Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mayo Championship Preview 2009

Whack, whack, whack, hammer, hammer, hammer, bang, bang, bang. It’s John O’Mahony’s third year in charge of the Mayo senior football team and the rebuilding process continues apace. But O’Mahony knows more than anyone that the Mayo supporters are fickle jades, and the pressure is mounting to do more in the Championship than beat Sligo and Cavan.

Trying to figure out when this rebuilding is over and there’s a team to compete for glory, An Spailpín was struck recently by an analogy Frank O’Connor uses in His Father’s Son, about a monkey eating his own tail. Subjectively, the monkey is eating, which is a good thing. Objectively, the monkey is being eaten, which is a very bad thing.

Subjectively, Mayo rebuilding is a good thing after the trauma of 2004 and 2006. Objectively, the Mayo senior football team is in a state of chassis, and that is not good at all.

Much has been made, here and elsewhere, about John O’Mahony’s tremendous power as a positive thinker and motivator of men. Seán Óg de Paor makes great play of it in his marvellous autobiography, Lá an Phaoraigh. But your correspondent can’t help but wonder if O’Mahony hasn’t missed a trick in that rebuilding process; if Mayo weren’t that broken in the first place, and the perpetual forelock-tugging that is the Mayo birthright blinds us to the fact that the Mayo teams that contested those All-Irelands were much better than they’re given credit for.

You’ll note the use of the word “trauma” to describe 2004 and 2006. But that’s not strictly accurate. September 26th, 2004 and September 17th, 2006, were wretched certainly, but everything else about those summers was magical. Beating Galway in Castlebar after gifting them a 1-3 start in the first ten minutes in 2004 was magical. Beating Tyrone in Croke Park in 2004 was magical. Throwing down a gauntlet to the Hill in 2006 and then backing it up by winning the game was magical. And the All-Ireland defeats do not mean that those other games didn’t happen. All the Mayo people who said that the All-Ireland defeats of 2004 and 2006 made them wish they’d never got out of Connacht are now getting their wish. Do they feel better?

But Mayo people are always too quick to tug the forelock, bow the head and get into to the gutter to make way for our betters. Colm O’Rourke opined on television before the Dublin v Tyrone game last year that there were four big teams of the current decade, Kerry, Tyrone, Armagh and Dublin, but Dublin were the only ones that hadn’t won an All-Ireland. The facts are that Dublin haven’t even won a semi-final while Mayo have won two. But anything Mayo do is dismissed, on the basis that Mayo were “punching above their weight.”

It’s so much a matter of perspective. The Mayo fullback gets scorched by Kieran Donaghy in the All-Ireland final in 2006, and people shake their heads and say the craythurs, sure Mayo never should have been there at all. One year later the Cork fullback gets burned every bit as badly, and he wins an All-Star. What is the difference?

Implicit in the notion that Mayo were punching above their weight is the notion that the Kerry wins in 2004 and 2006 were inevitable. That Kerry beating Mayo was as inevitable as night following day. Well no it damn well wasn’t.

Here’s when Kerry are impossible to beat. When they are in the All-Ireland final, because they always peak in September. When their talismanic captain is back in the colours. When they have not one Kieran Donaghy, but two. And when the opposition are trying to manage with the their greatest ever player having retired. With their chief scoring forward in dispute with the management. With their pivotal forward lucky to still be able to see, to say nothing of play football. With no midfield and big issues in the fullback line.

It was as hard, if not harder, for Tyrone to beat Kerry last year than for Mayo to beat Kerry in 2004, because Kerry were much more vulnerable in 2004 than they were last year. And Mickey Harte himself has acknowledged just how slim the margins are.

Mickey Harte did an interview with the great Keith Duggan of the Irish Times on the 31st of January this year where Harte summed up exactly what the difference is between winning and losing:

This is the problem, I think, with the assessments of teams who lose. Retrospectively, you can give them six or eight good reasons why they lost and yet if they won, those same reasons are regarded as dead-on.

“I know what would have been wrong with us if we had lost: ‘bringing Stephen O’Neill back was crazy’. ‘Why did we wait so long to bring Kevin Hughes into the middle of the field?’ ‘Why did Owen Mulligan not come in sooner?’ ‘Why was Brian McGuigan not starting?’ ‘Why did you take Joe McMahon out of half forward to corner back?’ – crazy decision if we lost. But because we won, nobody bothers with them.

That’s the margin. That’s the difference between a hero and a bum. And instead of appreciating glory days not seen since John A Costello was Taoiseach, the Mayo County Board threw John Maughan to the wolves in 2005, Mickey Moran and John Morrison after him in 2006 and even though the Mayo Board gave him another two years on his contract, Johnno will be feeling the heat if Mayo don’t claim some sort of coup this year.

How far away are they? Well, Mayo currently struggle even more than usual to put scores on the board, and Congress’ craven rejection of rules reform doesn’t help the cause. The absence of Ciarán McDonald baffles on a number of levels, and the success of the Irish’s rugby team’s golden generation in finally sealing the deal before they were too old puts the perils of Mayo’s golden generation in depressing perspective, not least with Brady, O’Neill and others having already hung up their boots for the last time.

And meanwhile, in his workshop, John O’Mahony continues to rebuild. Whack, whack, whack. Hammer, hammer, hammer. Bang, bang, bang.

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