When it comes to Kerry, Mayo’s scars have healed

When David Clifford reduced the deficit to one point in the 72nd minute of the league final, the game hinged on the next Mayo kickout.

When it comes to Kerry, Mayo’s scars have healed

When David Clifford reduced the deficit to one point in the 72nd minute of the league final, the game hinged on the next Mayo kickout.

Kerry had pressed up hard to force Rob Hennelly to go long and make his restart a 50-50 contest. Kerry got three men under Hennelly’s kickout but the ball broke to Diarmuid O’Connor.

O’Connor picked out Andy Moran, who won a difficult ball, before getting his head up and playing a perfect pass to Ciarán Treacy.

The young forward was one-on-one with goalkeeper Shane Ryan.

With just one minute and 20 seconds of added time to play, the handy option would have been to punch the ball over the bar for a two-point lead.

Treacy though, went for broke and superbly drilled the ball under Ryan.

That sequence of play, and the bravery and cool-headedness attached to it, was a neat metaphor for Mayo’s composure, especially in the last quarter.

From the moment they levelled the match in the 56th minute, until the final whistle, Mayo made 70 plays to Kerry’s 60. But Mayo made the bigger plays, which ultimately decided the contest.

Since Mayo last won the league in 2001, Mayo teams had lost three league finals and six All-Ireland finals.

Mayo’s last three All-Ireland finals defeats had been by just one point and, while it was only the league, Mayo showed the late composure and killer instinct that was often lacking in those matches.

It was more telling again that the win, and the manner of it in Croke Park, came against Kerry. Kerry always expect to win in Croke Park but beating Mayo there would have been almost deemed a birthright.

When RTÉ Radio One hosted a championship preview show in May 2017, Tomás Ó Sé spoke about a potential All-Ireland semi-finalmatch-up between Kerry and Mayo later that summer.

Ó Sé’s face wasn’t visible but the smile on his face could be detected through his tone drifting over the airwaves. “Kerry love playing Mayo,” he said.

The inference was that it was exactly what Kerry would want, and what Mayo wouldn’t want. After shipping hidings from Kerry in the 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland finals, and having lost to them in All-Ireland semi-finals in 2011 and 2014, the general perception had Kerry to be a demon in Mayo’s minds that they could not exorcise.

But Mayo teams throughout this decade certainly haven’t seen it that way. And Mayo showed a whole new identity when they did meet Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final later that summer in 2017.

When Mayo came back to draw the first match, Kerry felt that they had underperformed.

They still believed that they could infiltrate Mayo’s psychosis for the replay.

“I still think Kerry have a psychological edge over Mayo,” said Marc Ó Sé a few days later on Today FM’s The Last Word. It encapsulated much of how Kerry still thought about Mayo but Mayo blew that notion out of the water when whacking Kerry to record their first championship win against them for 21 years.

When James Horan first took over in 2011, Mayo had more historical baggage with Cork than Kerry, who had tormented them throughout their history.

Mayo defeated Cork in that year’s All-Ireland quarter-final when Cork were reigning All-Ireland champions. Mayo subsequently lost to Kerry in the semi-final but the team was still in its infancy and was beginning to develop into the force they’d become.

Mayo’s draw with Kerry in Tralee in March 2012 was another big step. The win over Kerry after extra-time of the league semi-final the following month was an even bigger landmark. Mayo hammered Kerry in the 2013 league. They beat them again, by five points, in the 2014 campaign, when both were winless and under pressure to pick up points.

At half-time of the 2014 drawn All-Ireland semi-final, Kerry were five points ahead. Mayo had been reduced to 14 men, having lost Lee Keegan to a red card.

The game looked over. Mayo had every reason to quit but they blitzed Kerry to lead by five points late on. Their failure to hold out was as much down to a tactical error in not screening Kieran Donaghy as a psychological meltdown.

When Mayo lost the replay after extra-time, that result hinged on a number of key refereeing decisions, the Donaghy factor, and losing two of their key players — Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea — to concussion for a key part of that game. The general dialogue afterwards inevitably turned towards Mayo’s failure to beat Kerry again but Mayo defeated Kerry in two of their next three league meetings before taking them down in the 2017 championship.

When the sides met in round six of the regular league in March, Kerry wereunbeaten in five games. Mayo had just come off the back of two terrible defeats, a hiding from Dublin, and a late blow-up against Galway.

Yet Mayo got the job done again, extending Kerry’s losing sequence against Mayo at home to 10 years.

The manner of Mayo’s two league wins this season underlined why Kerry consistently struggle to deal with Mayo. Their energy, intensity, and physicality knocked Kerry back. In Tralee, Kerry couldn’t break Mayo’s defensive system down with the breeze in the first half but Mayo physically bossed the entire match. They won most of the individual battle, while Mayo’s running game bored massive holes in the Kerrydefence. They also had them on the back foot in Croke Park.

A number of Kerry players went into the league final under cooked. They didn’t have enough training done but there was still a marked physical difference between the two teams. Mayo have been able to physically dominate Kerry but the current comparison is largely down to the development of so many young Kerry players being at least three yearsbehind Mayo.

When the sides met in Tralee in March, Mayo’s best player was Matthew Ruane.

Injury has ruled him out for the time being but Ruane is one of the new players to have impressed this season. Yet Ruane was man-of-the-match in the 2016 All-Ireland U21 final. He is 24 now and has clearly benefitted from the strength and conditioning programme Stephen Rochford had him on for the last few years.

For all the young talent in this Kerry squad, most of them don’t have that S&C base built up yet, whereas most of Mayo’s new players had been working on those S&Cprogrammes under Rochford. They weren’t physically ready last season but they are now under Horan.

Mayo have always been able to produce quality players too but the biggest reason Mayo have had an edge on Kerry is because they have no fear of them anymore. If Mayo have any hang-up with anyone now, it’s Dublin, who they have yet to defeat under Jim Gavin in 14 games.

Mayo have still been good enough to consistently rattle Dublin in the championship but the reason Mayo could never historically beat Kerry was because they weren’t good enough, or weren’t prepared well enough. Yet Mayo teams now are as well prepared as anyone else. They embrace the big challenges.

They want the big games. And they relish playing Kerry.

One of the greatest achievements of this Mayo generation of players has been their ability to divorce themselves from the negatives of their distant past, and to acknowledge its irrelevance in how they are trying to write their own history.

The 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland final defeats made a deep laceration on the Mayo psyche but the wound has closed and the current group have never allowed that scar to become part of their identity.

The tables have certainly turned.

If anything, Mayo love playing Kerry as much as any of the other top five teams. And Kerry know full well too that this is a vastly different animal to the one they routinely spooked, and slaughtered, in the past.

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