Saturday 1 October 2016

Vincent Hogan: Mayo must get under Dublin's skin to end their 65-year wait for All-Ireland glory

Mayo must get under Dublin's skin to force hand of history and end their 65-year wait for All-Ireland glory

Published 17/09/2016 | 02:30

Cillian O’Connor (right) signals to the linesman after a controversial incident between Diarmuid Connolly (centre) and Mayo team-mate Lee Keegan during last year’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE
Cillian O’Connor (right) signals to the linesman after a controversial incident between Diarmuid Connolly (centre) and Mayo team-mate Lee Keegan during last year’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE
Mayo selector John Morrison. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Let's not sentimentalise what Mayo need to do here or work on an assumption that history has put snakes in their heads.

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Let's avoid the seduction of siphoning their story down those familiar misty-eyed avenues of superstition and maudlin talk of a cleric's curse. Stephen Rochford isn't Shackleton heading to the Antarctic here. Mayo have a game to win. Anything else in their heads is just noise.

Is it significant that there's less hyperbole around them this time? They'll surely hope so. No sign of the "big happy heads" Kevin McStay speaks of in Keith Duggan's House of Pain, a kind of emblematic portrait of their people's relationship with Croke Park in September.

The game today is in thrall to a Dublin team that, in moments of duress, seems to have call on the gearing of a locomotive. So what must Mayo do?

One pundit proposed this week a need for them to introduce "an element of anarchy" to proceedings and the mind, inevitably, danced back to '06 and Mayo's declaration of squatter's rights in a warm-up that so convulsed Hill 16.

Dublin would come to lead that All-Ireland semi-final by seven points with just over 20 minutes remaining, but they'd taken an age to find their rhythm (trailing 0-4 to 0-0 after the first quarter) and, once pressured in the home-straight, panic simply devoured them.

Brittleness

Maybe little things foretold that brittleness, like 'Pillar' Caffrey's angry pre-game shunt into the back of Mayo assistant manager John Morrison. The Armagh man had been doing some work with Na Fianna that year, was friendly with Caffrey and knew at that moment of impact that, mentally, Dublin's manager was now in a place of the opposition's choosing.

Morrison doesn't envisage Rochford setting that kind of bait tomorrow or, indeed, Jim Gavin rising to it if he did, but he does see a value in Mayo putting "the wrong pictures" in Dublin minds now.

"Dublin were the better side in '06," he reflected this week. "But their warm-up that year was choreographed, literally. It was like a dance programme. And we just wanted to knock them out of that routine.

"Pillar and me would be close enough friends but I think he realised that what we did was planned and, in his temper, he shouldered me. Now I didn't have to react. Our boys never confronted them. But when he went into their pre-match huddle, he was very forcibly angry.

"So we basically put Dublin on the back foot. They were what I call 'given negative'. They expected a good start in that game but it didn't happen and, for a time, their conscious brain was all over the place. They were in disarray.

"And that's where Mayo have to bring them again now."

Perhaps, but the distinction between Dublin then and now undeniably makes that challenge more complex. Eleven years ago, they hadn't played football into September for more than a decade, yet tomorrow's will be Dublin's fourth final in six seasons, Gavin's team boasting a 27-game unbeaten run.

Stepping on their toes in the warm-up might just amount to poking a crocodile with a stick.

The savage lucidity they brought to last month's second half against Kerry spoke of a team programmed to remain implacable in the face of either physical or psychological discomfort. Kerry believed they had them exactly where they needed them at the mid-point, yet Dublin won the second half by seven points.

Mikey Sheehy, the Kingdom legend who has been a selector to Eamonn Fitzmaurice, believes that that performance confirmed the modern Dubs as a team for the ages.

"They don't do panic, no matter what you throw at them," he reflects now. "That's the resilience in them. Stephen Cluxton is the best kicking goalkeeper I've ever seen and that six or seven-minute spell we had coming up to half-time (when Kerry scored an unanswered 2-4) just didn't worry him.

"I suppose half-time came maybe five minutes too soon for us in that regard because he was rattled but, in the second half, he was just pinging those kick-outs out again, showing what a player he is. Pressing up on his kick-outs can work in small bursts, but it's impossible to do it for 70 minutes. You're risking yourself a little at the back."

And that's the quarrelsome nature of what's facing Mayo here.

Not that vast wilderness of years stretching back to '51. Not the familiar longing of a great sprinkled diaspora returning again, yet keyed to be so wary of tomorrow decanting the same, tired lament. Not even the need within the dressing-room to justify their winter separation from a management team comprising two of the county's most revered old soldiers.

No, strip away all the layers beneath Mayo's hunger and nothing will concentrate their minds like the reach of Dublin's shadow.

What must they do?

Enda McNulty, renowned performance consultant and an All-Ireland winner in '02 with Armagh, believes that "clarity" must be at the core of everything Mayo seek from themselves. He also suggests that they must remain "incredibly cool", something, in his view, that proved beyond Kerry last month.

Composed

"Dublin have beaten Kerry in their last four major meetings essentially because they've been more composed in the last ten minutes," says McNulty. "It wasn't that Kerry didn't provide enough anarchy last month, it was that they weren't composed enough in the clutch moments.

"All they needed was two or three calm, cool heads to say 'Right guys, cool the jets! Let's win this game by being smarter!'

"In fact you saw the opposite. Kerry were diving into tackles, giving the ball away, giving away stupid frees.

"I think the world of Liam Hassett. He'd be a big icon of football for me, I love the man, I love his character. But, if you watched him in that second half, he was running all over the pitch with his fists clenched, screaming at the Kerry players.

"I would have loved to see him running over nice and calmly, putting his hand on a shoulder and saying 'Get a breath, calm the jets man!'

"Because I think the team that controls the emotion controls the game."

McNulty believes that it is lack of composure in execution that has cost Mayo most dearly in recent finals and that that should be the focus of Rochford's attention now, not the search for some maverick new game-plan. He agrees that they need to bring surprises for Dublin, but that those surprises can be small and nuanced.

Above all, they need to play the game, not the occasion.

"History is only relevant if the players make it relevant," says the former Armagh defender.

"What the Mayo public make of it, what their diaspora all over the world make of it is irrelevant. These people are rolling in to town as we speak and it's the most amazing, special thing to see them journey home from NYC, from Melbourne, from Hong Kong.

"But what's in the psychology of all those supporters is 100pc irrelevant. What's in the psychology of the players is incredibly relevant. I've no doubt they have a plan to write their own script and not follow the historical script. And that script will be well written in their minds.

"Whether or not they're able to execute it to the 74th minute? Different story."

Mayo's recent history with Dublin isn't exactly one of hapless oppression. They got the better of them in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final; looked to be controlling the 2013 All-Ireland final until a Bernard Brogan goal; then took them to a semi-final replay last August.

Sheehy describes Mayo as having "the best tacklers in the country, particularly their forward line" and says that could be crucial in subduing Dublin's attacking half-backs. He also suggests their low-key journey to this final puts them "in a perfect position".

Does he see it happening then? "Put a gun to my head and I'd go for the Dubs," responds the Kerry legend.

McNulty and Morrison, too, see huge opportunity here for the underdogs, yet neither is quite inclined to predict Sam Maguire going West.

"Mayo were always great footballers, but they had a soft belly," suggests Morrison. "I see a steel in this team, though.

"The National League wasn't on their radar. They didn't need another Connacht title. Winning this cup was all they've been thinking about. They're going to have to find a way of pressing Dublin's buttons now and, with boys like Rochford and Donie Buckley and Tony McEntee involved, I'm sure they'll have a plan.

"But if somebody gave me a thousand pounds to put on this match and asked me which team are you putting it on? Dublin!"

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