Dr Ed Coughlan: Mayo’s 10 steps to heaven

What a year for Mayo football. Once again, the country has been taken on a rollercoaster ride of emotions with the men from the west, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.

Dr Ed Coughlan: Mayo’s 10 steps to heaven

Sunday will be their 10th match of this year’s Championship and, remarkably, they have managed to convince many that this is the year they will lift the Sam Maguire Cup, for the first time since 1951.

Save a thought for their supporters who must be recognised among the greatest sets of fans of all time, such is their belief and resilience in the face of adversity. Like many managers and coaches who profess to take it one match at a time as they invest in the process, the Mayo supporters also appear to have become lost in the process, meeting every game with no hint of history weighing them down.

They have possibly realised it is better that your team is recognised as the second-best team of a decade than the many other counties who have little or no chance of experiencing championship football in August, let alone September.

But the decade didn’t start out with much hope for Mayo, having lost to Sligo in their first match of 2010, before limping out of the competition in the first round of the qualifiers against Longford in June of that year.

Where have those counties been since then?

This year’s Mayo squad looks a lot different to the class of 2010. Remarkably, it does not look much different to that of 2011, when everything appeared to change.

Lee Keegan
Lee Keegan

The arrival of James Horan as manager marks a seminal moment in the evolution of the Mayo we know today. His four-year reign resulted in four Connacht championships and the genesis of realistic expectation gripping the county. Unfortunately, his time may be remembered as one which gifted other managers their place in All-Ireland history, with poor match-ups, naïve game management and a lack of a plan B helping Donegal, Dublin and Kerry on their way to All- Ireland glory, respectively.

That said, the heavy lifting done during Horan’s management is still apparent today, as seen by the critical personnel retained both on and off the pitch since his time.

From the outside looking in, the 2015 management of Holmes and Kennelly appeared to keep the status quo, with a fifth Connacht title and another semi-final replay loss. But this county believes that they are worth more than a provincial title and so under the current Stephen Rochford management, they appear to have sacrificed the Nestor Cup in 2016 and 2017, resulting in consecutive All-Ireland finals through the more scenic route of the qualifiers system.

Having fallen short last year against a Dublin team who never appeared to hit full stride in either the drawn game or the replay, not to mention some calamitous antics in front of their own goal to help Dublin out of their slumber, this Mayo team needed time to find a different way to win.

The 2017 campaign may just be it.

With nine matches played to date, the loss to Galway in Pearse Stadium back in June in the Connacht semi-final set this team on a journey of exploration that few could have predicted would result in a final berth this coming Sunday.

I certainly didn’t see it coming. The unconvincing manner in which they overcame Derry on the first day in July raised some flags for concern. Once again, the Mayo players appeared to be too rigid in their play, as if to be held to a strict game plan that suffocated any creativity from them. The final scoreline betrays the fact that it took extra-time to pull away from their northern opposition.

Things didn’t change much in the next round against a Clare team who many expected could pull off an upset. With Clare leading going in at half-time, a lead that could have been a lot more if not for the super scoring of Andy Moran and top-class goalkeeping of David Clarke. With early second-half goals from brothers Cillian and Diarmuid O’Connor, to finally put them ahead, Mayo won comfortably in the end, but cause for concern remained.

Such concerns were not showing on the faces of the Mayo supporters as they arrived in Limerick in their droves, significantly outnumbering their Cork counterparts for the final qualifier match to make it back into the All-Ireland series.

Stephen Rochford
Stephen Rochford

Mayo did their best to remind everyone that Cork have serious footballers and that the Rebels’ form in recent years is nothing short of a dire reflection of where they should be competing on a regular basis. In the same way that Mayo were never winning last year’s final, Cork were never winning that day in Limerick. But the manner of the loss should provide the county with some hope going forward.

July should have ended with a return to the familiar, with Mayo comfortably dispatching Roscommon to book a place in the All-Ireland semi-final. But again, they stuttered and stumbled to salvage a replay against a team that ordinarily would not be good enough to tie their boots.

The ongoing lack of creativity and poor scoring within normal time continued to turn the lens of scrutiny on the Mayo management and coaching team.

Soon, the run of five games in five weeks was put forward as a possible solution to Mayo’s malaise. Surely a team with this much quality and experience needs less structure and more freedom, less training and more matches to exorcise the demons of yesteryear.

And when you speak of demons in the context of Mayo football, none come more sinister than Kerry. The greatest county in the history of the sport appeared to have Mayo on a string for the last 20 years. It was always going to take something from outside the box of predictability to topple the team that never know when they’re beaten.

The first day out showed why Kerry have won so much because of their ability to prepare for every eventuality and adapt in the moment; as they did to counter the move that saw forward Aidan O’Shea deployed as a spoiling defender on Kieran Donaghy — the most-debated tactical manoeuvre of the entire championship season.

It also showed that this Mayo team had learned how to stay in the game through their dramatic trials and tribulations during the previous six weeks, with Patrick Durcan’s last-minute equaliser.

The replay was a culmination of all the lessons learned to date. It was probably fitting that almost every player who started that day had been instrumental in the change of fortunes for the county under James Horan several years earlier.

James Horan
James Horan

Equally fitting is the fact that every substitute used, except Ger Cafferkey, is new blood, with little or no connection to the Horan era.

Yet, this salient point could be their undoing in Sunday’s final. The experience and class coming off the bench for All-Ireland champions Dublin is unlike anything we have seen before.

Yet crazy things happen in finals, as Mayo will recall with their two own-goals in last year’s contest.

But if this year’s odyssey is anything to go by, this Mayo team appear to have found a sense of calm and resilience in the midst of crazy.

So much so, it is too difficult a result to call, with head and heart moving in opposing directions.

Surely, it’s time for the heart to win one.

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