Wednesday 16 August 2017

Comment: Mayo in need of league title to banish demons

Of the eight counties in Division 1, Rochford's squad has most reasons to place a strong emphasis on their spring campaign

Mayo dejected after defeat to Dublin in the 2016 All Ireland final
Mayo dejected after defeat to Dublin in the 2016 All Ireland final
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's almost 30 years ago since one of the best hurlers of his generation assessed the transition in his county's fortunes with unvarnished honesty.

"I thought we had missed the boat. We had lost two successive All-Ireland finals and a league final and while none of us would publicly admit it, we had doubts.

"It wasn't that we doubted our ability but we couldn't help feeling that possibly our best opportunities had been tossed away. That's why the league success was more important than anyone thought. It made us feel that bit better about ourselves going into the championship. We need that ."

The speaker was Galway captain Conor Hayes at the end of 1987, a time when the Liam MacCarthy Cup, the league trophy and the Railway Cup (an all-Galway team) had been secured. In the space of five months, Galway had mutated from perennial contenders in all competitions (they also lost the 1985 Oireachtas final) to champions. They went on to complete an All-Ireland double in 1988 and won another league title in 1989.

Successful

Most of the squad - and manager Cyril Farrell too - also acknowledged that winning the 1987 league title provided the launch pad for the journey into the most successful era in Galway hurling history.

The moral of that case history is now very relevant to Mayo footballers as they set out on a new campaign, having experienced three All-Ireland final defeats in five seasons.

Have they any doubts about themselves, as Galway hurlers harboured in early 1987? And, if so, would winning an Allianz League title help erase them?

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

Teams which experience a lot of big-time disappointment in a short space of time can go one of two ways: harness it as a driving influence as Cork footballers did in 1989 after losing successive All-Ireland finals to Meath, as Dublin did after losing the 1992 and 1994 finals and as Cork did again in 2010 after losing the 2007 and 2009 finals.

Of course, it's more unusual for a team to lose three All-Ireland finals in five seasons so, from a psychological viewpoint, Mayo are in riskier territory than Cork or Dublin were.

If they doubt that, they can take another example from their neighbours. Galway footballers lost three All-Ireland finals in four seasons (1971-'73-'74), setbacks which obviously crushed them. They took only one Connacht title in the next seven seasons and the next All-Ireland crown wasn't won until 1998.

However it's assessed, the truth is that Mayo are at a more uncertain juncture than they were at any time over recent years.

There has been so little between them and an All-Ireland title over the past five seasons that the obvious assumption to make is that the merest tweak could get them there.

Yet, the longer the wait continues, the more difficult it becomes. That has produced two schools of thought as to how Mayo should approach this year's league.

One holds that Stephen Rochford should experiment extensively, even at the risk of relegation, in an attempt to not only find some new players but to give them several games against top opposition so that they will be well-prepared for the championship.

The alternative view is that Mayo should target the league in a really concentrated way in the hope that they land they win their first national title since 2001.

Mayo have remained longer in Division 1 than any other county (it's 20 years since they were last in Division 2), yet it has yielded only one title. It's a poor return, especially since they reached three finals in the last 10 years.

Perhaps those bad experiences are behind the argument that Mayo should not expend huge amounts of energy trying to win this year's league. After all, losing another final would be disastrous for morale.

Still, of all eight counties in Division 1, nobody needs a league title more than Mayo so fear of losing the final is scarcely a solid reason not to go for it.

Leaving Croke Park with a trophy in April would be the perfect send-off for their championship programme, instilling a sense of personal well-being into a squad which, for all the shows of outward confidence, must be wondering if the big prizes will continue to elude them.

Interestingly, the core of the Mayo squad is more experienced than any other in the country, with no fewer than 13 of last year's panel having been there since pre-2010.

Emerging

Other counties at the top end of the All-Ireland market have a pre-2010 survival rate as follows: Dublin 11, Kerry 9, Cork 8; Donegal 6, Tyrone 5. Mayo have five players who are there 10 or more years.

Squad evolution is, of course, reliant on emerging talent, an area where Mayo have, up to now at least, been a little light. That they have come so close to winning the All-Ireland underlines the quality of their existing resources but every squad needs to have to its front-line players under constant challenge. All the more so, if they have come up short.

An unknown factor for Mayo this year centres on how they will respond to the grind of another season. It's easier for squads who have won All-Ireland titles to reboot for a new campaign while others who have been contenders, without reaching Mayo's level, will also find it less stressful than a group who have endured so much disappointment on the biggest days of all.

It has been an attritional few years for Mayo so there's no way of knowing how they will respond - either individually or collectively - to the next championship challenge, especially if they were to head into it off a poor league campaign.

Of course there's no reason why that should happen. Whatever about the longer term, Mayo have the experience to plot a strong spring course. Injuries may disrupt their early rhythm but, if Rochford primes them for the league, they will be good enough to put themselves in contention. Four of their seven group games are in Castlebar, which is an advantage in what looks certain to be a tight scramble for the final places (there are no semi-finals this year).

On a separate front, Rochford may feel that the pre-Christmas revelations in this newspaper by 2015 joint-managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly increases the pressure on him but, in fact, they may be helpful.

Holmes and Connelly offered a stark analysis of their experience in a season which ended with a squad revolt and a change of management.

The players did not explain to the Mayo public whom they represent why they took such drastic action but the heave passed off relatively quietly when the joint-managers resigned. It wasn't forgotten though.

Holmes/Connelly decided to give their side of the story starkly and honestly, outlining issues that they believe need to be addressed if Mayo are to maximise their chances of winning an All-Ireland title.

They actually strengthened Rochford's hand at a time when he has important choices to make in relation to personnel and other issues, which Holmes/Connelly identified as handicaps.

For now, there's a league campaign to be taken on, one that should have a Croke Park date on April 9 as a first priority, followed by winning the title and making a bold statement of intent heading into the championship.

MAYO'S LEAGUE FIXTURES

Tonight: v Monaghan (h)

Feb 11: v Kerry (a)

Feb 25: v Roscommon (h)

Mar 4: v Dublin (a)

Mar 19: v Cavan (h)

May 26: v Tyrone (a)

Apr 2: v Donegal (h)

Irish Independent

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