Barrett and Mayo’s appetite for the fray remains undimmed
County happy to embrace the opportunity of a national final against Kerry
Chris Barrett: “We used 34 players in the league this year, and guys aren’t getting chances for the sake of it.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Seasons change, and Chris Barrett is listing off all the things about this Mayo football team that never change. The unyielding determination, the insatiable appetite for more, the untiring self-belief, until the subject turns to tying the knot and rings on the finger.
Cork’s 1999 All-Ireland hurling winners may always be remembered for being a team of 15 bachelors, then manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy passionate about the injection of youth. But if this Mayo team are to capture that elusive football title then most of them will have a better half to share it with.
Barrett himself was married in December to fiancé Dearbhaile, a Tipperary woman, and Séamus O’Shea is engaged to be married next month. Tom Parsons got married last year; Ger Gafferkey, Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan all have wedding dates before the end of the year. Barrett thinks Donal Vaughan will have one too.
“Once one drops, the others drop,” says Barrett, gently playing with the fact the players aren’t getting any younger.
At 33, Barrett is approaching veteran status, but after missing much of 2018 with a knee injury, the 2017 All Star defender is open to plenty more road yet.
Sunday’s Allianz Football League final against Kerry is a welcome detour, Mayo only adding their name to the billing after last Sunday’s win over Monaghan, and after beating Kerry in Tralee the week before.
“At the outset it probably was in the back of our minds, something that we could achieve, given the extra couple of months training that we would have got in,” says Barrett.
“Compared to the previous years, when we’d be to finals, then away on team holidays. I think it was in the back of our minds that if we got our stuff together then it might be something we’d be able to do.
“But it wasn’t the focus, ’we need to get to a league final’... it was more focusing on progression with the team and values, and about James Horan and his team trying to instil their thoughts on us. I suppose two games ago, it was less of a thought.
“I don’t think anyway saw Tyrone beating Dublin in Croke Park, which is really what changed the whole balance of it. But that’s the nature of the league, it can all change with the kick of a ball. And we’re delighted to be in the final.”
That extended summer break (Mayo lost their round three qualifier to Kildare on June 30th), plus the earlier return under new manager Horan, may have acted as a sort of head start, only Mayo still needed to beat Monaghan on Sunday to be sure of progressing (denying Tyrone at the time). But at least they weren’t battling against relegation.
“Yeah, we’ve been scrambling from week three or four the last few years, but I also think we used 34 players in the league this year, and guys aren’t getting chances for the sake of it. Guys are playing well in training, they’re getting the opportunity, and I think the first three wins [over Roscommon, Tyrone and Cavan] did give us that bit of a platform and confidence as well.”
After their fourth round loss to Dublin in Croke Park (“a complete anomaly, I don’t know what happened... nothing sparked to life, we played poorly, Dublin played poorly, even though they beat us by six or seven points”), the defeat to Galway brought a more lasting lesson.
“If there’s any game we learned from it was that one. We saw the good things, but we also saw we need to be a lot more composed on the ball, and I think that stood to us, then heading down to Kerry.”
Not that Barrett or anyone on the Mayo team is looking beyond the league final: their supporters may be dreaming already about being back in Croke Park in late August, but that never changes, does it?
“There’s always a sense of enthusiasm and expectation within the support base and just by the very nature of our supporters, they’re very confident, very expectant and very enthusiastic so we’ll deal with it like. It’s not as if we’ve risen from the ashes or anything and risen from the dead, it’s something we’re well used to at this stage, seeing the headlines and putting them to the back of your mind.”
Without the likes of Cillian O’Connor a long-term absentee, other players have stood up.
“Fergal Boland was excellent on Sunday, Fionn McDonagh has come in and done really well. Conor Diskin started on Sunday, James Carr came on. Ciaran Treacy played well against Tyrone and got injured. So, there are more names popping up and more guys putting their hand up in the air – and probably getting opportunities because the likes of Cillian have been injured.
“I think in terms of a squad, it’s the most competitive squad I’ve been involved in with Mayo. Even in terms of back in the day, when the thing was to get in the first 15 and if you weren’t in the 15 you were disappointed – whereas now it’s to get in the 26.
“There’s a real, real clamour to get in the 26 and, in fairness to the guys on the management team, it’s picked nearly every Wednesday night based on training and based on how lads are going. So, it’s got to a stage where you’re happy if you’re in the match-day squad travelling to the league matches, which is where you want to be really.”