Have Mayo got the edge to follow Donegal's lead?
Maughan backs Horan's men to defy history and kick on from last year
THE two Jimmys were brought to the Croke Park interview room within minutes of each other after last year's All-Ireland football final to talk of worlds that had headed into different orbits.
Jim McGuinness spoke of how, in the weeks leading up to the final, he had erected barriers around himself and his squad to protect them from negativity.
He revealed that he had told his players of waking up every morning to the image of the Sam Maguire Cup perched at the front of the team bus, waiting for the joyous journey back to Donegal.
"It's just so important that the visual in your own mind is positive all the time. You just work towards it," he said.
James Horan probably had a similar picture in his head, the only difference being that Sam Maguire was headed for Mayo. Now robbed of the dream, he was rooting through the debris of Mayo's latest attempt to end the All-Ireland drought, dwelling very much on basics.
"The two of them (Donegal's goals) should have been defended better," he said. "Our first touch inside let us down. The ball was hopping off us quite a bit and Donegal were sweeping up and coming out in waves.
"Some of our decision-making and some of our basic skills let us down; some of the fundamentals weren't as strong as they needed to be."
He sounded like a Formula One car designer who had carefully constructed a powerful new engine, only to be let down by the tyres.
However, Horan signed off by praising his team's resilience. "We just couldn't get there but we kept trying."
With that, he was gone, retreating into the lonely world of All-Ireland final losers who always want an immediate opportunity to put things right but who know that they are at least eight months away from even beginning the process.
It's a world that Mayo have visited six times since last winning the All-Ireland title in 1951. Donegal know nothing of it, having won the title on the two occasions they reached the final.
As Mayo reflected on their latest All-Ireland final defeat, frustration levels rose. Donegal had become the latest county to put a squad together and win the title in a relatively short cycle.
They did much the same in 1992, Derry were similarly successful a year later and, a decade on, Armagh and Tyrone made their breakthrough in successive years. All four Ulster counties were brand new All-Ireland winners, but so long has it been since Mayo were successful that it's almost as if they are seeking their first All-Ireland title, since only people aged over 70 can remember the 1951 triumph.
Horan's regret after last year's final was reinforced by a belief that they were as good as Donegal in the broad sense but had been let down by malfunctions in the basic zone.
Initially, that's the worst feeling of all but as time dilutes the disappointment, real hope quickly returns to the system.
After all, the basics can always be put right, whereas a lack of overall quality presents an altogether more difficult problem.
Now, as Mayo prepare for their final outing without a safety net in this year's championship, the spotlight is swinging back in their direction.
Not perhaps, in terms of tomorrow's Connacht final, which they will win readily enough, but as one of the eight contenders who will arrive in Croke Park in early August for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. According to the markets, the All-Ireland is a four-horse race between Dublin (15/8), Kerry (7/2), Donegal and Mayo (4/1 each).
Somewhat surprisingly Cork (10/1) and Tyrone (25/1) have drifted way out, while Kildare (66/1) have been tailed off. The case for Dublin and Kerry is solidly based, while Donegal have been functional, but no more, this summer. Still, they are still on the high road to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, a route that was by no means certain when they drew Tyrone in the Ulster quarter-final.
And Mayo? Historically, Mayo have not done well in the season after losing an All-Ireland final. They didn't even reach the Connacht final in 1990, 1998 and 2007, while they lost the decider in 2005. That leaves 1997 as the only year they did well as beaten All-Ireland finalists, again reaching Croke Park in September only to lose for a second time.
They will certainly retain the Connacht title this year, but what will they learn from it in a summer that has so far left them without a real test?
"Probably not a lot in terms of what lies ahead. Playing Division 2, 3 and 4 teams (and you have to assume Mayo will beat London) in that order is a long way from what they will experience in Croke Park in early August or indeed beyond that," said former Mayo manager John Maughan, who knows all about how difficult it is to take his native county over the All-Ireland line.
However, he doesn't believe that a sub-standard Connacht championship will pose any long-term threat to Mayo's prospects.
"This group is as mature and focused as you'll get. They're real smart too. They have bought into the ultra-professionalism required at the top level nowadays and they are right up there with the rest of the top contenders.
"We don't know what sort of test London will provide but Mayo would certainly have expected more from Galway and Roscommon. Now, there are two ways of looking at Mayo's easy wins. Maybe Galway and Roscommon were very poor or maybe Mayo were very good. You'd have to say they played with a lot of confidence and swagger. And maybe there's more to come," said Maughan.
Whereas Donegal came from a low base to reach the summit quite quickly, Mayo have been a slower burner. They are seeking their fourth Connacht title win in five seasons tomorrow, having reached an All-Ireland final and semi-final off two of their three previous provincial successes.
"Lots of these lads saw Mayo playing in All-Ireland finals when they were young (1996 and '97) and while we didn't win them, it still associated Mayo with Croke Park on the big day. Then, they saw Mayo lose All-Ireland finals in 2004 and '06 and experienced it themselves last year. That was disappointing for them but they know how close they are to achieving something special.
"Just because the past brought disappointment, it doesn't mean the future will," said Maughan.
He expects Mayo and Donegal to secure provincial titles tomorrow, thus staying on target for an All-Ireland semi-final showdown on August 25.
"That possibility is down the road but I doubt if either James Horan or Jim McGuinness has thought about it. The All-Ireland quarter-finals will be lethal territory for all the provincial champions. The draw for the quarter-finals will be crucial for them if you have the likes of Cork, Tyrone or Kildare, Derry and Armagh in the mix," said Maughan.
There's always a tendency to believe that the All-Ireland winners have a better chance of retaining the title than the runners-up have of making amends for the previous year. Yet, if the first 25 minutes (when Donegal outscored Mayo by 2-3 to 0-2) of last year's All-Ireland final is taken out of the equation, Horan's men have every reason to be optimistic.
They beat Donegal by 0-11 to 0-8 over the final 45 minutes and, this year, had a more progressive league campaign, which was important in retaining momentum.
As for where Mayo must improve on last year, Maughan believes that they need a sharper attacking edge. The return of Andy Moran, who starts tomorrow, is a boost but whether he can regain his best form after a serious knee injury ruled him out of the hard winter training grind remains to be seen.
It might seem odd to query the efficiency of the Mayo attack after they hit Galway and Roscommon for a combined total of 4-37, but it has to be taken in the context of the porous defences they encountered.
"I don't think anyone who gets to Croke Park in August will be as accommodating," said Maughan.
Donegal and Mayo are two wins each away from another big Croke Park collision, with McGuinness' men believing the best is yet to come this season and Horan's crew convinced that their persistence will eventually yield dividends.
"We just couldn't get there but we'll keep trying," said Horan after last year's All-Ireland final.
With August approaching, the Mayo and Donegal stories get ever more fascinating as they head for a possible intertwining late in the month. First, though, there are provincial titles to be secured.