Having stood up and demanded change to the county management last season, Mayo’s senior football team must now take on collective responsibility, writes Mike Quirke.
What is it with Mayo? Who will be blamed this year?
For the past number of summers, I think Mayo were many people’s second favourite team in the championship.
If your own county was out of the reckoning, I think most would like to have seen the honest endeavour of Mayo rewarded with Sam Maguire.
Who could begrudge them? They always try to play the game the right way. They are fair, hard, and physical, and they’ve been on the agonising wrong end of a few big games that could easily have tipped their way.
And despite those annual disappointments they never stop knocking on the door.
Perhaps their most endearing quality as a group has always been their resilience… an incredible collective capacity to keep coming back from heartbreak.
They’ve been kicked in the teeth so many times, but they’ve kept getting up and moving forward, smiling with a big mouth of dentures the following season.
But this year, something’s changed. They’re not that team that everybody has a soft spot for anymore. It’s turned against them.
The public’s perception of the core values of this Mayo squad has been soured by the way they got together and shafted Noel Connolly and Pat Holmes as joint managers at the tail end of last season.
It’s like a dark cloud hanging over them. Player power is seen as a disease on the game, and Mayo are now seen as the poster boys for its reemergence and growth.
At the time of the heave, I wrote that I had no issue with them standing up for themselves if they felt as strongly as they apparently did.
They felt that they weren’t receiving the type of preparation required to push them from nearly-men, to the peak of the mountain as champions.
They effectively removed their safety net and let the whole country know their ruthless ambition to achieve their ultimate goal.
If that meant pissing off some people along the way, so be it.
Moral victories were no longer a currency they wanted and they were willing to take unprecedented steps to ensure they got the best management and back-room team available to match their desire for a professional approach to the game.
Overnight, their stock plummeted. They went from a group of honest to goodness west of Ireland lads trying to do their best, to a bunch of self-obsessed primadonnas more concerned with getting their own way than playing football for their county.
Did they want to be players or administrators?
The tail was wagging the dog apparently.
My viewpoint on it all was slightly different. I saw them more like a whistle-blower. Unhappy with what they were seeing and putting up with, they decided to take a stand. It was a brave move, no doubt fully aware of the PR storm that would follow. It was a clear effort to raise the standards and put a stop to whatever ills they felt were being perpetrated against them.
But now they find themselves at a crossroads. Galway showed us all on Saturday (like Tipperary did the previous weekend in Munster) that the provincial underdog still has some bite. Stephen Rochford sought to introduce a more structured defensive system in their first meaningful championship game of the season by playing wing forward Kevin McLoughlin as a sweeper sitting on their 21-yard line to add some protection in front of goal.
But his energy and link play was sorely missed further up the field where Galway used their spare man to harass Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor into hurried and ill-advised options.
Galway were the ones who brought the appetite for hard graft, and once they managed to get the goal through midfielder Thomas Flynn, following a poor kick-out, there was only ever going to be one winner. Paul Conroy gave the kind of five-star performance in a Galway jersey that most in Connacht knew he was capable of, but it was his leadership, not only through his point kicking, that reassured his teammates in the final 10 minutes that they were going to close out a famous win.
For Mayo, it will take time and games to properly develop Kevin McLoughlin into the sweeper role, whereby he also becomes the launchpad for swift counter-attacks, as opposed to just camping dutifully on the D waiting for somebody to kick the ball down his throat.
For its first outing, it looked raw and in need of refinement through plenty of reps in training to get everybody on the same page. Perhaps the run of consecutive games through the back door will offer them the perfect opportunity to hone exactly the way they want to implement their new set-up.
Mayo find themselves on the softer side of the qualifiers and realistically are unlikely to bow out of the championship anytime soon.
But now is the time for their real pack leaders to step up and show their teammates the way forward. They are entering unchartered waters through the back door and it may well be the best route they could have taken.
Make no mistake, they showed balls late last year to stand up and say ‘we want change’, but now is the time to make another stand and for Mayo to take ownership of their situation. Leadership isn’t about talking in dressing rooms, it’s about winning a ball you’re not supposed to win, or chasing a lost cause and forcing somebody into a mistake… it’s about kicking a score or making a block when all momentum is going against you in a game. You dig in and find a way.
Take Colm Boyle out of the equation last weekend, and there weren’t too many in Mayo jerseys who played up to those standards. There was no collective responsibility. They got their new coaches, performance analysis and management, but they seemed as disjointed and directionless as they did before. Maybe now, instead of looking elsewhere for excuses, this same group of Mayo players need to start looking in the mirror for the answers.
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