Mayo challenging stereotype and making history

Mayo's Lee Keegan celebrates. Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Ahead of last Sunday’s league final on the always-entertaining GAA Hour podcast, Steven McDonnell and Colm Parkinson came from contrasting schools of thought when it came to predicting a winner.

Parkinson’s money was on Mayo, being a subscriber to what we might term the Recent History or Recent Evidence school of thinking. They had the greater collective experience, albeit infused by a welcome new wave of youthful talent, and had a very good recent record against Kerry, beating them down in Tralee only a fortnight earlier, as well as when the sides last met in the championship in Croke Park.

McDonnell, though, strongly favoured Kerry. That 2017 All Ireland semi-final replay hadn’t been a final, you see:

When it comes to the scenario where there’s more at stake, a bit of silverware, Kerry have the upper hand.

Call it The Ancient History or Stereotype-Friendly school of thought, if you will. All-Ireland finals back in 1997, 2004 and 2006, the latter when Lee Keegan was 16 years of age, carried more weight than the latest All-Ireland semi-final he played in just 19 months ago.

McDonnell shouldn’t feel bad for succumbing to such logic, as lazy as it was; as Parkinson would note with interest and a good deal of bafflement, the bookies were of the same view as the Armagh great, having Kerry at 8/15 to go up the steps again, with Mayo 2/1 in a two-horse race.

It was hardly the first time Mayo have bucked the odds or challenged a stereotype since James Horan revolutionised football in the county.

Before the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final against the then defending champions, all the talk outside the camp was of how Cork always beat Mayo, or at least since 1916, when it came to championship.

Horan’s men couldn’t see the relevance of such Ancient History. If anything, they were amused by it. Only one of their players (Trevor Mortimer) had been beaten in championship by Cork and only one Cork player (Graham Canty) had beaten Mayo in the championship, way back in 2002, when Horan played his last game for the county. Cillian O’Connor would have been 10 back then.

Of more interest to them was that they had beaten Cork in four of their previous five league clashes. The core of their team had beaten the core of Cork’s in an U21 All-Ireland final.

The way they saw it, they were the ones who won Mayo-Cork games, at least more than the Rebels did, so they turned Conor Counihan’s men over, the first of three championship wins this decade over the county they supposedly couldn’t beat.

Other myths would persist before being slayed. That they weren’t a Croke Park team some time before Alan Dillon would leave headquarters for a 15th time on a winning team bus. That they were inconsistent, unreliable, before they qualified for seven consecutive All-Ireland semi-finals. That they were supposedly genetically incapable of beating Kerry, until they smashed that one in 2017, mindful that Kerry had won in only two of their previous 10 clashes. Now, they’ve proven they can beat them in national finals.

Stripping away ancient history and all other preconceived notions and, instead, purely judging the two teams on how they matched up, it was hard to come to any other conclusion but a Mayo win.

Kerry had only four starters last Sunday who also started against Mayo in either of the 2017 semi-finals.

Mayo, in contrast, had nine players who started both last Sunday and in those 2017 games, and that’s excluding Rob Hennelly, who has started in two All-Ireland finals; or Paddy Durcan, or Andy Moran and Colm Boyle coming off the bench.

As dazzling as some of Kerry’s play and players have been this spring, it was sometimes lost just how many players Peter Keane — and Eamonn Fitzmaurice — have introduced and also lost these past 18 months. For all their promise and all they’ve won at minor, Kerry’s youngsters are still learning there’s a difference between college basketball and the NBA. Unless you’re a generational freak of a talent like a LeBron or Zion or David Clifford, that transition is quite the leap. Even for a Sean O’Shea, who Lee Keegan introduced to playoff football last Sunday, much as he himself learned from and was grateful for his jousts with Paul Galvin in 2012.

Yet and yes, of course, they still nearly stole it. Just like the 2008 final hinged on Pascal McConnell getting a stud to a Declan O’Sullivan goal-bound effort, had Rob Hennelly not brilliantly denied Clifford late on last Sunday, McDonnell’s thesis and almost every Mayo stereotype would have seemed valid.

Mayo, though, earned that break. As much as Kerry still don’t get enough credit for their contribution to head-to-head games against Dublin this decade, it would have seemed awfully unfair on Mayo had the three national titles not hoovered up by Dublin during the Jim Gavin era had all gone the way of Kerry.

James Horan has done a masterful job so far upon his return. Last June, he sat in a Sky Sports Studio alongside Jim McGuinness up in Newbridge and heard his former nemesis declare that the Mayo team he built and that the country had come to know and love was finished as we knew them. But it’s a thesis Horan obviously didn’t concur with. Everyone, bar the foreign-based Barry Moran, signed up for more and, as of yet, he hasn’t cut any of the old brigade adrift.

As this column wrote days after that defeat to Newbridge: “Rest and rotate veterans, but crucially retain most of them. Properly managed, Mayo could have the most impactful bench in football next year: Imagine Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Andy Moran and Jason Doherty coming at Dublin in the last 25 minutes of a big game next August.”

Horan has adopted that template and more. Higgins and Doherty might still be regular starters but Boyle and Moran now form part of that cavalry and over the summer Seamus O’Shea will be vying to be one of those reinforcements, with Horan unlikely to upset his current midfield to accommodate another Breaffy man.

He’s rested veterans like Kevin McLoughlin, who in the previous eight seasons had played in the final FBD campaign of every season and played in all but one league game.

Most of all, he’s blended in and backed youth. This week last year, after another daredevil Mayo escape from relegation up in Ballybofey, this column wrote:

A team should have one of three goals when it comes to the league. Either try to win, or experiment – or ideally win AND experiment.

"With Mayo though, it appears to be neither one thing nor the other... By always going for the big, immediate squeeze, by trying to just survive and stay in Division One, young players have played little league football. And every year the cycle seems to repeat itself. Mayo lose [in the championship] narrowly, not least because the opposition had a superior bench with players who got plenty of game-time in the league under their belts.”

This spring, Horan has joyfully shown the Mayo public that you can experiment AND win; in fact, giving young fellas their shot is the best way for the veterans to not just stay in Division One but win it, and maybe more along with it.

The morning after the 2017 All Ireland final — possibly the best game ever, and probably the most heart-breaking defeat ever for a side — I commented for an item on ‘Morning Ireland’ that Mayo’s issue now was less finals and September as Dublin. And as of Sunday, that rings even truer now. They’ve now won their last national final. They have not won any of their last 14 outings against Jim Gavin’s men, including in this year’s league.

Yet, they know that, just as Dublin have been their issue, no one gives Dublin more problems either and that the second-last time Dublin lost in the championship, they were the ones who beat them.

Mayo, like Dublin, will be more focused on themselves than any opponent, but it will have pleased Horan that in this past league they’ve got back to beating teams they should be beating, such as Cavan and Monaghan at home, who had won in their previous visits to Castlebar in 2017. In June, they’ll want to redress the streak Galway have over them. Win that and they’ll enter the Super 8s and any prospective game against Dublin as being the most

consistent team in the country for the year. Since when have Mayo being able to definitively say ahead of a crunch match in Croke Park that they’ve been the best team in the country that particular year?

As Diarmuid O’Connor said after collecting the cup last Sunday, all history, even recent history, is of limited relevance. All that matters is this year. So, if they’re the best team of 2019, with the best bench, one to match or even trump Dublin’s, it won’t be the only cup he’ll be lifting in Croke Park.

It’s as simple and as hard as that.

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