Jim McGuinness: Mayo are the greatest team never to win an All-Ireland
Newbridge had an end-of-era feel on Saturday but Mayo will live long in the memory
Mayo’s Keith Higgins, Conor Loftus and Diarmuid O’Connor react as referee David Gough awards Kildare a late free at Newbridge. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
I felt fortunate to be in Newbridge on Saturday night with the crowd, the atmosphere, colour and intensity.
There’s no doubt that the pre-match controversy – Newbridge or nowhere – helped to give the evening a different dynamic. The actual game didn’t disappoint; it was proper championship football with no-one prepared to blink.
The image though that stays with me was of the Mayo players trooping off at the end. There were six or seven of them marching off disconsolately just as the home supporters were invading the pitch and the green and red jerseys were enveloped in a mass of white.
It was tough to see the sadness in the body language and the devastation on their faces. Almost immediately I got the sense of an end-of-era moment. I’m not from Mayo and so can only imagine what it felt like for the players and their families and the people who have supported them along this journey.
That image also got me thinking about all that they had contributed this decade and what their place in history is likely to be.
Certainly, the first thing people will look at is the number of finals they contested and lost.
From a personal perspective, the first final they lost in 2012 was also the greatest day of my sporting career to date.
One of the memories that sticks with me from that day is the bus journey after we had left Croke Park and were on the way to the Burlington. As we were driving down O’Connell Street, Donegal supporters came out from the pubs and hotels to cheer us on from the footpath.
What caught me off guard was the number of Mayo supporters doing the same thing, clapping and saying, “well done”. They seemed to be acknowledging that it could have been them but that they were wishing us well. I thought it was classy.
In 2013, they lost 0-17 to 2-12 – outscoring Dublin by 17 to 14 – and in 2016 it was 0-15 to 2-9, outscoring them again, and in the replay it was 1-14 to 1-15. In 2017 the same situation arose again – they lost the final again by a point, 1-16 to 1-17.
As a postscript, how unlucky were they to run into Dublin – one of the best teams that have ever played the game.
Some commentary is based on their not having been good enough to win the All-Ireland but in 2012 they beat Dublin, then the champions, in a semi-final. A year later when we were defending the All-Ireland they beat us in the quarter-finals.
In 2014 and ’15 they lost replayed semi-finals to the teams that went on to win the All-Ireland. The consistency of the team and the level they have been at over the past six years has been exceptional. When I hear the argument that they weren’t good enough to win an All-Ireland I respond that they have, over the course of the years, beaten all of the teams in the country that have.
It reminds me of the Buffalo Bills, who between 1990 and ’93 went on to an unprecedented run of AFC championship victories – just as Mayo set their own record for five Connacht titles in a row – and appeared in a record four straight Super Bowls. That’s not however what they’re remembered for. They’re remembered for losing all four.
The 2015 documentary Four Falls of Buffalo, one of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, centres on the Hall of Famers involved in those games. The place kicker Scott Norwood steals the show. With four seconds left on the clock in Super Bowl XXV on 27th January 1991, he had a kick to win the match, from 47 yards – the call ‘wide right’ not only became synonymous with the game but went down in AFL history.
Norwood’s interview is tough viewing and it was clear he still struggles with the memory to this day.
In the 2002 Ulster final I had my own moment. It was the year Armagh won the All-Ireland so they had an amazing group of players. I scored a goal midway through the second half and it turned the tide for us for a while. When I reflect on that game, that’s not what I think about.
For me that day is about a ball I received between the 21 and the 14 with a sight of goal. I knew I was in a good position to go for the top corner. It was all about making a quick decision and I went for it but just as I was pulling the trigger, Kieran McGeeney came in – I don’t where from because he wasn’t even in my peripheral vision – and got a fingertip to the ball and it deflected at pace to Benny Tierney.
I think we would have won that game if the goal had gone in. Incredible defending but I carried that ‘goal’ with me for nine years, reflecting and reflecting on that moment and seeing the ball go into the net so many times in my mind.
It wasn’t until we won the Ulster title in 2011 that all that pain disappeared. That and the 1998 final, which we lost to a late goal, stood out for me in the 19 years since we’d last won the championship and Ulster was a really big thing for us and our only objective. When we eventually won again, that pain washed away.
Unfortunately for Mayo they have never had that catharsis.
In all of those finals they just needed one moment of redemption. There are similarities between Mayo and Buffalo.
In the documentary they talk about the quarter-back Jim Kelly and how fast he was: ‘he walked fast, he talked fast, he ate fast and he ran fast’. This all came from the coach Marv Levy, who set the team up for speed and intensity. He processed things really quickly and wanted his players to do the same thing.
According to Kelly, the fast pace and the quick tempo was what put him in the Hall of Fame. Running back Thurman Thomas said that they felt they could score on every drive.
What Mayo have brought to the championship in recent years reminds me of this; the honesty of effort and a willingness to play the game a certain way, intensity in the tackle and how courageous and committed they were to a kicking game. Then there was the preparedness to go man to man despite the pitfalls.
The obvious example was against us in 2012. We knew going into the final that they would go man to man and we would get opportunities to isolate Michael Murphy. We practised and practised the diagonal ball that Karl Lacey would put in early on in that final, leaving Michael isolated close to goal.
A year later and Bernard Brogan was in one-on-one and also scored. As I’ve previously mentioned, you can kick the ball in 20 times and 19 times the defender clears but on the other occasion the ball’s in the net. That’s very brave.
A lot of these characteristics were visible on Saturday night. They were 15 against 15 with Keith Higgins dropping off if he felt it was necessary but they also have that resolve. It was 0-2 to 0-7 in the first half in Newbridge but Mayo don’t do panic and they just kept going because of the belief in what they were doing.
By half-time when other teams might have been wavering they had it back to 0-9 all. It’s ironic that people question Mayo’s mental resolve because I think they’ve shown more of it than many other teams, including ones that have won All-Irelands.
The turning point for me was the kick-out. They had been doing really well, going short and dropping into the pockets, left and right, close to the 21. They had the medium kick-outs going really well, taking marks and getting out to the ball early.
When they had to go long, Aidan O’Shea was dominating the skies. Kildare got this right in the second half and asked more questions of Mayo. They were adamant that they’d shut down the short ones, played in front of their men on the mediums and on the long kicks they identified O’Shea’s role and when the ball was coming, two or three of them went towards him – not to compete by trying to field the ball but intending to break it down and win possession.
This they did and had the support and legs to get forward and take the scores that ultimately won them the game but it came down to small margins.
Ken Rogers, who directed Four Falls of Buffalo, is quoted as saying:
“This is what we tell our children in America: a nation built upon perseverance and appreciation of the underdog. The values we teach them are centred on the idea that hard work and effort are their own rewards and that winning is not, as Vince Lombardi said, the only thing.”
But there is a caveat, which Rogers acknowledges: “America may cheer for the underdog but it loves a winner.”
That’s the sadness in the Mayo story. This team will live long in the memory for the perseverance and willingness to get up again and fight but for me the question is: ‘what happens when our memories start to fade?’
When we get older and new generations come through what will be left? The record books and they are unsentimental and don’t dwell on the great efforts teams went to, to win All-Irelands.
When you get into the winners’ enclosure no-one can take that away from you. I know what Mayo brought to the table and people in the game know but as time goes on that can get lost.
For those of us who saw them, they are by a considerable distance – and have the statistics to prove it – the greatest team never to win an All-Ireland.
Our experience of winning the All-Ireland in Donegal was in many ways shaped by the disappointments the county had to endure since 1992.
For me if there is any solace to be taken from this story it must be that the next generation of Mayo players embrace the pain of this team, which can help drive them as it did with us, to getting over the line on some future day – and all the courageous efforts of the current crop of players will not have been lost to history.