O'Neill: All or nothing

27 August 2006; Kevin O'Neill, Mayo, celebrates victory with Paddy McNicholas, left, Vice-Chairman, Mayo GAA County Board and JP Lambe, treasurer. Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Semi-Final, Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Conor McKeon

KEVIN O'NEILL lays it down, bare and honest.

"For Mayo and the supporters and the team – given the huge amount of work they have put into it – it's either an All-Ireland now or nothing at this stage," says the former Mayo forward.

Which, for a county without one in 62 years, might be deemed a tad harsh, but for O'Neill, there is a necessary separation between the county's historical travails and the upward graph of the current group.

The GAA being the GAA and Mayo being Mayo, it's nigh on impossible for most to analyse a particular team from that particular county without dredging up ancient failings and perceiving them as permanent traits, forever set to inflict whichever band of players wear the jersey.


It is, at once, unfair and unavoidable, says O'Neill, who himself has partaken in some of Mayo's more recent September failings.

"There are a lot of guys who were involved in All-Ireland finals before last year's but there are also a newer breed of fellas that I don't think are weighed down because of what has happened in the past," he notes, with the disclaimer: "But until they win that ultimate prize, people will always have that perception. 'Ah, it's Mayo again. Same old story.'

"It's up to this crop to try and change those perceptions. But they won't be too concerned about perceptions outside the county. They're a very close, tight-knit bunch."

It's been a bugbear of James Horan's, that record. The figures, as he was at pains to point out last year, show that Mayo have a very good record in Croke Park, just not in All-Ireland finals.

Then again, by comparison with his initial, muted exposure to inter-county manager-dom, Horan has been on a relative warpath of late.

First, hitting out at the shoddy treatment his team got from the media in the lead up to the All-Ireland final, where all the kudos – as Horan perceived it – was being gushed upon Donegal.

And then, somewhat surprisingly, calling out Joe Brolly for a bit of verbal Queensbury Rules after Mayo's first FBD League game in January.

"Overwhelmingly, he would have huge credibility and respect from people involved in the game at home," says O'Neill, a former intercounty team-mate of Horan's.

"In the past, he has been quite private and kept his thoughts to himself. The comments recently coming out of the camp might have increased the profile and got a lot of coverage.

"Whether that is to be turned into positives or negatives, only the future will tell. But at this stage, he would have them pretty grounded. He probably reset their focus on winning every game that is in front of them."

O'Neill accepts that it is hard to gauge progress at this time of year in a season after coming so close to winning the whole lot, but says there are little bits and pieces of improvement he would like to see.

"I would love to see Keith Higgins playing more of a central role, driving down the field," he says.

"He has good footballing ability. And I still think we need a few more options on the bench, fellas who can come on and do something a little bit different.

"I also think we need to look at beefing up our forward play, with physical type of players. And they are there in Mayo. But the nucleus of a squad to compete at the top level are more or less there at the moment."

Famously, O'Neill won his All Star in 1993 and by 2006, he was scoring two goals in an All-Ireland final for Mayo in another botch job against Kerry.

In the interim, he played for Na Fianna in Glasnevin and has kept a close eye on Dublin this year, noting the emergence of a rare and talented band of youngsters.


"Jack McCaffrey looks very quick, can get up and down the pitch very well," he reckons.

"But the big thing now is when the National League moves into the latter part of the year and things get more physical and more competitive and the older guys start returning to the various teams, to see how some of these players react under more intense pressure with bigger crowds and big expectations on their shoulders.

"Their speed of movement coming out from the back seems to be a little bit faster. That comes with a good understanding of each other's play.

"The day they played Kerry down in Killarney, I was particularly impressed with the speed at which they moved the ball into Bernard Brogan – and the freshness and appetite he showed. He looks in very good physical shape.

"The trick will be how to blend these guys with the older guys and how to keep the older guys fresh. But from what I can see, this is the ideal scenario for Jim Gavin to have.

O'Neill, of course, played in 2006 when Mayo wiped Dublin's eye right in front of the Hill while last summer Mayo blitzed the Dubs before Pat Gilroy's men almost reeled them in.

"I would say there is quite a healthy respect for what Dublin have achieved after the amount of pressure they were under to win that All-Ireland and finally get over the line," he says of the colourful recent rivalry between the two counties.

"There are lots of lessons to be learned from that for Mayo. They had that pressure and they were able to channel it in a positive way.

"Because really, at this stage, success will be measured on winning the All-Ireland or not. That's the standard they have set for themselves," concludes O'Neill.