THEIR hour has come and one wonders is there one final lash left in them, one final heave for the slice of All-Ireland glory that has eluded other Mayo minor teams for more than two decades.
Can Ray Dempsey do what no manager has done since Mick Burke stitched together a bunch of disparates and led them across the Shannon in 1985 with the Tom Markham Cup reflecting their achievement? Can Dempsey manage to straddle that yawning chasm?
Certain parallel characteristics link Sunday’s hopefuls to Mick Burke’s winning side. Neither one was expected to reach the final. The victories of each along the way convinced no one that they possessed All-Ireland material. They just trundled along in Connacht fashioning unlikely victories with a great deal of effort.
Nor do any significant traits separate the teams’ respective managers. In choosing players, style was less a reason for Mick Burke than heart. Ray Dempsey is no less practical in his selections. He has managed to quarry a team of workers and to blend their individual skills into a unit of smooth efficiency.
Fancy footwork was never part of Mick Burke’s philosophy. But it was during preparation for the final that in explaining his team’s limitations the Fahy man coined the memorable phrase ‘you can only dance with the girls that are in the hall’. The metaphor was a badge of courage that stood to them in Croke Park. In beating Cork all of his charges danced to the same tune.
Other links between the two eras are offered by Kevin Beirne and Tomás O’Grady, who were prominent members of Mick Burke’s successful side and are now selectors of the current crop. Their captain Michael Fitzmaurice was Mayo’s outstanding player, and his senior destiny seemed assured. Strangely, that promise was never fully realised. He, Greg Maher, Beirne and O’Grady were members of the squad John O’Mahony led to the All-Ireland final of 1989. But somehow their careers never peaked. In the morass of Mayo underachievement their talents sank.
The fundamentals of Mayo football appear to be strong in the light of recent displays by the present minor side. But if the past is any indication, many will fall prey to interests other than football in that period immediately after minor age, and we’ll never see them again.
More encouraging signs of continuity have emerged from the last side to contest an All-Ireland final three years ago – despite their comprehensive defeat. They, it will be remembered, reached the final unexpectedly by defeating Kerry by a single point on that occasion.
Their win strengthened the belief that the longest gap between the county’s All-Ireland minor successes was about to be closed. But early in the final, hope vanished. Down proved far more superior technically and mentally. Coincidentally, a Breaffy man, Kieran Barnicle, also manned the post on that occasion three years ago. Robert Hennelly from the same club has more than filled his boots adequately this season.
More importantly, however, the likes of Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett, Tom Cunniffe, Seamus O¹Shea, Pearce Hanley and Aidan Campbell suffered no after affects from that All-Ireland hammering. No brooding followed, and no trace of defeatism was detected a year later when all of them played leading roles in Mayo’s All-Ireland under-21 win over Cork. In helping them to rediscover their self-belief, Pat Holmes, Noel Connelly and Micheál Collins have made a significant contribution to Mayo football.
A NEW BUNCH now endeavours to succeed where the minors of 2005 failed. And they, too, face a daunting challenge from a Tyrone side that was more impressive in defeating Meath by eleven points than Mayo were in disposing of Kerry by ten in the replay.
Tyrone mirror the style of their seniors. They are strong and fast. Their blanket defending leaves little room for sluggishness among their opponents. Hesitant play is smothered by a swarm of red shirts. You dither at your peril.
Against Meath, Tyrone’s success stemmed from the dominance of Niall McKenna and Martin Rogers in the middle of the field. Much of Mayo’s strength is also rooted in their midfield pairing of James Cafferty and Ger McDonagh. Rogers has developed midfield play in the mould of Sean Cavanagh. Support for his forwards, vital interventions in defence and speed are his noted qualities, and he will pose problems for Mayo.
McDonagh started at full-forward in the drawn game, but his switch with Alex Corduff was a crucial move that paid off handsomely in the replay when McDonagh teamed up full-time with Cafferty. Together they gave Mayo a firm advantage.
Kyle Coney is the big danger in the northern forward line. Already earmarked for the Australian Football league club Sydney Swans, the corner forward scored seven points in the semi-final but helped develop numerous other scores with strong, clever footwork. John Broderick will be his opponent on Sunday and his performance in the replayed semi-final will have stoked his confidence in dealing with the big Tyrone man.
Diarmuid McNulty and Conor Neill are other strong links in the Tyrone forward line. O¹Neill’s goal three minutes before the end of the first half was brilliantly executed. The manner in which the Meath fullback allowed himself to be robbed leading to that goal will have been a lesson for the Mayo defence: Tyrone will thrive on defensive errors.
In fairness to the Mayo defence, they have come through several challenging tests with enhanced standing. Kerry’s goal in the replay was the first Mayo conceded in the championship. That’s a tribute not only to Robert Hennelly in goal but also to the entire defence of David Dolan, Kevin Keane, John Broderick, Shane McHale, Eoin Reilly and Shane Nally.
Doubt surrounds the full fitness of team captain Shane Nally and one of their star forwards Aidan O’Shea. A leg injury has prevented Nally from training in the build-up to the final while O’Shea bravely shrugged off the effects of a hand injury during the semi-final. But he is still nursing the fracture. Whether the two have recovered sufficiently to play full roles in the final remains to be seen. The loss of either would represent a serious setback to Mayo¹s chances of success. If the Breaffy man is fully fit, however, Tyrone’s preoccupation with an all-out attacking game might be disrupted. O’Shea brings heaps of power and grit to the forward line. Tyrone will, of course single out the centre-half forward for special marking.
But Mayo are fortunate to have players of equal stature alongside O’Shea. In Raymond Geraghty, Cathal Freeman, John Carney, Aidan Walsh and Alex Corduff, they have individuals no less precious, each bringing to the game his own special flair.
I don’t know whether or not they can overcome this Tyrone side. Beating Kerry in the past has been no guarantee of ultimate success. But the manner of their latest win over the Kingdom has silenced the sceptics. This is no ordinary minor side. This team has the qualities to succeed where others have failed.