“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words it is war minus the shooting.”
So said George Orwell. So, are we serious about sport or are we sportsmen? There is a huge difference.
For all Mayo’s frontline battling, top two/three since 2011, we have shown a shocking naivety or sportsmanship towards other teams. Pick any of our opponents at the top table and we have been on the receiving end of the dark arts without laying a glove in retaliation or retribution.
Dublin, Kerry and Donegal have looked at the rule book against us and discarded it. No need to blame the referee, blame ourselves. Only would-be saints turn the other cheek all the time.
Stephen Rochford merits nothing but our unstinting support. He was appointed late, thrown a handful of games that would test the best outfits and is now aware of what the good ship Mayo is all about.
Since 2011, when Dublin won their first All Ireland since 1995, they have blooded a number of youngsters that have challenged the established “stars”. Mannion, Kilkenny, Costello, Rock, McCaffrey and Fenton, not forgetting the maturing of Cooper and McMahon. Only Cluxton can safely say he is a regular.
Likewise Kerry. Having escaped by mugging us in Limerick in 2014, they grabbed fate by the neck and brought through six or seven youngsters and added another boring title to their haul. Donegal, whom many of us saw as a tired team this year, have suddenly found a new step in their strut. Youth has been introduced with stunning effect.
But since 2011 only Diarmuid O’Connor has cemented a place in our starting fifteen up to this campaign. That problem rests with those in charge since 2011 not the incumbent.
Part of our current issues stem from not having brought through enough fresh blood over the last five years. We placed or allowed the managements to place their eggs in the basket of the 2006 U21 winning team. Players like Kirby, Nally, Coen, McHale, Keane, Regan should be further down the line in terms of first team football at this stage.
If we take Mikey Sweeney as an example of the future, by my calculations the lad is almost 28. We are too conservative in trusting new blood. We became a club team not a county team somewhere on this journey.
Alex Ferguson correctly stated that the most important person with any team is the manager. Last season our players spoke and acted. We supported and backed them. Now the new manager comes in with a clean brief beholden to nobody except the Mayo followers.
A loss next Sunday in Monaghan will more than likely remove our destiny from our hands. The resurgence of Roscommon and the distant gathering of a Galway revival will become an added distraction. Cool heads and calm judgments are now needed.
Early on in Stephen Rochford’s appointment I opined that what Mayo needed was not more love and care but a blast from the shock pads. For many of this squad this is not Year Six of the quest, it’s Year Twelve for the survivors of 2004, and Year Ten for Big Barry and Keith of the 2006 vintage, Year Seven or Eight for many more. Clarke has been there since 2001. Time is not our friend, folks.
I don’t envy the manager. Stick with the tried and trusted with a tweak in style or go for broke and impose his own indelible stamp as quickly as possible.
One of the conundrums Alf Ramsey had was the Jimmy Greaves issue. Greaves was a goal machine and hero. Alf paired big Bobby Smith with him, he paired George Eastham, he tried any and every front man but none gelled. Then before the Word Cup 1966 quarter-final match with Argentina it suddenly hit him. It wasn’t Eastham or Smith or the others that were the problem; it was Greaves. Alf played with no wingers and his style was a compressed one. In came Geoff Hurst , out went Jimmy and the rest is history.
Aidan O’Shea is becoming our Jimmy Greaves. Worth his weight in gold but where do we maximise him for our best? Whilst Sean Cavanagh has mastered the midfield-cum-full-forward role and Michael Murphy is getting there not even Kieran Donaghy nor Michael Darragh MacAuley have been able to do likewise. At midfield, centre-forward or full-forward we are getting six out of ten returns from Aido. We need nine out of ten and someone has got to decide where that spot is.
Freetaking has become a monster for us and has conceivably cost us many big games even when Cillian has been over them. Bringing the keeper up the field unless he is Cluxton is a waste. Murphy on Sunday saw a few outside his range and opted for the short pass and return.
Strange and as heretical as it sounds, we lack leaders on the pitch. Keegan irritates with his approach at times. Aidan O’Shea seems wide open to all types of physical and verbal abuse and no-one seems to do anything about it. A manager cannot coach that into a side. Either they do it for themselves or they cannot.
The penalty incident against Donegal spoke volumes. O’Connor isolated and under attack. Shades of McLoughlin and Carolan against Dublin 2013 when Connolly had a grip on both their jerseys and wouldn’t let go.
In a previous world and job if someone grabbed my shirt, the rest of the conversation took place with him on his back on the floor and my knee on his chest. There are lines that cannot be allowed to cross. Mouthing personal insults and physically assaulting a player on the pitch must become a NO NO. Time for Mayo boys to man up there or move out.
Stephen Rochford is unlucky with the team’s results in the last two matches; Mayo played well and merited points. Work rate cannot be faulted but it’s the little things that can and leadership and calm heads on the field of battle are currently lacking. We are walking a precipice at the moment and we cannot allow excuses to help us.
This group have nailed their undoubted commitment to the flag pole. Getting out of the tailspin we are in will propel us onwards and onto firm-sodded summer football. Falling short opens the door for others to take our place, both provincially and nationally.
Monaghan are gathering a head of steam for a few years, Donegal will see themselves as their equal, both see us as a team blocking their progress. Roscommon with another win will be pressure-free when they meet us and if Galway squeeze from the clutches of Division Two, Connacht becomes a very hot spot for us.
The good news, as always, is simple. We ourselves hold the cards. As Kenny Rogers said, it’s how we use them that counts. Orwell by the way wasn’t far off the mark either. Time for reflection is over. For many it’s now or never.