The first thing to strike me when I entered Croke Park two weeks ago was that Mayo fans had very obviously and deliberately populated Hill 16 in big numbers. The Blue army’s sense of ownership of the historic terrace, as reinforced during the 2006 ‘Mill at the Hill’, had again been challenged. While mutual respect remains, the Mayo fans’ sense of inferiority and their Dublin counterparts' sense of entitlement have both been eroded to a point where near equilibrium has been reached. The Mayo team too, learned some years back that nothing and no one is sacred in top flight GAA. That understanding did not come in some midnight revelation, but through years of proving it so on the pitch.
There have been several epic tussles between Mayo and Dublin at the latter stages of the championship down the years. The 1955 All-Ireland semi-final between the sides was seen as a foregone conclusion by the national media at least. Though four points to the bad by the first quarter, Mayo rallied when a less mentally sure team would have submitted prematurely to the 1954-55 league winners, and a draw was secured. The replay was no spectacle. Seventy thousand were forced to watch a hard, dour, and dirty encounter in which Mayo keeper Owen Roe O’Neill was knocked out for some minutes. Mayo were dominant in the closing stages but a succession of wides handed the game to their opponents. The final score, Dublin by the slimmest of margins; 1-8 to Mayo’s 1-7.
Thirty years on and Dublin were expected to ease out of the 1985 semi-final rematch with the westerners. But again, the Green and Reds' irrepressible spirit drove them to a fulltime 1-13 to 1-13 scoreline. To get to that point, Mayo had to fight battles in all quarters. The breaking of John Finn’s jaw, the breaking of Frank Noone’s finger, and a late first half Dublin goal combined with other elements to leave Mayo six points down at the interval. The deficit quickly turned to seven points on resumption of play. Two points down with two minutes remaining and defeat about to ring in their ears, Mayo quietened detractors with two solid points. Two crucial goals in the replay killed off Mayo’s challenge but the experience was to prove invaluable to a team going through a rebuilding phase.
After a series of tantalisingly close meetings, the taming of the Blue, at semi-final stage, was finally achieved in the classic 2006 head to head. Mayo held Dublin in the first half to reach the dressing room with a one point lead. What occurred in the second half was as unbelievable as it was dramatic. Dublin thundered into that half taking no prisoners with only a Conor Mortimer point splitting the Blues’ string of 1-6. At seven points down and with a punishing 30 minutes ahead of them, Mayo pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in GAA history. Mayo, calmly sticking to the job at hand, restored their chances, score by hard won score. And then came the magic show. Ciaran McDonald’s 67th minute left footed attempt from distance earned Mayo an historic win.
Even with strong performances since the 2011 Connacht championship, Mayo were again classified as the inferior team in advance of their 2012 semi-final clash with Dublin. James Horan’s men stamped their supremacy on the game early in the first half and any attempt by Dublin to turn the tables at the start of the second half was quickly wiped out as Mayo took a 10 point lead with 20 minutes to go. The final score saw a three point victory for Mayo but more importantly the sporting relationship between the counties was altered forever. No longer the plucky challenger, Mayo were serious, perennial, contenders. That authority was a kick of the ball away from being cemented when Mayo lost to Dublin by one point in the 2013 All-Ireland final. Balance was restored however, when Mayo dug deep to draw with Dublin in the 2015 semi-final, only to lose the replay a week later. A point in fact, and national media take note, Mayo’s record against Dublin over the past five years (1W, 2D, 2L ) has been better than that of even legendary Kerry (4L ). This year’s enthralling, never-say-die, final performance against Dublin, the reigning All-Ireland champions, has put to bed any notion of an inferiority complex in the Mayo camp. We have nothing to fear, not even fear itself.