Friday 30 September 2016

Colm O'Rourke: My heart is with Mayo... just because you lose, does not make you a loser

Published 18/09/2016 | 12:00

‘Mayo can’t afford to sacrifice their best backs, Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins, in a purely marking role, they also need to attack’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘Mayo can’t afford to sacrifice their best backs, Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins, in a purely marking role, they also need to attack’. Photo: Sportsfile

In writing about big games I take a fairly detached, cold view of proceedings. In this case I will start off by dropping all pretence and openly state that I would like to see Mayo win. For far too long Mayo players and people have had to put up with snide remarks about being losers. Just because you lose, does not make you a loser. I played in five county finals before I won one. Perhaps I am a loser, but I don't think that.

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For too long Mayo have had to listen to remarks from people (including myself) such as "Mayo, God help us" or "Jaysus, you're not from Mayo are you?" And Mayo people might laugh because the only other option is to cry, and they must wonder why this losing streak was visited upon them. And I would like an honourable tribe of people to have the self-confidence, joy and assurance that an All-Ireland win brings to everyone.

For the last five or six years, Mayo have entertained us with the quality of their football, their sheer spirit in coming back year after year and the wonderful supporters who may, for a short while, feel disenchanted, but quickly shake that off to become true and dedicated followers again. Maybe as time goes by they become even more passionate as they recognise that there is something noble about the man who falls again and again but keeps getting up in the quest for glory.

When Theodore Roosevelt, who was by then a former president of the United States, gave a famous speech at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910, he could have been talking about Mayo. In the famous 'Man In The Arena' excerpt from the speech 'Citizenship In A Republic', he said, "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming." Those words sum up Mayo better than anything I could write.

Now for the rational bit. I still don't think Mayo will win. They are playing a Dublin team which is better than any I have seen. It is not just winning All-Irelands, it is their total domination of the Leinster championship and league as well. They just keep on finding ways to win, especially in the last quarter. It is then they are at their best, as they have an extraordinary ability to keep doing the right things no matter what the score. Most teams have the odd impulsive, indisciplined player who feels the frustration of being behind in the game and does something stupid when calm heads are needed. Dublin do not seem to have any of them. Even against Kerry, when they were in trouble with 10 minutes to go, they did not change. The same pattern of play persisted; it had always worked for them before and they trusted themselves and every team-mate that it would happen again.

Some day that will all be redundant and the comeback will not materialise or a few lads will lose the head, but there is no sign of that happening any day soon. This shows the character of the team. They are men of intelligence in a street and sporting sense. O'Sullivan, Cooper, Fenton, Connolly, McManamon and Rock - now that I think of it, I could name the whole team. Even Cluxton, who was supposed to have had a meltdown against Kerry with two bad kickouts. Most teams would take that every day of the week.

The problem for Mayo is that they could do a lot of things right, score a couple of goals, let none in and still end up like Kerry. I think Mayo are better than the Kerry team of the semi-final, but if Kerry had not grabbed those two goals the match could have been pretty one-sided. If Bernard Brogan does his final trick and sticks a couple in the net, then Mayo are likely to lose, maybe heavily.

The marking of Connolly, McManamon, Brogan and Rock is central to Mayo's chances. They can't afford to sacrifice their best backs, Higgins and Keegan, in a purely marking role, they also need to attack and be hunter and hunted at the one time. Mayo also need a huge performance from Colm Boyle, who will act as gatekeeper at the back. He has a big heart but must be smart as well. There will be a lot of traffic on his road and he must stop anything moving fast.

If Mayo are to win they need the O'Shea and O'Connor brothers to have the games of their lives. It is not a big ask. That is what is required of great players. A few weeks ago I wrote about Aidan O'Shea being a personality of the game but without the big-match performances to back it up. Now is his chance. In fairness, his work-rate and unselfish play against Tyrone and Tipperary showed a different side to his game. Today he has to play beyond the limit of anything seen before and the same applies to Cillian O'Connor, as the rest of the forwards don't look to have a lot of scores in them. Andy Moran will get the award for honesty yet it would be grossly unfair to expect him to be artist and water carrier.

There are a lot of Mayo players who need lifetime bests. Kevin McLoughlin needs to stop kicking loosely, the full-back line needs to be brave and the goalie can't let in the normal Mayo clanger. With all that they must score at least 1-16 on a day that will suit good, fast football.

Mayo have a lot of good footballers but Dublin have more and they also have a crew of subs who can come on and wreak havoc. Imagine being a corner-back, having been twisted and turned until the last quarter, and just when you're knackered you see Paul Mannion coming on to run at you at speed. Or a full-back who spots Eoghan O'Gara trundling on like a runaway cattle truck and knows he is now in for a quarter of unremitting physicality. That tests the true mettle of any back.

Mayo supporters are whistling past the graveyard in trying to talk up their team. Of course they had Dublin on the ropes last year, but there has been no indication since then that the team this year is anything but a lesser force, while Dublin look better. One big day is all that is needed of course. That is the Mayo prayer for today. It's quite possible too and it has happened before.

Dublin are a serious force of athletes and footballer; which comes first or second is debatable. There is joy in their play which inspires young people to emulate them. For this team, football represents brilliant catches, great points or a beautiful solo run. That is why they have saved the game, as in some counties underage players are supposed to be inspired by phrases such as 'block up the middle', 'get a few extra defenders back', 'don't kick the ball' and 'don't try something different'.

Dublin represent today, tomorrow and every other day in the way they go about playing. When they hit the field, the game is usually open and exciting as they come to play - and win - not just stop, even if they are not too bad at that as well. Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper are hardly altar boys in their defensive style.

Mayo need to get late goals as Dublin would likely reel them in if they are ahead in the last quarter. A Dublin team that is behind by a couple of points with 10 minutes to play could still win by seven or eight.

So no matter how hard I try, it is difficult to see anything other than a Dublin victory. Mayo will match them in a lot of ways, but Dublin always find a way to win unless the man or men in the arena produce something really special.

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