As the build-up to the 22nd starts to gather pace, I’m delighted to welcome back into the guest slot FourGoal McGee who discusses how our form line has risen inexorably over the last three years.
For many years, we have stood on the sidelines, roared ourselves hoarse, dissected every move, debated every possibility and hoped that, this time, it would be our year. Season after season we looked for the signs of strength in every line, leadership in every jersey, skill in every part of the field and the level heads on the sideline that would turn such resources into a force to be reckoned with. But year after year, we headed into the winter asking “Why? Oh why….?, as we watched other counties emerge from the footballing peloton and pull away when we were in sight of the winning line. Lamenting our basic inability to string a few good performances back to back, we continued to make suggestions and give (often uninformed) advice.
Individuals regularly emerged over the years to raise the spirits. If only we had a few more of him, we would think, but our strategy of trying to build teams around individuals never worked. The weakest link defines the strength of the chain and if the man we relied on had an off day, we didn’t have others of equal ability to pick up the load when the horse was tired. As a result, great players came and went – always without the coveted Celtic Cross. And we waited …. again…. maybe next year.
At the minor final in 2008, I got a feeling in my bones that I hadn’t felt since I followed the U21 team in 1983. These guys were different. They played with a confidence not usually associated with Mayo. We didn’t get that one across the line, but the signs were there of a new energy coming through. The huge challenge would be to take the lads that were emerging from this group, blend them with those emerging from the All Ireland U21 winning team of 2006 and turn them into a team that could realistically challenge for the major honour. No pressure then!!!
The signs over the next two years were not positive and the performance against London in the first round in 2011 left us wondering if the new manager, JH, had what it took to steer the ship in the right direction. The use of a sweeper throughout the League and on that day in Ruislip did not suit our style and it was not until it left us staring at major potential embarrassment that it was reassessed. But from Ruislip on, the graph slowly began to rise, culminating in the dumping of All-Ireland Champions Cork out of the quarter-final on the August Bank Holiday weekend. We went away thinking that maybe… just maybe, the basics were there. A return to the sweeper system brought the defeat to Kerry in the semi-final and left us wondering again about the ability of our sideline to work the necessary magic.
Winter 2011 brought a shake-up in the management team with the introduction of Cian O’Neill and a focus on full-team development. O’Neill might have had his critics, but his introduction brought a step-change in Mayo. Strength began to appear in every line and despite a few ropey performances in the League, the underlying trend was of a team improving as the Championship approached. The demolition of Dublin in March, compared to the fiasco in the February fog, underlined a developing maturity but it was the win in Croker against our nemesis Kerry in the League semi-final that showed the difference in this team. The fear was gone. The graph continued to rise. A competent run in the Connaught Championship allowed us to arrive almost unnoticed in the quarter-final where we dismissed Down and made a few people sit up and take notice. The nice soft lads of Mayo were suddenly playing serious football and the leadership development was underlined in the semi-final, when, without Andy Moran, All-Ireland Champions Dublin got the same treatment that we had meted out to Cork a year earlier. Sadly, the final was not the result we wanted but this team did not lie down and die, and it was not going to quietly go away. As we headed into the winter, the Irish Rail slogan “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there!” came to mind.
And so to 2013. Again, the League was ropey but the defeats were by small margins and the signs as the campaign progressed were of a team getting to grips with the outstanding issues as Donie Buckley’s coaching began to tell. The League semi-final defeat against Dublin at the time seemed significant, but the aim of staying in Division 1 had been achieved and going further was never part of the plan. Galway in Salthill in May beckoned and many were calling this as close. JH laid it on the line in the week before the game when he said we expected to win! “What?” asked the astonished media, “not talking up the opposition? Unheard of!” And then Joe Brolly started love bombing us!
But the following Sunday, JH let his men do the talking on the pitch. At half-time in Salthill, I texted my son (a Dub) that we had announced our arrival as contenders. The graph had risen again and we have continued to build our credentials as serious contenders in what looked like an easy run through Connaught. Donegal fell to the new “Mayo curse” – our developing habit of unceremoniously dumping the previous year’s All-Ireland winners out of the Championship.
At some stage in the Championship, you need to have your nerve tested and that came with the wobble in the first 20 minutes against Tyrone. The response to that was emphatic. The points by Lee Keegan and Chris Barrett left me in no doubt at half-time that this would be our day.
And so we are back in the final. But this time we feel different. We have a team that puts in consistently strong performances, not just back-to-back, but in every game. We have strength in every line, we have leaders in every jersey, skill in every part of the field and the level heads on the sideline that have turned these resources into a force to be reckoned with. We are now looking at the product rather than looking for the signs that it might be produced. We now have the team that is emerging from the peloton as the winning line approaches.
Is this the year we dared to hope for?
Is this the time we kept the faith for?
Damn right it is!
BRING IT ON!