To understand why Mayo have been so remarkably competitive over the last six years — more than your own county if you happen to be from somewhere other than Dublin, Kerry, and for a couple of seasons there, Donegal, so the last thing you should do is sneer at them — and then to understand why they continuously and depressingly fail to be the best of the best, it is worth exploring that word they and Jim Gavin’s Dublin continuously use: “The process”.
The first time I spoke with that group of Mayo players a little short of five years ago in my role as a performance consultant with a background in sport psychology, a fundamental principle we laid down was victory had to be earned. As Ali so eloquently put it, you had to put in the work away from the lights in order to shine and win under those lights. The better you got, the better it got.
We spoke about Armagh and the point that won them the 2002 All-Ireland. A ball had dropped short into Benny Tierney’s arms. He was 33 at the time. At 32 he couldn’t kick pass the ball to his wing backs; he’d just hand the ball off to Enda and Justin McNulty in front of him just as he’d been doing since he was 10, playing with them for Mullaghbawn. Joe Kernan suggested to him he develop a kick pass to skip a line and get the ball to the likes of Aidan O’Rourke quicker. But not to worry if he couldn’t do it after three league games; it would take time. And to definitely not to worry about it if he couldn’t do it by the end of the league, because he’d just go and get a goalkeeper who could. At 33 Benny Tierney made a pass he couldn’t at 32 and fed Aidan O’Rourke who played a diagonal ball into Stevie McDonnell.
Earlier that year Stevie McDonnell recognised he was too reliant on his right foot for scores; he needed to work on his left. It meant at times he looked incompetent, ball after ball spiralling wide at training when he could have just turned back onto his right.
By September McDonnell could swing off his left and kicked what ended up being the last score of that final against Kerry. It was a series of such invisible victories that led to the victory that was visible to us all, with Kieran McGeeney lifting Sam Maguire.
To virtually a man that Mayo squad totally bought into that philosophy. They understood at times it would mean feeling and looking foolish. But we spoke about the ice-skater learning to do a more advanced move. It would mean repeatedly falling down, but so what? Smack the ice.
I especially remember one Saturday morning in MacHale Park a couple of weeks after that year’s league final, about six weeks out from the first round of championship. The players came up to the gym in sets of three, where before being passed on to me for some individual goal-setting, they first met Ed Coughlan, the team’s then S&C coach with also a training in skill acquisition. He asked the players to take off their runners. So they take off their runners, in most cases, taking off their right shoe before their left. That was Coughlan’s point; if you’re right handed, you tend to do everything with your right first. But if you were to start doing things with your left, it would set off neurons that would help improve everything off your left. So to improve their left-hand fist-passing, there were players who didn’t just fist-pass to a team or to a wall 100 times a day; they’d brush their teeth with their left hand. Ger Cafferkey walked out the door that day with a bottle in his hand, only to put it back down on the ground, and then, to the laugher of us all, slide over to the other side of the bottle and pick it up with his left hand and recommence his walk to the door. That was the mentality of the group. That was their commitment to the process.
There were countless examples of it. Andy Moran on Donie Vaughan’s doorstep on a Bank Holiday Monday, the day after a poor shooting day the day before up in Ballyshannon, and heading to the local pitch in Ballinrobe. Cillian O’Connor’s free-taking range off the ground didn’t extend to the 45-metre line that May, but after smacking the ice repeatedly that summer, he’d nail huge frees in that year’s Connacht final against Sligo and then in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin.
The process extended to other areas. Victory wasn’t something you deserved as if you were owed something for time served. You had to earn it, most significantly in three areas – S&C, skill development and nutrition/lifestyle. And you committed to it because you’d come to love the process and you loved and were committed to the cause, of liberating a people mad about its football.
Yet here we are, four more All-Ireland semi-final or final defeats later, and still no Sam, still no liberation for those people of Mayo.
Because, in a nutshell, the virtue and philosophy that drives them forward is also internally compromised. They are producing under the lights exactly what they are doing away from the lights.
They are a phenomenal bunch of tacklers, indicative of their honesty and commitment and the time they give to that aspect of the game. But has their shooting adequately improved? Is there anywhere near as much emphasis on their shooting as there is on their tackling? Are they only coaching and doing what they’re most comfortable coaching and doing?
In last year’s two epic Dublin-Mayo clashes, Dublin had five different players who scored off either foot over the two games. Mayo had only one — Lee Keegan. This year Mayo had none. Cormac Costello’s first two points were off his left; his last point was his right. C’est la difference. Mayo had to continuously recycle the ball last Saturday because they weren’t adequately comfortable shooting off their non- dominant side, and in some cases, like Aidan O’Shea, not confident to shoot right away even on their strong side. You can get away with that against 28, 29 counties. But not against Dublin.
Mayo did make some key, incremental, encouraging advances this year. Up to this September, you had to go back to when James Horan himself was playing in 1996 for the last Mayo starting forward to score a point from play in the second-half of an All-Ireland final. Over the last two games, Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor, Diarmuid O’Connor and Kevin McLoughlin have bucked that trend and joined that list. But notably, O’Shea hasn’t. For all the big-name coaches and gurus Mayo have had in their ranks the last five years, their most physically talented player has obviously not been sufficiently challenged and coached well enough to earn victory on that front.
Very early on in my work with those Mayo players, I cited the words of a psychologist and public speaker, George Zalucki, whose work Mickey Harte had introduced me to. “Nature knows your power. And she can’t tolerate your lies. And she dishes us back in direct proportion how much we deserve to succeed. Where a person sits today is exactly who they’ve settled for up to that moment in time. That’s the cool, hard truth of it.”
Mayo have deserved to outlast your county the last five championships. They deserve to reach All-Ireland finals. Men like Colm Boyle, Cillian O’Connor, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan; chances are the guys in your county aren’t smacking the ice like they are. To paraphrase the NFL legend Ray Lewis, those men are pissed off for greatness; ain’t none of those men happy with being mediocre. But is O’Shea, someone who looked destined to be greatness, being adequately challenged as to why his shooting is so mediocre? Do they not realise his power and recognising how nature is not tolerating any lies? Are they asking him to smack the ice? Are management willing to be strong enough to do a Joe Kernan and say they’ll get someone else who’ll do it if he won’t?
In one of my last workshops with the group, in the summer of 2014, I spoke to the players about John Healy, the journalist from Charlestown who spoke about shouting stop. Were they as fellow proud Mayo men going to be the ones who’d shout stop? The actions they took last October suggested yes. Even something like Ger Cafferkey calling on club games to be delayed further epitomised that mindset. The way they fought and fought the last two days against Dublin was also that of a team screaming STOP! But it only took them so far because on some things they’ve failed to shout stop.
Until all of them earn victory, none of them get victory. Until they all smack the ice, they’ll all continue to smack the ground in tears every September.
Alternatively, if they all do the work away from the lights, they’ll all get to dance with the cup under the lights. It’s still there for them. It’s still up to them.