Granted… it was only Leitrim. But a 22-point beating is a 22-point beating no matter what way you look at it. As horse racing commentators are oft-prone to saying “last in, first back” and Mayo, as the last team to enter the stalls in this year’s championship, will be hoping that adage comes true this season.
Mayo football’s greatest asset is also its biggest liability.The fans. There are no finer supporters in the country for traipsing the country draped in red and green. The merest sniff of an All-Ireland semi-final has lads with guitars and accordions holing themselves up in remote studios trying to find a word that rhymes with Maguire for the song that will turn them into superstars.
Bales, if they get made at all, are painted and sheep get a coating too. Jimmy Staunton doesn’t need much encouragement before he turns his premises on Castlebar’s main street into a ‘Mayo shop’ and even the stall-holders at Knock dig out their red and green rosary beads.
We make eejits of ourselves for no reason and for any reason, and sometimes it gives the pundits a whip to crack us with. But there is no county that wants it more, and what’s more, if Mayo ever does it; it will be playing Mayo football.
Jim McGuinness was hailed as a mastermind by many (Joe Brolly was, and is his main cheerleader) after what he did for Donegal last year. What he did, was take the enjoyment out of the game. We go to games as fans, not only to see our county win, but to represent the best of us. We want our team to mirror ourselves. As a wise man once said, “I’d rather live on my feet than die on my knees.”
There cannot be as much satisfaction from a team going out and playing to a rigid, dour, mechanical system and winning while holding something of themselves back. It’s not American football. There are defensive systems and extra-midfielders and everything else, but Mayo have never adhered to anything like that. The Mayo approach, for good or for ill, has always been to put 15 men out there, play one-on-one football, and if our 15 are better than your 15, then we win, and if not, fair play to you.
In truth, the 15 men that Leitrim put out on Sunday weren’t much of a challenge. The 4-20 to 0-10 scoreline said as much. It’s worth considering though, that Leitrim, perhaps more than any other county in Ireland, have been destroyed by emigration. Of the 30 players in their squad for the 2010 Connacht championship, only ten remained on Sunday. There were the usual arguments about creating a two-tier championship and that the likes of Leitrim don’t deserve a chance in the championship proper, but there is a flaw in that argument.
Ten years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the likes of Leitrim and Sligo, but look at where Kevin Walsh’s men are at now… facing into a Connaught final against Mayo in three weeks time. Sligo’s improvement has come about because they have had hard championship games against all their provincial rivals, as well as the likes of Tyrone and Kerry in the qualifiers. If they were banished ten years ago to battle the minnows, it’s hard to see that they could have made that same improvement.
How anyone can rate the likes of Kildare and Donegal ahead of Mayo is an absolute mystery
Regardless of Leitrim’s strength, or lack thereof, there are signs of optimism for this Mayo side. Let’s not forget that Mayo, in beating Cork and getting to the All-Ireland semi-finals last year, were one of the best four teams in the country. Getting to the league final this year (the defeat to Cork was bad enough, but things could have been an awful lot worse had Noel O’Leary been sent off for what he did to Donal Vaughan [clip is at 10.30], and Pearse O’Neill could have walked too) was another sign of Mayo’s status.
Joe Brolly was on the Sunday Game again talking about the contenders for this year’s All-Ireland and he was saying how he thinks it’s between Dublin, Cork and Kerry, with maybe Donegal getting a shout too. The ‘Big Three’ in Gaelic football deserve their status, but how anyone can rate Donegal ahead of Mayo is a mystery to me. Looking at the betting for the All-Ireland as it stands now, five teams are ahead of Mayo. Cork at 9/4, Dublin 3/1, Kerry 4/1, Kildare 7/1, Donegal 10/1, and Tyrone 12/1 are all ahead of Mayo who are priced at 14/1.
As I said, the ‘Big Three’ deserve their place at the head of the market, but Kildare at 7/1 has to be one of the worst bets I’ve ever seen. They are big men and strong men, but they play their best forward, Johnny Doyle at midfield, and their next-best forward, Seanie Johnson is a blow-in from Cavan. Kieren McGeeney has been there for three years already and he has got them fit as fiddles, but a team of bodybuilders won’t win in September… it takes footballers to do that, and Kildare just don’t have enough of them to do anything in the All-Ireland series.
The main positive to be taken from Sunday’s whitewash, though, is the strength of Mayo’s panel. At midfield alone (and how many counties have a genuine midfield partnership that would scare you? Cork, admittedly, are decent, but would anyone fear Dublin’s Macauley or Fennell, or Bryan Sheehan of Kerry with whatever lad they have in beside him to do his running?)
Mayo have Barry Moran (outstanding on Sunday, his first dominant championship display), Ronan McGarrity, Seamus O’Shea, Danny Geraghty, Pat Harte (perhaps a bit undersized, but has a great engine… you’d imagine he would be a great midfielder in hurling), and most importantly of all, the returning Aidan O’Shea, one of the finest footballers in the country (and if Mayo are to do anything, he could be a cracking bet at 66/1 to be named Footballer of the Year).
Even the much-maligned forward line has strength in depth this year. Say what you want about Conor Mortimer, but Mayo’s biggest Michael Jackson fan is one of the sharpest finishers in the game, and Jason Doherty and Enda Varley are good, battle-hardened scorers to be able to throw on. Cillian O’Connor at centre-forward was an interesting experiment, but maybe Aidan O’Shea might see some action there against Galway.
The defence was strong again, though Emlyn Mulligan gave Donal Vaughan a few problems in the opening half. David Brady revealed on Newstalk that Mayo have a stated goal this year of not conceding any goals in the championship this year, and that they worked extensively on this on their pre-season tour to Portugal. It’s a noble aim, and we will have to see how it works out.
Maybe the most telling comment came from man-of-the-match Barry Moran in the immediate aftermath of the game. “We are just glad to get out there and get going, but we didn’t mind the delay… sure hopefully we’ll have a long summer ahead of us”.
There is a confidence brewing in this Mayo side. That’s the difference this year. It’s not just the fans getting carried away with themselves. The team seem to be aping the manager, James Horan, and his steely determination. He’s a man who won two All-Stars for Mayo, who always performed on the big stage (He was, alongside Ciaran McDonald and Kevin Cahill, one of the only Mayo players who consistently improved their game once they got to Croke Park) and his style has permeated to the players.
Whisper it quietly, but this year might be the year when hope is finally exceeded by expectation for Mayo.