway. But a malfunctioning Mayo team, whose identity is slipping away for whatever reasons, will always walk in fear and dread. Let’s hope that walk to nowhere doesn’t start on Sunday. Up Mayo.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Football Championship - A Pageant, Not a Product

The Championship: Philly seems to like it.

Positing the notion that a two-tier Championship is inevitable in Tuairisc earlier this month, the great Dara Ó Cinnéide wondered in passing how anyone could have the idea that the Championship could ever be a level playing field, with county demographics and traditions being what they are.

In light of this, it’s interesting to remember just why the back-door system was introduced in the first place. The original idea was that many teams were denied either the Championship itself or a good long summer run by the vagaries of chance, with the Cork footballers of the 1970s being the most frequently cited example. Had they not had the ill-luck to share Munster at the same time as the Kerry Golden Years team, who knows what could have happened?

And that’s why the back-door was introduced. Not to level the playing field for all, but in the hope that no more should a flower like that Cork team be born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air, as Mr Gray might have put it.

The back-door is with us sixteen years now, and the Law of Unintended Consequences has kicked in. The back-door Championship was introduced at a time that the economy was booming and the enforcement of the GAA’s amateur ethos grew increasingly token. So an initially-flawed idea – Cork were going to have face Kerry at some stage, after all – mutated into an even worse one and left us the mess we have today, where the GAA is having an existential crisis without properly realising it.

The whinging about the format of the Championship that (correctly) bothers Ó Cinnéide is based on the idea that the Championship is a sports entertainment product competing in a marketplace with other sports entertainment products like European Cup Rugby and the English Premier League. But it’s not. It’s something completely, uniquely different to that.

The things that make the Championship great cannot exist as part of a sports entertainment product. The Championship is written about as if the GAA exists to present a sports entertainment product. That is not why the GAA exists. The GAA exists to allow as many people as is practicable to play Gaelic Games as often as they wish. The inter-county Championship is a by-product of those thousands and thousands of games. The Championship is accident; the club games are essence.

This fundamental point is being lost in the hubbub as the GAA striates further between the haves and have-nots, and the separation will get even worse when the Super Eight series are introduced next year. The people running the GAA think the increased revenue will improve the Association. It will not. The increased money will destroy the Association by creating a professional division that will leave the ordinary club players behind. The ordinary club players and members who, after all, comprise the vast majority of the membership of the Association in the first place.

Under pressure of money, propaganda and carelessness the GAA is inching along a road where the needs of elite athletes will be prioritised over the needs of the thousands and thousands of fat bucks, slow bucks, clumsy bucks and hungover bucks who need and deserve the regular games that the GAA can provide them. The prioritisation should be the reverse.

Ewan McKenna, a man never afraid to speak truth to power, tweeted this after Tyrone walloped Derry yesterday:

But McKenna misses the point. The GAA isn’t about providing yet another dish to the armchair fan’s sporting feast. The moment its raison d’etre becomes the production of a sports entertainment product it’s all over for the Association.

McKenna will have his two-tiered Championship then. There may be two or three Dublin teams, two or three Ulster, two Connacht, two Munster, two Leinster. They won’t be counties though – they’ll be Lions, or Kestrels, or Wolfhounds instead.

There will be transfers and big money signings. The media will get proper media access, where players will dutifully remark that today’s performance was no surprise as everybody in the unit knew that if they executed their process everything would come right on the day. Hurling will go the way of having grammatical Irish in programmes – a fond yet distant memory.

Is the situation doomed, then? Is there anything that can be done?

Happily, the cause is not yet lost and there is something that can be done. Three things, in fact.

Firstly, close the back door. The Championship is a knockout competition like Wimbledon or World Championship Snooker. If you lose, you lose. Get over it.

Secondly, the GAA needs to remember it’s an amateur organisation, and that means bread-and-water diets for those who’ve been spending like sailors on shore leave. Either a budget cap or, better again, revenue-sharing as in the NFL of the United States. No more lawyering up to escape bans and most of all, proper and painful sanctions for those who would flout these laws.

Finally, it’s perfectly possible to accommodate those who want a more equal inter-county playing field by reconfiguring the League. Three divisions, home and away, promotion and relegation of course, maybe playoffs for the crack. The better players in each county get to test themselves against teams of the same level. The great Kieran Shannon of the Examiner has made the point many times that reworking the League will do more to address the uneven playing inter-county playing field than a hundred tweaks to the Championship.

The League can be run off between January and June, and then July-August-September are free for the pageantry of the Championship. Sports scientists and protein-shake aficionados will know that the best team is the one that does best in the League, while the Championship retains its ancient glory and stays true to the notion that a commoner may challenge a king, and that one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.