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Preparing to bridge the gap

Kevin McStay
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Mayo's Shane Nally

Preparing to bridge the gap



Kevin McStayKevin McStay

WHEN last we carried off the Tom Markham Cup in 1985, some of us were enjoying our salad seasons and thinking the football world was at our feet. We had nailed an under-21 All-Ireland a couple of years earlier and were now slugging it out with Heffo’s Dubs, under the gaze of the Hill in our own theatre of dreams. We had made it to the big time.
And that year we won a minor against the head. Even when we had only average sides, our reputation seemed to go before us at underage level and such feats by an underdog became possible. Mayo at all three levels were on top or very near the summit. It could only be a matter of time before we won all before us.
Since our last senior title we have contrived to lose five senior titles – 1989, 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2006. The 1996 final was after a replay. Since that under-21 title in 1983 we managed to lose five finals in that grade too – 1984, 1994, 1995, 2001 and 2004. Thankfully, a splendid side emerged in 2006 to finally bring the bacon home.
And what of our minors? Michael Fitzmaurice was the last man to raise the cup on behalf of Mayo and in the interim it has been a losing sequence once again. Four finals contested and lost – 1991, 1999, 2000 and 2005.
And here is a final little sequence to consider: Ros’ won the All-Ireland minor in 1951, followed by Galway in ’52 and, yes, you guessed it, Mayo in 1953! This decade Roscommon won in 2006, last year Galway took it home, so history dictates, it must be us this year!
One of the great boasts we have as a footballing county is our ability to keep coming back. You can laugh and wonder if we’re suckers for punishment, but if you keep knocking hard enough on the front door, some day it will be answered.
So, once more into the breach as we head for Croker to see if we can gain entry. But because minor teams are essentially one-year plans, the burden of history is unlikely to be shouldered with any degree of discomfort. Those defeats had nothing to do with this gang, and if anything they set forth as a liberating force. A lovely faith and belief in this team had developed since they won out in Connacht.
Of course we admire workmanlike teams and are reassured by feats of great resilience, but the stylish manner in which Mayo put Kerry to the sword gave us all a little pep in our step. The ticket scrounge is gaining momentum and Mayo supporters will travel in numbers next Sunday. And rightly so, because this is a team well worth following.
Tyrone will start as slight favourites. Their performance when beating Meath was convincing and if a few cracks appeared defensively, they did have the look of champions about them. In Kyle Coney they have a bright young star of the future. It won’t be in the Gaelic football code though, as he is headed for Oz, and so this is his swansong.
The Mayo minor footballers will no doubt recall that Barry John Walsh was the star man of 2008 until he bumped into a few Larrys from the Sweet Plains a few weeks ago. The lesson to be learned here is as old as time itself: team always wins over the individual, and the ability to play and work for each other is what this game is based on. That will never change.

BACK IN LATE June I was at the Ulster championship game when Tyrone minors beat a pretty good Cavan team in the semi-final by a couple of points. Tyrone impressed me but did not jump off the page. A slow burner then; in much the same way, you could hardly say Mayo impressed when winning Connacht.
Since that win Tyrone fell over the line against Monaghan, beat Roscommon and Meath, but had problems with all three. The point is they are certainly not world-beaters, and it is best if Mayo concentrate on their own performance. That tends to take care of all the other aspects of a major final.
All-Ireland minor final day is a magnificent experience for any young man lucky enough to be chosen to play for his county in Croke Park. But only if you win. It can be a lovely day, where you do well, keep the score respectable and perform yourself. But not a magnificent one. Sport at the elite level reserves that feeling for the victors, so when you journey through a season, it is best to conclude with a win. Even in Mayo, we tend not to remember the losing All-Ireland teams.
I am really looking forward to Mayo playing in HQ because the drawn encounter against Kerry proved they could play the arena, play the crowd and show us their natural ability. The occasion will hardly unnerve them at this stage, so Tyrone will have to be ready to go toe to toe with our young champions.
Look out for the Mayo defence – a really decent ’keeper in Robert Hennelly and a sextet in front of him that is improving with every outing. Kevin Keane is the marquee name in this division but the half-back line has great potential. Eoin Reilly will anchor but Shane Nally and Cathal Freeman are serious.
James Cafferty was mighty against Kerry and Aidan O’Shea is a monster with unusual silky skills. But mentioning just a few is unfair because this is a team effort in the broadest sense. A big contribution from X one day followed by Y the next outing. It’s been like that all season really, and in that regard they resemble the last team to win the cup.
My own view on this final is of a tried and tested Mayo team entering the decisive match of the season as a result of incremental improvement. That augurs well for ultimate success. The occasion will not faze them so it will be a football contest in the true sense. The Kerry support, now that we defeated them fair and square, will weigh in with us and thus balance out the numbers so the noise level will not be a factor.
We wish them well and as this is my last football game to cover for The Mayo News, what better way to sign off than to see Mayo win a championship and a column next week rejoicing in an underage title coming west. Coupled with the 2006 under-21 win, it would provide a little more confidence and perhaps impetus to the senior programme.
This is a championship we in Mayo have a certain affinity with, a championship we sort of feel is our preserve. The figures might not always add up but we do always show up.