When Willie Joe Padden was interviewed before the All-Ireland final in 1989, he revealed he would die a happy man if Mayo won the decider against Cork.
Mayo lost, and the Grim Reaper never had to test Willie Joe’s nerve.
Four All-Ireland senior final appearances followed that defeat with no change to the storyline other than another chapter of ifs, buts and maybes.
Contrast that with the market leader’s approach to an All-Ireland final. When Colm Cooper was preparing for last year’s game with Dublin, he said: “It’s like putting all your chips down in the casino again. If Mayo won an All-Ireland this year and did nothing for the next 30, those players would be living legends. The Freedom of Castlebar. I suppose it’s just the nature of how driven everyone is here when it comes to football.”
And he’s right. 19 Mayo teams have lost All-Ireland minor, U21, senior and club finals since 1989. Only three sides have won. Of them, Ballina Stephenites and Crossmolina are no longer the traditional powerhouses of the club scene, while of the U21 side who defeated Cork in the 2006 final, only Keith Higgins and Seamus O’Shea nailed down regular senior places, Enda Varley on the verges.
Therein lies the Mayo problem — not a psychological one, as has been often trotted out after every a big loss — it’s a lack of ambition.
Mayo County Board has never created the structures to help a man in green and red walk up the Hogan Stand steps and claim Sam Maguire for the first time since 1951. Despite all the good work by James Horan, he will not lead them to that glory while those around him refuse to change.
Take his last nine days, for instance. Defeat to a 14-man Donegal was followed by a series of player indiscipline issues that led to at least two of the squad being dropped for the Cork game. The U21s were beaten easily by Roscommon on Wednesday before those flames were doused and then he had to calm a divisive issue between his selectors to define each one’s role. Little wonder, then, that his side capitulated against the league champions.
A rough week but his greatest problems are those he has inherited from the long malaise in the county. Since taking over last year, he had to gut the squad and start again (he has given 16 players debuts), introduce the modern concept of a defence-orientated game and deal with the constant shadow of mounting debt from the MacHale Park redevelopment.
There has never been a plan to improve the county’s standards from boardroom level. And unfortunately the organisation which has stood over 61 years of repeated failure retains its laissez faire approach to winning All-Irelands.
Mayo County Board has never sought to lead the way. It has always been happy following others’ example. If the desire to truly win an All-Ireland was in place it would have sought out help from people on its own doorstep.
Had John McDonnell been a Cork, Kilkenny or Tyrone man, his advice on physical preparation would have been sought. The Crossmolina man won more national championships than any coach in any sport in the history of American college athletics in his role at Arkansas University.
But long after Kerry, Cork and Dublin pillaged the sport for useful information, Mayo left an expert untapped.
Instead they concentrated on the elements they believed they were being judged upon — the development of the county grounds. Now they must raise €10,000 a week to service the interest on loans for the €10.5m MacHale Park. The same pitch Marty Clarke described as “one of the worst grounds I’ve ever played at”.
Mayo may, or may not be relegated. They may or may not win a Connacht title.
But they will not win the only thing they crave until the real ambition to win an All-Ireland consumes those who run the county.
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