Ciarán Murphy: What do Mayo have to do to win elusive All-Ireland?

They were so close to beating Dublin last year, perhaps they don’t need to alter much

‘Cillian O’Connor is 25 years old, has played six seasons for Mayo, and has five Connacht medals. I think edging him towards retirement is a little . . . premature.’ Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

‘Cillian O’Connor is 25 years old, has played six seasons for Mayo, and has five Connacht medals. I think edging him towards retirement is a little . . . premature.’ Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

The one thing they always say is that they enjoy it – the whole farrago, the entire enterprise, lock, stock and barrel from January to September. So less of the sympathy for the “Mayos” as they embark on another summer with their county footballers this Sunday.

For all the talk of Dublin and Kerry, there were four people (of which I was one) out of 10 who, when asked by The Irish Times last Saturday for an overall winner of the All-Ireland football championship this year, went for Mayo.

Where does that belief in Mayo come from? In one way, that’s a stupid question. They took one of the greatest teams of all time to a replay and to within a missed last-minute free of extra-time last October, so no further elaboration should be necessary.

They scored two own-goals in the first game, and inexplicably changed goalkeepers for the second game, and still they were a fingertip away. But conventional wisdom dictates that everything the winners do is right, and everything the losers do is wrong. So the question gets asked – what is it that Mayo have to bring to the table this year that’s different.

Without appearing too glib, eradicating the own-goals, and avoiding All-Ireland goalkeeping FUBARs might be all the change they need.

Image of winners

We have an image in our heads of what an All-Ireland final-winning team should look like. We even have an idea of how they get there. Donegal lose an All-Ireland semi-final to Dublin, learn their lessons, tweak their game-plan, and win it the next year. That’s how these things are supposed to work.

But it’s not always that simple. What did Cork change in 2010 from what they had done in the years preceding that? Nothing particularly drastic. Were Cork a better team in 2010 than in 2007 or 2008? It would be hard to make the argument that they were.

Maybe all Cork needed to do was to accept the fact that they were close. To own the fact that their previous defeats could all be explained. That each one had a specific reason for happening. And, knowing that they were close, get themselves into a position to win again the next year.

If what Mayo need, as the current wisdom suggests, is another top-class forward, and they don’t have one, then there’s not an awful lot they can do about that. They can quite solidly make the argument that mistakes of their own making robbed them of the chance to win both the drawn game and the replay last year. If they know that, what else do they need to know, or do?

So the question of what Mayo found out about themselves over the course of this year’s league becomes a moot point. We saw nothing over the course of the spring that suggested there will be any real change to their personnel or their style of play. As for results – we saw a dispiriting display in Croke Park against the Dubs, but we also saw an away win against Kerry.

Existential question

There is also a greater, existential question hanging over the head of this group of players, and that surrounds the level of punishment that one group of players can suffer before it all breaks apart. At some stage, we must all presume, they’ll all just head for Achill Island and live out their days in quiet mourning for the All-Ireland that never came.

Cillian O’Connor is 25 years old, has played six seasons for Mayo, and has five Connacht medals. I think edging him towards retirement is a little . . . premature. Aidan O’Shea turns 27 next month, Lee Keegan turns 28 a few days after him. Where are these guys supposed to go? Again, if they know they have five or six more years of intercounty football ahead of them, what else are they going to do?

Of course teams have a shelf-life, but final glory doesn’t necessarily come in a timely fashion. Cork in 2010 is one example of that. The great Dublin team of the 1950s won their only All-Ireland title in 1958, a full three years after Heffo et al “revolutionised” the game . . . and then lost the All-Ireland final to Kerry. You don’t need to be better than you’ve ever been. You just need to be good enough when the time comes.

So maybe Mayo aren’t as good as they’ve ever been this year. But maybe all they need is to be good enough this time around to take advantage of an opponent who can’t catch a break. They have six games to win through the front door this year – and they could be against Sligo, Galway, Roscommon, a quarter-finalist through the back door, Kerry and Dublin. Five of those six games could well be against Division 1 teams from either this year or next year (or both).

But they’re still there, they haven’t changed, and they might not have to.

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