The dream begins again for brave Mayo

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
The dream begins again for brave Mayo

Of all the teams setting out on their journey this weekend, Mayo are actually the most consistent league county — the only one to have been in Division One every season since the calendar year and qualifiers have been in force.

Even the most basic analysis suggests that Mayo, along with Dublin, Kerry and Donegal, have been the most consistent championship team these past five seasons too.

Ever since James Horan took over and removed what he termed the “bullshit” from Mayo football, they have become consistently competitive — so consistent and so competitive, that they have rammed down the throats of their detractors nearly every negative stereotype invented to explain their failure to win an All-Ireland.

The only negative stereotype (if it could be termed such) that remains is their failure to land the big one in September. The group of players inherited by new managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly have been through many tough moments since 2011 and on just one occasion in each of those years have they come up short.

Why then as all teams begin again on the same plane in early spring, are Mayo almost being written out of the equation as genuine championship contenders?

Surely nobody in Mayo acknowledges last autumn’s championship exit as a final act for this team?

Has the change of management brought about by James Horan’s departure in the aftermath of Mayo’s defeat to Kerry been viewed as a step backwards for Mayo football?

Was last season not the second All-Ireland-or-bust-season for the player and management team assembled by Horan?

Will the fact that there has been a changing of the guard not freshen things up for all concerned?

Was Horan not right to depart when he did, just like his old adversary, Jim McGuinness, did after an Olympic cycle of four seasons?

For all the obvious progress made under Horan, are Mayo any weaker for his departure? Didn’t he, no more than all top managers, not make some mistakes in the heat of the moment in Croke Park? Take for example the decision, on the evidence of an earlier league game, to match Kevin Keane up with Michael Murphy in the opening stages of the 2012 final against Donegal.

Or the call to leave Keith Higgins on a clearly injured Eoghan O’Gara in the latter stages of the 2013 final? And what about the idea of playing Tom Cunniffe as sweeper in front of James O’Donoghue in last year’s semi-final? Were these decisions not just as big a factor in Mayo losing those games as the inevitable mistakes all players will make on the field?

Had Horan stayed on, would some within Mayo not have pointed to the fact that despite having some of the best individual defenders in the game (Higgins, Boyle and Keegan) Mayo appeared no closer by the end of last season to having a genuine collective defensive mindset?

You know, the type of mindset that would close out games, the type of approach you can call on when you’re just not keeping the scoreboard ticking over at the other end of the pitch?

I’m sure Horan noticed last year that his teams allowed Sligo IT score 1-9 without reply against them in the FBD league. Few who were present in Croke Park at the end of March last year could forget the three stunning comebacks Dublin made to secure an unlikely draw.

Even Cork’s late surge in the quarter-final gave hope to all in Kerry who were facing down the barrel of a gun before Kieran Donaghy’s late intervention in the drawn semi-final. The fact is that despite being one of the unluckiest teams in the championship, Mayo were also one of the most stubbornly naive when it came to the art of killing a game.

The challenge for the new management was always going to be continuing with the best of the James Horan era (and there is much to choose from) and changing what needed to be changed. Perhaps it is no coincidence here that it is two former defenders from Horan’s own playing days — Connelly and Holmes — who have taken up the challenge.

The raiding half-back line that has proven so successful in recent years for Mayo has forced their hand somewhat when it came to a playing style, especially when the scoring spread up front tended to be lopsided.

Maybe now, two former stalwart half-backs can find the right mix between the cavalier and the conservative to finally get Mayo over the line.

Starting Kevin Keane at full-back in the absence of Ger Cafferkey may be a sign of things to come, or it may be a meaningless, but at least Keane has the chance once again to offer a bit of muscular authority at the edge of the square.

Stephen Coen cut a dash for two years with the minors and both he and Patrick Durcan will relish the opportunity of facing up to the challenge of an away game in Fitzgerald Stadium against the All-Ireland champions. It could hardly be handed a better exercise in character-building on your debut.

There are no debuts for Kerry and despite the fact that they have a team composed entirely of twenty-somethings for the first time in an age, every one of the starting 15 has an All-Ireland medal. In the corresponding opening round game against Dublin last year, Kerry took to the field without a single player in possession of a medal won as first-team starter.

What difference will that medal make tomorrow? Perhaps very little, but the reassurance of knowing what it takes to get to the summit has to be worth something at some stage.

Complacency is always a concern in an All-Ireland winning squad but it is often forgotten that in any successful squad there is always a cohort of players who feel they could have contributed more to a winning season.

Kerry have enough of those on the field tomorrow to get them some league points in February for the first time in the Eamonn Fitzmaurice era.

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