WE had basked in the belief that four home games would see them through. In disbelief, we have watched them fail to capitalise on two of those golden opportunities.
Now they cling to the precipice by their fingernails, awaiting the calamitous push from Tyrone and Donegal that will hurtle them into Division 2 football next season ... down into anonymity.
Their fate is their own hands. But the clock is ticking. They have lost their snarl, their ruthlessness. And they are swimming against the tide. Nothing, other than a mental transformation it seems, can save them now. Ambition would appear to be dead ... an All-Ireland title an extravagant dream.
It’s not too late for Mayo to re-animate their tired aspirations. That will not be done, however, playing the tepid football they produced on Sunday. You longed for someone to smash the senseless passing in which they indulged in the first half when they had the advantage of the wind.
Cavan, content to allow Mayo enjoy their aimless lateral passing movements, erected a wall of defence which Mayo did not have the power to pierce. So they skirted around the edges looking for an opening that rarely appeared, never once threatening the visitors’ goal.
It is at times like this that the absence of the physical power of Seamus and Aidan O’Shea and the hard grafting of Jason Doherty is so glaringly obvious.
Without their input, Mayo’s weaknesses are nakedly exposed.
Cavan came fighting for survival. And like a cornered animal, they illustrated their desperation with gritty intent, chasing every opportunity, closing off every gap with gusts of wild energy.
Having sealed off their goal, they began to stretch the Mayo defence with long, accurate ball against the wind. And the pressure paid off in first-half injury time when their hopes were boosted by the only goal of the game.
The centre that led to it came from wing forward Martin Reilly. The spilled ball was switched smartly from Dara McVeety to Gerard Smith and waiting in front of the goal was midfielder Gearóid McKiernan for the final pass and his clean sweep of the ball into the net.
With that touch of class the midfielder fashioned Cavan’s victory and proved once again the value of a subtle, mobile midfielder. Just as Michael Darragh MacAuley had reigned supreme for Dublin, so McKiernan pulled the strings of Cavan’s success. He scored 1-5 of their total, three of them from frees.
He did not perform with the same authority in the second half when Tom Parsons picked him up. But for all his talents neither did the Mayo midfielder play with any real sense of purpose at any stage of the game.
To break the blanket defence demands players taking passes at pace when momentum is much more difficult for a defence to check. Parsons and Cillian O’Connor have that power, but failed to force the Cavan defence to give way.
Mind you, the combined physical strength of Conor Loftus, Fergal Boland and Kevin McLoughlin provided little enough vigour in the way of support for Parsons and O’Connor to be fully effective.
Danny Kirby was the one ray of hope for Mayo at midfield. Relatively new to the role, the Castlebar Mitchels man is mobile and has the facility to take up good attacking positions. With more game time he can restore the missing influence.
His four points from play were the only highlight of an otherwise gloomy performance in which Mayo were over generous with the space they allowed the hungry Cavan men.
Now the writing is on the wall. Mayo have come face to face with their destiny.
Cavanagh back for shot at redemption
HIS red-card dismissal in the quarter-final against Mayo stalled Seán Cavanagh’s plans to retire last season. It was his first sending-off in a career spanning 84 championship games.
Rightly or wrongly, Tyrone lay the blame for the infraction that led to the dismissal of their legendary midfielder (and the blemish of an otherwise pristine career) on the shoulders of Lee Keegan.
Nothing he does will remove that one blemish, but Cavanagh is hoping to draw some compensatory comfort from their league clash when the two face-off next Sunday at Healy Park.
At 33 years of age and operating between midfield and full-forward, the Moy man is still immensely influential in his county’s impressive progress, and a veritable role model for the younger members playing alongside him.
How they bounced back from relegation reflects the character that lubricates his and Tyrone’s ambition. Two years ago they spent a season in Division 2. Scarcely had we missed their departure before they were back among us, catapulted back not only to the premier division but, astonishingly, to the top in Ulster football.
Directly from their brief tenure in the lower division, Mickey Harte’s men returned with iron-clad resolve to rule Ulster a few months later. That inspired story ended in the All-Ireland quarter-final last August, when they lost to Mayo by a single point.
On a roll again, they have been setting the pace this season. Donegal checked their momentum at the weekend, a defeat that is sure to deepen their resolve to take advantage of the opportunity that Mayo provides on Sunday in Omagh. And you wonder is there in that symbolic red hand an omen of what awaits the visitors.
Three years ago, when they appeared in better shape than they are right now, Mayo made a similar journey and lost by six points at the same venue. In the year of their relegation, Tyrone could also find sufficient motivation to win their league game at Castlebar ... by four points. Two years earlier a Tyrone point separated them also at MacHale Park.
Whatever message it heralds, Tyrone’s grip on the record of their championship meetings is less tight. In the semi-final of 2013, Mayo won by six points, and last season’s gap was a tenuous point in which Tyrone were extravagantly wasteful.
Mattie Donnelly, who was at midfield up to this, is now in the full-forward line and – together with the elder Cavanagh – offers a serious challenge to any back line.
But while the old reliables are still the mainstay of Tyrone’s advance, the verve and enthusiasm is provided by the likes of Mark Bradley, Pádraig McNulty and Kieran McGeary, whose impact coming off the bench has been pivotal in many games.
So Mayo journey to Omagh on Sunday where Tyrone expect to draw some redress for their loss last August. Both stung by defeats last weekend will be anxious to make amends. Mayo’s is the greater urgency, though, staring as they are into the abyss. How that and the prospect of joining Roscommon in Division 2 affects them will be seen in their performance.