Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly – Mayo’s problem and Dublin’s Tik Tok football

DID you hear the one about Santa and the Mayo youngster?

Santa: What would you like for Christmas little one?

Child: a unicorn.


Santa: Ah come on, be realistic. Choose something else.

Child: Mayo to win Sam.

Santa: What colour of unicorn would you like?

In the 50th minute, Cillian O’Connor scored a simple free to bring Mayo level at 2-8 to 0-14. The rest was Dublin time. Mannion and Howard came on. They went to battle speed and you know the rest.

David Hickey said on Saturday morning that he had “no time for this Mayo team, they are a tragic outfit. They win All-Star awards and Player of the Year awards and all that sort of crap. Dublin win All-Irelands.” Mayo have now played in five All-Ireland finals since 2012 and lost all five. The team embodies, as does James Horan, the culture of the individual that is at the heart of Mayo’s dysfunction. What is in it for me?

Pat Gilroy, who watched the game with me, had a simple mission statement when he took over Dublin, who were at that time very similar to this Mayo group.

“If you are not completely happy to sacrifice yourself for the team, find another pastime.” The group talked about this incessantly. Pat ruthlessly culled those players who set themselves above the group. He left Bernard Brogan on the bench for four successive league games. He dropped Diarmuid Connolly altogether. Connolly missed some early morning training sessions at the start of 2010 and Gilroy dropped him for the entire 2010 season.

They were club teammates. They had played together in the St Vincent’s team that won the All-Ireland Club final in 2008. That didn’t matter. The group was the only thing that mattered.

On the morning of the 2010 quarter-final, the Dublin bus drove past Connolly, sitting outside Gaffney’s in Fairview, having a pint. Later that afternoon, the team made their first serious statement, beating Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

He dropped Jayo, a Dublin icon. One night, Gilroy went into a bar in the city and bumped into Mark Vaughan, the bleached blonde full-forward from Kilmacud Croke’s. The next morning he dropped him from the panel. Permanently.

The cull was, Pat says, nothing personal. “They just weren’t suited to serving a cause. It was not their fault. But they could not be accommodated.”

Gilroy’s assistant Paddy O’Donoghue went around the team training HQ at DCU ripping the sports sections out of the newspapers.

Celebrity appearances were banned. By 2011 they were ready to play serious football. In September, they were All-Ireland champions, beating the same Kerry team that had beaten them by 17 points in the quarter-final two years earlier.

It was, Gilroy recalls, a very painful transition.

In particular, dropping Connolly caused Gilroy great personal angst and ructions at St Vincent’s. They were friends, club mates and team mates. But there was no other way.

When Darren Coen came on in the last quarter last Saturday and kicked several potshots into Cluxton’s hands and all over the place, Gilroy nodded at me and pointed. “There you have it Joe. There you have it.”

Aidan O’Shea, for example, was anonymous again, but this is not his fault. He is not built to serve a cause. A lovely, personable lad he is. But a serious footballer he is not. Like a number of others in this group, he succumbed at an early stage in his career to what Hickey calls “the curse of individuality.”

Horan has a charmed group of untouchables, who will never be taken off regardless of performance. This is corrosive to the culture. The others feel they are dispensable and when they are unable to logically justify the disparity in treatment, they become aggrieved, the bonds of togetherness essential for serious success are not forged and the project is doomed.

It would be patronising and dishonest to say Mayo played bravely and were only beaten by the greatest team the game has ever seen. In 2012, they were crushed by Donegal. In 2014, by a very young Kerry team who galloped through them in the semi-final replay. Kildare beat them in 2018. They shook their heads and refused to go to war in the dying moments against Dublin in 2015, 2016 and 2017. This group is doomed and will not win an All-Ireland until the celebrity culture is banished by a manager who is not himself a part of the celebrity culture.

Holmes and Connelly tried but were ejected after one season by a coup spearheaded by the charmed inner circle. Rochford brought them closer than anyone with the excellence of his coaching. But they were doomed to fail, inevitably losing out when it came to the crunch, because Rochford did not have the courage to take on the problem. Instead, the players quietly got rid of him after two seasons, preferring to go back to the comfort of their first coach.

Never mind that he was tried and failed.

Things would be just the way they liked them under Horan. Another three years of plucky failures, plenty of commercial opportunities, lots of TV time and a smattering of All-Star awards.

Dublin were scatty and by their standards poor in the first half. Cluxton’s kick-out was disastrous. He took six long ones losing all six. He kicked one too short which was thrown up, then almost gifted Mayo a goal with a kamikaze short one. Even at half pace, Dublin reached half time two up, courtesy of an easy training ground goal after 10 seconds and an astounding second goal from Con O’Callaghan, which underlined his all-round magnificence.

The second half was depressing. Dublin’s culture meant victory was inevitable and an easy victory at that. This Mayo group truly does not understand the joy of football, which is all in the journey, not in the anti-climax of a victory.

They are a team that does not operate in the real world. They do not face the truth and deal with it. Instead, they are happy with the instant gratification that comes from awards and a victory here and there. A league title. A Connacht title.

Dublin meanwhile, are all the things that are good about life and sport. Like the All-Blacks, they serve something bigger than themselves. They have total respect for the game and the opposition. When Lee Keegan went down after a very heavy hit on Saturday, it was Mick Fitzsimmons who stayed with him and tended to him, not his own team mates.

The Dubs do everything in their body to achieve the perfect performance. The needs of others are considered ahead of their own. It is inspiring and humbling. They provide us with a guidebook not just for sport but life.

We are lucky to have them, this special, devoted, selfless collective, where the team is the star and tik-tok is the sound of a clock.

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