Thirteen reasons why Mayo failed to end the famine

But of all the ‘outsider’ counties, Rochford’s men remain best-placed to win in 2018

Mayo stand for the national antheym before the start of the All-Ireland final against Dublin. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Mayo stand for the national antheym before the start of the All-Ireland final against Dublin. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

I

On April 2nd, 2012, Conor Mortimer officially became Mayo’s all-time top scorer. He had just fired over eight points in Mayo’s 0-20 to 0-8 ransacking of All-Ireland champions Dublin in MacHale Park. That brought his career contribution to the red and green to 14-380.

The previous record had stood since 1974.

II

The player that Mortimer replaced on Mayo’s all-time list was Ardnaree’s Joe Corcoran, a shining light with the county from 1958 to 1974.

“Joe was absolutely brilliant,” said Austin Garvin who coached Mayo yo seven Connacht and two All-Ireland minor titles in the 1970s and has built an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Mayo game.

“In an era when it was about individualism. He could score off either foot and was leading scorer in the country for quite a while.”

Mortimer was also an individualist with a flair for self-expression that sometimes drew derision from the conservative heartland of the GAA and a cannier flair for putting the ball over the bar. He had a talent for racking up the scores: a shooter’s mentality. As it happened, he had left the panel by the time Mayo double-downed on that league victory with a famous All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin; a 0-19 to 0-16 shootout in which the Connacht men had gone a staggering 10 points clear at one stage. Mortimer never played for Mayo again and the county has never quite found a replacement for him either; a jinky playmaker who has a habit of knocking over the points which should be knocked over.

III

“Mayo don’t have the forwards.”

It’s the old rap and it’s not true, of course: Mayo have had splendid forwards in the past and now. But maybe it’s true that they don’t have enough forwards and isn’t that a bit like the Volkswagen plant complaining that they don’t have enough wheels?

“Probably Ciarán MacDonald,” John Maughan answers when asked to name the most natural forward he saw playing for the county. “James Horan, too. I wouldn’t have put that Andy [Moran] in that category two years ago but he has been phenomenal. Mayo has had fine forwards but we don’t seem to produce players like Pádraic Joyce or Peter Canavan. For some reason, we produce guys like Kenneth Mortimer and James Nallen and Lee Keegan who stand up head and shoulders in any defence. Look at our All Star count and it is defender heavy. We don’t produce too many Ciarán Macs. We’ve never had that luxury.”

IV

Talk to people in Mayo about whether there are other forwards out there who could make the grade in the current set-up and certain names come up. Neil Douglas has been a streak of phosphorescence through Castlebar’s winter campaigns but his auditions at senior intercounty level have been fleeting. Tommy Conroy scored 1-3 from play for the Mayo team that won the All-Ireland minor football final in 2013 but, like many of that team, has been halted by injury. Only Diarmuid O’Connor and Stephen Coen have so far made a real impression from that 2013 side.

V

“Not withstanding the fact that we don’t have a forwards coach like Dublin have in Jason Sherlock,” argues Austin Garvin of the Mayo News.

“Even such gifted players as they have, they still saw fit to bring in a forwards coach and you can see that in their play, criss-crossing from wing to wing to wing and creating space. Now, predominantly defenders have been managers of Mayo teams: John Maughan, Noel Kennelly, Pat Holmes; presently Stephen Rochford. And I don’t want to decry those in any way. But if a team like Dublin brings in Sherlock, that is telling everybody something.

“I am a bit worried about the coaching structures because this year we didn’t even win the Ted Webb plate, let alone the Ted Webb cup. I cannot recall that ever happening before. In the last four Connacht minor championships, Galway have given us huge hidings.

“Now there are some brilliant forwards on the current team and we have players like Brian Reape, Fergal Boland and Liam Irwin to work with. I feel we have to identify what will get us over the line. For instance, Kerry seven years ago were behind the pack. What did they do? The very best coaches they could unearth were put in at underage level. We have to do the same in Mayo. People who can coach off either foot, balanced shooting, free-taking; all of that. But we need coaches who can inculcate that in our young players or else we’ll fall behind.”

VI

“At schools level there is nothing being done,” says one current senior coach of the issues behind the curtain of this enthralling period for the senior team.

“The county board will say there are four coaches going into schools. But to look after the whole county? When you are starting as a young player, you need the skills left and right. People are talking about Con O’Callaghan; basic skills he was taught and able to implement through his ability. There is nothing like that being done at underage level in Mayo. That’s the harsh reality.

“Clubs have underage groups and guys sign up to coach them at agms but often, it is like a box-ticking exercise. You don’t know what kind of coaching the kids are going to get. How often or how good. Damien Loftus managed Westport to the intermediate championship and he put a five-year structure in place for the club. They are bringing A championship teams through at underage level. It was a soccer and rugby town and now they are taking on the big clubs – Ballina, Castlebar and Knockmore. They are doing fantastic work. But we need a structure like that through the whole county.”

VII

Kerry have appeared in 59 All-Ireland finals, winning 37. Dublin have appeared in 40, winning 27. Mayo have made it to 16 Septembers, winning three. Those three seasons– 1936, 1950 and 1951 – are exceptions in Mayo’s Gaelic games experience. In Kerry and in Dublin there is an expectation when it comes to All-Ireland finals. There never has been a winning tradition in Mayo. The hard truth is that most big football counties don’t have a snowball’s chance of winning the All-Ireland in the next five years and they know it. What makes Mayo stand apart is that they never believe that. But still, they do not have a winning tradition. Surmounting that is easier said than done. On the all-time achievement list, Mayo, despite the fact that Gaelic football is at its epicentre, is an outsider county. Maybe the significance of that is overlooked.

VIII

Do outsider counties ever get the breaks of the game? Donal Vaughan joined Lee Keegan and Liam McHale in receiving cards which forced them to leave the field in All-Ireland finals of the past 20 years. That’s a lot of walks for one county with a reputation for playing it clean. Watching Sunday’s final through Mayo eyes and you see that Con O’Callaghan clearly took too many steps for his goal, Dean Rock took steps for his fisted point, Lee Keegan was awarded a free even though he was actually upended inside the square for a legitimate penalty claim and the Dublin free just before half-time was not a free.

“Now, Chris Barrett got a soft enough free in the second half when he lost possession,” counters John Maughan when this is put to him.

“And look, human nature being what it is we are going to magnify our own opportunities than a Dublin player would. It’s true, there are calls that for some reason don’t go our way. You do begin to question what is going on when you come out of Croke Park having seen a team be so dominant. We can’t blame the referee for missing three or four really good chances in that half or for Donie’s sending off. But yeah, other marginal calls didn’t go our way.”

Do they ever?

IX

You watched Cillian O’Connor kicking that 71st-minute free from the severe angle at the Hill End. And you wonder why he didn’t try and steal a few yards. Isn’t that what all the forwards do? Sneak a step or two to widen the angle? And you remember Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh making this observation about Mayo in an interview that always stuck in your head.

“Mayo today . . . they are always hopeful. And I don’t know whether I should say it or not . . . you rarely if ever see a blackguard on a Mayo team. And a lot of teams might have one or two that you’d call maybe half-blackguards that you’d be criticising, but behind it all the people who would be criticising would be glad that you had them. Mayo never went in . . . Mayo went for winning with honour.”

Is that what’s missing? That streak of blackguardism?

X

If you were a Dublin supporter, you must be wondering what your team has to do. A glittering side has just won the All-Ireland for the third successive year and elevated itself into the ranks of the all-time brilliant teams. But on Monday the whole country is talking about Mayo not winning. Darragh Ó Sé, in his Irish Times column, gave Mayo an extraordinarily generous salute which won’t have his former team-mates lining up to buy him pints any time soon:

“Dublin have shown that they are the best team of the last 30 years by beating the second best team of the last 30 years. Forget Kerry, forget Tyrone or Meath or Donegal or whoever else. This Mayo team is playing at a higher level than all of them. They’ve just had the rotten bad luck to be around the same time as Dublin.”

It’s an irony and it’s of no consolation to the players but, regardless of how this adventure finishes, it’s clear this Mayo team will be remembered on a national scale long after All-Ireland champion teams have faded into obscurity.

XI

That’s because Gaelic games aren’t just about the games. They are about the story too. Here’s David Brady telling Paul Kimmage last Sunday about the impression Pádraig Brogan’s goal against Dublin in 1985 made on him: “My father wasn’t a hugger, it wasn’t done in those days but when Pádraig Brogan scored that goal against Dublin in ’85, we were in the Hogan Stand and I saw him hug a man. My father was a quiet man except when it came to football. That goal lit a fire in him and it lit a fire in me. It was the atomic bomb that ignited my football career.”

It’s all in there.

That goal is 32 years old.

Time’s a goon.

XII

On Monday, Kevin McStay argued that had Mayo been one point up after 76 minutes, they, too, would have held onto their men, taken the cards, killed the minutes. John Maughan will argue the same. But would they? Austin Garvin isn’t so sure.

“They are no angels. But I just don’t concur with the view that Mayo would have pulled down three players to keep them from receiving the kick-out. We wouldn’t have. It is against our DNA and we have never done it.”

XIII

How long can they keep going? It will be the question that burns through the winter. Among the players who started both that 2012 league game and last Sunday’s All-Ireland final were David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Andy Moran, Colm Boyle and Kevin McLoughlin. Cillian O’Connor and Jason O’Doherty came in as substitutes in the 2012 league match but started that summer’s semi-final and last Sunday’s match.

As the crowd gathered in MacHale Park on Monday, one woman held a homemade banner which read: Thanks and Please Stay.

It said all there was to say to the team.

In the overall betting for the All-Ireland championship, Dublin are 10/11 and Kerry are 7/2. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mayo are third favourites at 5/1.

Of all the outsider counties, they are still the bunch most likely to claim the Sam.

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