If you think the biggest change in Mayo over the last five years has been the style of football they have adopted, then think again. The shift from open free-flowing stylish football to a more scientific stats based approach is just one side-effect of many following the greatest transfer of strongholds the county has ever seen.
From 1995 to 2007 only one team outside Ballina, Crossmolina and Knockmore won a county senior title. It was the latest period of dominance that triumvirate held over the county since 1888. And with 54 of the 111 county championships contested ending up in the home of football that was North Mayo, those all-conquering periods came regularly.
Consider this too. The other traditional powerhouse within the county, Castlebar Mitchells, have 27 titles. That’s 73% of the county championships shared between four clubs.
But not since 2007, when the Celtic Tiger was at its height, have any of those big four won a title. During those heady times, a population shift from the towns to suburbia altered the landscape of the Mayo club scene. But when the Tiger crashed North Mayo, an economic black spot in the best of times, was hit hardest and young families moved away. With it Ballina were replaced by Ballintubber and Knockmore by Ballaghaderreen in the club power struggles. And with that Mayo football’s base moved away from the north, the last bastion of urban football.
In five years Ballintubber and Ballaghaderreen have won two county titles each. Two clubs who had won just one county title combined in their histories before that.
Rural clubs in West Mayo are now the strongest in the county while East and South Mayo teams are steadily improving.
Back in 2006 the Mayo team that contested the All-Ireland SFC final with Kerry had eight players from North Mayo starting while two more came off the bench. Only Alan Dillon represented the West Mayo clubs while Barry Moran came off the bench. Last year’s team reflected a complete reverse as just David Clarke, Ger Cafferkey and Kevin McLoughlin from North Mayo started the All-Ireland final while the West Mayo contingent had seven starters and three came off the bench.
It’s not just a senior phenomenon. When Enda Gilvarry named his county minor squad for this year’s championship there was a little bit of history attached. No Ballina players. No Castlebar players. No Knockmore players. One Crossmolina player. And, for good measure, no players from Westport, the third biggest town in the county.
Clubs close to Castlebar and Westport, which suffered less from the recession, have overtaken the rest and it’s reflected in the make up of Gilvarry’s team taking on Roscommon in the minor final tomorrow with five starters from the West, four from the South and East each while the North has just two.
But economics and geographical locations only provide part of the reason for the big switch.
“Back when we were minors there were no development squads,” said Gilvarry, an All-Ireland minor winning full back with Mayo in 1985.
“Now if you’re a good prospect at U14 level you’re brought into a development squad and given more opportunities to develop your game no matter what your club is.
“Conversely Mayo towns have changed dramatically as sports have become more competitive. Soccer and rugby clubs in the towns have become organised and youngsters are picking their sport at a much earlier age now.
“The competition town teams face to keep a young player has grown while the rural clubs have really got their act together. They have better structures in place and their players have access to development squads.
“They are introduced to better coaching and play with better players with the inevitable result that they are improving all the time.”
It’s part of what will become a more balanced look to Mayo football in the future according to county coaching officer Padraic Carolan. The Parke clubman, whose club have risen from obscurity to third in the U14 Division 1 title race, believes each region will now have a period at the top based on the work at grassroots level countywide.
“The key now is that there is an opportunity for all,” he said. “The games are now structured and all areas are now putting in more effort, especially if they have recently experienced heavy growths.
“Rural clubs have dramatically improved over the last 20 years. When I was growing up in Balla we’d get two or three games a season with knockout football. Now they can expect up to 40 training sessions and 15 matches in a division where they will be competitive.
“The stronger clubs that have emerged are those operating near urban areas. But the rural clubs further away are struggling.”
“Bord na nÓg in Mayo is excellent. It’s all about involving clubs in the planing process to ensure adequate games for everyone from U8s to minors. There is a schedule of games now every week from April until the end of the season.”
There are more basic factors too. With four clubs dominating the club scene for so long the hunger within the newcomers will take many years to sate. And that’s reflective in the differing positions of Castlebar and the teams from the north. While Mitchells are struggling in the third division of the minor championship this year, it is seen as a blip on their return as a force with three U21 titles in a row considered a stepping stone towards ending a senior drought going back to 1993. Their star had long waned and they were relegated before this recent resurgence.
But Ballina, All-Ireland club champions in 2005, plotted a course through a period of mass disorganisation and avoided relegation last year in the final. With their demise comes a new confidence from the traditionally smaller clubs. One such side is Ballinrobe who now organise their pitch schedule on their website for all to see complete with audio match reports. Historically an intermediate club, they have been senior for over ten years and are growing each season with an U6 academy now set up for the first time.
It’s another sign of the changes within the county. Previously clubs looked up to the big four and tried to ape them. Now they plough their own furrows.
None more so than trendsetters Ballintubber. They made their breakthrough in 2010 under James Horan and he was rewarded with the senior county job. He, more than anyone else, epitomised the new Mayo club approach and brought most of his most trusted backroom team with him into the Mayo senior set up, another first.
Now Tom Prendergast is the assistant Mayo manager in everything but name, Ruaidhrí Hallinan analyses all their statistics and Kieran Shannon was the club’s psychologist. Tony Duffy went on to become the county minor manager, led the U21s this year and is expected to retain the role next season.
The positive side effect to this is the willingness to create a production line of talent for the senior county side that no longer relies on the few. And it’s one that hasn’t been lost.
“Within Mayo we have to work towards developing players to fill the shoes of James Horan current squad and maintain that level,” said Gilvarry. “That’s the task for us all.”