Tuesday 23 May 2017

Martin Breheny: Even in the worst of times over the last 65 years, Mayo always kept believing

Sixty-five years without a visit from from Sam Maguire have left them deeply frustrated but even in the worst of times they always kept believing

Seamus O’Shea after Mayo’s defeat by Donegal in the 2012 All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus O’Shea after Mayo’s defeat by Donegal in the 2012 All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

In a lengthy catalogue of painful realities for Mayo lurks the staggering fact that anyone born in the year the county last won the All-Ireland senior title is now at retirement age.

In the meantime, Sam Maguire has visited - in some cases many times - Kerry, Dublin, Cork, Galway, Meath, Louth, Cavan, Offaly, Down, Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh and Derry.

Ciaran McDonald after the 2004 final. Photo: Sportsfile
Ciaran McDonald after the 2004 final. Photo: Sportsfile

In the case of the latter six, none of them were on the All-Ireland honours list when Sam Maguire last wintered in Mayo in 1951. The intervening 65 years have brought repeated frustrations for the green-and-red, boiling towards the current situation which is bordering on desperation.

Still, notwithstanding this year's Connacht semi-final setback, the consistency levels displayed by the modern-day squad continue to give hope to Mayo that liberation is imminent.

The odds are, of course, stacked against them as they prepare to take on a Dublin team that has lost only one championship game in four seasons and which is unbeaten in its last 27 competitive games.

1952-59: Feast and famine

Successive All-Ireland titles in 1950 and '51 and a Connacht four-in-a-row from 1948-51 delivered the best-ever era for Mayo football, but it passed and was followed by a lengthy drought, during which they won only three Connacht titles in the next 32 years.

Keith Higgins after the 2006 loss to Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Higgins after the 2006 loss to Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile

They won just one Connacht title from 1952-59, but their '55 success was followed by defeat by Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final replay.

1960-69: In Galway's shadow

The decline continued, with Mayo failing to win any championship games in the first four seasons of the 1960s.

Galway were their main tormentors in that period, a pattern that continued when their great rivals established themselves as one of the most powerful forces in championship history, winning three successive All-Ireland titles (1964-66).

A theory abounded at the time that Mayo may well have been the second best team in the country but were unlucky enough to be in the same province as Galway, thus restricting their access to Croke Park. However, when they finally ended Galway's reign with a thumping win in 1967, they lost the semi-final to Meath and were beaten by Kerry in the 1969 semi-final.

Lee Keegan after Donegal defeat in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile
Lee Keegan after Donegal defeat in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile

Still, in the space of six seasons, they had lost to four teams who went on to win the All-Ireland title. It was no comfort but, similar to the last four seasons when all their conquerors won the title, it showed how close to the top they were in the 1960s.

1970-79: A Decade of despair

Mayo won the National League in 1970, but it certainly wasn't a sign of big things to come. In fact, the '70s turned out to be the worst decade in their championship history, during which they won no Connacht titles and reached the final only four times.

They managed just seven wins in Connacht in ten years, beating Leitrim four times, and Sligo, Roscommon and London once each. It left them without a win over Galway, something that had never previously happened in any decade.

Mayo reached three League finals in 1971, '72 and '78, losing them all.

Their dramatic descent down the pecking order was underlined by the All-Star selections where they went from the inaugural year in '71 (Johnny Carey) to '79 (Joe McGrath) without an award.

Keith Higgins after Mayo’s defeat to Dublin in last year’s semi-final replay. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Higgins after Mayo’s defeat to Dublin in last year’s semi-final replay. Photo: Sportsfile

1980-89: The tunnel brightens

Mayo won four Connacht titles and 19 championship games in the 1980s, three more than their combined total over the previous two decades.

Reaching the All-Ireland final under John O'Mahony in 1989 was the big achievement but they came up against a much more experienced Cork side, who had lost the previous two finals. Even then, Mayo had their chances to win but didn't convert enough of them and lost by three points.

It left Mayo heading into the 1990s with a positive mindset but it still took quite some time to put themselves in line for the big prize, having endured some tough times in the interim.

1990-99: Lost opportunities

Mayo, managed by John Maughan, played three All-Ireland finals in 1996-97 but were left empty-handed after drawing and losing to Meath and losing to Kerry. The '96 drawn game was certainly a lost opportunity.

However, Meath, complete with the indomitable spirit they displayed in that era, snatched a draw and won the replay by a point.

Kerry were the better team in the '97 final but Mayo looked to have a great chance again in 1998, only to run into a refreshed Galway side, now managed by O'Mahony. Mayo had to watch as their neighbours came from nowhere to land the All-Ireland title.

2000-09: Old hands try again

Mayo, managed by Pat Holmes, won their Allianz League title in 2001, beating Galway in the final, but watched their neighbours go on to win the All-Ireland title, via the back door.

John Maughan returned for a second stint, leading Mayo to the 2004 All-Ireland final, where they lost to Kerry, a setback suffered again two years later, this time under Mickey Moran.

John O'Mahony also had a second coming, but it didn't work out for him either. A Connacht title in 2009 was the sole success in that period but Mayo took it no further, losing to Meath in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

2010-16: Getting ever closer

O'Mahony stepped down after four seasons in 2010 and was replaced by James Horan, who presided over four successive Connacht title wins (2011-14) and took Mayo to two All-Ireland finals (2012 and '13), losing to Donegal and Dublin.

Horan came very close but the All-Ireland glass ceiling remained intact, as it did under Pat Holmes/Noel Connelly last year, following a late collapse against Dublin in the semi-final replay.

Now it's Stephen Rochford's turn to attempt a breakthrough as Mayo contest their third All-Ireland final in five seasons.

Irish Independent

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