Full credit to Dublin on their second consecutive All-Ireland title last Saturday. To repeat in elite sport is widely regarded as one of the most difficult things to do, so every opportunity needs to be exploited and harnessed along the way to make it a reality.
Dublin have done that to perfection over the last two seasons.
The bad news for the rest of the country is that Dublin are already in a stronger position to win again next September than everyone else. Already we can say with a large degree of certainty that Dublin, Mayo and Kerry will make up three of the four semi-finalists next year, and whoever takes the remaining spot will be a distant fourth favourite to reign supreme on the third Sunday in September.
To expand on that point, between Dublin, Mayo and Kerry, you’d have to say that Mayo are the least likely to win next year or any year for the foreseeable future unless some radical changes happen.
These changes do not require players to retire or the manager to change his philosophy, but for lifestyle choices outside of football to be made to create a more level playing field.
The results of a Sport Canada report, some 20 years ago, saw already highly committed athletes changing jobs and relocating to new parts of the country to increase the likelihood of their immense sacrifice producing success one day. Unfortunately, the same such decisions face many Mayo footballers for them to ever experience All-Ireland success.
Consider that from January to May each season, Mayo train as a collective unit once per week. Half the weekly amount of Kerry and Dublin, the two main protagonists that stand in their way. Mayo’s training week comprises of a Tuesday session in Castlebar for those based in Connacht, a Wednesday session in Dublin for those based in the capital and a Friday session back in Castlebar for everyone.
This all changes when the academic year comes to a close. The students and teachers return to Mayo for the summer and become full-time athletes. Those left behind in Dublin in their Monday to Friday jobs, are now expected to make that Tuesday session in Castlebar, two-and- half hours away! With the return leg of the journey to be tackled sometime after 10pm the same night!
As a result of this insane commitment, Mayo rarely commences training before 8pm, to enable those travelling across the country to get there and be mobilised, ready for action late in the evening. In contrast, by 8pm on any training night, the entire Dublin squad are already well into their post-session recovery protocol.
Not to mention that they have collective gym sessions every week, twice a week. A luxury a Mayo player never experiences.
To dwell on this point a little longer; it is worth noting that once college and school recommences in September, the Mayo cross-country bandwagon hits the road again. So an All-Ireland final replay in October, becomes a logistical nightmare in comparison to what Dublin have to contend with, where little changes from one week to the next. These are the indiscriminate inches that count at the end of a long season.
Unfortunately for Mayo it doesn’t stop there. Gaelic football in its best form is a highly physical, contact sport, so injuries are part and parcel of competing at the highest level. Mayo’s medical team are regarded by their peers as one of the best in Irish sport with direct access to the Mayo Sports Clinic in Ballina and the SISM Clinic in Castlebar.
But when the inevitable bone or ligament injury requires specialist attention for a Mayo player, a full day off work is required to make the trip to the Sports Surgery Clinic, in Santry, on Dublin’s northside, for a scan or an X-ray guided injection.
The kind of inconvenience that a Dublin player deals with on an extended lunch break.
hese are not excuses, these are reasons. Dublin are a force to be reckoned with because they have an outstanding manager with outstanding players in an outstanding set-up.
But Mayo also have an outstanding manager with outstanding players in an outstanding set-up.
Man for man, I see no difference between Dublin and Mayo.
Both teams have exceptional mainstay players that will lead the way in the coming years. Both teams have outstanding youth coming through their ranks. Both teams have living legends that defy logic with the length of their careers. Both teams played the final and replay in the perfect spirit of the game. But until Mayo’s students settle for courses in NUIG and GMIT, and their bankers, accountants, teachers and engineers move home to make a crust, I can’t see them ever winning the All-Ireland title.
This travel conundrum extends beyond the players also. The defence coach Donie Buckley commutes from Ennis, the selector Tony McEntee from Armagh, the video analyst Maurice Horan from Tralee, the Head of S&C Barry Solan from London — all top class operators in their own right, but such madness has to stop so Mayo can reach September with more people with less miles in their legs.
Manager Stephen Rochford has his work cut out.
First he must makes peace with his outlandish decision of changing his All Star- elect goalkeeper based solely on stats. He must find a way of spending at least the same amount of time with his players as Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice do with their players. If more students stay in Connacht and more businesses and schools employ his players, he can set about improving their skill-set off both sides and finding a coach that will finally unlock the scoring potential that the county has had in spades for as long as anyone can remember.
It is a huge amount to ask of an amateur athlete to do what is being suggested here, but I have little doubt it is the only remaining sacrifice that Mayo need to endure before they can finally and deservedly lay their hands on that elusive Sam Maguire Cup.