They will trot out in Croke Park against Tyrone today for their sixth successive quarter-final appearance in a period when expectations have been consistently and dauntingly high.
During that period, Mayo have finished second best on so many grand, dramatic days it has become popular and populist to adopt them as your second team.
It’s just that this time around, it feels different.
When Mayo were going about winning five Connacht titles in a row, there was a theory abroad maybe their aims on days like today would be best served by having come through the back door. This theory will be put to the test this evening.
After two home wins against Fermanagh and Kildare and a welcome Croke Park rehearsal against Westmeath last weekend, we really are none the wiser about Mayo. The sense is should they have their best player in 2016, Diarmuid O’Connor, available and should they iron out the many kinks in their game, there could be another landmark quarter-final show in them.
They have previously toppled reigning All-Ireland champions at this stage – Cork in 2011 and Donegal in 2013 – so they certainly have form in this regard. Why then has everybody gone cold on Mayo? And why are the bookies making them clear outsiders ahead of this evening’s game?
It might be too simplistic to point to the ousting of last year’s management and to the form and body language of Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor to explain things, but there is no doubt Mayo are no longer everybody’s second favourite team. In the bloodletting that followed their defeat to Galway in June, that was made abundantly clear.
And yet, they find themselves right back almost precisely where they were this time last year – facing Ulster opposition in an All-Ireland quarter-final. They are still in the championship a week after their conquerors in June exited, and, with a decent crop of All-Ireland U21 winners coming through to join Diarmuid O’Connor, Stephen Coen and Conor Loftus in the senior ranks. Mayo, clearly, aren’t in such a bad place.
So why has everybody gone so hot on Tyrone? They too will descend on Croke Park today brimming with the type of confidence a first Ulster title in six years can bring.
Six years can be a long time for a team and its supporters who had come to think of games such as today’s as a rite of passage. During those years Tyrone have, of course, appeared in two All-Ireland semi-finals through the back door, but I doubt anybody would ever lay claim to having the Red Hand as their second favourite team.
This time around, that too feels different. There have been no midsummer controversies to blacken their name this year and the ‘nobody likes us, we don’t care’ banner that their supporters carried with them to last year’s semi-final has no place on the terraces this year.
After losing to Kerry just under a year ago, Tyrone have not lost a game in 17 competitive outings between McKenna Cup, league and championship. The fact they have remained unbeaten with the same defensive/counterattacking system means we pretty much know what Tyrone will bring to this evening’s game.
And that’s a problem.
You know exactly what you are going to get from Tyrone and thus, the element of surprise crucial to so many great Tyrone days in Croke Park in the past, might not be there this time.
Why then, is everybody so hot on Tyrone and why have they been anointed by so many as the team most likely to beat Dublin this year?
It might be because we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced the Ulster title is the toughest of them all to win. It might also have something to do with the notion Tyrone teams tend to blossom in Croke Park and then, there is, of course, that crop of U21 players who tasted success last year.
There are so many bits and pieces feeding into the mix this evening that the smart money should be on a draw, but as the week has passed and as the likelihood of Diarmuid O’Connor being fit to play increased, I’m leaning more towards Mayo.
Everything Mayo have done for the past couple of years, the structure of their team and the style of play that they have adopted, has been working towards the aim of making them harder to beat on big days like these and against teams such as Tyrone.
It is somewhat ironic that having had to convince themselves all summer of the need for more cover at the back, Mayo’s biggest challenge as they go to battle this evening is to not compromise on what made them good in the first place — the explosive, emotionally charged football they all grew up with.
If they can play that game to it limits, as they’ve done all too rarely under Stephen Rochford, they can win. On Saturday last against Westmeath, they weren’t anywhere near the energy and intensity levels that will be required to truly compete this evening.
Great players like Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins seemed to tune in when it suited against Westmeath last Saturday and other big-day performers such as Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea were still showing signs of the doubt that seemed unthinkable in previous years.
Although he finished the game with 1-5 to his name, 0-3 from play, O’Connor looked a bit off the reliability levels we have come to associate with the Mayo captain. From the moment he missed a kickable free in the seventh minute, it was apparent that the Ballintubber man wasn’t going to shoot the lights out with a free-kicking display as he had done in Croke Park previously.
A missed effort from play on 16 minutes was followed by a shot into the goalie’s hands a minute later. There was a wide from a ‘50’ just before half-time, and a further effort that dropped short 15 minutes into the second half and resulted in a John Heslin point at the other end. Before the end there were two further missed frees, in the 62nd and 67th minutes, to compound what was an uncharacteristically sloppy display from O’Connor.
Tyrone paid a big price in Croke Park last year for not nailing free kicks. Kerry would have paid the same price last weekend had the margins been tighter and only Dublin and Dean Rock of the remaining teams can claim absolute consistency up to now. As the days and weeks roll on towards September, these things demand attention. I expect O’Connor to atone today.
Mayo will have spent a lot of time parsing the Aidan O’Shea playbook this week. In the end, you’d have to imagine, they’ll start with the big man out around the middle and trust that the occasion and the opposition will draw a big performance out of him.
If either Aidan or Séamus O’Shea think they can muscle their way through three or four tackles, the Mayo sideline must act quicker than they have been up to now and change things up. We saw from Jonathan Munroe’s tackle on Frank McGlynn in the Ulster final that turnovers are the oxygen Tyrone thrive on. Nobody, not even specimens as impressive as O’Shea, can be allowed to indulge in the mug’s game of soloing into traffic against the Tyrone defensive unit.
There was much made a few weeks back of the fact Tyrone had somehow managed to come through the cauldron of Clones on Ulster final day — too much, in my view.
Most of this talk of ‘boys becoming men’ and of youngsters ‘coming of age’ came from Ulster. This is not a criticism, merely an observation.
When push came to shove, it was a missed Michael Murphy free from distance, a spillage by Colm McFadden and the sheer will to win of Seán Cavanagh that proved the difference between the likes of Ronan O’Neill, Connor McAliskey, Niall Sludden and others getting their first Ulster medal and not.
It might be a bit much to expect Cavanagh to bail his colleagues out again so soon and the young tyros could feel the need to repay their captain this time.
There is no doubt Tyrone are an emerging force. They have proven more adept than most at changing their game according to their environment and their form this year has rarely dipped below hot. But with temperatures and tempo set to become a factor this evening, I have a growing sense that Mayo might just be ready to come in from the cold.
If not, then it really is time to close the book on them.