There’ve been Mayo results like this before.
Back in 2006, as the county crawled over Dublin on the back of Ciarán McDonald’s brilliance, we glanced at a colleague in the press box and realised he’d long since given up on his work. Instead, his head was planted in his arms as he lay on his desk, unable to take anymore, and when the final whistle went he looked up and smiled through some tears of exhaustion and joy. Last year was different in the way they went about winning, but in so many ways it was the same. In the closing stages, a scan of the still and scared Mayo faces in the stand showed they were equally overwhelmed as they held Dublin back by their fingernails and against so many odds.
But while there has been semi-final results like this before, there hasn’t been a Mayo like this in a long, long time.
There’s a big difference between showing up and hoping for the best and showing up and presuming the best. That’s a big weight to put on shoulders and it’s a huge responsibility that only elite teams can deal with. But that’s what makes this version of the county so different. Whereas before they thrilled us because they were so flimsy, pulling out the most unlikely victories before letting us down when we decided to trust them, now there’s less excitement because there’s a security and reliability about them. There were signs last year when they didn’t completely fold in the All Ireland final after a wretched start, but yesterday even more so as they looked the real deal.
Have they played better this year? Much better. Did they look nervous for the first quarter yesterday? For sure. Was their shot selection and shot execution in the opening period woeful? Yes. And were their middle six struggling around breaking ball? Absolutely. But even when they went 0-7 to 0-3 down and even with so many issues to sort out, you never felt they were losing their focus or their minds. In fact you still felt comfortable enough at the break to empty your bookies account on their backs and when was the last time you could say that about a struggling Mayo team?
For all the praise Donegal and Jim McGuinness got last year, considering in 2010 much of the same side was taken apart embarrassingly by Armagh in the qualifiers, Mayo and James Horan deserve just as much. That same day three years ago, they were bumped out of the championship by Longford but ever since, there’s been a methodical and very defined building process based on improvements in each and every area. During Horan’s tenure, they’ve developed so many physical aspects of their play and this season you can see the leaps they’ve taken in terms of their mindset and mentality. So much so that at no point yesterday did you feel this was a game they could lose.
Even in the first half, in the midst of adversity, it was interesting how leaders were found in the most unlikely of areas. With all of their forwards except for Alan Freeman struggling – not one forward scored from play until after the restart — and with the O’Shea brothers not getting much forward traction, up stepped some heroes you could never have predicted. Chris Barrett kicked two clutch points that settled the nerves and reeled Tyrone in while Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle were excellent. And crucially they all remained calm. Instead they plucked away, believing in themselves and knowing they’d eventually come good.
There’s a ruthlessness about this Mayo which is new and efficient. After doing so much wrong for almost the entire first half, in doing everything right in the opening stages of the second half they killed the game stone dead in just a few minutes. Freeman continued his first-half form, Alan Dillon started to make plays, Keith Higgins’ pace caused problems, Aidan O’Shea got on the ball and did the simple things well and Seamus O’Shea was immense. But more than that, the backs kept coming and coming in waves until Tyrone, who can take great pride in this season, could take no more of their energy and their overlaps. Finally they folded, like Mayo teams in the past.
Indeed that’s what makes this team’s journey and evolution even more admirable. Despite the fact the likes of Aidan O’Shea and Freeman and Kevin McLoughlin were still in school when the Mayo side of the mid-2000s was crumbling when it mattered most, the reputation of the past was still thrust unfairly on them. That made it difficult for them to carve out their own destiny and their own path, yet still they’ve managed it. And now, while you wonder if they’ve the forwards to win it all, you at least know you are guaranteed a big final performance. And you know there’s a whole lot of steel and determination for Dublin or Kerry to overcome.