Our men must put an end to this infernal dancing on Mayo’s grave!

By Terry Reilly (c)

EVERY team, they say, has one great game in them. Did we see Mayo’s great game of 2006 delivered against the Dubs? So here’s the nub of it: can we do it all over again, and perhaps even better this time, against the kingpins of Gaelic football, to win the All-Ireland title we have yearned for these past 55 years?

They don’t think so in Kerry. A lifelong friend, a loyal Mayo fan, trekked to Kerry last week to check the pulse down there, just as he did in 1996, 1997 and 2004. The first man he met was a old Kerry acquaintance, a county council worker, who spotted him and yelled across the street, “Yerra, ye bate nothing yet this year!”

What he was saying was “Mayo, wait until ye meet a real team.” That opinion is widely shared in Kerry, as Pat Spillane will concede. The bookies share Kerry’s optimism: they have made the Kingdom red hot favourites. And when last did you see bookies get it wrong twice in a matter of weeks with the same nag in a two-horse race? Oh yes, it has happened, but not often!

The reality in the world of Gaelic football is that Kerry don’t lose any sleep when it comes to playing Mayo in the All-Ireland final. Sure, on the eve of the final, players and manager may turn in their beds a few times before they drift off, and may even dream of Mayo getting a goal early on (as Jack O’Connor did in 2004 when he saw Ciaran McDonald putting the ball in the back of the Kerry net and setting Croke Park alive!). But hours later, O’Connor was telling his players they would win the All-Ireland final that day. Kerry would win. Full stop. He knew it. And his players knew it also.

And perhaps over the years, with some rare exceptions (1996 is a good example) the difference between Kerry and Mayo has been attitudinal: Kerry KNOW they are going to beat Mayo; Mayo BELIEVE they can beat Kerry. Between the two mindsets is one hell of a difference. It has produced two softish All-Ireland titles for Kerry in the past 9 years, 1997 and 2004.

Mindsets are key when talent and fitness are roughly equal. For the sake of illustration, throw in a fully-fit Tyrone against Kerry next Sunday and the likelihood is that Tyrone would win, as they did in 2003 and 2005. Perversely, Mayo would fancy themselves against Tyrone any time. All experts agree that the state of mind of protagonists is a core ingredient in a successful outcome. Mayo knew they would beat Galway this year. Also knew they would beat Laois. And knew too that they had the wherewithal to oust the Dubs.

The win over Dublin shows mindsets can be changed. Mayo, although they had never beaten the Leinster county in the championship until this year, won the mental battle in a way not foreseen by most people. The team was slighted by being written out of the script. That hurt became the staging post, engendered the bravado to face down the Hill.

Mayo could have shoot themselves in the foot but didn’t, mainly because they followed through on their audacity after ignoring the advice of their coach to remove themselves to the other end. In the process, David Heaney established himself as a leader.

Duncan Fletcher, the man who has transformed the English cricket squad, would have understood the dynamics at play. His mantra is that the players cannot have two leaders, so at key points he is happy to defer to his captain, allowing him for instance to have the first and last word in team meetings.

The Mayo players went a step further once inside the white line, but accepted responsibility for their actions. As world class coaches will tell you, that equates to accountability which in turn equals ownership. And anyone who has been an adherent of Pat Summitt, arguably the greatest female basketball coach of all time in the US, will have heard her argue that a sense of ownership is the greatest weapon any team can have.

It would be a real pity if it transpires that Mayo took ownership only for the Dublin game. To claim their long-awaited place in the sun they again need to take ownership and responsibility. Over the past 13 years we have seen teams like Donegal, Derry, Tyrone and Armagh come from the pack to claim All-Ireland titles. They had never won the title before, and they did not make their breakthrough against the lesser lights in the game. They seized the moment, turned over teams with big reputations and came away with the silverware. Essentially they took ownership. And it is true to say, too, that once on the field Kerry players have always been expected to take ownership.

Mayo have been one of the most consistent teams in the land over the past ten years. We are appearing in our fourth senior final in a decade, which begs the question: how many attempts do we need to annex the Sam Maguire Cup again? How many times do we need to be asked to take responsibility?

I have been making the point for years that we have oodles of talented footballers in the county. And our players, or so I have been told by those who have worn the Green and Red, don’t feel the weight of history pressing down on their heads. Neither have we lacked forwards but we certainly have throttled them for lack of early-ball service over the years as we put so-called ‘style’ before substance. And please stop advancing the excuse that the reason we have not made the breakthrough is because we perpetually lack the oft-quoted ‘three or four good players’. That’s more nonsense, a cop out, part of the negativity John Morrison was so right to raise after the Leitrim game.

You don’t agree with me on the negativity charge? Then answer me this: were you one of the so-called thousands of Mayo ‘supporters’ who upped and left Croke Park just after half time two years ago and swore you’d never be back? Case closed!

Kerry will remember 2004. Remember well how they unsettled Mayo with sucker punches. They didn’t need a big full-forward to unhinge us then, they just slung in high ball to test the Mayo full-back line. Now that they have a really tall full-forward in Kieran Donaghy they will bang in high ball from the off to test the Mayo defence again. And if that does not work they will switch to Plan B which will see them resort to a linking game.

But no matter what mode they employ their forwards will be in our backs’ faces all the time: they have already studied how Galway turned us over in the League and saw how Mayo whinged at the ‘non-purist’ tactics Peter Ford ordained. And if they need to, they will break ball at midfield, recalling how they cleaned us out in this department two years ago.

Forewarned is forearmed they say. I KNOW Mayo will win PROVIDED they take up where they left off against Dublin, provided they smother Kerry like Kilkenny smothered Cork, provided all fully commit, provided all remain disciplined and focused, and provided our management is both inventive and has another few gambits up its sleeve. (How might, for instance, Mayo replicate the Donaghy tactic when and if required?)

But most of all, the attitude must be unshakeable.

All pretty basic stuff, really, but essential to winning the battle of wills. But come Sunday, the only people who can bring Sam back to Mayo are the Mayo players. So go take the responsibility. Ensure your own destiny by beating the most successful county in the history of the GAA.

Put an end to this infernal dancing on our grave! Go do a job that must be done.

*This article first appeared in The Western People

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