Saturday 1 October 2016

Martin Breheny: Is history's hand guiding Mayo?

Approach to final mirrors several others who won title via 'back door'

Published 14/09/2016 | 02:30

Stephen Rochford – here congratulating Lee Keegan – and his Mayo team are enjoying a lucky streak they haven’t seen in a while. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Stephen Rochford – here congratulating Lee Keegan – and his Mayo team are enjoying a lucky streak they haven’t seen in a while. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cousins Katie, Eoghan, Brian, baby Emily, Brian Brendan and Oisin Smyth show their colours in front of the gable wall of the old Community Centre in Kilmeena ahead of the big match. Photo: Conor McKeown

Five of the six teams that won the All-Ireland football title via the qualifiers had one experience in common - they had at least one desperately close call.

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Plus, of course, they learned from the provincial defeats and were better for the experiences. Indeed, it's quite likely that at least some of them would not have won the All-Ireland if they arrived in Croke Park in early August as provincial champions.

All of which is most encouraging for Mayo as they attempt to become the first county since Cork in 2010 to win the title through the 'back door'.

In Mayo's case, there's another important factor. This time last year, the squad was plotting the heave which eventually led to the departure of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly as joint-managers after just one season in charge.

The revolt was swift and brutal, similar to what happened in Galway when the hurlers moved against Anthony Cunningham. A year on, Galway's review of the season will show that they were relegated from the top flight for the first time in ages and didn't survive as long in the Championship as last year.

Put plainly, they weren't as successful as in 2015. Mayo's footballers came close to being relegated too and when they lost to Galway in the Connacht semi-final in mid-June, it looked as they might be headed for a short campaign.

Three months later, they are one win away from an All-Ireland triumph, with the unpleasant memory of the manner they forced a change of management having receded into the background.

It's replaced by a new sense of optimism and a fresh opportunity to end the 65-year wait for a return visit from Sam Maguire which, if taken, will give the players a God-like status in Mayo.

Of all the finals Mayo have gone into since John O'Mahony guided them to a first decider for 38 years in 1989, they are being given the least chance this time.

That's based mainly on Dublin's excellent record in recent seasons - one defeat in 23 games over four Championship campaigns - but there also appears to be a feeling that Mayo haven't done anything so far this year to suggest they can unseat the champions.

The win over Tyrone was their highest-profile success but frankly they didn't have to be particularly good to win that game. It has been argued that Tyrone under-performed but another possibility is that they were the best from a province where, for all the hype, the quality is not as good as it used to be.

Mayo were certainly fortunate to encounter Tyrone on a day when they missed three scorable, long-range frees, while the controversial dismissal of Seán Cavanagh was also an influential factor.

Still, it's all about staying the course and as six teams showed between 2001 and 2010, when winning the All-Ireland via the qualifiers, it doesn't matter how you reach Croke Park in September.

With the exception of Kerry in 2006, the others came through the closest of calls. Indeed, like Mayo against Tyrone this year, they were all on the right side of one-point margins.

In 2010, Cork beat Dublin by a point in the semi-final while a year earlier, Kerry nudged out Sligo by the same margin in a qualifier.

In 2008, Tyrone were on the fortunate side of a one-pointer against Mayo in the qualifiers, the same margin by which Mickey Harte's men beat Armagh in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final.

Qualifiers

And in 2001, the first year of the qualifiers, Galway beat Armagh by a point in the qualifiers, en route to winning the All-Ireland title.

Indeed, the latter comparison fits in neatly with Mayo's position now.

Galway were unexpectedly beaten by Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final but, like Mayo this season, made some subtle changes which helped re-float their All-Ireland bid.

Yet when they reached the final, they were still long-priced outsiders against Meath, but defied the odds and won by nine points.

Nobody expects Mayo to beat Dublin by anything like that margin - if indeed at all - but privately, they must be pleased by the prevailing view that has them at 5/2 while Dublin are 3/10.

Effectively, it says Mayo have little chance, which is another mighty incentive for a squad with so much to prove.

Irish Independent

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