Mayo arrive at Croke Park this weekend for a sixth successive All-Ireland semi-final, extending the record they already hold for a Connacht county. They square up to the story of the summer, Tipperary, who haven’t seen a football at this stage of the championship for 81 years. Unsurprisingly the Westerners are unbackable.
Nine weeks ago such an engagement must have looked like El Dorado, as the county surveyed the wreckage from a first provincial defeat in six years and at the hands of ancient rivals Galway.
The qualifiers had been spoken of for a while as a possible cure for the county’s routine of annually winning Connacht but coming up short against the ultimate champions in either the All-Ireland final or semi-finals. One Mayo man was of the opinion that the demoralisation of losing the provincial title would outweigh any notional benefits of taking the show off Broadway for a revamped run.
Typically teams who have prospered in the qualifiers have done so with players who have already won an All-Ireland but need a shock or an accurate diagnosis of what’s preventing them reviving their challenge. In Mayo’s case though that process was already underway. It needed more time and the championship’s outside track offered just that for the new management of
If Mayo go on to win the All-Ireland the quarter-final defeat of Tyrone is likely to be seen as the watershed moment when the tentativeness of plugging away on Saturday evenings was transformed into an assertive display of why they continued to be contenders.
One man who has seen Mayo from a variety of angles is Kildare manager Cian O'Neill, who previously worked with James Horan as trainer and selector until 2012 before switching to work in a similar capacity with Kerry, who defeated Mayo on the way to the 2014 All-Ireland.
His current charges met Mayo in Castlebar last month in round three of the qualifiers. He has identified three improvements which he believes have greatly improved his old side’s chances of finally ending a 65-year search for the All-Ireland.
The most talked about change has seen the adoption of a sweeper system. The idea that a team which has leaked so many goals at inopportune times would embrace modern defence isn’t controversial but the efficacy of the innovation and the fact that Kevin McLaughlin has been allocated the role have both been questioned. O’Neill dismisses both concerns.
“I sometimes smile when I hear pundits saying what’s good for a team and what isn’t when the reality is that you’re looking at a team in the top four and which has a very real chance of being in another All-Ireland final using this tactic which people seem to question all the time.
“Kevin is incredibly comfortable on the ball and he reads the game well. He’s a former defender – people forget that he’s played a lot of football at wing back – but able to counter-attack because he’s great balance and poise on the ball so he can accelerate and avoid contact to get from the defensive third into the middle third.
“It wasn’t decisive against us but he had some good possessions and he did well in terms of attacking up the field but he was more prominent in the next game against Westmeath, did more damage but he’s learning every single day.
"There were times when he made very important interventions on our diagonal balls in and when we were forced to go long later in the game he was always in a strong, solid position for a break ball when Aidan (O'Shea) would have followed Kevin Feely back when Kevin Keane went off injured."
The growing facility with which this has operated has been seen concession rates fall. In his GAA Statistics column in these pages this week Eamon Donoghue drew attention to how Mayo, having conceded nine goals in five matches last year, have this year leaked only three in six.
According to O’Neill, another feature of the team is the broadening of the playing base. “They’ve brought young talent into the squad last year and this year. It’s great to see. Of course the nucleus of the great Mayo team of the past five years is still there but there are a lot of younger guys making a difference, making an impact.
"Diarmuid O'Connor's not new but he has been taking a lot of the limelight in that department but Evan Regan caused a lot of trouble for us and then there are players like Brendan Harrison who was on the fringes back in my time but now has a regular spot. That's important because a team can get jaded."
Others to have got runs are forwards Conor O'Shea, brother of Aidan and Séamus, and Conor Loftus, a prolific scorer for this year's All-Ireland winning under-21s. Thirdly, O'Neill says that the team is less dependent on Cillian O'Connor and Aidan O'Shea.
“The most striking thing for me this year has been the lack of reliance on one or two players to get their scores. Cillian is improving with every game because he’s had a couple of knocks this year. He scored three points from play in the last two games and Aidan is still doing a lot of work around the pitch but they’re not relying on them as possibly was the case in the past.”
Statistics back the observation in O’Connor’s case with his previous three-year contribution of 41 per cent of team scores down to 33 per cent – not counting the London match, which he missed from the sixth minute due to a black card.
The truth remains that the current improvements aren't improvements until Sam Maguire is being waved around Ballaghderreen but Mayo are back hoping a different route will get them there.