The contrast couldn’t be starker. Of their 26-man panel that travelled to Roscommon last Sunday, 11 Kerry players have yet to lose a national final in Croke Park.
Six of them have still to suffer a county defeat there. The same goes for at least two on the extended panel — Tomás Ó Sé and Robert Wharton.
David Clifford, Jason Foley, Diarmuid O’Connor and Tom O’Sullivan have all won two minor finals at GAA HQ. Consider Hogan Cups and O’Sullivan’s bounty grows to four, Clifford’s and Dara Moynihan’s to three and Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Conor Geaney and Ó Sé’s to two.
Of the Mayo squad that beat Monaghan that same afternoon, 12 have either lost or drawn every national decider they have played in Croke Park. Andy Moran wasn’t part of the match-day panel in Castlebar but should he be included this Sunday he will hope to win a final at the ninth time of asking, the Ballaghaderreen man having been involved in all but one of their 10 unsuccessful national finals (his cruciate injury ruled him out of the 2013 All-Ireland loss to Donegal) since the Division 1 title was annexed in 2001.
Holding up minor final success against the lack of it at senior level in Croke Park might appear tenuous. Mayo now have men who were boys when they claimed a minor title six years ago in Croke Park — the likes of Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor, Conor Loftus and Michael Plunkett. And as far as national titles are concerned, all four of them, Eoin O’Donoghue, Matthew Ruane, Fergal Boland and James Carr were involved in the 2016 U21 All-Ireland final triumph over Cork.
That came in Ennis where the U21s had been just as successful 10 years previous, a team featuring Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett and Seamus O’Shea.
To give sharper perspective to Mayo’s woe in Croke Park finals, their luckless stretch extends to nine defeats and one draw since that 2001 Division 1 final victory over Galway, making the one-point win over their neighbours more significant with each year that passes.
Bundling the three one-point All-Ireland final defeats to Dublin this decade along with the September trouncings by Kerry in 2004 and ‘06 may seem unfair on the more seasoned in James Horan’s current panel but then they have been all ultimately ended in Mayo being left empty-handed.
At least their recent record against Kerry in Croke Park makes for better reading. Mayo have not lost to them in the counties’ four meetings there since 2011. There were the two All-Ireland semi-final meetings in 2017, Mayo prevailing in style in the replay, the 2014 last-four draw before the madness of the Gaelic Grounds and Mayo’s extra-time win in the 2012 Division 1 semi-final (yes, their last three Croke Park meetings have finished level at the end of normal time).
But this is a different Kerry. So many of them have done what was required of them on the biggest stage available to them in Croke Park.
“They’re used to winning,” Shane Enright said simply of the young brigade back in 2017. Stephen O’Brien echoed that earlier this year:
We knew those young lads were going to be very good because they won so much at underage.
“It is great to see them coming through now. It is very exciting for Kerry supporters to see fellas aged 19 or 20 playing with absolutely no fear, tearing into the opposition.”
In Peter Keane also, there is a manager who has brought minor teams to Croke Park on six occasions and been victorious each time.
The obvious question is will Kerry’s underage triumphs translate to senior level? Clifford and Seán O’Shea’s introduction to senior football in Croke Park last year wasn’t exactly auspicious as they started both of bitterly disappointing losses to Dublin in the league and Galway in their opening Super 8 game. The year before, O’Sullivan’s first championship start at the Jones Road venue was the scarring five-point replay loss to Mayo and he was replaced seven minutes before the end of normal time.
That Mayo victory was their first over Kerry in Championship in 21 years. It’s breaking that spell that they should take encouragement from going into Sunday, for their national final record in Croke Park is damning. Playing the team, not the occasion will be vital but when so many of their opponents have made the venue their playground, the hurdle is raised.
Keeper Clarke a major doubt for league decider
Two-time All Star goalkeeper David Clarke has emerged as a major injury doubt for Mayo ahead of Sunday’s National League final against Kerry.
Clarke, the only member of the last Mayo squad to win a league medal in 2001 still playing inter-county football, was injured in Sunday’s win over Monaghan.
The 35 year-old goalkeeper sustained “concussion and a chest injury” in a collision with Monaghan midfielder, Darren Hughes, before half-time.
He was due to be assessed further at training last night with Rob Hennelly set to start his fourth game of the league campaign if Clarke is ruled out of Sunday’s final.
Michael Plunkett and Fionn McDonagh are also injury concerns for James Horan.
Cillian O’Connor seems unlikely to feature for the first time this year against Kerry as he continues his return from knee surgery.