As has been their habit since the innocent summer of 2011, the Mayo football team hasn’t been short of takers lining up to bury and praise them in recent days.
That is how it has been with this group of players – wherever you’ve stood on them, a Brutus or Marc Anthony, they’ve had a unique capacity to make you feel good about yourself.
Maybe you’re one of the many enthralled and inspired by the way the likes of Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins would keep coming forward and how they’d all keep coming back; oh to have a team like that of your own to support the past eight years.
Or you could be one of the not-inconsiderable number of those more miserly in spirit who have taken solace and even satisfaction in their defeats, either because your own county [most obviously, a Dublin] have been their conquerors, or because, though it has been an age if ever since your own county were consistently contending in September – say, a Meath or Galway at the turn of the millennium – you could cling on to the smug delusion that your own breed still possessed a winning DNA that those Mayo boys will just never have.
Even counties who have never been remotely near that orbit have tut-tutted at Mayo’s misfortune.
I remember after the 2016 drawn All Ireland final meeting up with a couple of Monaghan football friends and them shaking their heads disapprovingly at Mayo’s inability to win that game – even though Jim Gavin’s men had been the ones who had failed to hold on to a three-point lead entering injury time.
Even Carlow’s Turlough O’Brien couldn’t refrain from the ‘Mayo, God help us’ line over the course of a chat we had back in March: How is it they still haven’t won an All Ireland?
If such a frequent question is seeking a more forensic answer, then it ought to be rephrased – how is it this Mayo team haven’t won more All Irelands?
Because there’s a very simple and straight-forward answer to why this Mayo team haven’t yet won a single – not even the one – All Ireland: poor refereeing calls.
Take that drawn 2016 All Ireland final when Cillian O’Connor boomed over possibly the greatest clutch point football has known to level the game. Croke Park was rocking; Dublin, rattled.
When Stephen Cluxton took a short kickout, Denis Bastick picked it straight off the ground.
Only referee Conor Lane didn’t blow for it. Instead he only whistled a few seconds later after Evan Regan collided into Bastick, and then shortly again thereafter, for full time.
But what if Lane had seen and judged the incident correctly? O’Connor, less than 25m out from goal, would have slotted the free over.
The game, the wait, the suspension of due praise, would have been over, our Monaghan friends having little choice but to applaud O’Connor & Co instead of their arms remaining folded.
Lane’s is just one of several calls in tight games that failed to go Mayo’s way. Cormac Reilly in 2014; Johnny Cooper and John Small escaping black cards in 2015 and 2016 when Seamus O’Shea and Lee Keegan didn’t; Joe McQuillan failing to notice Jason Doherty’s arm being pulled in the square last September.
But that’s why a high-performance team like Mayo, just like their counterparts in Dublin, talk about controlling the controllables and ‘process’.
The alternative, the outcome, is ultimately outside their control. A game might hinge on a ref’s call but they can do little or nothing about that call.
All they can control is making their best of that next play – and the one after that, regardless of the score – when they’re under those lights, and then when they’re away from them, on just getting better and enjoying doing so.
During James Horan’s term as manager, S&C coach Ed Coughlan would use another term borrowed from the great rowing coach Jurgen Grobler – Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?
When Mayo started out on this voyage, their quest to make the boat go faster, as fast as it could, before any other boat arrived at port, was relentless.
It was full steam ahead and Horan was unapologetic and ruthless about it.
After the 2011 league, four big names – Tom Parsons, Barry Moran, Trevor Howley and Aidan Kilcoyne – players who would have been expected to be Mayo panellists for the rest of their 20s, were dropped for championship, jolting the rest of the panel and the county (and Parsons and Moran enough to prompt recalls in later years).
The same ethos propelled the good boat Mayo the following couple of seasons. Strictly no passengers were allowed.
The few players who weren’t hitting certain standards and living the required lifestyle soon came to the same dawning reality as those boys in Flag of Our Fathers who fell overboard did as their battleship set off for the mid-Pacific – the boat wasn’t going back for them.
In subsequent campaigns though, the same stringency and commitment doesn’t seem to have been as prevalent.
Instead it became more about just staying ahead of the nearest boat and hoping to get to port ahead of all others, with few being asked or willing to get off board.
The lack of new deckhands has been alarming, as has the workload placed upon the same reliable hands.
The past six seasons Colm Boyle hasn’t had one day off in league or championship. He’s featured in all 44 league games, all but three as a starter, as well as all 40 championship games, 39 as a starter.
And you wonder why he looked spent last Saturday.
Or take the trio that comprised the team’s half-forward line most of this year. Since the outset of the Horan era, Kevin McLoughlin has started in all but one championship game – the 2011 opener against London.
He’s started 54 of their 60 league games. And in every one of the past eight seasons he’s started Mayo’s last game of the preseason FBD league. That’s a lot of January football, all the way to September.
Outside of the 2017 league when he was curtailed by injury and basketball commitments, Aidan O’Shea has started in all but three out of a possible 80 league and championship games since the 2012 All Ireland quarter-final.
Jason Doherty has featured in all but six of Mayo’s last 60 league games.
In contrast, Conor O’Shea, who has been on the panel six years ago this month has been, to put it kindly, sparingly used.
Outside the 2016 league campaign when he started all seven games, the youngest of the famous Breaffy clan has started in only six of Mayo’s other 78 games and come off the bench in just 13 more – the rest of the time he either wasn’t sufficiently free from injury or trusted enough to feature.
In all, he’s scored just 1-9 over those six years.
In five years on the panel 28-year-old David Drake has made just one championship start and scored just two points in all competitions despite being a frequent impact sub under Stephen Rochford.
In contrast, Shane Nally, has kicked 0-6 despite fewer league starts and just three last-minute championship cameos over the past three seasons.
Mayo’s approach to the league has become neither one thing nor the other: they’ve been neither out to win it nor to bring through players; the goal appears to be just to survive, keep the head above water and the boat afloat.
In the early Horan years, management proactively created positive self-fulfilling prophesies, like in 2012 when Lee Keegan was first tried at corner back, then moved out to wing back in place of Peadar Gardiner to accommodate his Westport clubmate Kevin Keane.
In a 50-50 call, the newcomer was given the benefit of the doubt, and allowed ship through stormy waters.
Somewhere though that policy was diluted if not outright discarded, and consequently talents like Matthew Ruane and Brian Reape have essentially been too.
Even among the officer class things probably became too comfortable and familiar.
Donie Buckley has rightly been hugely lauded for his work with these players but this was the sixth season these players had been listening to his voice on the training ground.
Mayo now need a few new cadets and officers and in truth a new captain; Rochford, as manful a job as he did these past three years, does not look to possess or exude the energy required for the new voyage, especially if some of key core crew members are to be coaxed to sign up for another expedition.
Ithaka can still remain the destination. They just need new ideas and new hands to make the boat go faster. Get back to enjoying the game and emphasising its skills. Identify and back three of this year’s Connacht-winning U20 team – risk relegation if needs be.
Give Paddy Durcan the armband. Give a Conor O’Shea his head in the league, preferably in his preferred position at full-forward, and then either play or cut him.
Likewise a Nally. Rest and rotate veterans but crucially retain most of them.
Properly managed, Mayo could have the most impactful bench in football next year: imagine Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Andy Moran and Jason Doherty coming at Dublin in the last 25 minutes of a big game next August.
Dublin supporters were enraged by John Fogarty’s weekend contention that while Cluxton & Co had been the team of the decade, Mayo had been the story of the decade.
And if Dublin were to pull off the five-in-a-row, the Hill’s scepticism could be justified.
But it wouldn’t take a leap of faith if standing between Dublin and immortality come September 2019 was the bould ship Mayo.
And that there’d be no better boys to do an Offaly and Seamus Darby (Andy?)
What better story and ending could you have than that?
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