Eoin Liston: Mayo still contenders but they need to find a clinical edge from somewhere
Like all sport, championship football doesn't just build character, it reveals it.
We know by now that, whatever faults are laid at the door of the Mayo squad - and there are still quite a few - a lack of character is not one of them.
However, while it has been enough to allow them to become a consistent member of that elite group challenging for Sam Maguire, it hasn't yet proved sufficient to drag them across the finishing line.
And, as they negotiate the long and winding road of the qualifiers for the second successive season, all the weaknesses that have denied them ultimate glory haven't been fixed.
They were there in abundance in MacHale Park last weekend in front of their equally anxious supporters against Derry and will follow them south into the uncharted waters of Ennis and one of the most improved sides in the country.
Mayo showed the best and worst of themselves but ultimately they got over the line and that's what matters in the qualifiers - all they want is to return to Croke Park and Derry, no more than countless other teams, would love to swap places with them.
Mayo get enough stick but they have been getting the best out of what they have: they are a top-four team, they are getting into position every year and are so close to that breakthrough. However, so much of Mayo's troubles are self-inflicted.
Yet again you'd have to wonder where are their marquee forwards. In 65 minutes, they shot 16 wides and managed just ten scores on a perfect day for football. You can say they are creating chances but they still seem to be doing everything but finishing them. They still have a tremendously good attacking half-back line, mobility in midfield and their defence can shut out the best - they kept Dublin's attack to just a point from play in a half of football last season.
- Read more: 'I look at Stephen Rochford and I don't see any attacking plan' - David Brady on Mayo's forward woes
They have great tacklers, they are great at turning over teams - they just lack a clinical edge which undos an awful lot of their good work.
But, no more than they did against Fermanagh last summer, they found a way and they can build momentum from the way they finished.
They may miss Patrick Durcan this weekend but his point the last day could be the turning point in their season; after seeing his side waste so many chances, he took the thing by the scruff of the neck and fired over an inspirational score. Then they introduced Conor Loftus and you could see he was utterly unaffected by the weight of history afflicting his team-mates - he took on the responsibility to score 1-1 himself and in extra-time his side were liberated.
Kerry were in this position in 2009 and Diarmuid Murphy's penalty save in Tralee against Sligo's David Kelly was a similar turning point; when they met Dublin, they just exploded. Mayo might yet do the same this year.
People say the qualifier run will tire them and age comes into it but they have young players - yet Andy Moran is only 33 and still producing. They just need them all at their best. Players like Jason Doherty, Diarmuid O'Connor, Seamie O'Shea and Loftus need to show their best form.
Aidan O'Shea is back to his best. He has carried that Mayo team a fair bit of that journey and he has suffered an awful lot of unfair criticism. If they had another two or three of his kind, they would have All-Ireland medals in their back pocket. He takes a lot of stick from defenders and, like his team, a lot of the criticism is unfounded. He'll be up against Gary Brennan but I expect him to vary his position like he did last weekend because Clare are a side who are developing a momentum of their own after a taste of Croke Park last year.
They had a good performance against Kerry and a convincing win as favourites against Laois. Their main assets are troubling for opponents - boundless energy, great work-rate and immense heart. They can be aggressive, they are a team that has belief and a nice variety between a running and kicking game.
They have a good kick-out strategy, they are mobile in midfield with Cathal O'Connor and Brennan. Gordon Kelly and David Tubridy are proven leaders. They restricted Kerry to just two points from play in the first half from a total of just 1-4 - and you saw what Kerry did to Cork. And they also have pace up front in Keelan Sexton, Jamie Malone and Sean Collins. However, they only beat Limerick by a point and eventually Kerry outscored them when they were a man down and against the wind so that leaves a question mark when they are faced with superior teams.
Their conversion rate tends to be low too and they concede needless frees. But Colm Collins wants this type of challenge, and they will empty the tank. Clare will target Division 1 football next season and are on an upward curve even if they come up short on Saturday.
Not so for Mayo, who still remain a wounded animal. They will win and prove once more that it is often the wounded beasts everyone else needs to be wary of.
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