As an eternal optimist, the belief that they will rise again still prevails, no matter how much they try to convince us of otherwise. Rarely does a team invoke such support from rivals as Mayo have done in recent years, but they are at risk of losing this backing if they continue to get in their own way.
Sunday’s performance against Galway was disappointing for so many reasons as to suggest they have never been as poorly prepared for a Championship opener as
they were in Castlebar at the weekend.
The sham team-sheet announced to the media and in the matchday programme is an embarrassment for such a storied group of players to endure. The message from management reduced to such trite mind games is that we don’t trust you to do your job on the field of play, in the hope of masking the fact that they are not sufficiently prepared themselves.
To think that Ger Cafferkey, All-Star full-back in 2012, has been reduced to a supporting role in a smoke and mirrors sideshow is testament to the lack of growth and engagement in Mayo football for quite some time. The cheers that rang out in MacHale Park on Sunday when Chris Barrett was announced in lieu of Cafferkey will have rankled with the loyal Ballina Stephenites man.
As a player, Cafferkey has all the attributes that make coaches look good. His attention to detail and duty to a given task is second to none. But like all players, he not only benefits from the outside perspective of a coach but thrives on that interaction. Give the man some direction and he will stop at nothing to show you what he can do to improve himself. But like most players, leave him to his own devices and he’ll know no better than what he is allowed to continue to do from those charged with coaching and developing him.
A perfect case in point was the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry where Kieran Donaghy dominated their match-up. No one was more aware of the impact it had on the outcome of the game than Ger Cafferkey. In addition, anyone who knew anything about football knew that in the replay in Limerick the next day, Kerry were going to go after that apparent chink in the Mayo armour.
Yet, was a single high ball put in against Ger Cafferkey in the intervening time in training? Was he marked by a player of similar attributes to Kieran Donaghy, someone like Barry Moran for instance, himself a former basketball player and of matched physical stature, to simulate the likely aerial onslaught in the Gaelic Grounds the following Saturday evening?
The evidence in the replay would suggest not.
The same kind of questions can be asked of Aidan O’Shea, a man who burst onto the national scene in the 2008 All-Ireland minor final against Tyrone. Here he displayed all the physical attributes we have come to admire in recent years, as well as an uncanny ability to tackle effectively. There goes any theory that this is something that has been added to his game in the last decade.
But of significant note throughout the final against Tyrone is the constant threat of scoring he posed to the Ulster men. Every time he got on the ball he looked dangerous and capable of scoring off his favoured left foot, and doing so on several occasions with one spectacular effort from 45m out.
Where is that young man gone? It’s one thing to add to a player’s game, but to take something away is sacrilege. It’s bad enough that in the 10 years since the minor All-Ireland final he has not developed a right foot, but to see him on Sunday reluctant to strike off his once dominant left foot, even from inside the D, is too much to endure.
Where is the coaching and engagement of these players to work on their weaknesses and embrace them in a culture of getting better?
For instance, how many soft frees were missed on Sunday while Cillian O’Connor, their talismanic free-taker, sat on the bench? Is there still no bona fide back up to him emerging from the county?
Unfortunately, the progression is not visible for anyone to see.
James Horan’s legacy is somewhat safe in the fact that he brought an edge to Mayo that changed how they were viewed by their opponents. Never again would an opposition blow them away as previous Mayo sides had experienced, none more so in All-Ireland finals. But at least Connacht titles were enjoyed in those years, suggesting that progression was moving in the right direction, even if All-Ireland glory was beyond the experience at the time.
The Holmes and Connelly partnership that followed were to bring the football smarts that had cost them so dearly before.
But instead, they did their level best to sever any likelihood of continuity which inevitably lost them their jobs within a year. Players stood firm against going back to slipshod organisation.
The understanding when Stephen Rochford came on board in 2015 was that the players would finally have a manager with the necessary attention to detail off the field as well as the badly needed coaching on it, based on his time with Corofin, who incidentally, have continued to succeed in his absence.
Instead, MacHale Park has lost the edge it once gave Mayo, losing every home game in this year’s national league campaign against genuine All-Ireland contenders in Kerry, Tyrone, and Dublin. Before going on to lose against Galway at the weekend in a forgettable outing for both sides, not that Galway are complaining.
But perhaps there is something bigger and more imperceptible at play in Mayo’s apparent demise?
Diarmuid O’Connor’s appalling elbow strike on Galway’s Paul Conroy provides a ready-made excuse why Mayo did not win on Sunday following his red card dismissal.
Such self-handicapping antics are commonplace in sport and other domains where people intentionally sabotage situations to provide a backdrop to excuse eventual outcomes. Not to mention they are often a reflection of frustration coming out from within the team environment.
Diarmuid is an All-Ireland champion at minor and under-21 level along with young footballer of the year awards in 2015 and 2016 at senior level. Yet, in the last year this tendency to lash out and bring the wrath of the officials down on him, and his team by extension, is quickly becoming an unnecessary trademark to this fine young footballer.
Mayo are now on the backdoor route to Croke Park in September, and everyone will marvel at their ability to endure another eight matches if they make it there.
But equally, if they gallantly fail at the final hurdle again, the reasons why they may inevitably fall short will be balanced with sympathy and excuses of the long road taken.
From the outside looking in, this Mayo team is calling out for help. They are not content with moral victories and the consolation of sympathy disguised as admiration. They want to improve, not by doing what they’ve always done but by doing what’s required. Their commitment on game day needs to be rewarded and supported with more innovative work every other day.