When this Mayo squad, still hurting from blowing a winning position against Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay, came together to discuss the management of their group last season, they concluded they needed a change.
From the outside, it appeared a pretty ruthless move to cut the legs from under their joint managers Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes after only one year into their mixed marriage.
They had the Dubs on the rack at times late in the first semi-final last year and again when Lee Keegan had the opportunity to stroke over a point to push Mayo into a five- point lead midway through the second half of the replay.
Ultimately, his and Mayo’s effort fell short.
When the players sent their delegation to relay their call for change to the county board, they knew surely what was certain to follow. It wasn’t the GAA way to throw your manager under a bus like they did, let alone two managers, and especially after getting so close to toppling the mighty Dubs.
But it would be foolish to judge the merits of their managerial coup on the performance of any one game. None of us truly know what went on behind their closed doors or locked gates. I felt at the time that it was an immeasurably brave stance for that group of players to take. Instead of keeping their heads down, afraid to upset the applecart of public opinion, they stood up and took ownership of a situation that they felt wasn’t as accomplished as it should be.
Standards had slipped apparently, and they wanted better. What followed was a sandstorm of criticism aimed at the players, who realistically were only trying to do what was best for themselves and their county. They made a move that they felt would give them the best possible chance to win an All-Ireland title before their window of opportunity as a group slammed shut. But we know by now, ‘player power’ is perceived as a bad thing and is treated with distain from most quarters… you can’t have the tail wagging the dog, apparently!
I’m sure when they were so tamely knocked out of the Connacht Championship by Galway back in June, there were plenty up and down the country who scoffed at the Mayo players who were gone too big for their boots.
Many thought they would roll over in the qualifiers and just let it go. But a funny thing happens when you take ownership of something, you tend to protect it and care about it a little more than you did before. You want to see it flourish and grow more than you thought possible.
You become more invested in its progress because you own it now. You’re not minding it for somebody else anymore — it belongs to you. It’s like when you were in college, and staying in rented accommodation.
If the walls weren’t painted, if the grass wasn’t cut for six months, or a window was cracked when you moved in, chances are, those same flaws were still there when you moved out a year later. (Probably with a few more scrapes added in for good measure).
It wasn’t your house then; those problems were somebody else’s issues to deal with. You were paying your rent, keeping it tidy, but ultimately, you were just passing through.
Fast forward a few years to the feeling you have when you own your own home. It could be the very same house, but you treat it completely differently when you’re paying the mortgage and your name is on the deeds.
Ownership of something makes you more invested in its well being — a house, a car, a football team...
It’s the very same feeling.
That’s why the best coaches in the world aren’t necessarily the ones who are the most creative at the Xs and Os, or may not have the greatest drills or games… but they have an ability to create an environment where their players feel self-motivated to keep working hard and improving as individuals and as a group, and they can make players feel significantly involved in the whole process.
The way it’s worked out, the edge that Mayo have gained from travelling through the adversity of ousting their management team must have brought them even closer together. They had to be selfish for the good of Mayo GAA, they demanded better of themselves and those around them…
And they’ll need that attitude in spades next Sunday. A rocking Croke Park will hold no fear for them. All the nonsensical talk about curses or choking on the biggest of days won’t even be on their radar.
They have plenty of aces in their pack and have a level of pace and athleticism around the field that will have them feeling confident they can match the dynamic Dubs up and down the park.
As always, their approach to Stephen Cluxton’s restarts will be a fascinating element of the game. Kerry had great joy in the semi-final when they were able to flood 12 men into Dublin’s half to occupy the spaces he loves to hit.
Mayo will obviously have taken note of Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s successful strategy and it will be interesting to see if they replicate that tactic off every dead ball free in, or try to create a few stoppages high up the pitch to give themselves time to get into formation.
The problem for Mayo, as it was for Kerry, is if it’s not a dead ball free in, or an injury stoppage, Cluxton will have it gone off the tee within five to six seconds of it going wide or over the bar. He’ll have them chasing their tails if they don’t get it right.
If they truly believe they can claim the big prize by 5pm on Sunday, their forwards must lead the way. They will have to be more clinical and make better decisions in front of goals than we have seen from them all season.
Cillian O’Connor must stand up, as he usually does in fairness, and be the leader and scorer in that full forward line. Aidan O’Shea the same. He was like a man who rediscovered his mojo against Tyrone.
That was the test they needed. It woke them from their summer stumblings. It can’t be left to Andy Moran to carry the fight on his own up there again. If it is, they’ll lose.
Late last year, this Mayo group took ownership of their own destiny. Whether Rochford fostered it, or even knows it, the players have the deeds to this one.
They have more invested in this final than they’ve had in any big game in this era.
They’re out of their student accommodation and must do everything they can to protect the house the built, live in, and now own.
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