Dermot Crowe: Masters of renewal face old doubts
Huge Dublin defeat raises questions over whether Mayo can transform into Sam contenders yet again
Today's match against Cavan won't resolve the mysteries of Mayo's well-being and future prospects, two weeks after they suffered a harsh awakening from Dublin in Croke Park.
Has it reached the time for the alarm bells to ring out around the parishes of Ballina and Bohola? And what constitutes alarm? Losing to Galway in the summer, provided they overcome Sligo first, would certainly qualify. Losing to Dublin in a league match in March? Worrying, yes, but how much is appropriate?
It is 15 years since Cavan and Mayo last met in the league, with the evergreen goalkeeper David Clarke the only link with that era still playing. An interesting footnote to this afternoon's engagement in Castlebar, it has little contemporary relevance, but if you look around for lessons you'll find them anywhere or at any time.
The year before, Mayo had won the league, their first national title since winning the same competition in 1970. After the mentally bruising All-Ireland final failures of the previous decade, and a lengthening famine that had by then reached the half-century mark, the spring success was hailed as a significant breakthrough. But the championship brought a brutal comeuppance when they were floored by Roscommon.
That traumatic Connacht final loss, their fate sealed by a late goal, left them vulnerable in the qualifiers - they went out to Westmeath. Defeats at that time of year tend to be conclusive events. At this time of year, in March, they cannot possibly be. But the nature of the capitulation to Dublin has to be troubling. Dismissing it as nothing out of the ordinary on the basis of past events and a league full of mischief is the crutch the more optimistic follower is leaning on now. Others suspect bother ahead but will wait for more evidence.
Fair enough. Mayo went to Croke Park two weeks ago to win and end a 10-match run over league and championship during which they had failed to defeat Dublin. It seemed rife with opportunity. Dublin had shown little of the energy they were about to unleash in the preceding rounds, being highly fortunate to draw with Tyrone and then reeled in when sharing the points with Donegal. On those outings they appeared to be lacking stimulation. There was no issue with arousal when Mayo came out on the field.
A case was made for a Mayo victory. Dublin, shorn of Jonny Cooper, Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy and Diarmuid Connolly, were showing clear signs of vulnerability. Their form last year in the championship, even though they retained their All-Ireland title, suggested they might have reached the apex of their powers and were now winning with less comfort and by reduced margins.
In that context, the statement which came out of Croke Park when the final whistle went did not read well for Mayo - an obliteration, beaten by an understrength Dublin team, with the Mayo attack especially toothless, the midfield wiped out and the defence saved from further humiliation by their goalkeeper. The players and management are perhaps as unsure as the rest of us as to what it means in the long run.
In mitigation, Mayo do not have the resources to carry the kind of performances they tend to find later in the year through the spring. They suffered a heavy loss to Dublin in Castlebar two years ago and finished the year with a performance entirely unrecognisable from that against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final replay in Limerick. A bad league performance is nothing new. A transformed team in the summer is nothing new either.
Load into that the fact that Mayo in Croke Park a fortnight ago were not the Mayo, in structural terms nor in personnel, that will be leading the latest crusade in the summer months. A scenario where Mayo defeat Sligo and lose to Galway will present incontrovertible evidence that this team is in fact on the downward slope, in clear regression. For now it is a cause of concern - not a time for freaking out.
Last year Mayo began their league campaign with a nine-point loss to Cork, who were eventually relegated, and a week later set out to make amends against Dublin in Castlebar. They lost by two points in a drab, low-scoring game which had no goals - the only occasion in the league when Dublin failed to raise a green flag. They achieved some kind of moral victory in defeat. The year before, the margin of defeat in Castlebar to Dublin had been 14 points.
But this is a two-way street. If Mayo can reasonably argue that there is room for improvement - a realignment of the defence and a reversion to the use of a sweeper as was the case last year from mid-summer onwards will go some way towards achieving that - then the fresh concern exists that Dublin are far from done.
Having been undeniably close to beating Dublin when it mattered in the two matches that decided last year's All-Ireland in September and October, Mayo now face the real prospect of having fallen more adrift. There is no room for Dublin pulling further ahead if Mayo are to harbour realistic hopes of achieving their ultimate goal in the short term.
They are not competing on equal terms. In Castlebar two years ago, Tomás Brady scored three points from play. He has since chosen to leave the panel, having failed to get the kind of run in the team that would satisfy someone with his ambitions, obviously not happy to settle for a place in the squad, however useful that might have been to the greater Dublin plan. In the recent match against Mayo his Na Fianna clubmate Conor McHugh was one of several star performers, scoring an early goal when Mayo were overrun on their own kickout, and three points to ornament a very lively display.
Mayo are still peddling the same forwards more or less and the attacking dimension of their game is prone to being coarse and predictable and, worst of all, lacking the fluency on which every forward division thrives. Dublin were not waiting desperately for McHugh to arrive, and nobody would attempt to claim he is anywhere near a nailed-down forward yet - if such a thing exists.
The outstanding player in last year's All-Ireland final replay, Mick Fitzsimons, has been transformed from a peripheral player in the championship under Jim Gavin (four starts in 25) to a key figure - for now at least - who can hardly be dropped on current form. In the Mayo game he tied up Andy Moran, and the reliance of Mayo on a player of Moran's vintage is a common pointer to the limitations they suffer in terms of player choice in stark contrast to Dublin's lavish resources.
Both O'Connors, Cillian and Diarmuid, looked out of sorts against Dublin, with divided opinion on the positioning of the older brother, Cillian. Aidan O'Shea will come back in and provide something but they really need Conor Loftus to shake off his injuries and make his stamp on the team, because he has the capability to create goal chances and bring something new.
Fergal Boland has looked promising but a player who had his first county representation last year at under 21 level can't be expected to provide miracles. The reliance remains on the settled and established players to find some renewed energy and even reinvent themselves if necessary, with the accompanying level of improvisation in how they set up. How long can they keep doing this?
Some warning signs might have been better heeded before Dublin. The win over Roscommon came with a generous measure of goal chances coughed up to the opposition, with Clarke featuring a little too frequently for comfort of late in man-of-the-match considerations. The win over Kerry masked a below-par first half at the end of which Kerry should have been out of sight. Those defensive weaknesses, a tendency to leave room for opposing teams to exploit, resurfaced to telling effect in the Dublin game.
Contrast Mayo's conventional defensive formation against Dublin, of all teams, to that methodical physics imposed by Tyrone two rounds earlier. Mayo face Tyrone in the next round, which will be interesting as they are both jockeying along with Kerry for the position of lead challenger to Dublin's dominance. In last year's championship meeting Mayo had a marginal edge over Tyrone, nothing more. That margin may have closed by the summer. Maybe it has closed already.
This year in the league Tyrone fared a great deal better in Dublin's company. The dynamic of the relationship between Dublin and Tyrone has changed in recent years and Mayo are regarded by Dublin as a more familiar and threatening rival, but it was still a sign of Tyrone's progress that they pushed Dublin to the brink of defeat in Croke Park.
The more pessimistic green and red loyalists may feel that Mayo met Dublin at somewhere near the latter's weakest point in recent years at the end of last season and missed the chance. Since then the teams may be heading in opposite directions, and any widening of the margin doesn't augur well for Mayo's prospects of reaching the goal which has consumed them for the last number of years.
While the defence can be rearranged, it will still demand a huge effort to even replicate the kind of sustained concentration and ferocity of tackling demonstrated last year in the Dublin championship games. If they can, it is from there up they must find something heroic and new. Seamus O'Shea will come back into midfield, presumably, and if they can create the kind of off-the-shoulder running game which stood them in good stead last year - the high point being Lee Keegan's goal in the All-Ireland final replay - and eliminate errors, then maybe they can be serious contenders again. They have been defying doomsday forecasts for a while now in being able to mix it at that end of the championship despite repeated setbacks.
Eventually something must give, though, all the more when the tangible return is absent. Already some people may think it's all over. It is not, not now. Not yet anyway.
Sunday Indo Sport