People may not realise this but Mayo people have always been close to me, from my days with Kildare and Cork, both as a player and a manager over the last 30 years.
I have come across great players and supporters and maybe, sharing their frustration, I feel the pain and suffering of their defeats more than most because I know how passionate they are about football.
I’ve been crying out for Mayo to win an All-Ireland and find myself very close to the cause as a result of the friendships I’ve built up, both on and off the field, with people from Mayo down the years.
You just want to see them win an All-Ireland to compensate them for all the commitment and effort they go to every year. From my own pub business I run frequent buses to my old pal Mickey Byrne’s pub in Castlebar and that retains my exposure to their love for football. They are amongst the most sporting counties in the GAA and I will never forget in 1989 that their supporters clapped us onto the bus after the All-Ireland final.
Last week, I was rating the remaining managers in the championship and, in defending James Horan, I felt Mayo players need to show the same leadership and performances that they do all year leading into the All-Ireland final.
Once people said that Dublin were the most scrutinised team in the GAA, but I would counter it and say that tag has fallen on Mayo. The brunt of that criticism invariably falls on their performance on the big stage because they have been there so much.
That’s why their experienced players who have lost finals will be placed under greatest scrutiny. I mentioned Alan Dillon, probably their most experienced player, who I greatly admire going back to the day I first saw him in 1999 against Cork in an All-Ireland minor semi-final. He would be disappointed with his All-Ireland final displays but I was wrong to single him out personally and I apologise for that. That was wrong. I did not question Mayo’s character, spirit or hard work. I just hope every players gets the best out of themselves come an All-Ireland final.
I was the first to say that Cork were wrong to criticise Mayo ahead of the quarter-final. Mayo lost their nice-guy image because if they are ever going to win an All-Ireland, that’s what they had to do. Nice guys and nice teams don’t win the big games and you’ll do well to point out the last county to lift Sam by having that in their artillery. It’s part of the will to win and a belief in yourself, which is something I always prided myself on.
Last Sunday, I fancied Mayo to win and there’s no reason to change that opinion ahead of tomorrow’s replay. We’ve saw wonderful examples of the football ability they have in that second half. The chips were down. Everything was going against them. They even got some bad calls but they never doubted themselves. They came out and threw everything at Kerry. They looked like they were possessed.
Many believe Mayo are at a disadvantage tomorrow but the first game will stand to them more. I played on a side like Mayo which had lost two All-Irelands in a row and the ’88 final was after a replay. We were nervous as a result of that and could have easily lost the 1989 decider. But I will always say the breakthrough we achieved that year allowed us to increase our belief and confidence to go on and win the following year’s final.
Kerry will pose a big threat though. People may have written them off this year but this season shows you can never do that with a Kerry team.
Mayo need to forget the last five minutes last Sunday and build on the 30 minutes they put in, throw the shackles off, forget everything else and go for it. If they do that, they won’t have to do that much more, because when they run at a defence, based on their strong possession game, there aren’t many teams could live with them. When you see Aidan O’Shea rallying the guys like he did, and getting the response... things like that bring a team on to another level.
The key for Mayo now is to find out how to replicate it. They were the first to admit they only truly showed their potential for 30 minutes in that game. Kerry had the advantage for 40 minutes. When was the last time Kerry were dominant for longer and still didn’t win? Finding that switch again will win not just this match, but this year’s All-Ireland.