Now or never for Mayo
Published 02/06/2010 | 05:00
If championship equates to exam time then the Mayo footballers have been cramming hard in the weeks since their dismal league final defeat to Cork.
On top of two rounds of the local leagues, there have been four challenge matches to source new methods and personnel, and a couple of training days in Carton House to replace the aborted Portugal trip, which was past its sell-by date. For some it has meant involvement in up to five games in four weeks.
A sign of panic after they tailed off so badly in Croke Park? Maybe so. A fear of what Markievicz Park may have in store for them on Saturday evening. Most definitely.
But overriding all of this is the broader picture of where Mayo are in terms of their development as a team. This is John O'Mahony's fourth year in charge, the third since he overhauled it after the departure of some of the remnants of the 2004/2006 teams that had watched the sun go down in Celtic Park the previous summer.
The time for evidence of real sustainable progress has arrived, the type of progress they thought they had after four league wins in places like Kerry, Derry and Tyrone before the league final blew up in their face.
O'Mahony has consistently maintained that some day this Mayo team will deliver and, despite all the setbacks, it's still hard to imagine that some day it won't happen. But under his watch, he acknowledges, time may run out.
How much has the nature of the defeat over five weeks ago shaken them? The impact is probably inestimable right now, but suffice to say, Mayo aren't in a position to show the same faith as Denis Walsh did with so many of the Cork hurlers who underperformed in the league hurling final a week later.
Hence the probable fast tracking of Tom Cunniffe and Barry Moran into the team, provided both are fit, when it is announced later this week. Neither player saw much, if any, action during the league and in Cunniffe's case he's been off the beaten track for something like 14 months now. But the need to adjust after Croke Park is quite evident and throwing both these players in at the deep end represents a change from the template that served them so well in the league for so long.
In his weekly 'Mayo News' column this week, Kevin McStay drew a bottom line for what an acceptable season is. For success to be declared, an All-Ireland semi-final at least must be reached.
"It's shocking, it's unfair, it's nobody's fault, but it's the way it is. It's where Mayo are now," wrote McStay, who boldly predicted that if Alan Dillon doesn't start Mayo could sink.
When things got sticky in that league final they just folded their tents too quickly and moved on too passively. The absence of a chase was for some galling and, naturally, all the old accusations about mental frailties were flung at them.
That will have disappointed Mayo as much as anything, given the work they had been putting in to psychological aspects of their game through Gerry Hussey, who was so generously credited with the Irish boxing team which impressed at the Beijing Olympics.
The former midfielder David Brady worries about that lack of willingness to dig deep, to at least make life difficult for opponents when the roof shows signs of caving in.
"I was listening to the former Liverpool captain Phil Thompson chatting about the World Cup the other night and he was recalling the remarks made by Jamie Carragher in his autobiography about the penalty he missed for England in the 2006 World Cup penalty shoot-out against Portugal, how he was glad he didn't miss it for Liverpool!
"There are plenty in Mayo who could identify with that sentiment. I played a county final for Ballina against Crossmolina about six weeks after our 2004 All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry and it was one of the most intense games I've ever played in. Fellas came off the field with broken teeth.
"There were up to 10 fellas involved in that game who played against Kerry. The obvious question was why the same players didn't play with the same intensity and physicality in the All-Ireland final. Did that not matter as much to us?" he asked with his usual honesty.
"When Mayo hit a wall like they did in Croke Park the last day, nine out of 10 will look for someone else to stand up and climb over it. Everyone wants to look after themselves first."
Brady is adamant that the qualifiers will cut no ice with Mayo this year if they are forced down that route.
Their record of back-door redemption is poor. Yet their acceptance that the road to retaining their Connacht crown is paved with as much difficulty as they had at any stage in recent years. A confident Sligo, a bruised Galway and finally a Roscommon team with momentum and no expectation all stand in their way.
"It has to be the year for real progress," Brady adds. "My fear is that the 21 and 22-year-olds of today will end up like some of the rest of us in a few years time."
Dillon is one of several injuries that Mayo have, Moran, Trevor Howley, Aidan Kilcoyne and Pat Harte being the others. It is expected that Mayo will finalise their team later tonight.