Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mayo Championship Preview 2017

One of the perpetual debates that take place where two or more Mayo football folk gather is the one that looks back at the different teams that reached the All-Ireland Final in recent years, and wonders if that particular team let one slip away or if they were blessed to get there in the first place.

1996, above any, is seen as one that slipped away while 2004 vies with 2006 as years where Mayo were lucky to get as far as they got is the general feeling in the county.

Your correspondent, however, is nothing if not a difficult man and would argue that the 2004 and 2006 teams are under-rated, and it is the fact of their failing so badly on the big day that causes them to be judged more harshly than they deserved.

For instance, the 2004 campaign started in Castlebar with Galway going 1-3 to 0-0 up in the first ten minutes, and friends of your correspondent at the game contemplated turning to Buddhism, leaving all possessions behind and wandering the world with a begging bowl, anything but to have to watch any more of this.

But Mayo came back, helped in no small part by the arrival of David Brady from the subs’ bench, and later that summer put the All-Ireland Champions, Tyrone to the sword, again inspired by David Brady. You may cavil that Tyrone were still mourning their fallen hero, the great Cormac McAnallan, and of course that’s possible. But equally we’ve heard narratives going the other way too, that after a tragedy there was no way such-and-such a team were to be denied. Again, it’s one of these things that is only knowable in hindsight, and never at the time.

All of which is a long way of coming around to ask the critical contemporary question: did Mayo deserve their place in the All-Ireland Final last year, or where they lucky to get there?

Last year’s final was the reverse of the usual Mayo paradigm where Mayo play beautifully during the Championship and then blow up like the volcanic island of Krakatoa in the final. Mayo played like a drain all through last summer, only to rip off the disguise and give Dublin the fright of their lives in the Final. There was one Mayo supporter who could feel the hot tears of pride welling in his eyes looking Mayo’s defiance against Dublin. I know, because I was that Mayo supporter.

And then they lost, again, and then came this year’s League.

This year’s League wasn’t great. Armagh’s Oisin McConville was fairly withering in his assessment of Mayo on the Second Captains podcast after Dublin disembowelled Mayo on a Saturday night in March, and it was hard to argue cogently against any of the points he made. Where have Mayo got better? Why should we believe that Mayo are ready to that extra yard that has eluded them for so long?

The return of Galway to football’s top table casts a considerable shadow over the Mayo summer. Hopefully the team’s mind is focussed solely on Sligo, whom Mayo face this coming Sunday, but every supporter is thinking of that journey into the claustrophobic confines of Pearse Stadium, Salthill, three weeks later.

This isn’t the first time Mayo have gone to Salthill nervous after a poor League. James Horan’s second year in charge was such a time, when Mayo responded by buttering Galway up and down the seaside. But that was then and this is now. Mayo were young and hungry then; they’re not that anymore.

Mayo’s visit to the back-door last year was their best-ever campaign in the wilderness, but the difference between the front and back-door Championships for a team with Mayo’s miles on the clock can’t be underestimated.

In the front door, Mayo’s experience stands to them. Everyone they play knows who they are, has been watching them on TV for the past six years. There’s nothing the opposition can do that Mayo haven’t seen and aren’t ready for. If Mayo play a team with less experience, that’s what the young team will see.

But if Mayo play a team with less experience in the Qualifiers, what are the young lads thinking? It depends on who knocked the other team out. If they lost to a Division 4 team and half the panel are already in the States, they’re cooked.

However; if they’re Kildare, say, and they lost to Dublin, what have they got to lose? Dublin were always going to win but win just two more games are they’re back in Croker in high summer, exactly where they want to be! Isn’t that what we want boys? Isn’t that what all those long winter nights were about? Now come on and put these losers out of their misery!

Or whatever. Getting to Croker is a big deal for the up-and-coming team in a way it can’t be for a veteran team like Mayo. To be still playing football in August is an achievement for nearly every team in Ireland. It doesn’t mean diddly in Mayo. Sam or the Void for Mayo. There is no in between, and that’s a hard mark to make.

You may say that the Qualifiers did Mayo no harm last but there’s one more year’s mileage on the clock and fellas have to be wondering. Some of the selections and tactics have left supporters scratching their heads. If the team are scratching their heads too, Mayo are not long for the summer.

The Championship is about momentum. If Mayo beat Galway in Salthill, Mayo have some momentum.  They will still have to find an identity, but the League form will be on the summer breeze and another golden road opens up before them.

If Mayo lose or, worse, get hammered in Salthill, their momentum is zero and any young team with ambition will see them only as prey when Mayo are taken out of the pot. So; another light-hearted and carefree Championship in store for the sweet county Mayo, the finest county in Ireland.