Kevin McStay: Defeat for Galway or Mayo will signal the end
Mayo’s unfathomable record of resilience to be tested once more in defining Galway tie
‘A permanent change for Galway or Mayo will be delivered through next Saturday’s match.’ File photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Is this Mayo’s last stand? Over the coming days, it will certainly feel as if a remarkable generation of footballers is approaching a definitive crossing point. And, as always, they have their public – and the country – on the edge of their seats. Last Saturday night in Castlebar was just an exceptional evening of football entertainment. The drama, the madness, the chaos: it was peak Mayo. They are the masters of survival. I am not sure how they were still standing after everything Armagh threw at them. But there they were: battered, a game older, a bit weary – and still in the draw.
So, to Monday morning. I hold my hand up and admit that I played a tangential role in fate pairing Galway and Mayo in that mine was the hand that drew Mayo from the drum in the RTÉ studio. There is a caveat in that they were the last team out. I joked that I did my best for the local economy. But I am not sure either the Galway or Mayo teams will thank me. For the championship, it promises to be a truly great fixture. For the teams, it means the road has become incrementally tougher. The winner will play Kerry away in game one of the Super 8s a week later. Just what you need after a bruising border derby in the fourth round is the sight of the steward down in Killarney smiling at you as you arrive. “Howya! You’re very welcome to Fitzgerald Stadium! ’Tis great to see you!”
Bet it is.
I was working out that if Mayo are to win the 2019 All-Ireland, it will involve them winning up to eight matches in 11 weeks since their Connacht defeat to Roscommon. They have already won two – Down and Armagh. Now they have six hurdles to clear. There are three breaks worked into that period of games. But it is pedal-to-the-floor now. Forget about pit stops. Just hell for leather. And injuries, fatigue and suspensions become bigger factors.
Look at how they got over Armagh. They were a point up at half-time. Coming down the stretch, they showed all of their old survival instincts to hold on to the narrowest of advantages on the scoreboard. It seems to be the atmosphere in which they feel most comfortable. They get through it. Why has this team such a special place in the hearts of Mayo people? I think it is their honesty and spirit in comparison to other Mayo teams. There are days and games when they should know better and just accept that they are beaten and go home. But they keep ploughing on. It may all end up a taxi ride short of Croke Park this year. But whatever happens will show the team in all its colours. They are flawed, for sure, but how can you not take your hat off to them?
Mayo’s experience is comparable to that of Dublin. There is a lot of criticism now of Mayo’s cynical game-management on Saturday night. Well, every top team engages in this. It is the match officials who let it slip. But there is no question that Mayo are now masterful in game-manipulation. In the second half, after they scored their 52nd-minute goal, injuries started to kick in. They were only Mayo injuries: six injuries and stoppage time that amounted to almost eight minutes. Seven substitutions added a further 2½ minutes. So, in all, it was about an 11-minute stop and Armagh got a return of five added minutes in reality. Kieran McGeeney was understandably annoyed about this. A lot of referees tend to whinge when it comes to added time. How can you put up four minutes when the total was higher than 10? But it was a nice piece of work by Mayo in terms of minute-shaving in one half of football. And it counted when they were trying to hang on.
You can’t get away from the fact that a defeat to Galway will stand as a moment in time. It will spell the end for this Mayo generation
Armagh got very close and had momentum in the final quarter when the Bacon Factory End was under severe pressure. We saw the goalkeeping debate in essence in those moments. Now, the bloody debate has surely ended. David Clarke is the best shot-stopper in the class. His housekeeping is tidy. And his kick-out is nothing special. And in Rob Hennelly, Mayo have a terrific number two to call on when needed. I keep saying that even though Mayo were allowed to go short in the second half, there is still a lot to be said for kicking long to Aidan O’Shea. Mayo are one of the best teams in the country for flooding the breaking-ball area by overloading that zone and getting possession. That wasn’t as prevalent the last evening, maybe because Fionn McDonagh and Mikey Murray are new to this environment. But we have seen a moment in every game where a decisive play emanates from poor execution of a short kick-out. Even Westmeath suffered heavily against Clare in just this way. So there is something to be said for Clarke just getting it out of the danger zone when needs be. I know it sounds simplistic but it can work.
So where are Mayo now? They have a good goalkeeper, a decent defence, they need a partner for O’Shea at midfield, and they have a reasonable forward line. They have enormous pride and are hugely competitive. Are they running on empty? Well, let’s look at their problems. Their age profile in defence is worrying. They are the wrong side of 30. Brendan Harrison has had to sit in at fullback. He is an All-Star-calibre corner back and so will be great on 50-50 balls coming in low from the side or high when he can break it to a team-mate. But isolated man-to-man under the high ball is not his natural habitat. It is a worry for Mayo. Lee Keegan has acted as back-up midfielder in the past but now he is a doubt. Last year, you had Tom Parsons and Séamus O’Shea. Now you have Matthew Ruane (broken collar bone) and Diarmuid O’Connor (broken wrist) out for the foreseeable future. Up front they are not that fluent. Cillian O’Connor’s return will give cohesiveness and Darren Coen is in the form of his life. James Horan has played a lot of rookies over the course of the league. Now is their chance to shine. Mayo still have the gun-slingers such as Paddy Durcan, Colm Boyle, Keith Higgins and Chris Barrett: these boys are very, very obstinate and proud defenders, and they will allow nothing easy. They might get caught for pace but they are so experienced that they won’t cave in. And they have an extremely experienced manager. So they know this journey. They were huffing and puffing in 2017 too and then just exploded into life. But that was two long summers ago. Can they repeat that?
They are at a critical juncture. You can’t get away from the fact that a defeat to Galway will stand as a moment in time. It will spell the end for this Mayo generation. The talk will turn to whether they were the best team to never win an All-Ireland. That will become their legacy. Mayo have traditionally built their All-Ireland drive on minor and under-21 successes. That was the basis for our push in the 1980s. The 1990s team came from Martin Carney’s outstanding under-21 teams. The current squad have emerged from the 2000s, the under-21 champions of 2006 and the minors of 2013 and the under-21s of 2016, which yielded Diarmuid O’Connor, Ruane, Conor Loftus and Stephen Coen. But the likes of Aidan O’Shea, Donal Vaughan, Keegan, Andy Moran and Clarke came from a different background and somehow that seems to have contributed to this contrary, never-say-die attitude within the group. When you look at their record over the past six years: Jesus. It is unbelievable. In 2012, they lose the All-Ireland final to Donegal by four points. In 2013, they lose the All-Ireland final by a point to Dublin. In 2014, they lost the semi-final after a replay and after extra time by three points to Kerry. In 2015, they lose the semi-final after a replay to Dublin. In 2016, they lose the All-Ireland final after a replay by a point to Dublin. In the drawn final that year, they suffer the setback of two own goals in the first half. Think about that. Two own goals? It hasn’t been seen or heard of before or since. Nor will it again. In 2017, they lose the All-Ireland final to Dublin by a point. It is an unfathomable record of resilience and stomach to keep coming back, to keep coming back, to keep coming back.
Where do they get it from? And why didn’t they get over the line? Well, it was a mixture of poor decision-making at critical times. The forward lines did not punch the necessary holes to win an All-Ireland. There was a lack of team play at critical junctures and maybe a lack of mobility around the middle third from eight to 12. And there was a fair bit of bad luck, too. For all that, they were just so incredibly close so often, it is hard to rationalise how they didn’t get there, just the once.
So there is something fated about where they find themselves this week. It feels like an old-time Connacht championship build-up. It is do or die. A permanent change will be delivered through next Saturday’s game. The winners will be the authors of that change. The losing team is facing into many retirements. If you look at Mayo, nearly half their panel is 27 and older, and seven of them are 30 years and older. Likewise, Galway have veteran players who have soldiered long and hard for their county. So the reality is that a cadre of players is probably 70 minutes and a defeat away from calling it a day. Everything is riding on this one game.
It is hard to see Mayo getting the return ticket and another crack in an All-Ireland final just now. To see that would be thrilling and revelatory. But you have to be realistic. Look at the injuries. It’s like Monaghan: you can only lose so many good players before you pay the price. Mayo are perilously close to that scenario. Keegan and Diarmuid O’Connor are the heartbeat: they just run at teams all day long. Jason Doherty is a very honest player and he, too, is a doubt. Parsons is gone. Ruane, the find of the league, is gone. Séamus O’Shea has not come back. The leaks are springing up everywhere.
So Mayo are as vulnerable as they have ever been this week, even as the groundsman prepares the pitch in the Gaelic Grounds and the waiting game begins. They can be caught. But All-Ireland football is crazy: it goes from second chance to knockout and then onto round robin. So if Mayo can just get through this next game, they can at least buy themselves time.
But to get that, they must go through their greatest rivals in 130 years of the sport. They have to get through the maroon team. Do I think Mayo can come through this latest test of their will-power – and existence as a group? I do. After everything, how can you count them out?