Black evening for Mayo football
Another View The Blog
June 26, 2010. A little after 9 pm on a bright Saturday evening and the dust is swirling over another setback for Mayo football. The team is out the back door, out of the race for Sam. Dumped out by one of the minnows of the game.
After defeat at the hands of Sligo in the Connacht championship a few short weeks ago, this time the unlikely assassins are Longford. The scene of the murder: Pearse Park, Longford. The scoreboard reads: Longford 1-12, Mayo, 0-14.
Many are shocked, for Longford had thus far this year beaten only two teams in League and championship, lowly Kilkenny and London.
Mike Finnerty and Billy Fitzpatrick have brought the game into Mayo households through Mid West Radio. ‘What’s the feeling? Embarrassment? Anger?’ Mike asks Billy in the post mortem; Billy has seen some really dark days in Mayo football, but probably nothing to equal this.
Analyst Billy, whose passion for the Green and the Red knows few equals, is diplomatic in a trying moment. ‘Respect,’ he replied. ‘Where once we (Mayo) might have laughed at some teams that situation no longer applies. Now we must respect every team, they have all advanced.’
Finnerty probed further: ‘Would team manager John O’Mahony be examining his position after four years in the role?’ he queried.
Fitzpatrick, who played in Croke Park for Mayo at 42 years of age, was again the essence of diplomacy. ‘That’s a matter for John,’ he ventured.
By the time the radio team handed back to Angela Nugent in the Ballyhaunis studio John O’Mahony was announcing to his players and the county board that he was stepping down forthwith. He had done all he could have done with Mayo over the past four years of his second coming. Taking Leitrim to a Connaught title, and winning two All-Ireland senior crowns with Galway had proved easy compared to turning the Mayo ship around.
Ironically, earlier in the day that Mayo went down to the Leinster no-hopers, one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, Mayo-born Dermot Earley of Roscommon, the Army Chief of Staff, had been buried in Kildare, and that sad event had brought memories gushing back of his heroic tussles with John Morley and the Mayo team in the heat of manly Connacht championship battle in the 60s and 70s. The drab show in Longford paled into insignificance when compared with those stirring battles.
Now, after 9 pm, the text messages were flooding into Mid West Radio, blaming the players and the manager for this latest setback. They would continue to flow in that direction for the next number of days, and spit out through the worldwide Internet like a gattling gun.
Managers and players were blamed, new managers mentioned, with all the usual suspects being trotted out including Paidi O’Shea who had some months previously cast what appeared like covetous eyes at the Mayo job. The dust had hardly settled, the football platform had again been found unfit for purpose, and vocal fans were already lining up a replacement as if that was the catchall cure. Unfortunately, Mother Mayo is still rearing them with a wet dollop of football naivety behind the ears.
To be blunt, most fans, and not for the first time, missed the point. Given the state of Mayo football and its psychological flaws induced by constant beatings suffered for daring to fitfully strive for success off a crumbling foundation, too many fans think with their hearts instead of their heads. They blame the easy targets –the players and the managers- and do Mayo football absolutely no service. Readers of Another View over the years will have heard the contention that all the comings-up-short are, bottom line, the manifestation of all that is wrong with football in Mayo, at club and county level. Too few want to look inward, analyse a grossly defective conveyor belt delivering an end produce ill prepared for the enormity of the task expected by a county with a great past long since faded like an old photograph tinted into sepia.
In a county like Mayo, with a proud but exaggerated tradition, County Boards want success. Want it now. In the headlong rush to turn the corner, long term planning gets lip service. A manager is thus expected to deliver within a timeframe of unreasonable expectation, and when that is not realised either throws in the towel or gets sacked. In the interim, players get messed around, become frustrated, demoralised, sink into a hiding place where short passing movements leading into cul de sacs is preferable to getting slated for missing the posts. Heads have been battered down for daring. Too few on-field leaders now emerge strong enough to take on the responsibility of addressing sixty years of shattered dreams and a whittling away of the collective resolve. It is hard to blame them given the weight of history, and the drip drip effect of water on stone.
Some ten years or more ago I was asked to give my views on Mayo football to members of the Mayo Association in Dublin. Put more pertinently, I was asked to spell out the prospects for the Mayo team. The Mayo Associations worldwide are amongst the greatest supporters of the Green and Red so it gave me little satisfaction to suggest to the assembled members that the tea-leaves were not encouraging. That in fact Mayo would not win an All-Ireland again until we as a county faced up to the realities of football life. We were, I argued, producing as a collective too many fancy solo runners, composing too many attacks bereft of defensive as well as attacking capabilities, and encouraging far too much short passing movements which ultimately undermined our attack. To blame for all of that, I contended, was not the manager or the players at his disposal but was down to the clubs producing ill-prepared county material, down to the county board for not seeking to rectify the position, and down to fans who often put raw emotion before clear-headed analysis. In a fashion, we all wanted to win the football lotto, gambling on a happy set of coincidences to get us there instead of realising that we were not very clever in our approach to lessening the odds.
Without fans we would not have a county team, or a club team, or the GAA. But in the raw emotion and the tissue of dreams that carry supporters along, many fans by and large ignore the evidence before their eyes! They do not poke below the surface, do not recognise that the approach to winning has to be much more carefully and diligently planned. In the quest for tribal regional dominance, or if you want, instant gratification, they too take the easy option and lash out at those who are victims of a structure that is not alone unfit for purpose but had cut them off at the knees.
LOVE OUR PURE FOOTBALL
Our players have been accused to being too nice on the football field. Truth is, we love our ‘pure’ football in Mayo. We like to play good, flowery, entertaining football. God be good to us, but we admire the ‘baller’ (after all we invented the solo run!), the gifted player who can take the ball, race forward, dodge tackles, get the pulse pumping. We were reared on a diet served up by the greats of the 1950s, Carney, Flanagan, Langan et al, players wrapped in great heart and rich skills that transferred on into the 60s and 70s by maestros like Joe Corcoran, John Morley, Mick Connaughton, John P Kean, Willie McGee, and later by Kenneth Mortimer, TJ Kilgallon, James Horan, James Nallen, Liam McHale, Kevin McStay and many more. So next time you go to a match and see guys take off on a solo run at club level, listen to the ridiculous encouragement he gets from the fans. Invariably the shout is, ‘Go, Johnny go’ instead of ‘Look up, give and go’. We encourage bad practise, we encourage players to stampede forward without looking up, when we should be encouraging them to let the ball move forward quickly to a colleague. There is no offside in Gaelic football, but in Mayo our game has evolved into something that believes there is.
RTE TV analysts such as Pat Spillane, Colm O’Rourke and Joe Brolly and national sportswriters have been telling the nation for the past ten years of our frailties, of our shot-shy and/or wayward forwards, and of our lack of ruthlessness when the pressure is applied. We continue to confirm their belief. But worse still, every team in the land now believes that if they stick with Mayo we will crack wide open in the finishing straight, if not beforehand. Teams we once beat comfortably now see us as beatable. It’s a double whammy, and we can blame no one for it but ourselves because we have allowed the situation to develop unchecked.
Many would have thought it ironic that the latest inquest on the ‘Mayo team’ was getting underway as England, one of the ‘fancied’ teams for the World Cup, were being battered into submission by Germany in South Africa. The similarities between Mayo and England are interesting even if the example seems a little odd: Great tradition. Huge and sometimes unreal expectation. Useful players. Good managers with splendid track records (i.e. Fabio Capello and John O’Mahony). Yet, when it comes to achieving the objective at the highest level, a mix of lack of belief in terms of passion, aggression, expectancy, inadequate support systems and flawed production lines forces players into the pressure zone (in Mayo’s case refelected in reversion to the short passing game that signals lack of confidence/ambition; in England’s case, an antiquated spluttering style played by overrated players bereft of the nuances of the modern game) where they find it difficult to perform.
LESSONS OF SIXTY YEARS
So we don’t have the players? Maybe not, but that should not be unexpected given the haphazard approach we have to producing good players with skill and attitude, well motivated, hungry, men on a mission. If we want to be taken seriously, if we want to rise again with a real chance we have got to accept the lessons of sixty years. And we must also be prepared to accept that putting it right needs a determined and co-ordinated approach, a real business plan if you like, based on comprehensive audits of past results and present circumstances. We can no longer afford the miss-match between challenge and personnel.
The same old and jaded formulae will not work. Hasn’t worked for years. Fresh ideas geared at making Mayo great again must require nothing less than a ‘Team Mayo’ approach .We have to think deeper and more clearly. Think outside the box. Raise the bar. Benchmark and evaluate. That is going to take leadership and vision, devoid of the blinkered approach and politicking of the past, well meaning perhaps but holding generations of footballers and team managers out to dry.
Either that or we can settle back and enjoy our club football, with a county final or a Connacht final the pinnacle of our ambitions. It is also worth taking into consideration the unbearable thought that we might not win a senior All-Ireland for another 50 years….or, horror of horrors, never again! For despite our self-perceived elevated status the football record shows we trail Wexford (5) and Kildare and Tipperary (4 each), are level with Louth on three, stand just one ahead of Roscommon, and are two behind Down who did not win their first until 1960 (by which time we had three in the bag). With the possible exception of Down, can you see any of the above making the breakthrough again any day soon?
Mayo certainly won’t if the challenge is not met head on! You can play a role in that challenge by advising the next person who comes up to you with a list of possible Mayo managers that he/she is again putting the cart before the horse. Names like John or Paidi or Noel are really not that relevant when the engine is broke.