Sunday, August 09, 2009

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Meath 2-15
Mayo 1-15

Mayo sleepwalked their way into the whirring blades of a Royal combine harvester today in Croke Park. As Jack O’Connor has remarked, the last thing that a team who are warm favourites in a game can do is give the opposition a chance to find their feet. Mayo didn’t do that against Roscommon, but they did against Meath today, and paid the price.

Mayo started better than Meath but they did not make that superiority count. Then, as the game wore on, belief grew in Meath while it withered proportionally in Mayo, as Mayo’s leaders failed to lead.

After a poor start, Meath led by a point at half-time and Mayo were in deep trouble. The substitution of Conor Mortimer for Tom Parsons exposed just how limited Mayo’s tactical options were, and every substitute that Mayo brought on underlined it more and more, as the hole got deeper and deeper. By the last ten minutes, Mayo were playing with their heads down, while Meath were cracking the glory points into the Canal End, smiling sheepishly to the crowd as another one whizzed over the bar.

There was no Plan B for Mayo today. When Tom Parsons was failing to win aerial ball in the first twenty minutes Mayo did not send it in low, or run with it. They just hoped that things would go right.

You can’t hope. Hope is no good. You have to make things happen if you want to win. Winning is about knowing, not hoping.

Liam O’Malley coming on for Donal Vaughan, who was suffering in the corner, is another example of hoping, rather than knowing. If Liam O’Malley wasn’t good enough to start ahead of Donal Vaughan in the first place, why bring him on?

The only reason to do so is because you’re hoping for the best, and you can’t do that. If O’Malley isn’t good enough and Vaughan is suffering, you have to look further down the bench, and not second guess yourself about O’Malley. James Nallen was the obvious replacement for Vaughan, because of his vast experience. Why wasn’t he brought on? How much worse can it have gotten? And if Nallen isn’t good enough, why is he on the panel? It doesn’t add up.

The talk in the media about a “new” Mayo, working for each other and coming back from adversity as they have not done before, is just soft chat. Mayo did not get to four All-Ireland finals in the past thirteen years without working for each other or coming back from adversity.

The notion of Mayo teams not working for each other was a sideways crack at a notion that Mayo had players in the past who played for themselves and not the team. That theory is not supported by the facts. Those teams got to All-Ireland finals. They can't have been that bad. But when outsiders say Mayo overachieved, Mayo tug their forelocks, instead of saying the All-Ireland final is exactly where Mayo deserved to be in those years. And just how good being in the All-Ireland final is is underlined by every year Mayo are not.

The point is that the 2004 and 2006 teams, and 1996 and 1997 teams, were better than they have been given credit for. Losing those All-Irelands hurt, but what bliss to have got that far. Two games further than this year or last year, three further than 2007, four further than 2006.

Your correspondent suggested in this space that anything after the Connacht title this year would be jam, and there is now no more jam this year for Mayo. The Nestor Cup is all Mayo 2009 are worth, as conclusively proved by events today at Croke Park. This does not mean the Mayo team didn’t try their best – of course they did. They're just not good enough.

It’s hard to see how James Nallen and David Heaney will have the stomach for any more of this and if that’s the case then that’s two more Mayo giants who will finish their careers without celtic crosses. How sad. How bitterly, bitterly sad.

There was an opinion abroad that this semi-final didn’t matter, that whoever won it was a lamb to a Kerry slaughter anyway. But An Spailpín isn’t so sure. This win will stand to Meath, and they could derive a lot from it. Because this has happened before, one week less than seventeen years ago.

On August 16th, 1992, another red-above-the-green Mayo team played another team in yellow in Croke Park. Donegal had never won in Croke Park before that, and were like lambs in headlights at the start of that All-Ireland semi-final. But as the game wore on Donegal’s confidence grew as Mayo’s wilted, just as we saw again today.

That Mayo team was shot through with men who had played in an All-Ireland final too – Peter Ford, Seán Maher, TJ Kilgallon, Liam McHale, Anthony Finnerty – and beating them gave Donegal the belief that they could make something happen in the final against Dublin. Meath were just as tentative against Mayo in the first half today as Donegal were sixteen years and fifty-one weeks ago, but Meath will be bulling for a crack at Kerry tonight after their win. Chest-thumping, bring-them-on-until-we-have-a-crack-at-them bulling.

This is Mayo’s gift – a win over Mayo can be the making of a team. Even when the colours don’t match as exactly as they did today.

Dinny Allen has spoken about how losing the 1989 final would have broken Cork, but they were able to beat Mayo and then go on win again in 1990. Seán Óg de Paor and Kevin Walsh have both gone on the record as saying that the win over Mayo in Castlebar in 1998 was the making of Galway. And that's a very bitter reality for the heather county. What a terrible pity that Mayo can’t deal with their immense psychological issues by playing that one team against whom a victory can make a team that can win All-Irelands. Themselves.

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