Long, long ago, 25 years ago to be precise, Tony Davis made a very cutting remark about us on The Sunday Game in the wake of our agonising one-point loss to Meath in that year’s replayed All-Ireland final.
He said that Celtic crosses don’t get sent to players in the post, they had to go out and win them and Mayo had ultimately failed to do this. The criticism stung, in part because there was a large element of truth to it.
All-Irelands are hard to win. Lord knows, that’s a fact we’re well aware of. Ten finals – twelve if you include the replays – since 1989 and we’ve ended up with ten defeats. Losses to different counties, in different circumstances, but all with the same heartbreaking outcome from our point of view.
As we contemplate yet another final appearance and, with it, yet another chance to land the big one, it’s worth pondering on all those past losses. Not because there’s anything we can do about any of them now but instead to recognise that, for each one of them, there was no set narrative in advance about how we would fare out in them.
What I mean by this is that we weren’t predestined to lose every one of those finals. We weren’t cursed. We could have won some of them. We certainly should have won a few of them.
By my reckoning, having witnessed them all (bar last year’s Covid final) at first hand, four of those deciders – 1996, 2013, 2016 and 2017 – were ones we should have won. Three more – 1989, 1997 and 2012 – we could have won. We were never, in truth, going to win the other three.
We can – and we do – put forward a variety of reasons to explain why we didn’t come out on top in any of those finals that we were capable of winning. We talk about contentious refereeing decisions, injuries to key players, missed scoring chances, cruel luck, all manner of plausible reasons. Not to mention the fact that over the last decade we repeatedly came up against the best Gaelic football team of all time.
But that’s all in the past now and once again we’ve put ourselves back in the position of shooting for glory. Arguably, the chance we now have of getting across the line is quite possibly the best one of the lot.
This time, there’s no greatest team of all time barring our path. Also out of the picture are our other great final nemesis, Kerry. Strip those two out and out too go the three finals that I think we were never in the hunt to win – 2004, 2006 and 2020.
Instead, facing into this final we’re squarely in the territory of all those deciders we either could or should have won. Tyrone will be tough opponents but are they beatable? Absolutely. Can this Mayo team beat them? For sure they can.
On the podcast he does with Andy Moran, ex-Dublin player Paddy Andrews argued the other week that, having beaten Dublin, this Mayo team should fear no-one. He had a point.
I’d add to that by asserting that our semi-final win over Dublin – ending the longest ever unbeaten run in the entire history of the Championship – was of far greater substance than Tyrone’s victory over a lavishly overrated Kerry side was.
Ladle on top of that the fact that we possess far greater big day experience than Tyrone do and that we have a kind of relentlessness to us this year that anyone who comes up against us finds very hard to match. Just ask Galway or Dublin.
In addition, our opponents in this final have a high regard for us, for the simple fact that our record against them in big Championship games at Croke Park is a very strong one. While we’ve regularly beaten each other in League games played at Healy Park and MacHale Park in recent years, at Croke Park we’ve come out on top every time we’ve met bar once.
It’s tempting, then, to believe that this time, finally, the stars are aligning for us. They could well be but if we think this one is just going to land into our laps we need to think again because we can be sure that Tyrone aren’t planning to come away from HQ without the silverware themselves.
This All-Ireland title is there to be won by whichever county strives hardest to win it. I can’t help but feel that if we play to our full potential victory will be ours. But only if we grasp hold of the opportunity that fate has once more presented us with.
Carpe diem – it’s time for Mayo to seize the day and, with it, finally, the Sam Maguire.
This article was first published in this week’s All-Ireland final supplement in the Mayo News.