MARTIN BREHENY: Mayo face uphill task to go where nine out of ten have failed
Cork's '89 hero Davis believes ability not mentality will bring glory after successive defeats, writes Martin Breheny
Ten have tried, nine have failed.
That's the daunting backdrop to Mayo's attempt to win this year's All-Ireland football title after losing the previous two finals. Of the 10 teams who lost successive finals over the last 70 years, only Cork in 1989 took Sam Maguire home in the following year.
Mayo lost to Donegal and Dublin in the last two All-Ireland finals and now find themselves over hostile terrain where several high-flyers were shot down over the years.
Galway (1942 and 1975), Meath (1953 and 1992), Cork (1958), Kerry (1966), Dublin (1980 and 1986), Mayo (1998) found no joy in the season after losing a second All-Ireland final. Indeed, with the exception of Galway in 1942, none of them even won a provincial title.
Galway retained the Connacht crown in 1942, only to suffer the indignity of losing a third consecutive All-Ireland final when Dublin beat them.
The grim sequel for double All-Ireland final losers increases the pressure on Mayo, who begin the crucial phase of their season next Sunday when they play Cork in the quarter-finals.
The safety net, available in the provincial championships, has been removed and now Mayo are faced with the massive challenge of winning their next three games to avoid becoming the 10th from 11 teams who failed to recover from successive All-Ireland final defeats since the early 1940s.
Coincidentally, Mayo were involved in the sole exception, losing to Cork in 1989. Cork had lost the 1987-88 finals to Meath, but came good a year later, beating a John O'Mahony-managed Mayo side by four points.
Having got the taste of success, Cork retained the title a year later, just as Galway hurlers won the double in 1988, having lost finals in 1985-86. Cork (1984) and Kilkenny (2000) were similarly successful in hurling after successive All-Ireland final defeats.
"Of course, it can be done, but until such time as a team manages it, doubts will be there," said Tony Davis, left half-back on the Cork football team that won in 1989.
"We felt we should have beaten Meath in both 1987 and 1988, so we had total belief in our own ability as a team. But, at the same time, you wonder if things are ever going to happen for you. I remember when Anthony Finnerty got a goal for Mayo in the 1989 final and had another chance shortly afterwards. You're thinking: oh no, here we go again. His shot went wide and we came on strong after that. Little things can change any game, irrespective of whether you've won or lost finals in the past."
In fact, he is convinced that Mayo's bad experiences over the last two years will have no real influence on their latest All-Ireland attempt. If Mayo win, many will attribute it to the combination of hurt and experience from the last two years and if they lose, it will be put down to an inability to see the job through to a successful conclusion.
"I don't agree on either front. Mayo will win the All-Ireland if they're good enough and if they enjoy that little bit of luck that's always needed," said Davis. "Because Mayo have gone so long without winning an All-Ireland and have also lost quite a few finals, they're accused of being mentally weak or whatever, but I don't believe a word of it. Why should a group from one part of a small country be mentally weaker or stronger than another?
"Mayo lost the two All-Ireland finals because they weren't quite as good as the opposition – it's as simple as that. It had nothing to do with mentality or self-belief – they were up against marginally better teams. Donegal and Dublin had better forwards than Mayo and it counted. History had nothing to do with it."
He believes that Mayo's management is first class and that everything possible is being done to get them over the All-Ireland line, but questions still arise over whether they have the strike power to deliver the big prize.
Cork and Kerry or Galway stand between Mayo and a third successive All-Ireland final, challenges which carry considerable risk for James Horan's men.
"There's great potential in this Cork squad. They didn't function at all against Kerry in the Munster final, but there's a lot more to them than that. Croke Park might just suit them and since they're going in against Mayo as outsiders, it's set up nicely for them to have a real go. Certainly, all the pressure is on Mayo because this really is a do-or-die year for them," he said.
The same applied to Cork 25 years ago and they duly delivered, despite the set-backs of the previous two years.
"There was nothing we could do about 1987 or 1988. It's the same with Mayo now – there's nothing they can do about the last two years but there is something they can do about this season. They've got to make themselves good enough to win – that's the only way it's going to happen," said Davis.
Do double final defeats damage a county's health?
Over the last 70 years, nine out of 10 teams that lost two successive football finals failed to win the title in the following season. Cork (1989) is the exception.
Here's how the 10 fared the year after the second defeat in the final. Brackets show All-Ireland winners.
Mayo 1996-97 (Meath, Kerry)
1998: Mayo were beaten by Galway in the Connacht quarter-final and then watched as their great rivals marched to All-Ireland glory for the first time in 32 years.
Meath 1990-91 (Cork, Down)
1992: All-Ireland champions in 1987-88, this was the end of a glorious era for Meath, who lost a Leinster first round tie with Laois in Navan.
Cork 1987-88 (Meath twice)
1989: The Rebels bucked the trend of double All-Ireland final losers struggling in the following season as they beat Limerick, Kerry, Dublin and Mayo to win the title for the first time since 1973.
Dublin 1984-85 (Kerry twice)
1986: Meath overtook Dublin, beating them in the Leinster final. Dublin lost four of five Leinster finals to Meath in 1986-90 with 1989 being the exception.
Dublin 1978-79 (Kerry twice)
1980: Offaly were closing in on Dublin, who lost the 1978-79 All-Ireland finals to Kerry by a combined total of 28 points, and finally got past them in the 1980 Leinster final.
Galway 1973-74 (Cork, Dublin)
1975: Sligo beat Galway by 10 points in the Connacht semi-final. It was the start of a bad run by Galway who won only one Connacht title in 1976-81.
Kerry 1964-65 (Galway twice)
1966: Cork beat them in the Munster final, a feat they repeated a year later. It was a disappointing era for Kerry, who had lost to Galway in the championship in 1963-64-65.
Cork 1956-57 (Galway, Louth)
1958: Kerry beat them by 10 points in the Munster final and continued their provincial dominance until 1966.
Meath 1951-52 (Mayo, Cavan)
1953: Louth beat them in the Leinster semi-final, but it was a temporary setback as Meath recovered in 1954, winning the All-Ireland title.
Galway 1940-41 (Kerry twice)
1942: They retained the Connacht title, beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, before suffering triple misery in the final when losing to Dublin by two points.