WATCHING Mayo playing football is like watching Amir Khan box. The knockout could come at any moment. This fallibility is what has made them the most entertaining team in Irish sport for almost a decade, and what makes their games unmissable.
Before the throw-in, after the ritual strangulation of the anthem, the announcer should say “Ladies & Gentlemen, this is a safety notice. Would all patrons with weak hearts please leave the ground.”
I had been in Newry the previous Saturday for their contest with Down and it was another classic Mayo adventure. Down had played catatonically boring football for most of the year, but Mayo do not permit this type of thing.
They attack and charge and play brilliantly for a while, then they lose their nerve and collapse and concede goals and before you know it, you are in the middle of an emotionally draining melodrama. The sole downside is it only lasts 80-odd minutes, or if Maurice Deegan is refereeing, 74.
There is really no other way to spend a Saturday evening, so when they stumbled over Down (Down galloped through the heart of their defence with abandon, missing three great second-half goal chances that saw Mayo home), it was merely a matter of setting the satnav for Castlebar, sitting back and enjoying the ride. What a ride it was.
Within seven minutes goals had already been exchanged and a general atmosphere of exhilaration and not-having-a-clue-what-might-happen-next prevailed.
The huge crowd gasped and groaned and cheered and punched the air. When I watch a great boxing match, say Klitschko v Joshua, I sit on the sofa and after a moment I realize I am twisting and turning and squirming and leaning back to the rhythm of the fight. So it was on Saturday as the game unfolded.
If it was like that for me, think of the Mayo folks. Rian O’Neill’s goal after a few minutes brought a fearful groan and a few moments of silence. Mayo supporters are after all an emotional soundboard for what is happening on the pitch.
This must exert enormous pressure on the Mayo players as the supporters’ fear and joy is beamed into them with full force. Armagh sensed their fear and got torn into them. Andy Moran was taken off for no apparent reason. The crowd gasped. Kevin McLoughlin brought on. They cheered. Lee Keegan was helped off with what looked a bad injury. A spasm of worry went through the crowd. The crucial influences on this game were as follows:
1 Maurice Deegan.
As I said a few years ago, asking Maurice to referee a game properly is like asking a man with diarrhoea to avoid the toilet.
He is a crowd pleaser who tends to go with the home team. In the first half on Saturday, he interrupted Armagh’s charge on countless occasions, blowing frees against them for what looked to be perfect tackling and inconsequential contact. The pinnacle of his quite absurd refereeing display came near the end of the first half. McDonagh had just kicked a point for Mayo. He pumped his fists, turned and jumped straight on top of Jarlath Og in the manner of Fred Flintstone’s pet dragon greeting him when he gets home from work.
Maurice came over, and to the astonishment of Jarlath Og and the entire crowd, gave the Armagh man a yellow card. It was no surprise that at half-time, Kieran McKeeney intercepted Deegan as he came off the field and engaged him in intense discussion, presumably along the lines of “Have you lost your mind?”
2 Rory Grugan’s missed goal.
This brought one back to Ronnie Rosenthal’s celebrated miss for Liverpool v Spurs. An inch-perfect pass from Rian O’Neill tempted David Clarke to go for it but left him grasping thin air as Grugan went round him and was faced with an empty net. Mayo folk put their heads in their hands. Grugan somehow put it over the bar.
3 Jamie Clarke’s goal miss.
For this one, Jamie gave a master-class in out-manoeuvring the full-back when the ball is in the air, caught the ball inside him, and the goal was gaping. Six or seven years ago in his pomp, Jamie would have rifled it to the net. But for all his talent he has become goal shy and like a penalty taker who has lost his nerve, he tipped it hopefully along the ground into the grateful hands of Clarke.
4 Darren Coen’s three second-half points against the wind.
Brilliant again from Coen, who scored 0-5 from play in the Connacht championship against Roscommon before being taken off. Weird.
5 Young Grimley’s panic with the last move of the game.
Armagh looked set to get the equalizer and bring it to extra-time. Grimley panicked and drove a 55-yard shot wide off the outside of his right boot, when Mayo were there for the taking.
6 Four minutes of second-half injury time.
As my colleagues at RTE showed on Sunday night, there ought to have been 10 minutes. What can one say only Maurice Deegan.
Satnav set for Limerick this Saturday.