There’s been a fair bit of looking back since this year’s All-Ireland final but in this guest piece John Cuffe discusses this year’s campaign, and the lessons we need to learn from it, in the context of the two seasons that preceded it.
The start of the 2010 GAA Grand Prix saw the Mayo car caught in a pile-up on the grid. As smoke belched from the exhaust and as oil leaked all over, the green and red car stalled. Less fashionable models like Sligo and Longford, both Formula Three and Four vehicles, wrecked the Formula One model.
2011 GAA Grand Prix
On the grid for the start of the 2011 GAA Grand Prix stood many shiny models. Three in particular stood out, the sky blue racer of Dublin, the green and gold of Donegal and the old reliable, the green and red of Mayo. The three racers were managed respectively by Pat Gilroy, Jimmy McGuiness and James Horan.
Earlier that year the Dublin County Board launched their strategic plan. It was called The Blue Wave (pdf copy here). Its goals were multi-focused but three stood out loud and clear. Number One was to win a Senior All-Ireland every three years. Number Two was the win a Minor All-Ireland every three years. Number Three was to win an All-Ireland U21 title every five years.
For Gilroy the clock was running and the message was subliminal but clear. Already their U21s had docked successfully and Pat was in year three of his tenure. McGuiness bore no such weighty expectations. But he possessed a singular determination to forge this Donegal outfit into his own mould. Whilst the Dublin County Board runs like a business with it attendant structures, Donegal would fall into the “a year at a time” category.
Jimmy knew this and seized the team to do as he wished with them. Over in Mayo, and after four years becalmed in the Doldrums, James Horan now managed their football fortunes. Dark, deep and silent, Horan was an unknown at county management level. His Ballintubber had displayed the requirements of modernity – functional, fit and playing to a plan suited to winning rather than entertaining. That was a shift from the Mayo ethic where style is king.
The green light flashed and Mayo set off on their league laps. Patience was abundant, the new man deserved time to find his feet and rhythm. The highlight of the league campaign was the game against Dublin in Croke Park. After twenty-two minutes Dublin had torn Titanic length holes in the Mayo defence. They led by 4-4 to 0-3. I leaned over and whispered to my daughter “we could ship twelve goals before this ends”.
In adversity men either crumble or fight. Alan Freeman threw caution to the wind and started to run behind the Dublin full-back line, soon Doherty joined him and a fight back started. Mayo got a tail wind, the twelve-goal pasting receded and the Dublin car looked to have run out of fuel. Sean Murray two weeks earlier had Kerry’s Donaghy in his pocket. Such was Freeman’s display that Murray soon lost his spot on their team.
The final score showed the best and worst of Mayo. Dublin 4-15 Mayo 3-13. And yet after drawing level we succumbed to Ger Loughnane’s belief: we were afraid to win. An open goal was squandered at the death but respect was salvaged and that was a big step forward.
On the grid for the championship and as the green light flashed, Mayo almost stalled. A trip to London – logistically, tactically and football-wise – near blew our engine. Employing a sweeper whose then free corner-back opponent kicked two points backfired. Ironically it was the very score we trailed with minutes left. But the Mayo players held the head, kicked the points and closed out the near-embarrassment in extra-time.
The games against Galway and Roscommon were played in winter type conditions. However a shape and form was coming on the team. Cillian O’Connor stepped up to the plate. Nineteen but with a middleweight’s body, the boy could kick frees and play ball. Not even a crazy decision where Collins the referee overturned a decision to award a Mayo free, because he deemed O’Connor to be wasting time, put him off his stride. One minute of the second half was gone and Mayo trailed by three, insane.
Cork got mangled in the quarter-final; simple really, Mayo tore at them after a nervy start. Aidan O’Shea flattened Noel O’Leary; I think it was Richie Feeney who railroaded Eoin Cadogen. Thus in one fell swoop, Cork’s two enforcers were sorted. That allowed us to free up space for a tearaway goal from McLoughlin. It felt good to watch, it felt good to be a Mayo man. The reigning All-Ireland champions were gone.
The semi-final in retrospect showed how far we had come, considering the low base we started at. However the orange light started to flash early and by the end the red light was glaring. Kerry seemed to score easier than Mayo. An excellent goal from O’Connor was nulled when a ball into the goal area was botched. The Gooch grabbed the result of the mayhem and promptly sorted it by sticking the ball in our roof.
We were on the right circuit; we had a good car and drivers. Time in the pits would see the engine tuned to a higher level. On the third Sunday of September Steven Cluxton launched himself into history. Taking time all the time that a rugby ten would get, Cluxton sent Kerry home with a rare final day defeat. Had Mr Collins from Cork been there would he have thrown up that ball à la COC in the Hyde?
One law for us and one law for the rest it seems. Pat Gilroy fulfilled The Blue Wave mission statement. Mr McGuiness perfected a defensive formation that had the traditionalists pulling out their hair and Mr Horan had breathed life and colour into the Mayo car.
2012 GAA Grand Prix
With improvement comes expectation. The same cars lined the grid for the 2012 race. Once more the Dublin, Donegal and Mayo cars attracted a lot of attention. Donegal carried an air of menace with them. Mayo stuttered in the league, orange lights coming on here and there. A visit from Dublin on a foggy night exposed a lot of threadbare tyres. That game was postponed and the job done in the pits was to work wonders. Prior to that, though, Donegal showed us they meant business. They presented us with a problem. Down to fourteen men, they ran us ragged up there where Michael Murphy ran amuck. Flickering orange and red lights that needed seeing to pronto.
Dublin came to town on the last day of March and Mayo ate them 0-20 to 0-8. The fog had dissipated. This was as good a display I ever saw from Mayo since 1967. McHale at three, Geraghty in mid and Barry at fourteen wasn’t what Dublin expected but the boys acquitted themselves superbly.
Kerry fell under the Mayo car wheels in the semi and a final beckoned. A Mr. Deegan refereed it. Back in 2011 in a league match in Castlebar he awarded a rather soft penalty to Kerry. Certainly as a Mayo follower I never saw us get them type. Now he was to play a central role in our fortunes. Lee Keegan was fouled from my perspective. The ball tumbled away and Cork countered. It hit a post and fell down to Walsh who walloped it home.
Instead of one ahead, we were now four behind. Vaughan got savaged on a run. The twins whom Mayo sorted a year earlier were now wreaking revenge. O’Leary and Cadogan were going to town and we were letting them. RTÉ and Brolly had a lot to say about the Vaughan incident. Mayo slipped up in not dealing with that on the night, not in a regional paper the following January.
The championship grid saw us get two golfing gimmies. Leitrim got a beating and Sligo got slip-streamed without us using up energy. The Leitrim game saw Conor Mort slip from us. Controversy raged for a while but a comprehensive beating handed out to Down salved that issue. Let me say this, Conor Mortimer owes Mayo nothing and whilst his departure wasn’t a crowning glory neither should it blind us to his service.
A red light flickered against Down but went off as quick. It was ignored but shouldn’t have been. Down were there for the taking, a Donegal mauling had left them vulnerable but the old fox Benny Coulter led his Mayo marker a merry chase. Benny lined at 14 but wandered and scored 1-1 and laid on another. Jimmy McGuiness would have noted that.
The semi-final win over Dublin meant that we had now knocked out in successive years the reigning All-Ireland champions. I sang “The Green and Red of Mayo” at the end with my girls, as a summer’s evening enveloped us in Croker but doubts lingered. The red light had flashed and stayed on longer than I would have liked.
Leading by ten points on the 59th minute, Mayo collapsed. A shift of MacAuley to mid for them allowed them to outscore us 0-10 points to 0-1 until the end. David Clarke has boots as big as Paschal McConnell and saved a one-on-one with Brogan where a goal looked certain. The first sixty minutes was what we focused on but others looked at the last ten.
Donegal, home of my mother, were our opponents in the final. I won’t put a bone in it, I expected Mayo to win and win comfortably. The one thing McGuinness didn’t want was a team who had players who could play football and who were fit enough to do it. Cian O’Neill was the man who overhauled the Mayo engine and the improvement was clear.
Now though the red light that glowed in the last ten against Dublin lit up again. Before we could pull into the pits we were 2-1 down. Between the 61st minute v Dublin and the 8th against Donegal we had conceded 2-11 with a return of a single point. That oil leaking was fatal to any engine. Oh we “won” what was left of the match but in truth Donegal played it on their terms. Lacey, a wing back, was unmarked for two interventions at the outset. The first bounced wide, the second wound up in our net. Keane was the scapegoat but I didn’t notice any Mayo man chasing Lacey as he surveyed the clear track ahead.
Our old friend Deegan was to intervene again. Cillian was dragged back by the shirt but he mustn’t have seen it. I did, forty five yards away and in the crowd. The ball travelled up the pitch, go on… finish it out for me…yes, it hit a post, bounced down and was finished into our net. This was on the eighth minute; the similar scenario in the League final was in the fifty-fifth moment. Same result, though, the Mayo car shunted into the chicane.
The engine that was tuned needed the master touch of a top mechanic. The red light that flashed was ignored, the oil levels not topped up. Almost lost in the last ten minutes v Dublin and lost in the first ten v Donegal. Harsh but true. Decisions that might have been painful were not made and when you drive the red and green car praise will be showered on you. That should also include any legitimate criticism. We blew the engine and the best chance of an All-Ireland ever. This wasn’t Kerry, heck it wasn’t even Meath or Cork. This was Donegal, six times Ulster champions.
In the garage after as the car was overhauled and all the data read, the green and red team had a great Grand Prix. Two national finals contested, refereeing decisions not favourable to them but when were they ever. And yet a lingering, nagging feeling that a hard call there, or a leap of faith here, we could have been double champions. Two in a row Connacht titles and an FBD would have to do. The decision not to go to the New York was wrong. I don’t want to hear excuses.
2013 GAA Grand Prix
“The best Mayo team since 1951” they said. “They are not like other Mayo teams” others said. I railed. You’re the best when you win the big guy. And this mantra, propagated by many Mayo people I have to say, that these guys possessed mental steel that other Mayo lads and teams didn’t, insulted fine players who had travelled the road ahead of them.
Donie Buckley upped the ante and the engine. The league was nothing to write home about other than the red light of the destruction wreaked by Bernard Brogan seemed to be classified as the warm glow of a flickering orange light. Once more Donegal were mastered by Jimmy but Dublin brought in Jim Gavin. In doing so they ripped up the Mark 1 2011 version car and added some heft under the bonnet as an offensive drive was proposed. Mayo were now where they were in 1996/97. Get back to the big drive and finish and lap the circuit this time with the chequered flag fluttering.
Galway ran into a flying set of rotors and never recovered in Salthill. Roscommon got ran over in Castlebar but a few orange lights indicated that the engine was not sparking everywhere. Three awful misses for goals were dismissed as part of a master plan almost. London had outed two Connacht cars but were ran off the road by a resolute Mayo that saw Cillian O’Connor back.
Donegal got what they should have a year earlier. Mayo in their faces, Mayo in their fuel lines, Mayo in their pit stops. For the third successive year Mayo had eliminated the previous All-Ireland champions. We were All-Ireland champions at eliminating All-Ireland champions. Confidence in the car, driver, and engine was at an all-time high. Tyrone were the first to put some sand in the petrol.
A team who ran scores from everywhere now depended on a replacement corner-back and an attacking wing-back to keep them in half-time touch. Orange lights flashed. Then the crisis eased. Freeman assumed leadership status and drove us on but an alarming free or two were missed by others after COC’s departure and that would have repercussions down the line.
The final saw Cillian O’Connor back from shoulder injury. Fully fit and at the wheel, Mayo and Cillian would have been unstoppable. The front tyres also had two others coming back from injury, Andy Moran and Alan Dillon who seemed restricted all year. Also in the spare tyre department was a top ace who had nursed an injury. Mickey Conroy firing on all cylinders would have given Dublin plenty to do.
The story is simple. Five first half gilt-edged chances to keep us a lap ahead were spurned. A high ball into the square drew the needed fuel from our tanks. A stupid turnover not contested led to that mess. We never learn. The second half hadn’t the required daylight for the tyres to stop wearing out. When we needed bold and a dash to pass on the corners we were solid but not adventurous. Towards the end as the laps were run down and that sick feeling the red light gives, we were camped under the Hogan Stand like a rugby team unable to make the necessary yards.
At the death we needed to crash all the lights to cause mayhem but instead we parked the car like a pensioner, safe, solid and no cigar. This one would go down bad. The referee, though no genius, couldn’t be blamed. This time we had to look at ourselves. As the car was rolled into the pits we departed the stadium.
That night I watched us again on TV. Same old, same old same old things. Turn overs, no chasing back, men who freeze on the big day. Where the natural habitat of the Mayo soul was needed, a bit of careless driving and madness, instead we got caution and old bread. Once more back to the garage, another refit and another Grand Prix ahead.
For this car to cross the line cold decisions have to be made at all levels – by the Board, by the manager, by the players and importantly, also by the followers. Voices have to be listened to. No one man, no single entity will push this car across the line. Forwards have to be found, and forwards have to be let go. Either the reserve defenders are good enough or if not then show them the door.
We lose a right corner-back and we replace him with a centre-forward. Try that with the Gooch below in Kerry and see how long you’ll last. We need a man to mark the square once and for all; we need a man to block the six. The present incumbents are adaptable and useful elsewhere in the system. Your status on the pitch should never be immunity from removal from that pitch when the time is right.
In closing I will refer you to the motto of The Blue Wave. It is simple. “What Gets Measured Gets Done”. We actually could have achieved The Blue Wave’s objectives but sadly I never heard them articulated, publicly at least. This car is capable of winning the Grand Prix but the clock is running and other cars are modifying. It would be sad if the chance was now to slide off the circuit.