It’s not dropping back that worries me, no, it’s the standing still that makes me nervous. Mayo are at a level comfortably ahead of most counties and on a given day equal to Dublin and Kerry. That they will remain there bar a collapse of catastrophic proportions is a given. But remaining there no longer cuts the mustard.
Kerry, Kilkenny, Dublin, Tyrone and Mayo are the brand leaders in durability and longevity for the last fifteen years. In Mayo’s case four All-Ireland senior final appearances in the last ten years with sundry runs across all the grades attest to the rude health of the players we possess.
Where we stand is alone and apart is the quest for the big one. Galway hurlers did an awful lot right in their final last Sunday, they were in live contention with five minutes to go but came up against a variable you cannot buy or teach. It’s called belief, mixed with expectation and demand. One becomes two, seven becomes eight like Eoin Larkin, nine became ten for King Henry and ten became eleven for Cody.
The single common thread between the likes of O’Dwyer, Harte, Boylan, Loughnane and Cody is also longevity. Also no-one is/was in any doubt about who is in charge. Mayo differ in that area. Since 2004 Mayo have had five managers. Mickey Moran got less than a year, O’Mahony got two years too long. It’s knowing when to hold and when to fold.
After the 1996 All-Ireland final I came up with a simple equation. The sourcing of another scoring forward and a more reliable keeper would take us to the Promised Land. We got both: Ciaran MacDonald and Peter Burke. What I never factored in were the bad injuries to Brady, Cahill, O’Neill, Sheridan and Flanagan and a loss of form to Horan and Casey. Throw in the removal to full-forward of McHale and a new midfield pairing, we went back rather than forward.
Diarmuid O’Connor was the find of the championship, young Durcan stepped up to the mark but the impression of recycling old wine still remains. Tactically we were a mess this championship. Aidan O’Shea for a second season peaked against Donegal in the quarter-final. It’s not his fault that a coherent game plan is not settled around him. His restructuring tilted adversely Cillian O Connor’s game until they met Dublin.
It doesn’t matter who wears 3. Teams nowadays attack and defend as a unit. What does matter is the systematic leakage of goals – five against Dublin, four against Sligo/Galway. This is a recurring theme since 2011 but it has its roots as far back as the Connacht U21 semi-final on a wet Kiltoom day in 2006. Mayo’s defence that day was O’Malley, Howley, Cafferkey, Higgins, Barrett, Cunniffe and O’Boyle.
Cathal Cregg for the first twenty minutes sliced that defence to shreds. Roscommon scored two walk-in goals, then Cregg went off injured on twenty and from that second on, Mayo were driving towards an All-Ireland title. Most of the same lads still serve, their heart and football ability is not in question but Mayo managerial nous and tactics certainly is in the dock.
Working at weekends allows me to listen to the radio. Anyone who wore a county jersey is now permitted to assail my ears. Two in particular give me a pain, one being Bernard Flynn and the other being Curran from Roscommon . But what gives me a greater pain is that there is more than a grain of truth in their analysis of Mayo.
Curran likened us to an experiment with bees trapped within a glass jar. On release they are so conditioned that they never fly above that glass ceiling even though they are in the open air. Sitting at my desk I prayed that Mayo would release me from my urge to put some wasps into Curran’s pants but alas no. In fact his analogy, whether Mayo people like it or not, is uncannily accurate.
The county operates to a level, high, but ultimately fated to crash and burn, be that gloriously or ignobly. A crash of either type is just that, a crash. The coming weeks will allow for retrospection. Ultimately it will be rendered futile because the levers of Mayo football is concentrated with the few. Like De Valera before them when they want to know what’s best for Mayo football, they look no further than their own hearts.
The group of players have served us well. Where previous good Mayo teams were dragged down by Connacht ennui, this bunch refused to be sucked into that morass. They punched at a very high level but they hit a ceiling. Of course I have solutions that I believe could drive us that vital extra mile but I am too long round to believe that they would ever be considered.
What behoves the Mayo county board now is one single issue. The past is a foreign place, the only issue to be decided is this. What do they do next? Going on previous important calls regarding our team, my feelings are not of the fruitful variety. Change in playing personnel is a must. Why? Because this group unfortunately failed to finally deliver. They are now trapped at semi-final stage. Not all of course but a clear-out will always lead to renewal and fresh challenge.
The defining elephant in the room is, of course, the management. Offering an opinion from here is irrelevant because it won’t count. However as Brian Cody and Loughnane have shown, if you believe in the manager then you believe in the team. Going back to the bee and the glass ceiling fills me with dread. So too does running on an eternal treadmill with the end product getting more elusive each year.