Mayo players determined to leave the past behind

All-Ireland football final: Dublin may seem unbeatable but Mayo are in no mood to lose

Cursed: Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Michael Conroy after losing to Donegal in 2012. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Cursed: Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Michael Conroy after losing to Donegal in 2012. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

A day after Mayo had negotiated their way to another All-Ireland final by ending Tipperary’s thrilling dash through the championship, veteran Andy Moran gave a radio interview in which he reflected on the essential difference between Mayo this year and the side which had lost the final of 2012 to Donegal and of 2013 to Dublin.

“In 2012 and 2013 we were ripping teams apart and playing flamboyant football. But this team, you would hope we are a bit more experienced and better equipped to go into the battle we are going to go into in four weeks time and hopefully that shows,” Moran said.

This was before the Kerry-Dublin match so the final itself was still a vague concept: yes, Mayo were there but the identity of their opponents was unknown so nothing was yet in sharp focus. The second semi-final confirmed that Dublin, the reigning champions, would indeed be the side to stand between Mayo and a reunion with the Sam Maguire which has been some 65 years in organising. The nature of Dublin’s win deepened the general impression that the team now has a titanium quality about their overall approach which makes them all but impossible to crack.

The homilies from a host of former Kerry stars served to confer Dublin 2016 as a special team. The post-match analysis of the immaculate, polished way in which they saw off what was a convincing and full-blooded Kerry challenge makes Mayo’s task look all the more difficult.

Team performance

In 2012, they came up against Donegal when the Jim McGuinness revolution was at full tilt. The following September, they just about fell short against Dublin who had been blitzing teams with non-stop scoring all summer.

Now, they find themselves meeting Jim Gavin’s project some three years on: harder, cannier, defensively more astute, no longer bothered with flash individual scores and totally immersed in the concept of the team performance.

When Mayo rebounded so strongly after the 2012 disappointment, it spoke volumes for their moral character. But they lost the 2013 final by a point. When they lost out to Kerry in a wild, dusty All-Ireland semi-final replay in Limerick in 2014, they seemed wretchedly unlucky. When they exited at the same stage after another replay against Dublin, they seemed to have reached an impasse.

Their early summer defeat by Galway handed them their first defeat in Connacht for six years and suddenly it was easy to perceive them as yesterday’s news.

Yet here they are: the only team left standing, the only team capable of stopping Dublin’s progression through league and championship and all it surveys. What does that say about this Mayo team?

“I think the only thing you can take out of that is the excellence of the group of Mayo players,” says Seán Carey, who is serving as a selector for Stephen Rochford this year.

“Some people might look at that differently; I would say that’s a sign of the potential these players have. You could look at that in a lot of different ways, but the fact that it has taken the eventual winners to make us exit the championship, I think there’s something very positive about that. Okay, you could wallow in that but the truth is that it’s a sign that this group of players are excellent and really, really good at what they do. There are very, very small margins between us and what we want to achieve.”

Terrible days

James Horan

The truly terrible days – the All-Ireland final thumpings of 2004 and 2006; that saddening day when Cork put 5-15 past them in 1993; the depression that set in after the high promise of 1996 and 1997 yielded nothing – haven’t happened to this team. Carey, who played for the Mayo minors along with manager Stephen Rochford in 1995, thinks that the constant references to Mayo’s All-Ireland record is inevitable and not particularly burdensome.

“I think, to be honest, since Mayo have come back into public consciousness in 1996, there’s 20 years where we’ve been there or thereabouts every couple of years. There’s always pressure but it’s a pressure that I think every other county would take,” he says.

Competitive

That is undeniable. Mayo have won many more games than they have lost and the games in which they have been defeated can be easily rationalised. The cliche in modern management is to “take something from the game”. Any defeat holds clues for a team as to what they’re doing wrong. Mayo’s policy has been to sift through the rubble of a defeat, take whatever is useful and apply it.

“They’ve been very competitive, yeah. Think if you put a body of work together like they have done in the last five or six years, there’s a certain level of respect that has to come with that,” Carey says.

“They haven’t been beaten heavily. They’ve been there or thereabouts. The teams that have made them exit in the last couple of years are the teams that have gone on to claim it.

“I would have been at all of those big games in the last five or six years and I think anybody who follows football would realise that Mayo have been really, really competitive and that, it’s like the question that you asked me a few minutes ago, they’ve been knocked out by the eventual winners each time.

“So I don’t think anybody out there can think that there was a massive reconstructive thing that was needed. These guys are seriously committed athletes and they know what they’re doing. There’s a lot of talent there and I think they believe they can win it and, leaving Croke Park last year, I believed that they could still win it and I believe now that they can win it.”

How many outside of the Mayo dressing room believe that, with one week to go and the anticipation and build-up beginning to rumble in earnest? How many Mayo supporters truly believe the team can win? The team is available at 3/1, generous terms for a team competing in an All-Ireland final.

The atmosphere within the county has been curiously muted. This is partly because the team’s run to the final has required no melodrama or unexpected heroics and partly because of the opposition.

Defensive reconfiguration

Mayo, meanwhile, have done what has been expected of them since that loss to Galway. Their qualifier route held no nasty surprises.

“We were expected to beat all these teams. Whether you beat them by 10 points or one point, you are not going to get any credit. Our job was to stick in the championship, get to an All-Ireland final. That’s where we are,” says Andy Moran.

“How is our form? To be honest, our form was good last year when we drew with Dublin in the first game and we were out of the championship after the replay. So to be honest I don’t really care what our form is like. We are going into a final here and finals are for winning.”

Maybe the no-fuss methodology Mayo used to halt the much-fancied Tyrone team in the All-Ireland quarter-final holds clues as to the nature of the Mayo XV who will parade next Sunday. They have been low-key to the point of dourness and their reaction to reaching this final has been strikingly matter-of-fact. There is no delight. They expected to be in the final just as much as Dublin.

In short, they look like a team that has reached the point where they are sick of losing; of players who have absorbed all of the lessons that All-Ireland final defeats have to offer. This is a Mayo team that has been unsmiling and bloody-minded in its approach. And that’s what makes this week of predication and debate so interesting.

Mayo’s best chance may lie in the fact that Dublin don’t know quite what they will face at 3.30 next Sunday.

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