Croke Park on the first Saturday in October will be the defining memory for a lot of Mayo GAA supporters that they take with them into 2017, but while there's still great disappointment that the Mayo senior footballers fell short at the final fence following a fantastic effort, there is still much to celebrate coming out of 2017.
No country for old men
There are two highlights from 2016 that will stick out in this writer's mind for many years to come and they were both days that saw Mayo captains lift All Ireland trophies high into the sky. The first of these days arrived on the last day in April when Michael Solan's U21 footballers capped off an campaign of high drama by hitting five goals to see off Cork and claim the county's fifth All Ireland title at that grade. Coming three years on from a lot of that side winning minor All Ireland medals, it shows the future is indeed very, very bright for Mayo football.
This brilliant bunch of young men had previously won games they looked destined to lose against Roscommon in Connacht and Dublin in the All Ireland semi-final, before Cork looked to have edged the momentum their way when they levelled the game up with five minutes to go before two late goals from Conor Loftus and Liam Irwin swung the game back in Mayo's direction. The thousands of Mayo supporters who made the trip down to Cusack Park that sunny Saturday evening, gave them a fitting reception when the final whistle was blown and the celebrations in the dressing room afterwards were some great memories to have forever.
The second victorious day out came not too long afterwards in Croke Park when JP Coen's Mayo senior hurlers picked up the Nicky Rackard Cup in GAA headquarters with a stunning victory over Armagh, with Kenny Feeney's 1-9 key to Mayo's 2-16 to 1-15 win over the Orchard County. After getting relegated the previous year, seeing the Mayo hurlers get their just rewards and day out in the sun was something special and well deserved for those who keep the flag flying for the small ball game in the county. Special mention must also go to the Mayo u21 hurlers who reached the All Ireland u21 B final in Semple Stadium only to come up a little bit short against a classy Meath team.
The club game is strong in Mayo and the fact that three Mayo sides were all contesting club football finals in Croke Park in the early months of the year showed how strong it is. However, Ardnaree,Hollymount-Carramore and Castlebar Mitchels all just came up a little bit short on their big days, but gave their communities a year that they'll never forget and some players a chance to play in the GAA's HQ that they could only have dreamed of in years gone by. Castlebar Mitchels showed their class picking up another senior title this winter, but were felled by Corofin in the Connacht championship, but both Louisburgh and Westport rounded off their years with Connacht titles and All Ireland semi-finals to look forward to in the not too distant future.
The Mayo ladies, of course had their own year to remember — they started they year unbeaten to reach the league final in Parnell Park only to come undone against Cork in the Spring showdown. But they regrouped and came back strong in the summer, seeing off Galway to win their first Connacht title in five years with a top class display. They went on to see off Westmeath in the All Ireland quarter final, before the long trip to Cavan to take on Dublin in the All Ireland semi-final, which ended in heartbreak with Sinead Aherne showing great nerve to tap over a winning free just on full time. Anyone who was at the game or watched it on TV will know that Mayo will have genuine grievance with the way the game was officiated by the ref that day, but they'll be back stronger again next year.
Down but never out
The last few months and the whole summer, what has to be written about Mayo's All Ireland final chase has been written ten times over and everything else in between covered. Stephen Rochford was always going to face a tough task stepping into the role after the previous management team had vacated the post against their own wishes. The lead into the league was short and it was no surprise that the league campaign was only a so-so affair, but with division one status ensured for next year, the job was done and on to bigger and better things come the summer.
London were dispatched with little difficulty in late May, bar a few sunburned heads for the thousands who made the flight from Knock to Ruislip, but things were really turned on their heads when Galway finally shouted stop and dethroned the five in a row Connacht champions in Castlebar in early June. It was the road less travelled for Mayo then for the summer, with Fermanagh, Kildare, and Westmeath all dispatched before the when the experts say the real championship starts at the quarter final stage. Ulster champions Tyrone came into the game with a big reputation, but Mayo executed the gameplan perfectly and held on for a single-point win in an edge of the seat cliff hanger.
Next up for Mayo was the wildcard of the summer Tipperary, who won the hearts of the neutrals but Mayo weren't in the business of caring for what others thought and they dispatched the Munster men in a professional performance. Then came the big one, what could go wrong did go wrong on the field in the drawn All Ireland final, two own goals in the first half just says it's not going to be your day, but despite finding themselves a point down in injury time, Mayo rallied and Cillian O'Connor kicked a point for the ages to send us back to Croke Park a fortnight later.
What happened in the weeks in between to cause Stephen Rochford to bet it all on black only to see it turn up red, is something that will be talked about for years to come. But big and brave decisions are what he's there for and he went with what he thought was best and it didn't work out, but they'll be back next year, Mayo know no other way.
And of course the Mayo masters, after a replay and extra time, managed to see off Cavan to claim the Gaelic Masters All Ireland title earlier this month.
An interesting year overall.