IT recommences on Wednesday night, a familiar trek on a well-trodden path. Where it will end nobody knows, but nothing 2007 has in store will be new .. . unless the goal of their journey is finally reached. Every sinuous graph of their football campaigns has been etched into the souls of Mayo footballers and their hordes of followers down the decades. Only an All-Ireland is missing, and that experience is not expected on this latest expedition.
At Ballinode on Wednesday night the footballers take on Sligo IT in the FBD Connacht League under lights (7.30), their first competitive match of the new year, their first in over fifteen years under the guidance of John O’Mahony.
After two terms of John Maughan’s stewardship, a three-year period under the baton of Pat Holmes, and one eccentric season with Mickey Moran and John Morrison in charge, our footballers carry with them into the new season the good wishes of Mayo people everywhere for a successful year.
What degree of success will satisfy them is another matter. No great enthusiasm greeted Mickey Moran and John Morrison when they arrived on our doorstep to guide Mayo last season. It was a new experience in management and, therefore, lofty expectations were not harboured. We were all in the dark about Moran’s qualities, and very doubtful about his capacity to succeed where John Maughan had so lucklessly failed. Everyone wanted John O’Mahony, but the county board – their eyes still fixed firmly on capturing the former Galway manager – gave us Moran as an interim coach.
Mayo staggered through the championship under his leadership, and Moran won praise for some wise and effective changes he made on many occasions, especially in their victory over Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Maybe, we thought, this man was blessed with the one characteristic that had deserted John Maughan . . . the bit of luck. We had it in abundance in the semi-final and we knew we needed a similar rub of the green to get over Kerry. We did not know then that his relations with the County Board had taken a dive long before Mayo reached the All-Ireland final.
In the final we learned also, to our dismay once more, that luck without the prerequisite skill is never enough. Kerry soon exposed Moran’s shortcomings, in particular the omission of a plan to deal with Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy. The full-forward had restored Kerry’s flagging hopes earlier in the championship and should have been the target of Moran’s preparations. No strategy had been designed, however, to counter the Kerryman’s strengths, and Mayo’s defence was shredded.
We thought Moran deserved another year, but the board had, correctly, head-hunted John O’Mahony, and the Ballaghhaderreen man is in many ways our last hope of success. Should O’Mahony fail, who is there to lead Mayo that final step to the fulfilment of our dreams? No one, and that is why the former Galway manager is there for the long haul. He will promise no All-Ireland, but he’ll be there until Mayo reaches that one goal to which they have come so close in the last decade and which has been denied so many good coaches. It is a mission that will take time.
No talent that was not available to other managers will be accessible to the new manager. In the immortal words of Mick Burke, John O’Mahony will have to ‘dance with the girls in the hall’, inculcate in them a winning ethos. If John Maughan’s team had met Kildare or Cork or even Tyrone instead of Meath in his first All-Ireland our long, lonely wait might have ended ten years ago. John O’Mahony had the good fortune with Galway to meet Kildare who lacked the crust of Kerry or Meath in those years.
That is not to take away from the achievements of the man who now leads Mayo. He has splendidly led Galway out of a swamp of despair and set a firm foundation for other managers to prosper. All of Mayo will be glad to have back a man in which a lot of trust and confidence is placed. We have got to have patience, to understand that it will take time to build in Mayo players the confidence to believe that they are as qualified as any other to lift the Sam Maguire Cup.
Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly have helped to ease O’Mahony into his new post with their u-21 All-Ireland success last season. It’s a good start for a manager to have for selection players who filled a 23-years-old void with a nail-biting win over Cork at Ennis last spring. Players of that age and calibre will also be more receptive to whatever system of preparation O’Mahony employs than some of their older colleagues who will find that old habits die hard.
We are looking forward to his selections over the coming months. Everything will be done with an eye on the first round of the championship when Mayo meet Galway in Pearse Stadium. It is a difficult clash so early for the two top teams in the province, and the outcome is certain to bring disappointment to the losing manager. Everything they do in the meantime will be with that objective in mind.
Of immediate interest to Mayo, although less significant than the championship, will be their Allianz League clash with their All-Ireland conquerors Kerry. They meet in the opening round just as they did last year when Mayo sprang a surprise by winning under lights at Tralee. The return match is on February 4, a fixture that is certain to draw a huge crowd to MacHale Park, and will provide for those humbled by Kerry at Croke Park an opportunity to recover some esteem.
Like all other teams in the various provincial leagues nothing John O’Mahony fields in the Connacht FBD league will remotely resemble their championship representations. In his first FBD League match last year, Mickey Moran had two members of the All-Ireland final side, Ger Brady and Billy Joe Padden in action.
None of the remaining thirteen, with the exception of James Gill, featured even among the subs in Croke Park. The team was: Paul Tiernan, Oliver Feeney, Damien Dempsey, Colm Cafferkey; Dermot Costello, Richard Feeney, James Rafter; James Gill, BJ Padden; Damien Munnelly, Ger Brady, Jimmy Killeen; Pat Casey, Rory Hannick, John Prenty. All except Padden, Gill and Brady had departed the scene for the Connacht final.
Wednesday night’s opening encounter with Sligo IT will be no different. John O’Mahony will be seeking potential talent for more crucial games, and it is safe to say that many of the veterans will be excluded. There has been no talk of retirement among the evergreens . . . David Heaney, James Nallen Ciaran McDonald or David Brady. All have been back in training, all given new leases of life with the advent of O’Mahony.
Indeed most of our veterans are still fresh and highly experienced, essential to any team John O’Mahony fields. It is likely he will draft in many of the winning u21s for the new side on whom he will be depending for success. There will be a blend of the old and the new in his creation.
Mayo have lacked physical strength in many of the vital positions for some time. Few new six-footers have emerged these past few years to take up central positions in defence and attack. We have always worried who, in the event of injury, would replace James Nallen adequately, or who might stand in for David Heaney.
Height did not seem to trouble Mickey Moran last season when he chose Liam O’Malley for the full-back position against Galway in the Connacht final. The Burrishoole man did not demur, and gave a brave and successful account of himself. Injury denied him further participation in the championship but he will be fighting for his place again this season in some position other than full-back. We don’t have a ready-made full-back with which to replace David Heaney. Nor have we a big strong replacement full forward. It is to such issues John O’Mahony and his selectors will be giving close attention in building a team of our dreams.
It all starts on Wednesday night in the bare, open grounds of Sligo IT.
A joust will follow with Roscommon on Sunday at Ballyhaunis... a new era in Mayo football is under way.