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Mayo still an enigma

DATELINE: Sunday, March 18. Venue: Ballyshannon. Outcome: according to some green-and-red diehards, up there with the worst Mayo performances of the last quarter-century. An exaggeration perhaps, but you get the picture.

Dateline: Sunday next, April 29. Venue: Croke Park. Outcome: all to be decided as Mayo and Cork do battle for Allianz League Division One glory.

Now for the imponderable: how have a Mayo panel that plunged the depths in Donegal, then collapsed in the home straight against Cork a week later, managed to turn around their spring campaign in such spectacular fashion?

"We looked like relegation fodder a month ago," says former Mayo star John Casey. "They have swung it around full tilt."

More specifically, they've demolished All-Ireland champions Dublin by 12 points, secured a draw in Kerry, and then went one step better in a Croker semi-final, toppling the Kingdom after extra-time.

How do you explain that?



PHENOMENAL

Casey -- now manning a microphone as co-commentator with Midwest Radio -- highlights the "mental steel" evident in recent weeks, but he's still loath to make definitive judgements, and not just because their final rivals, Cork, are a "phenomenal team".

You see, Mayo have been (even this year) the quintessential riddle wrapped inside an enigma. "They're the dodgiest team in the country to put a bet on," admits Casey.

On one hand, he lauds the county's "unique knack of being able to produce against the better teams". And not just in league either: Casey reels off several one-off performances where Mayo have toppled defending All-Ireland champions (most recently Cork last summer) but then failed to go the distance.

The Charlestown man has lost count of the punters who have come into the family's hardware shop and waxed lyrical about this "different Mayo team." And yet, barely a month ago, "they were the worst team ever".

"We're unbelievable. They (Mayo fans) put you up on a pedestal and don't be long cutting your legs off you," he concludes.

Mind you, they probably had good cause for alarm after watching their team establish an early five-point lead against Donegal and then implode, losing by 0-17 to 1-7 against opponents reduced to 14 men for just over half the contest.

"We wouldn't have won a Division Four game today," manager James Horan told the Mayo News afterwards. "We were terrible in every aspect of the game ... when you put in a performance like that, something is not right."

Mayo had actually started the league with back-to-back victories in Laois and Armagh (sandwiching a poor first half in the fog-abandoned Dublin clash). But the Ballyshannon debacle was preceded by defeat against Down, their hopes perhaps fatally undermined by the ninth-minute dismissal of midfield talisman Aidan O'Shea.

Amid the Donegal post-mortems, people wondered aloud why Mayo had spent the previous night billeted in Sligo for team-bonding purposes. "It was the nearest (away) league game and why overnight?" Casey wonders.

Since then, however, the form-graph has pointed consistently upward. Even against Cork, while distraught fans cursed the surrender of a five-point lead in the last 20 minutes, management spied some hope in the overall performance.

Horan lamented the turnover of possession in "absolutely crazy situations" but, on the subject of growing supporter despair, added: "I'm not quite sure where all the doom and gloom is coming from."

Out of the gloom emerged Mayo's best league performance in recent memory -- the Dublin refixture. Afterwards, fans queued up to take photographs of the '0-20 to 0-8' scoreboard but, in many ways, what happened against Kerry 10 days ago was even more impressive.

Inspired by the on-fire Conor Mortimer, Mayo led by 0-6 to 0-1 after 13 minutes -- but then found themselves five adrift after James O'Donoghue's 53rd-minute goal. Same old Mayo? Anything but.

True, they'd never have forced extra-time without Kieran Donaghy's kamikaze pass that led to Pat Harte's exquisite penalty ... but still, as Casey points out: "They showed a bit of heart; they had a rattle."



SUPERMAN

The newly established half-back trio of Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle (goalscoring hero the last day) have played a pivotal role. "I always liked Colm Boyle," says Casey. "The only thing he missed against Kerry was the Superman cape."

Perhaps even more eye-catching was Mayo's ability to repel Kerry in the injury-enforced absence of Aidan O'Shea, who will sit out Sunday's final as well. This places a question mark about midfield, especially against Cork's man-mountains.

"A different challenge," says Casey, before sagely concluding: "Everyone is on about the monkey off the back (after beating Kerry) ... the monkey is never off your back until you get the cup in your hand."


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