Mayo, the great under-achievers, step up to another banana skin
By Terry Reilly (c)
HOW time plays tricks with us. And is there anything more confounding than hindsight?
Here we are, on the cusp on an All-Ireland semi-final, and there are people with the smallest drop of Mayo blood in their veins lying through their teeth and saying they knew this team was a good ‘un. Like hell they did!
It reminds me of 1996 all over again, a young Mayo team coming out of the depths of National League despair only to be denied by a wicked bounce of a ball in Croke Park that sorry September.
And those same old Mayo mantras were alive and well only a few months ago. We did not have the strength. We did not have the forwards. John Maughan did not have the tactical nous We were going nowhere.
Coming out of the National League game against Longford in Ballina on March 7th (yes, the very day Kerry were whipping Fermanagh 2-18 to 0-6), I was feeling relatively pleased at what I had seen from a side short many of its main players. It wasn’t that the team had played particularly well, it was just that there was a system of play in evidence that underlined that the basic principle of gaelic football had been grasped by management, and that was that the ball, once won, was going in early and often to the attack and at angles that created both chances and scores.
Yet, all round me as I made for the exit, the mood amongst the die-hards who attend these games was largely pessimistic and featured some of the utterances outlined two pars above. You could almost hear the refrain of ‘What’s Another Year’ being cued in the background!
Five months later and, surprise, surprise, here we are and another dawn beckons. What kind of dawn? We’ll, that remains to be seen, but hopefully we have learned enough over the years as a county to agree with David Brady who warned point-of-factly after the win over Tyrone: “We have won nothing yet.”
And unless we can reverse our appalling performances in All-Ireland semi-finals we will win nowt this year either. Take a look at the Connacht roll of honour: Mayo have won 40 Connacht titles, just 2 fewer than Galway, but while the Tribesmen have gone on to win 9 All-Ireland titles, Mayo have won but 3, only one more than Roscommon who have a ‘mere’ 19 Connacht crowns to their name. In the context of these facts, we have, to put it bluntly, been the great under-achievers of Gaelic football once outside the province. And that record has, understandably, given currency to the oft quoted claim that Mayo football lacks heart when the heat is on.
These stats are not drawn out to undermine our chances against Fermanagh on Sunday: it’s just the way it has been, and for a whole variety of reasons. So we have more reason than most not to lose the run of ourselves, especially as the potential is there to step on the biggest and slipperiest banana skin thrown on the GAA stage this year.
Did I hear you say rubbish?
Well, listen in: while the triumph over Tyrone was a glorious surprise to many and indeed a really fine broad brush-stroke achievement built on courage, skill, pace, flair and above all hunger, there were too many shortcomings to be ignored.
I’ll go further and say that, while the display superficially captured the imagination of the nation, it was not on a par with the performances against either Galway or Roscommon in the Connacht championship.
“What,” I hear you say, “you’ve got to be kidding, didn’t we beat the All-Ireland champions?”
Yes we did, but no, I’m not kidding. Take out the video recording of the game. Turn down the sound. What you will see is very instructive. Or a better word might be sobering. There was abundant evidence of serious slippage. Try these for a few. Did our forwards tackle as consistently and as determinedly as they might have when Tyrone’s backs had the ball? And, after a bright opening, did we not see the re-emergence of bad old habits, such as players making crossfield runs ending up in those nightmarish Mayo cul de sacs which have had the skid marks of greed and doubt plastered all over them for far too many years?
At midfield we did well, but we can do much better, especially in ball retention, tracking back, variety, concentration, discipline and telegraphed footpasses.
In defence, the rustiness of Peter Burke was excusable, even if it contributed to uncertainty, but did it fully explain the openings Tyrone made but did not take? The truth is we were exposed far too often at the back and only poor Tyrone options let us off the hook.
Excessive nit-picking? No, just a pragmatism forged in the school of hard football knocks. We are all big boys, determined to compete in a big, mean game. To do that we must consume lessons. For the length of our journey this year will be in direct proportion to what we are prepared to learn from each game.
Aside from that, there is the quality of the opposition, Fermanagh, to be factored in . They may not have won the Ulster title but they have taken big scalps, including Donegal, Cork, Meath (after extra time) and Armagh. They beat Mayo last year in the qualifiers and have registered a whole host of good performances over the past five years. Former GAA president Peter Quinn once told me Fermanagh would win an All-Ireland if they could get their best team on the field. He meant it. That’s not something they always manage to do‹get their best team out‹but this year they have made everyone sit up and take notice. They just refuse to go away. Given the scale of what they have already achieved, their win over Armagh must be rated as a better performance than Mayo beating Tyrone, and they will fancy being underdogs again. And they certainly won’t fear Mayo.
Playing the way they do, off the cuff, I don’t believe Fermanagh will suffer stage fright on Sunday either, so the pressure will really be on Mayo to deliver, to step over that banana skin. The best result of course would be a narrow win, with plenty of character-building scares built in to what should be 70+ minutes of helter skelter football.
*This article first appeared in The Western People