Three words on Mayo’s long road to victory
THREE words. ENJOY. LEARN. EXECUTE.
By Terry Reilly (c)
These about best sum up Mayo¹s final passage into this so-far-glorious football summer as our hearts recover from the pounding of the last two weeks.
This week let¹s look at just two of our summary words. First ENJOY. Those who will really enjoy the atmosphere in the days up to the final will principally be the loyal Green and Red hoards who have seen their warriors overcome New York, Galway, Roscommon in Connacht, All-Ireland champions Tyrone in the quarter-final, and, after two games of breath-taking tension and endurance, Fermanagh in the semi-final. Phew! Of all the games so far in what started out to be an unexpectant summer, the tenacity of Fermanagh has been the hardest to shake off. They snapped and snarled at Mayo heels over 140+ minutes in the great bowl of dreams that is Croker. And at the end of it all, indeed right at the death, Mayo cast the shroud aside and came into their own when full-back David Heaney grasped the initiative and handed the momentum back to his team. We had survived in the drawn game that was Fermanagh’s for the taking, opened smartly in the replay, conceded a sucker goal, were overtaken in the second half but had the inner self belief to prosper when it counted most.
So after the relief came deliverance, and Mayo fans can now start looking for tickets, flying the colours, making plans and believing in the dear old again. No doubt they will enjoy the next four weeks or soŠ. and any extension that may follow. The fans, still remembering the heartbreaks of ’89, and the twin batterings of 1996/97, will want to forget the bad old days and celebrate new heroes. So they will want to soak up the atmospherics, even if those relatively recent experiences will tinge our expectation with understandable caution.
Just yet, the players don¹t have the same luxury. They will only enjoy when they accomplish, when they have laid the ghost. But there will be a spring in their step these days, too. There is nothing better than winning to warm the cockles of players¹ hearts. Training will be all that bit more acceptable. They are, after all, in a privileged position: 34 teams set out on the road to Sam this year- only two now remain. And we are one of them. Such privilege, of course, brings responsibilities: tight lips, heads down, commonsense approach Pragmatism. Nothing won yet. Mental conditioning, a requirement so many teams in the past have failed to appreciate. Mental conditioning is not a burden- it¹s an essential preparation for the final onslaught, more important in fact at this stage than kicking a ball in practice. This mental hardness has been our biggest Achilles heel in 37 of 40 excursions outside Connacht since the championship began well over a century ago.
Now let¹s look at LEARN. Here fans as well as players and management and backup have lessons to learn. Here are a few definite don¹ts for the fans. Don¹t ask players for tickets. A definite no-no. Don’t ask players for favours. Don¹t ask them to open fetes, no matter how deserving the cause. Support them but leave them alone. If you want to send best wishes, forward these on to County Secretary Sean Feeney who can pass them on to team manager John Maughan: these are very useful in letting players see that they have the support of the community.
And yes, pray for them, for the power of prayer is strong, and God up there knows that he needs to smile on our petitions after so many years of heartbreak.
MUCH TO LEARN The players and management need to continue the learning process also. They must, for there is much to learn. Everyone learns, from birth to death, and even the most precocious of athletes come to realise that not even they can walk on water. You learn to succeed in life if you have a mind to. Four years ago Olympic gold medallist Cian O’Connor had painted on his horse box the words Working towards Athens. He did the ground work, especially in mental and physical conditioning. He has a great mentor in Gerry Mullins. And when the time came he grasped the opportunity, even if he started as a rank outsider at the beginning of the competition. He came away with the gold because he seized the hour.
There is much to learn form the Fermanagh games that will help us in our final game if the management and players take stock. Try these for a few: (i) Start as you mean to finish, play off the front foot until the job is accomplished. (ii) Don¹t ease off if you get ahead- keep the pedal to the floor. Look around nearing the tape and you get gobbled up. (iii) Mayo are past masters at embroidery, but a degree in needle work is not going to win us an all-Ireland. Cut to the chase. Do the simple things well. The word embellish has cropped up in too many Mayo post-mortems. The password has to be KISS. (iv) Reassess team selection and tactics. Different games demand different strokes, without necessarily undoing fundamental ethics. For instance, does a four-man attack limit our offensive options and make it easier for the opposition to second guess us? (v) And here¹s something to file away at the back of selectorial minds: if we need more incisive punch through the middle in a crisis of breakthrough attempt, don¹t be afraid to move David Heaney to midfield. Have faith in defenders to do the job should he have to move up in the course of the game. In my book, Kerry lost an All-Ireland because they kept their best and most versatile player Seamus Moynihan as a stopper when they needed his dynamism much further up the field. (vi) Forwards still have work to do in closing down and pressing defenders in possession; and generally too many players are turning their backs to the ball, something just not done at this level. (vii) Finally, if a player in possession sees a colleague in a better position and has to think about giving a pass he should consider himself working with the enemy.
Just a few pointers which need to be constantly rammed home. But there were many splendid things from the replay, all positives. One of the benchmarks I always look for is the ability of a team to get in blockdowns, which tell you an awful lot, but most especially just how much players get to the pitch of the play. We had three on Saturday, two more than the week before. Excellent.
So well done all round. You will have noticed that I have not referred to our final opposition. I have done so deliberately, because I learned many years ago that one does not talk up the opposition; one analyses them and moves to defuse them, but one never sells one¹s team short by ramping up the enemy.
In future weeks we will tease out the word execute.
PS: Referee John Bannon was just awful. His interpretation of what was a foul hit Mayo badly on at least four occasions. Thankfully, he won¹t be doing the final.
PPS: In case you are wondering about the heading to this article, some months ago I visited Robben Island in South Africa and saw the tiny cell in which the inspirational Nelson Mandella was imprisoned for many years. I bought his book and a baseball cap with Robben Island emblazoned on it. The cap I have worn to all Mayo¹s games, and have adapted the title of Mandella’s book Long Walk to Freedom to Long Walk to Victory as my slogan this summer.
Come on Mayo!
*First appeared in The Western People newspaper.