Mayo in a mind again to conquer the Hill
Wins over Dublin have given Mayo a psychological boost in recent years
Mayo's Keith Higgins celebrates at the final whistle of last year’s semi-final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Mayo’s Andy Moran scores a goal past Stephen Cluxton and Shane Ryan in the 2006 game. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
From a purely historical perspective it was a big deal. When Mayo defeated Dublin in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final, it was the county’s first championship win over their opponents, over 100 years since their first meeting. No team from Connacht had defeated Dublin in the championship for 72 years.
Tomorrow’s Allianz League semi-final won’t be as seismic but it’s the latest in a modern series of eventful clashes between the counties, most recently last year when Mayo re-administered the 2006 dose and deposed Dublin as All-Ireland champions.
For a county with a sequence of six All-Ireland final defeats since last bringing home the Sam Maguire, the wins against Dublin have been amongst the limited psychological highs of the past 62 years.
John Morrison worked in tandem with manager Mickey Moran during 2006. An innovative coach he was also interested psychological issues and was struck by the persistent seam of defeatism in the county after they beat Dublin to reach the final against Kerry.
In retrospect it’s easy to validate the low expectations and question Mayo’s mental resilience but Kerry were at their height and had the momentum of bouncing back through the qualifiers after losing the Munster final. They were tried, tested and hungry.
‘Too much pessimism’
“I felt around the county that there was too much pessimism: too much talk about how Mayo don’t win finals and how the Kerry name frightened Mayo
“I was asked afterwards was another final defeat demoralising. I said it was my first defeat and I wasn’t demoralised and that I hoped the players would feel that they had achieved something.”
Morrison believes that another event in the same year was of longer-term significance. That May, Mayo won a first All-Ireland under-21 title since 1983 and the core of that team are now senior and approaching their peak. Noel Connelly, joint-manager of the team with Pat Holmes, has said that those players have the hard intelligence and resilience to persevere and win at senior level.
By the time of the senior semi-final later that summer Kevin O’Neill had arrived at the veteran stage. An All Star, 13 years previously at the age of 21, he had experience of playing in Dublin and says that the team were neither affected – if even aware – of the statistical context but mentally were upbeat about the challenge.
“It didn’t cross our minds. A lot of our players had played in minor, under-21 and club finals. Deep down there was an underlying confidence that we had the ability to turn over Dublin on the day.”
In as much as there were actual, psychological battles, Mayo won in an extraordinary prelude to the match. They took the field first and made for the Hill end, where Dublin customarily warm up in front of their supporters. Instead the team arrived to find their usual territory occupied. Rather than turn right and conduct the preliminaries into the Canal End, Dublin headed for their normal spot and appeared incensed.
Manager Paul Caffrey “dunted” Morrison in the back as he conducted a drill and the temperature soared. Morrison declines to talk about the incident beyond noting that the Dublin manager was one of the first to commiserate with him after the final.
Under Caffrey Dublin had adopted the production values of linking arms and facing the Hill during the anthem and generally interacting with the presence of their mass support.
At least one opposing manager saw the symbiosis as a weakness in the team – silence the crowd and inhibit the team – and overall it appeared to irritate everyone else more than it inspired the players. Nonetheless disruption of the routine worked to Mayo’s advantage.
“I don’t think it changed our focus,” says O’Neill. “If anything it might have upset Dublin more than us. There had been a bit of a consensus in Mayo that all of the talk and all of the focus was on Dublin and that maybe we weren’t getting the respect we deserved.
“It also created a situation they couldn’t control. Deep down in their own heads I’d say they regretted it because it distracted their focus.”
Martin Carney, former Mayo player, selector and RTÉ analyst, disputes the idea that the win over Dublin became an end in itself but believes it helped build confidence.
“I don’t think so. Mayo saw beating Dublin as an obstacle to be overcome to get to an All-Ireland but it gave the team confidence. Any time you beat Dublin in Croke Park in the championship, it puts a wind in your sails.”
O’Neill looks back and sees a link between that success and the current status of Mayo football – regular championship contenders and sharing with Kerry the longest tenancy in Division One.
“I think it was a valuable scalp for us. The younger fellas in the squad got a belief that they could go on and do better things. For players like Alan Dillon, Andy Moran and Keith Higgins it was a battle they needed to go through and when they look back in years to come it will be a sweet victory from their perspective.
“It also acted as a building block for fellas to push on in their own careers having seen that they had the ability to move to the next level.
“For the younger people within Mayo, playing minor, under-21 and under-16, who would move on to the senior squad, it gave them a lift. I think it was a good advertisement and an effective recruiting tool for Mayo and the GAA.”
Tomorrow, back on Broadway, will be a good rehearsal for the summer. The presence of Dublin, Tyrone and Kildare will provide more of an atmosphere than at last year’s semi-finals when seagulls outnumbered spectators.
Mayo have injuries and have had to improvise through a staccato divisional campaign but they’re back – again – at the business end of a national competition. As Dublin will be aware that’s modern history.