Tired clichés must now be discarded
WE’LL have have one brief review, and then we’ll tuck it to the back of our minds until the final is over. Whatever the outcome of the final it will not obscure the memory of a Mayo performance that set the Gaelic football world alight. We’ll live in its afterglow, and we’ll wonder how on earth a team so discounted could have confounded so many.
We might have guessed how Mayo football in the past had been perceived by commentators in general. They did not say it in so many words, but you knew what they were thinking. Nice footballers but lacking the killer instinct, was the universal epithet, the accepted censure. Quietly, among themselves, they spoke of inherent lack of bottle.
You could scarcely disagree. No shortage of ammunition was made available to them to hurtle at the Mayo character. Mayo’s loss of three All-Ireland titles and numerous semi’s - more by the manner of the losses than the losses themselves - had left an image of malleableness.
When they beat Dublin the writers spelled out their long-held opinions and, amid the euphoria of victory, who in Mayo would want to challenge a pinching truth. We ourselves were never slow to turn on our team, but disparaging comments from outsiders were never welcomed. Now, amid their acclaim of a new Mayo, the old threadbare clichés could be trotted out by the writers without fear of recrimination. Comparative analysis with the past was acceptable.
Yet you winced to read about past Mayo teams coming to Croke Park with ‘no bottle and no future’, Mayo teams playing without conviction, Mayo teams that had no hope. You winced but you knew it to be a reasonable explanation for their failure to bridge a 55-year-old gap. After Dublin we ask ourselves over and over again why so many players suddenly found the cure for Mayo football. Is it something they stumbled upon, and will it be repeated?
We had become immune to the aches of defeat. We had scarcely dared to hope. And as Mayo defiantly challenged Dublin’s state of mind in that pre-match warm-up we wondered ourselves would they live up to the mental challenge they had set themselves.
False starts have been part of the litany of failure. We had watched Mayo race into early leads, run and flounce and threaten, only to crumble at the first sucker-punch from the opposition. That had nothing to do with the physical skills of the game. It was the mind. Players honestly felt they were ready for any contingency until they met opposition who had been through the wringer and were mentally tougher.
That perhaps is the most surprising feature of Mayo’s win over Dublin. They had been mentally toughened. Setbacks did not disconcert them. They never lost sight of their objective. There was no panic, no wild shooting. They would have gone through a stone wall for possession. Illegible notes reveal how much more cool they were than this writer. Hearts pounding, hands shaking, we were transfixed.
Afterwards, every Mayo face was alight with joy. Outside Croke Park the crowds were slow to disperse, as if they had just experienced a Mayo phenomenon. Kerry was a long way off.
What befell Dublin in Croke Park was the enemy that has betrayed Mayo for so long: lack of heart. Too much had been made of their big victories over lesser teams. They had walloped Mayo in the league at Parnell Park, and Laois in the championship. And because Mayo only scraped a win over the midlanders there was a consensus that Mayo, who had never won a championship match against Dublin, were still mired in their old instability.
Dublin had not been tested. They relied too much on hype, believed too much in their own invincibility. Kerry was their target, Mayo just a means to that end. They had Mayo on the rack on a couple of occasions, but failed to nail down those brief periods of superiority . . . vulnerabilities for which Kerry will not be so forgiving.
We all thought the game was over for Mayo when they trailed by seven points. Dublin must themselves have believed they were back on the high road to success. Curiously, it was Dublin who wilted. The Mayo thousands had seen it all before, only this time it was their team administering the pressure, their team fighting back, dramatically, heroically.
Dublin froze under the pressure. Apart from their first round tie with Longford, they had not experienced anything like it. Gamely, they commenced to rescue some honour with their last minute bid to grab a draw. In less pressured circumstances Mark Vaughan might have scored from any of those two late chances, but they had lost their composure, agitated by the thought of defeat.
Mayo’s David Brady fires a parting shot as he leaves the field after victory over Dublin.
Pic: Michael McCormack
Return of old faces has been key factor
IT is generally accepted that Mayo need to ratchet up their game a further notch or two if that 55-years-old gap is to be bridged on Sunday week. But their progress thus far this season has benefited from the widespread use of the bench by the selectors, and the rehabilitation of a couple of players whose county careers were virtually extinct.
Nobody at the beginning of this year could have envisaged the role Kevin O’Neill would play in the scheme of Mayo’s passage to the final. The peak of O’Neill’s career had been reached, we thought, when he won an All-Star in 1993, and for his performance in the Connacht final of 1994 . . . which was won by Leitrim.
He had parted company with his native Knockmore a year or two ago to join Na Fianna in Dublin where he worked. As an underage player he was noted for his star qualities in terms of skill and accuracy. But doubts existed about his lack of robustness. Within the jungle of hard-man tactics O’Neill’s subtle touches barely survived. Good enough for club perhaps, but hardly for the stormier climes of inter-county fare, it was felt. His recall by the Mayo management earlier this year raised a few eyebrows in Mayo including those of this writer. A bit late we thought at the age of 32 when his career seemed behind him.
It is to the credit of Mickey Moran, and his selectors, that O’Neill is back as one of the performing stars. They came to Mayo with no preconceived ideas about any player, and they have left us scratching our heads. Whatever they have done with him, O’Neill is a Godsend. He is contesting ball fearlessly, and the manner in which he created the opportunity for Andy Moran’s goal against Dublin had the elegant touch of a McDonald or a Mortimer. May those attributes flourish in the final.
Nor had we counted on the inclusion of Aidan Higgins in the first fifteen. The Charlestown man has been one of the foremost club players in the county with a style noted for its grace and polish, but short in power. He, too, was part of a Mayo past nobody cared to recall.
It must be said that the high standard Higgins set himself at club level has never waned, and while his recall to county fare has been questioned, no one who has watched him play in the championship can hold anything but the highest regard for his courage and commitment. He has fitted in well into the rhythm of the team.
This column has not been among David Brady’s legion of fans. His talent was never in dispute. It was his work-rate we questioned, and whether he could deliver a midfield performance in keeping with the needs of the modern running-style game. Injury has kept him on the sideline, and judgement of his adaptability to Mickey Moran’s pattern of play has had to be delayed.
We got a glimpse of the Ballina man in action against Dublin when he replaced Billy Joe Padden and moved to midfield in place of the injured Ronan McGarrity. He performed very well in an anchor role keeping the pressure on the Dublin defence. He won’t replace McGarrity or Harte in the first fifteen against Kerry unless either is forced to cry off, but he is likely to be required to play a leading role before the match has ended.