IT’S been a long time. And their inky shadow still hangs heavily over the football corridors of this county. In the 13 years since their last championship meeting, none of Mayo’s three further final defeats has been met with as much regret as their replay with Meath in 1996.
They have not met in the championship since John Maughan guided that Mayo from nowhere to a credible force in his first year in charge. A spiritless outfit with few recommendations appeared from nowhere, to confound their critics with a serious challenge for the title.
The rest is history.
Meath, famously, got lucky in the final with the hop of a late point, and luckier still in the replay when referee Pat McEneaney meted out an imbalanced share of punishment for the one-in-all-in flare-up in the first half. Liam McHale and Colm Coyle were selectively dismissed for their parts in the scrap, but McHale’s loss weighed much more heavily on Mayo than Coyle’s did on Meath.
How it might have finished otherwise, we’ll never know. But McHale was worth much more than a single point, the margin by which Mayo lost. In the county’s 58-year-long gap of underachievement, it is the closest Mayo have come to clasping the Holy Grail.
No bitterness shrouds relations between the counties, but the perceived injustice of the refereeing decision has never been squared. It is never far from the surface in Mayo football talk. It still grates on the nerves. Thirteen years on and the name McEneaney – acclaimed referee though he has become – is a metaphor in Mayo for grievance.
So, reminiscence is a major part of Sunday’s attraction at Croke Park. Neither side is widely regarded as All-Ireland material, but past clashes resonate deeply in their respective communities. And, although it was narrow, Meath’s win over Limerick will have boosted their hopes of another win over their western rivals.
Inevitably, Mayo’s draw of their old adversary was greeted with certain relish and relief. A long-awaited opportunity for redress. To Meath the draw was similarly significant ... their best chance to reach the semi-final. Mayo, straight from the tepid waters of the Connacht championship, offer no real threat.
Like so many other contenders, Meath trot onto Croke Park convinced that Mayo, as always, are there for the taking. Horse them out of it, is their belief, and Mayo’s mental foibles will begin to surface.
Mayo are mentally stronger now. But they would be foolish to under-rate the royals. The qualities of 1996 may not be apparent, but they ran Dublin to two points in Leinster and they looked fast and powerful against Limerick. Their hard tackling, effective cover and their tactics in dispossessing opponents will not be easily countered. Mayo had better be prepared.
Manning the central posts are big, sinewy men Anthony Moyles at full-back, Cormac McGuinness at centre half, whose use of the breaks was significant in the Qualifier, Crawford and Meade at midfield, Sheridan at centre half and Farrell at full forward. There’s a lot of football in these guys, and a lot of muscle.
The physical strength of corner forward Cian Ward carried him through the defence for their goal against Limerick, and he also had a hand in several other scores. Peadar Byrne and the Brays looked competent, and in pursuing his opposite number, corner back Christy O’Connor scored a few important points and also picked up the man of the match award.
They will, however, miss the leadership of their captain Stephen Bray, who was dismissed with a straight red card, a loss unlikely to be compensated by any change introduced by manager Eamonn O’Brien.
Green shoots of leadership showing?
MAYO are likely to be without Barry Moran, who injured a hand in training last week. John O’Mahony would have been eager to utilise the height of the luckless Castlebar man in leading the attack once more. Now considerations will centre on Aidan O’Shea as the best equipped to fill the role.
Moran has not yet fulfilled his potential in the front line. Faint signs of his possibilities were noticeable in the Connacht final – his bulky presence in front of goal, his nuisance value, his goal, and the manner in which he laid on Kilcoyne’s first point. Too few plusses, to be sure, but with more aggression, more heart for the tackle, Moran could become the full-forward the persevering O’Mahony envisages.
Speculation also surrounds the return of Liam O’Malley. Lack of match fitness following injury exposed him against Galway, and unless he has regained some of his old spirited fervour, the Burrishoole man may have to sit it out on the bench for a while.
But whoever replaces O’Malley – most likely Keith Higgins with Donal Vaughan starting at left corner – will have his hands full in coping with the burly Ward, a tough, aggressive tackler. The defence otherwise is unlikely to be disturbed.
Nor will Ronan McGarrity and David Heaney have it all their own way at midfield against Crawford and Meade. It’s an area that has lost some of its vitality in recent times. In the modern running game speed and durability are as important as fielding and just now these are not the strongest points of Mayo’s midfield tenants.
McGarrity’s fielding prowess is vital and Heaney adds physical power, but the fisted ball is the choice of many midfielders nowadays, and against Limerick, McGuinness at centre half-back thrived on what broke from midfield.
Big question: will the selectors persist in starting Aidan Kilcoyne in preference to Conor Mortimer if Barry Moran is fit to line out at full-forward? If Moran cries off, Mortimer would seem to be the ideal choice, with Kilcoyne in the other corner and Aidan O’Shea in the centre.
But whichever way they start, more robust action is demanded from the front line ... power and penetration. O’Shea is not lacking in either quality or in confidence, but he does need help up there.
As captain, Trevor Mortimer is leading by example. If the energy he expends throughout 70 minutes were replicated at midfield, Mayo would be on the high road to victory much more quickly. Fine footballer though he is, Pat Harte has also more to offer in terms of work. Yet together with Alan Dillon, he is an essential cog in the most productive line in the team.
In winning Connacht, Mayo were beyond question the best team. How good, comparatively, remains to be seen. Galway lost narrowly to Donegal in the qualifier. Donegal were thrashed by Cork last Sunday.
Each performance brings us a little more heartening information about them. Green shoots of leadership sprang up in those final seconds against Galway, a feature virtually foreign to Mayo football. That’s a plus, as the players take on more responsibility. It’s what management is trying to drive into them. And on Sunday we should see more evidence, with a victory over Meath and one further step on the road to redemption.