Just before Christmas there was a brief interview with James Horan in the Mayo News where the manager had a few positive things to say about the new football year which is set to get underway the weekend after next, with the year’s action beginning in Ballyhaunis in the form of an FBD League clash with Leitrim.
In that interview, James struck a very positive tone when contemplating how his team might fare over the next few years. He said:
“The overriding feeling is that the first year was a start and we’ve a lot to do yet, but the feeling is that the potential is there. There is a realisation that big things are possible.”
In that interview, James went on to talk about the satisfactory way that the players’ individual training programmes have gone over the last while (there’s been a collective training ban in place since the start of November, in case you’ve forgotten). He also confirmed that a few new faces – Danny Kirby, Conor O’Shea and Evan Regan – have been given a taste of what life is like in the senior panel and that Pat Harte and Conor Mortimer (both of whom missed the whole inter-county year through injury) as well as Davitt’s duo Michael Conroy and Colm Boyle will all be rejoining the panel for 2012.
Every year brings its own challenges and opportunities and the year that’s about to begin is no different in this respect. From our perspective, though, what’s clear is that we’ll be starting it a good deal further along the road in terms of development and expectation compared to where we were this time last year. James Horan had a great first year and even though it ended with yet another decisive defeat at the hands of our old nemesis (one that was even heavier than our 2004 final defeat to Kerry, a match where we’d readily acknowledge that we took a thumping) most Mayo supporters seemed happy enough with how our 2011 championship campaign had gone.
And now we’re facing into a new football year, one in which we’ll hope to do at least as well as we did this year. Martin Breheny reckons we’re totally poxed with the championship draw we’ve got but we were certainly due a soft run to the Connacht final and I doubt if many would conclude there’ll be anything soft about a provincial decider against Galway in Pearse Stadium (which, on the face of it, would seem to be on the cards). Where Breheny is right, though, is that we’re all but guaranteed a place in the final twelve next year and we need to make sure we don’t look this particular gift horse in the mouth and instead ensure that we reach the 2012 All-Ireland series with a minimum of fuss.
Assuming we do make it that far – preferably as Connacht champions – then where do we stand in the pecking order? While the Dubs face into 2012 at the top of the pile, Kerry (with David Moran and, perhaps, Tadhg Kennelly back in the saddle) and last year’s champions Cork are sure to be snapping closely at their heels next summer. With the raft of retirements that they’ve had, Tyrone look set to slip back into the pack next year so there would seem to be a clear gap between the top trio and everyone else.
Donegal didn’t win many plaudits for their Neanderthal style in 2011 but most commentators still had them fourth on the grid at the end of the championship. With the element of surprise now gone and, perhaps, the backwash of the Kevin Cassidy affair still working through their system I’m not convinced that the caveman tactics used by Jimmy McGuinness’s lads will meet with the same level of success in 2012. Donegal will, for sure, still be difficult to beat next year but they can and will be beaten and I’d expect them to fall before the penultimate round in 2012.
And I’d also tend to agree with ontheroad’s assessment of Kildare’s overblown position in the pundits’ pecking order. Martin Breheny put them fifth (ahead of us in sixth) in his end-year table, despite another year in which they failed to win Leinster and were unable to make it past the quarters. In fact, under McGeeney Kildare have failed to win a provincial title and have yet to beat anyone outside Leinster in the All-Ireland series. They’d be my dream opponents in an All-Ireland final but I don’t expect to see them make it that far any time soon.
And what of us? As we head into 2012 I’d reckon we’re at the head (or very close to it) of the pack that’s chasing the top three. We’ve still got a fair bit of ground to make up to break into this elite group (a fact painfully evidenced by the way that Kerry eased away from us in this year’s semi-final) but, in joyously downing the defending All-Ireland champions Cork in the quarters, we showed that, on our day, we’ve got the potential to mix it with the best.
In this regard, it’s easy to see why James Horan is enthusing about the year ahead and the possibilities it might hold for us. As James Laffey recounted recently in his wonderful The Road to 51, it’s clear that the 1936 and 1950/1 teams feared no-one and it’s this absolute unwillingness to accept second-best that the current Mayo panel needs to have coursing through its veins as we face into the new year.
If we adopt such a mindset, then the worse thing we could do next year is to set our aim too low. Instead we need to go for it and shoot for the stars. We may not reach the target but what of it if we don’t? It’s not as if we’re not used to a lack of success in our annual hunt for All-Ireland honours. But if next year, in falling short of the summit, we inch that bit closer to it then we’ll surely set out on the 2013 campaign in even better fettle, with even higher hopes of success. And there’s always the chance, however slight, that we may not fail at all. Roll on 2012 and all it may bring for us.