I have always had an affinity with, and somewhat of an understanding of Mayo. We spent plenty of time there as children as my uncle Donal was a Garda and moved there in the early 1980s. He is there since. He has been naturalised up there but is still very much a staunch Kerryman.
One of his sons Shane played midfield for Mayo for a spell. We only came up against each other directly once in the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2005. For summer holidays we often house swapped with ‘the Castlebar crowd’ as we called them. They got to spend time in Kerry with all the relations and we got to be townies for a week or two. We loved it.
Because of those times, I have always had a bit of a feel for them. They love their football and their passion is unquestioned, but they can get overconfident very easily and with little encouragement or hard evidence. Not a nasty overconfidence, more an innocent one. Coming from Kerry, where the opposite is the case, I always found it intriguing.
My uncle Donal gets great sásamh at knowingly throwing his eyes to heaven as they boldly embark on the latest adventure or misadventure. One thing is for certain: When they do eventually win an All- Ireland one could do worse than decamp to Mayo for a week. It would be house swap time again.
Mayo needed to win this year’s national league final. They needed silverware to substantiate their claims to be Dublin’s biggest rivals, to sustain them and give them sufficient reason to redouble their recent efforts to win Sam. They had not won silverware of any description since the Connacht Championship in 2015.
That is a long time with no medal for such an ambitious group. Their reaction to the league success has been telling. That overconfidence was to the fore straight away. I was surprised to hear James Horan saying immediately after the game that they should have won by 10-12 points. It was a clunky and careless comment at best.
It set the tone for what has followed at worst. While it’s bland to trot out the usual boring comments, there is a reason all the top managers do it, to maintain an even keel within the group and to ensure no one gets ahead of themselves. We always had the upper hand on them when I was a player, beating them comfortably a few times in big championship matches.
They had some outstanding players but not enough of them had the steel that separates champions from the rest. However, it was very much 50-50 as a manager. We met four times in championship with a win each and two draws, the only difference being we managed to win the All-Ireland that has alluded their grasp. They were hurt deeply by 2014, with a frosty atmosphere on that year’s All-Star trip as a result.
Having been so close in 2012 and 2013 they felt that should have been their All-Ireland and, in their mind, we came from nowhere to win it.It doesn’t work like that. We won that epic semi-final replay in Limerick that could have gone either way and converted it afterwards. They have had more than enough heartbreak since but to their eternal credit they keep coming back and keep striving to take the final step. The clock is ticking on this group though. They need to get a move on.
So what are the big differences between the Mayo teams I played against and the ones I opposed as a manager? Obviously, the most important component for any manager is the playing talent available and from the Mayo perspective, there has been a good pool to hand this decade. When James Horan took over first time round he behaved very much like a disciple of the Dave Brailsford school of thinking, prioritising marginal gains to change a culture.
He professionalised the set-up from the bottom up and raised the standards expected of the players and, accordingly, their expectations. He also insisted on a new-found physicality (honed in the gym and used on the pitch) that was never part of their make up previously. From 2011, and particularly from 2012 on, that physicality and athleticism became two of the central planks of their identity. They became much more tactically aware and became good exponents of grinding out wins in tight situations.
In isolation, these elements wouldn’t have brought them to the levels they attained. Nearly all teams try to make sure that these boxes are ticked. However, all of them occurring simultaneously has elevated them to the status of perennial challengers for the All-Ireland.
There is one further feature of their make-up that I feel has made them hard to beat in the latter stages of championship, and is on a different level to most teams — their gamesmanship. This has developed over time, but is now of a high order. It manifested itself most famously in the All-Ireland final of 2017 when Lee Keegan launched his GPS unit at the ball as Dean Rock addressed the free-kick to win the match.
To have the creativity and nous to even think of that was remarkable. The checking off the ball, their game management late in games, the claustrophobic marking of key opposition players, the tactical use of the Maor Fóirne and the cynical exploitation of the head injury rule when ahead in games were further indicators of this gamesmanship, as they pushed everyone and everything in their desperation to get to the promised land.
One relatively recent example I particularly enjoyed was from my last encounter with them, in the league in McHale Park in February 2018. It was a big game for us as we sought to close some of the festering wounds from the previous year’s All-Ireland semi-final and we had an extremely young team on the pitch. Late in the game, we were ahead and down to 13 men.
There was an injury stoppage and play would resume with a Mayo free-kick in the middle of the field. Barry John Keane was a sub on the night and ran down the stand from the subs area to point out to me that Diarmuid O’Connor was after leaving the pitch by crossing the sideline on the 45m line, crouching down and hiding behind one of the big tv cameras unbeknownst to all of our players.
He was readying himself to appear back on the pitch once the free was taken and burst into acres of space and bear down on our goals. Before he had the chance, I bellowed at Jack Barry to get back and cover him. Jack thought I was off my head initially as he looked back at an empty space that I was roaring at him to cover but when he eventually spotted the hidden O’Connor he duly went back to cut off the danger at the pass. We had a good laugh at the fecundity and audaciousness of it afterwards. I also enjoyed the fact that it was one of our townies in Barry John that was alive to what was going on. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile and all that.
This evening is a highly dangerous game for them. We have been here countless times before with this group and their resilience and persistence has always got them through. Are they starting to run out of road though? They have injury problems, have players that are off the pace, with others returning from injury and, as a team, they are short of their best - performance wise - if last weekend is anything to go on.
Their record in McHale Park has been poor recently. Armagh are coming with momentum, energy and a variety of game plans but are they at Mayo’s level yet? The loss of Matthew Ruane (their find of the last three years) or Diarmuid O’Connor in isolation might have been manageable but to be without both is far from ideal.
If they can get through tonight none of the provincial losers will want to see them coming. Win and they are back on track and within striking distance of the Super 8s. Lose and it really could be the end of this team as we know it and Horan may well wish he had stayed in the soft seats and the easy-street comfort of the Sky Sports studio.