Although it wasn’t widely identified as a trend — more reported as a series of unrelated events — an intriguing development in 2017 was the signing by the managers of the country’s top four football teams to stay on until 2020, writes Kieran Shannon.
While their priority would be to remain as competitive as possible in the immediate campaign, Jim Gavin, Stephen Rochford, Éamonn Fitzmaurice, and Mickey Harte were also to be mindful of the longer view.
As well as leading the most dominant senior team in each of their respective provinces, they all had at least one crack underage team coming on stream: In the cases of Tyrone, Mayo, and Dublin, it was the past three U21 All-Ireland champions, while in Kerry’s case, it was the past four minor champions. At some point, players from those sides would need to reinforce or even become the core of the senior team.
Going by this year’s league, some of those managers are taking that 2020 mandate more seriously than others.
After his side’s lame defeat to Omagh last Sunday, Fitzmaurice was able to point out to reporters that he had used 37 players in the league, “particularly players getting their first taste, their first starts”. A whole crop of players had been blooded, without the county being relegated.
The same day, Harte started eight different players from the side who had hammered Mayo in MacHale Park the previous week.
As for Mayo: Of the starting 15 that were humiliated at home to Harte’s team, all but two — corner backs Caolan Crowe and Eoin O’Donoghue — had been involved in the James Horan era.
Adam Gallagher had made his league debut four years back in Horan’s last campaign. Stephen Coen was also a panellist that season, before getting his first bit of senior game-time in 2015. The other 11 had all played championship under Horan in 2014, or, in David Clarke’s case, the 2012 All-Ireland final.
Dave O’Leary with his babies, Rochford clearly ain’t.
It was only in keeping, though, with his selection policy these past couple of league campaigns and, indeed, with other Mayo management sides most of these past five or six years: Less in with the new as stick with the old.
It’s why, as dramatic and admirable as the latest Mayo great escape was, it was hardly the cause for the euphoria it prompted among some in the county.
Last Sunday evening, David Brady, a regular contributor on the punditry circuit, tweeted: “Kevin McLoughlin has done more for Mayo football than he might ever realise. Thank you, Kevin. Loftus, O’Donoghue, O’Connor & Co will only reach the top by playing in Div 1.” On face value, it was a wholly logical observation, in keeping with the popular narrative that “only a Division One team can win an All-Ireland”.
However, on closer examination, Brady’s thesis doesn’t quite stand up. In fact, the paradox would seem to hold true: By their county always going for the big, immediate squeeze, by trying to just survive and stay in Division 1, young Mayo players have played little league football, in Division 1 or anywhere else.
Every year, the cycle seems to repeat itself.
Mayo lose an All-Ireland final or semi-final replay — narrowly, not least because the opposition had a superior bench with players who got plenty of game-time in the league.
The players go back to their clubs. Around November, new players are drafted in to an extended panel, only for a raft of them to either be cut at the start of the league or the end of it.
Come the league, the odd young player is given his chance and is back throughout the spring — Kevin Keane in 2012, Cathal Carolan in 2013, Evan Regan in 2015, Fergal Boland in 2017, Eoin O’Donoghue this year — but for the most part, fit and available veterans are given preference, especially after a couple of consecutive losses midway through the campaign and relegation is a prospect.
Jason Doherty and McLoughlin have to start every game; they’re hardly ever rested or rotated, even though they’re both established players for years now.
In the end, they just about stay up, digging deep into their reservoir of experience and grit. Then, in the summer, they’re right there at the business end, only to never close the account.
That’s what they seem to forget when it comes to the league. They think they have a formula that works for them, but does it?
It would seem in the wake of any All-Ireland final defeat, having a good team holiday is a more important part of the rehabilitation process than having a good league. Understandably, it’s hard to turn the nose up at such an offering, especially when it’s an assumed perk for any finalist, but with a side with the air miles this team has, would a three-day lads-only getaway to a Barcelona in early December have been just as beneficial as the logistical monster that’s an all- entourage affair that drags into the New Year? In 2012 and 2016, most likely not; but after the defeats of 2013 and 2017, probably yes.
Instead of attacking the league, they tend to sleepwalk into it. After a couple of the inevitable defeats that come with it, even the newcomers who are given game-time do so with the mood decidedly edgy and cranky.
The logistical difficulties that compromise their preparations during the league, with so many players based in Dublin, are well-documented, but is such a factor that was underplayed for so long now overplayed? Should a side with such collective nous not be able to see off a coltish Kerry team from memory and guile alone?
A team should have one of three goals when it comes to the league. Either try to win, experiment, or, ideally, win AND experiment. With Mayo though, it appears to be neither one thing nor the other. At some point in recent years, they appear to have made a conscious decision not to go and win it, as if they’ve calculated there’s no point in reaching a final with Dublin likely to be there awaiting them; better to keep them waiting some more, til at least August, not April, when the Mayo battleship will be back at ramming speed.
That’s fair enough, of course, if they were to use the league to experiment, in terms of personnel and tactics, but that doesn’t tend to happen.
Mayo did get something out of this league. Eoin O’Donoghue got plenty of valuable game time – but then he should have got more last year, as well; it was obvious from his cameo in Tralee that he was made of the right stuff, but instead he was barely seen thereafter, while Lee Keegan was rushed back within a week of winning an All- Ireland club final.
Stephen Coen got a long, uninterrupted run in the team this spring. Conor Loftus also will be the better for this campaign. While he struggled in the early rounds, especially in Salthill, he’s a top-of-the ground player and the boldness he displayed in his kicking, both from play and frees, in Ballybofey suggests he’s a player ready to take off this summer.
However, they also lost a lot, such as all three games in MacHale Park, for starters, and whatever reputation the place had as a fortress. Teams have no fear going there now, including Galway on May 13. Above all, they lost the opportunity to blood players. For all the established players they were without for most of this spring — Higgins, Harrison, Barrett, Keegan, for the most part — it’s the young players they decided to go without that was the standout theme of this campaign.
Two years ago next month, Mayo beat Dublin in an All-Ireland U21 semi-final. Their audacity was epitomised by a point Matthew Ruane kicked bolting up from midfield to trigger a second-half comeback. Ruane, while still a member of the county development squad, was playing with his club last weekend, having got no game-time this spring.
Maybe he’s not ready yet for championship 2018, but maybe he’d have been better for Championship 2019 for playing some league in 2018, just as the payback for Fergal Bolan’s extended run in last year’s league could come this summer.
The dash and verve of those 2016 youngsters is further diluted the longer they have to wait for their shot.
Last season, Rochford coached like someone in his final season, only for him to sign on for a three-year extension, but this spring his team selection gives all the appearance of a man seeing nothing beyond 2018.
So, yes, Mayo’s admirable long stint in the top division continues, just as their wait for Sam continues, with the two not unrelated.
Once again, they’ve just about kept their head above water, but if you’re always staving off death, just trying to stay alive, you’re not living.
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