Mayo supporters and managers have been down this path before.
They know the drill
Mayo manager James Horan has succeeded in improving the team, and as Ballina Stephenites manager Anthony McGarry argues, the current team won’t lie down and that is an admirable trait. They have a bit of steel in them, and on their day they can match most teams.
A decent run of league form triggers positive mutterings from their camp about progress, and then suddenly, somewhere — though not necessarily in Mayo itself — people start nodding sagely about potential All-Ireland winners.
The fact that they defeated Kerry in extra-time (or did Kerry beat themselves?) in the National League semi-final and Cork in last year’s championship quarter-final has made people sit up and take some notice of James Horan and his team.
Mayo, once again, are being whispered about as “possibles” to break the county’s sixty-one year duck.
That stat leaves Man City’s 44-year wait for success in the ha-penny place.
Mayo are 14/1 to win the 2012 championship, and are sixth favourites to be last man standing next September — behind Kerry (2/1), Cork (10/3), Dublin (5/1), Kildare (8/1) and Tyrone (10/1).
So is this a bright new horizon or yet another false dawn?
Billy Fitzpatrick, who played with the county over a 20-year period from 1965 to 1985, and who has been at every Mayo league and championship match for the past two decades, does not think so.
“Genuine progress has been made under James (Horan). I have no doubt about that. He is a really professional manager with a good team around him,. But to be talking about winning an All-Ireland this year is a stretch. Hopefully in a few years we might achieve that objective, but I cannot see it happening this year.”
Fitzpatrick who is the co-commentator with Mid-West radio believes they have too many issues in midfield and in defence.
He explains: “Our defenders are too attack-minded. They take too much out of the ball and they carry it into traffic and are too slow releasing it. That creates another major problem too, as the forwards don’t know when to time their runs. I played corner forward for years and if the ball is not let in fast, a good defender will tie you up.
“The likes of Alan Dillon, Cillian O’Connor, Andy Moran and Conor Mortimer need fast, early ball, and unless they get it against the top three or four teams in the country they will be stopped.”
Fitzpatrick saw enough in the team’s defeat in the league final to Cork to convince him that new players need to be found, and that midfield is an area that needs more work.
“We will need Aidan O’Shea at full fitness and we also need a hard running and direct midfielder alongside. I’d consider moving Donal Vaughan out to midfield and giving the likes of Danny Geraghty (Ballintubber) a chance at centre-back. We have to try and be innovative. We won’t beat the best three or four teams at the business end of the season unless we come up with a few fresh ideas.”
Fitzpatrick won Connacht medals in his career and he stresses the need for realism. He also urges the current management to develop a style of football that suits Mayo rather than trying to ape what has been successful for other counties.
“We don’t have an awful lot of patience in Mayo. A few supporters are always talking about winning the All-Ireland when we get the nucleus of a good team together. But the county went 12 years without a single Connacht title (1969 to 1981) and the same thing happened from 1955 to 1967. So we should acknowledge that at least we are competitive almost every year and that Mayo supporters have had some very exciting days in the championship in the last 15 years. We are not good enough at the moment to win the All-Ireland, but we will be going all out to retain the Connacht title and if we get to the quarter-finals who knows where we will end up?
“We saw how close we came to the breakthrough in 1996, and we have been in three All-Ireland finals since, so we will always set out with high hopes.”
Ballintubber are the current county champions and their winning manager last year, Anthony McGarry (now with Ballina Stephenites) concurs with Fitzpatrick’s assessment of the county’s chances of ultimate glory.
“The current team won’t lie down and that is an admirable trait. They have a bit of steel in them, and on their day they can match most teams. They have an advantage in the draw this year in that they look likely to have a very compressed season. They should qualify for the Connacht final in July 15 and that means they can aim to peak for that game and a possible All-Ireland quarter-final in early August.
“I would rate Mayo as a top five team at the moment and we would have nearly always been a top 10 team over the past 20 years. However getting the first 80% of anything is easy enough — it is the last 20% that’s hard to find.
“We are probably lacking two or three players. However there are some viable options to improve the team. Danny Kirby (Castlebar Mitchels) is worth a chance, and young Conor O’Shea (Breaffy) is another very good young player who has lots of potential. I would also like to see Tom Cunniffe back in the full-back line which could release Keith Higgins to wing-back. We can tweak things a bit which would make us a more balanced team and a harder one to beat.”
Like Fitzpatrick, McGarry is fulsome in his praise for the work that James Horan, James Nallen, Tom Prendergast and Cian O’Neill are doing.
“James has learnt from our shortcomings. There is a big panel of 35 to 40 lads working very hard to bring success to the county and the team is an improving entity. But they are not good enough at the moment to beat the likes of Kerry or Cork in an All-Ireland final. Kildare, who I rate very highly too, are also at a more advanced stage of development. This will take time. We have been in four All-Irelands since 1989, so we know how to get to one. Winning has to be our objective now.”
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