Blue wall proves insurmountable to Mayo during Jim’s watch
Mayo have started the league well but they have failed to beat Jim Gavin’s Dublin in their 13 meetings since 2013
James Horan had heard the question plenty of times before and, life being life, expected to hear it plenty of times again. Coming off the back of another good win in the league for Mayo, he was asked whether it meant now that they could feel confident about taking on the Dubs when they went to Croke Park next time out. Though his nature is to generally preach caution, he allowed himself to bite. Just a little bit, just this once.
“Mayo know Dublin so well at this stage,” he said. “You’d be looking for a very strong performance and hopefully a victory would come out of that. But it’s not the end of the world if it didn’t. Having said that, it’s time Mayo did beat that Dublin team and it would be great to do it.
“A strong victory for Mayo next weekend might just send a few shivers or get Dublin thinking about things a little bit differently. It’s a great chance for Mayo to have a real crack at this. They’re in a strong position in the table and they can have a right crack at Dublin.”
If you’re sensing a slight air of detachment in his words and thinking something doesn’t quite smell right, that’s because it’s the words aren’t coming from James Horan, Mayo manager. Rather, it’s James Horan, Eir Sport pundit and the quote is two-years-old. He was crossing the pitch in MacHale Park after Mayo’s 2017 league win over Roscommon when he was nabbed for a walk-and-talk by Rob Murphy, presenter of the Mayo News football podcast.
It had been a decent enough start to the league by Mayo, bouncing back from an opening day defeat to Monaghan with victories over Kerry and Roscommon. And so, yeah, sure, of course Horan could see them having a crack at the Dubs and maybe sending a few shivers through them. Why not?
He wasn’t alone, it should be said. When the MayoGAAblog site ran its usual pre-match poll taking the temperature of the county that week, the mercury was found to be ticking merrily upwards. A stirring 67 per cent of respondents reckoned a Mayo win was on the cards in Croke Park. Only 19 per cent could see a defeat.
Fast-forward to Saturday night. Dublin 1-16 Mayo 0-7. Jim Gavin didn’t field Cian O’Sullivan, Diarmuid Connolly, Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy, Paul Mannion or Jonny Cooper – and still it was a stroll for the champions. None of the Mayo forwards scored from play.
All of this is only worth bringing up now by way of contrast. On the face of it, Mayo are in a better spot heading into this league encounter with Dublin than they were two years ago. Three wins from three is their best start to a league since 2006. One win from three is Dublin’s worst since 2014. Yet the odds on a Mayo win have actually drifted out since the start of the week, from 5/2 to 10/3. If there is confidence in Mayo this week, it is quiet to the point of being mute.
“I’m a realist,” says John Casey, former player and current pundit. “Everybody is talking about a brilliant new crop coming through but they haven’t been tested. With the greatest of respect, they’ve beaten arguably the bottom three teams in Division One. You can’t take anything from the Roscommon game because of the horrendous conditions in Castlebar, Tyrone seem to be falling off a cliff for some reason, and Cavan look to be heading back down as quickly as they came up.
“The acid test is going to be this game against Dublin. It’s nice, for once, not to be thinking about relegation. It’s a big change to be safe after three games and not be biting nails coming down the stretch at the end of the league.
“I went to Donegal last year for the last game and you were watching it, going, ‘This is it, we’re going to be relegated and it’s going to be the end of an era. Lads will play out the summer and then walk away and there’ll be Division Two games next year with nobody at them and the county board coffers are going to take a hammering.’ But then Kevin McLoughlin got them out of jail, 13 steps and all, and they lived to fight another day. That’s not an issue this time and it means there’s a bit of leeway.”
Leeway is a dicey enough concept, all the same. Mayo have been defined by Dublin throughout this decade and although nobody has been inclined to take them by the ear for coughing up a spring defeat, there comes a time when enough has to be deemed enough. Gavin has faced Mayo 13 times since taking over at the end of 2012 and hasn’t once had to offer a defeated handshake. The teams have played a handful of games for the ages and still the best Mayo have been able to manage is three draws.
That has to be wearing on the Mayo players, a core group of whom have been involved for the majority of those games. Colm Boyle has started all 13. Aidan O’Shea, Lee Keegan, Donie Vaughan, Kevin McLoughlin and Jason Doherty have started 12 of them. Keith Higgins, Seamie O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor, Diarmuid O’Connor, Rob Hennelly and Chris Barrett have all played in at least eight of the 13.
Or put it this way. Of the Dublin team that started last year’s All-Ireland final, nine have never lost a Mayo game. Of the team that started against Kerry in Tralee a fortnight ago, only Mick Fitzsimons, James McCarthy and Dean Rock have a Mayo defeat in their portfolio.
So yeah, leeway is all well and good. But Horan wouldn’t say no to a little more heft behind the good start Mayo have made to his second stint in charge. So far, it’s a welcome surprise but nobody is pretending there’s a lot of depth to it just yet.
“Horan has gone in with the perfect scenario in a way,” says Casey. “They were out of the championship early last year so fellas are rested, physically and mentally. Galway have beaten us three years in a row so that’s an early wrong that will have to be righted in the summer. For that to happen, he can insist to the squad that he doesn’t want any of this oul’ league bullshit of scrapping for points on the last day to stay up – he can sell them on the idea of going into the summer with a bounce in their step.
“And because it’s the middle of last summer since they were beaten by Kildare, he’s been able to get them to go at it hard from the start. The fixtures have worked in their favour too. There’s no hangover from a long campaign last year and there’s nobody on the fence about whether or not to go hard at the league. It suits them to go for it.”
It hasn’t always, of course. Mayo are famously hamstrung at this point in the season by the fact that they’re operating with two squads – one in Dublin and one in Mayo. Horan has the thick end of 40 players involved and chasing places in the squad, around 15 of whom work or study in the capital. They train on Wednesdays under James Burke, a former Mayo underage player who has been a Ballymun Kickhams player since he moved to the city 11 years ago. The homebirds train in Mayo on Tuesdays and the collective comes together on weekends.
Yet, for once, the twin existence seems not to have mattered so far in 2019. Horan has seen a new-manager bounce, even though he isn’t new to very many of them. His clean-slate operation began at the end of 2018 when he ran trial games in Castlebar and Bekan for over 100 players and told all the old-stagers that their presence was required. Even the Breaffy players who had lost a county final the previous weekend weren’t excused.
So far, Horan has handed starts to seven debutants in the three games. Fionn McDonagh has been the obvious eye-catcher at wing-forward, with Conor Diskin, Brian Reape and Ciarán Treacy impressive in flashes. Cillian O’Connor hasn’t surfaced yet and Tom Parsons’s rehab is still a long-term project. It’s still entirely likely that their championship team will be broadly made up of the old reliables, but no game in the league presents a better chance for the younger breed to plant their flags than this one.
“They will want to give a good account of themselves but we don’t know anything yet really,” Casey warns. “Will the likes of Fionn McDonagh and these lads be able to mix it with the best players in the country? We don’t know yet. Maybe they’ll go up fearless and maybe they’ll be like those young Kerry players last week and tear into them. You’d hope that will be the way Mayo will approach it.
“It would be a good marker to put down to beat Dublin and leave it so that they couldn’t win the league and it still only February. But equally, it’s very possible that Dublin could beat Mayo and go and win the league. That’s easily something that could happen.”
On the MayoGAAblog yesterday, this poll for this game stood at 42 per cent lose, 41 per cent win. They know it could easily happen.
All too well they know.
Dublin v Mayo in the Jim Gavin Era – Every Game Ranked
(13 games, 10 Dublin wins, 3 draws, 0 Mayo wins)
1 Dublin 1-17 Mayo 1-16
All-Ireland final, Croke Park, September 17th, 2017
Con O’Callaghan skated through for a Dublin goal a minute in and the action was ceaseless for the next 80 minutes. Lee Keegan’s goal, John Small’s red card, Donie Vaughan’s retaliation, James McCarthy’s leadership, Chris Barrett’s defiance, Cillian O’Connor’s free that hit the post in injury-time, Dean Rock’s free that split them.
2 Dublin 2-12 Mayo 1-15
All-Ireland semi-final, Croke Park, August 30th, 2015
Dublin were safely in the final and then they weren’t, somehow. Mayo scored 1-4 in a frenzied closing 10 minutes, including an O’Connor penalty and an equaliser from Andy Moran.
3 Dublin 1-15 Mayo 1-14
All-Ireland final replay, Croke Park, October 2nd, 2016
Dublin and Mayo matched each other stride for stride until Cormac Costello came off the bench with 15 minutes to go and scored three points from three chances. O’Connor had a free to send it to extra-time but pulled it wide.
4 Dublin 2-9 Mayo 0-15
All-Ireland final, Croke Park, September 18th, 2016
Mayo dominated the first half but own-goals from Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle sent Dublin to half-time five ahead. Mayo were three down in the 69th minute but managed to hang tough. O’Connor’s last-gasp equaliser sent the stadium into orbit.
5 Dublin 3-14 Mayo 2-17
NFL Division One, Croke Park, March 29th, 2014
Mayo led by six points with 13 minutes to go before Eoghan O’Gara scored two late goals. Stephen Cluxton was sent off, McLoughlin was unplayable at wing-forward and Mayo should have won.
6 Dublin 3-15 Mayo 1-14 All-Ireland semi-final replay, Croke Park, September 5th, 2015
Dublin turned around a three-point second-half deficit to run out handy winners. Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon nailed a goal apiece, Philly McMahon scored 1-2.
7 Dublin 2-12 Mayo 1-14 All-Ireland final, Croke Park, September 22nd, 2013
Brogan scored 2-3 as Dublin held out for Gavin’s first All-Ireland. Andy Moran’s second-half goal briefly raised Mayo’s hopes but Brogan’s second soon after killed it.
8 Dublin 2-14 Mayo 0-16 NFL Division One, Croke Park, March 2nd, 2013
Brogan scored 1-10, Cluxton missed a penalty, Ger Brennan was sent off. Mayo were down by five early, rallied back to lead but were ultimately well held.
9 Dublin 2-16 Mayo 0-16 NFL semi-final, Croke Park, April 14th, 2013
Paul Mannion terrorised Kevin Keane to the tune of 1-4, Dublin went seven points up inside the opening 20 minutes, and Mayo never threatened to haul them in.
10 Dublin 0-9 Mayo 0-7
NFL Division One, MacHale Park, February 2nd, 2016
On a rotten night in Castlebar, Dublin were more economical in front of goal and just as ruthless in protecting it. Mayo only scored two points from play and paid for it.
11 Dublin 1-16 Mayo 0-7
NFL Division One, Croke Park, March 4th, 2017
Another league no-show from Mayo. Conor McHugh palmed a first-half goal for Dublin and they were never in trouble.
12 Dublin 2-18 Mayo 0-10
NFL Division One, MacHale Park, March 14th, 2015
Denis Bastick and Brogan got in for early goals and Ciarán Kilkenny enjoyed himself at will. Dublin were 10 up at the break and the second half was a non-event.
13 Dublin 2-10 Mayo 0-12 NFL Division One, MacHale Park, February 24th, 2018
A Mannion goal inside the first minute set the tone and when Niall Scully matched him at the start of the second half, it was time to get in out of the cold.