Mayo's nearly men return for new glory bid
Published 28/05/2016 | 02:30
Once more with feeling then - Mayo are ready for take-off in the latest attempt to reach a peak which has tantalised them for so long, only to always become lost in thick mists when they begin the final ascent.
Their frustrating experiences have been parsed and analysed in minute detail, but ultimately it all comes down to this: Sam Maguire hasn't wintered in Mayo for 65 years.
The close calls and the heartbreak will never be forgotten but all that matters now is whether they can locate that little extra required to provide the winning impetus.
Over the last five years, they have taken complete control of Connacht, beaten Dublin, Donegal, Tyrone, Cork and taken Kerry to extra-time in a replay, but have been unable to get the sequence right to win the All-Ireland.
They have had management overhauls in successive seasons as James Horan handed over to Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly at the end of 2014.
That was followed last year by a player coup, which forced the pair out, paving the way for the arrival of Stephen Rochford, Corofin's manager in the successful All-Ireland club adventure last year.
And, in another development, Mayo's luck changed this year when their U-21s won the All-Ireland title.
It's appropriate, then, to test the mood in a county which, over the years, has been analysed more closely than any other.
Step forward two big figures from the past, Pat Fallon and Kevin Cahill, who between them played 127 times for Mayo from 1992 to the 2001 All-Ireland qualifier defeat by Westmeath, the final game in two illustrious careers. Both Fallon, who works nowadays as a Business Manager with Standard Life in the Western region and Cahill, a Ballaghaderreen-based accountant, know all about frustration from their playing days, having gone through the bitter experience of losing All-Ireland finals in 1996 (by a point in a replay with Meath) and 1997.
To compound the desolation, Mayo were within seconds of winning in 1996, only for Colm Coyle to equalise. A year later, Kerry beat Mayo in the final and, in 1998, Galway dumped them out of Connacht in the first round before going on to win the All-Ireland title.
"If there were qualifiers then, it might have been very different. We had no way back after the Galway game, unlike nowadays when a team can regroup," said Fallon.
Neither Cahill nor Fallon expect Mayo will be in 'back door' territory this year, instead predicting a smooth path towards a sixth successive Connacht title. "Without being in any way disrespectful to the Connacht Championship, another provincial title isn't in itself much use to Mayo," said Cahill. "Its importance is in getting them to the quarter-finals on the straight route. Ideally, they would like to time their run so that they head towards their peak after the Connacht Championship."
Fallon doesn't expect Mayo to face any big problem in Connacht, where Galway and Roscommon are regarded as the main challengers.
"Galway are short quite a few players and aren't at Mayo's level right now. I would expect Roscommon to beat Sligo but I don't think they have the physical presence to match Mayo, especially around midfield," he said.
The player revolt against Connelly and Holmes is no longer a major source of discussion in Mayo but will it resurface if the performance level drops this summer?
Fallon: "The team is revered down here. What they did last year will only become an issue if they don't do well. You'd have to give a lot of credit to Pat and Noel for the way they handled the situation, stepping aside to let things move on. The players got their way but they know though that questions will be asked if they don't win the All-Ireland."
Cahill: "The change of management has put pressure on the players. They pointed the finger and they know they have to get it right now. It's a new pressure but maybe it's one they needed."
Whatever about management upheaval, is there a chance that having pushed so hard for so long without gaining All-Ireland success, Mayo's batteries could suddenly go dead?
Cahill: "They must be close to breaking point but they have kept coming back in recent years and I'm sure that's how they're looking at it now. Given what they've been through, it would be easy to think that 'winning the All-Ireland is not in the stars for us' but, on the other hand, they know how close they've been and how things could be so different with a bit of luck. They know too that on a given day, they can beat any opposition."
Fallon: "Every year is different. It doesn't matter how many setbacks or disappointments you have as a player, you're mad to get going again in a new season. The hardest thing is if you finish your career without achieving what you set out to do, especially if you've had a lot of close calls."
Mayo's U-21 success has energised the mood in the county after an uneasy league campaign where relegation was only just avoided.
Cahill: "They were indifferent in the league but they were without quite a few first-choice players. Anyway, it was always going to be a matter of putting everything on the line in the championship. What went before will have no impact."
Fallon: "The league means nothing now. Stephen (Rochford) tried a few things but I'm sure he'll try even more in the championship. We need to be more defensively-minded, especially in Croke Park. We now have an ideal sweeper in Diarmuid O'Connor, who can cover any amount of ground if he's used that way.
"Conceding goals that could have been avoided cost us dearly over the last few years. We have the players to play a more defensive system that cuts down those risks.
"Every team is playing defensively now. I'd expect to see a big emphasis by Mayo on kick-passing too. That was an important part of Corofin's game when Stephen was there. And we have the best ball-winner in the game in Aidan O'Shea."
So can Mayo, the only county in GAA history to have won five successful provincial titles without adding an All-Ireland title, make the breakthrough at the sixth attempt?
Cahill: "They have been one of the top teams in the country for the past three or four years so there's no reason they can't make it to No 1. They'll need a bit more luck than they've had but they're due a break. The U-21 win has been a boost. Everything is on the line now."
Fallon: "It's between Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone in my book. Dublin are still the stand-out team but Mayo could have beaten them last year. Build on that and there's every reason to be optimistic."