EVEN when staring up from the abyss, Mayo football has an enduring capacity to regenerate and bounce back.
Think back to 2004, when Kerry had ruthlessly dismembered the carcass of their latest collapsing All-Ireland quest. How could that Mayo team hope to get back to September any year soon, you wondered? They managed it in two. Now cast your mind back to last summer's double-whammy humiliation, first Sligo and then Longford. Gone from the championship after two dismal attempts; and with them the second coming of John O'Mahony. Mayo appeared in a state of shambles. Within days, all the talk was of root-and-branch reviews to analyse why a county with such a healthy club and underage pedigree was now falling off the senior cliff-face.
The very same questions were being posed last May, following Mayo's brush with humiliation, defeat to London. They survived that day, just about, and now they are thriving. Tomorrow Mayo find themselves back in an All- Ireland semi-final, having conquered Connacht as a low-key precursor to their August Bank Holiday ambush of All-Ireland champions Cork. No one outside James Horan's inner circle saw that Rebel coup coming. Suddenly, the pundits can no longer get away with a few glib platitudes about Mayo's improvement under their rookie boss … and then blithely rubbish their chances of further advancement in the race for Sam.
Speaking to the Evening Herald this week, former Mayo forward Kevin O'Neill delivered the following defence of his oft-derided county: “While it might have been popular in the day to give Mayo a lot of stick and tar a lot of teams with the same brush, it's been proven over the last 15 years that teams coming out of Mayo are there or thereabouts. I always believe the talent is definitely there.” O'Neill is no deluded optimist and, in the same interview, cautioned that tomorrow is a “huge challenge”. Part of him was speaking from painful experience: for on his last SFC appearance at Croke Park, O'Neill scored two goals and still ended up on the wrong end of a 13-point massacre. Ah yes, Kerry!
Mayo have lost four All-Ireland senior finals in the last 15 years; the last three of them were suffered at the hands of Kerry, and the most recent two (2004 and ’06) were annihilations. No wonder, then, that much of the talk this week has been about Mayo's mindset and whether they'll be spooked by the first sight of that green-and-gold jersey. Well, the good news is that both teams are playing in changed strips! More seriously, as O'Neill has alluded to above, all Mayo teams don't deserve to be tarred with the same brush.
In personnel terms, this is almost a completely different team to the one ripped apart five years ago. Just two of the '06 All-Ireland 15 remain as first-team regulars – defender Keith Higgins and attacking talisman Alan Dillon, both key men still. There are other connections, of course: Trevor Mortimer (the subject of a quad muscle scare all week) and Andy Moran came off the bench that September and have been instrumental in Mayo's progress. Meanwhile, the recently hamstrung Peadar Gardiner and Ronan McGarrity (who both started in '06) have played important ‘impact sub' roles this summer. By contrast, Kerry are still heavily reliant on the men of '06: seven starters then have been selected again here.
That figure would rise to eight if Paul Galvin's hamstring was in finer fettle, while a further three players used off the bench in that last Kerry/Mayo final will start tomorrow – Eoin Brosnan, Bryan Sheehan and Darran O'Sullivan. Suffice to say, this is an older Kerry team with a lot more mileage – especially in defence where five of the chosen six have crossed the 30 threshold. This is one reason why Mayo fans can dare to dream: maybe when the hard questions are asked by a brash, young challenger, Kerry's ageing heroes will suddenly find that they no longer have the answers in their legs, or stomachs.
After all, what was the post-match Cork/Mayo consensus? That the fallen champions had looked tired/stale/lacking the appetite of their voracious opponents. Now for the obligatory government health warnings: Mayo cannot presume that Kerry won't have the hunger. It's true that Jack O'Connor's decorated troops have not been roadtested – apart from the Munster final against Cork, and even that was a bizarre tale of two halves. But this Kerry generation are invariably most dangerous when bouncing back from a failed defence of Sam (think 2006 and 2009) and that scenario applies again in the wake of last year's meek exit to Down.
That's before you even factor in their enduring genius for ripping defences asunder. Previous Mayo teams know just how difficult it can be to stop Declan O'Sullivan, Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy in full flow. Now, neither the Gooch nor Donaghy were remotely close to their best against Limerick – they didn't have to be. But Declan O'Sullivan has been hitting the high notes all summer; so too has his increasingly prolific and influential namesake, Darran. Intriguingly, at the start of this campaign, Mayo's attack was being talked up whereas the sceptics weren't remotely convinced by their defence.
Expectations have been confounded on the double. The inside forwards – with the notable exception of rookie freetaker Cillian O'Connor, or Andy Moran when he moves there – have failed to cut loose, while Mayo's defence has been their bedrock. This is reflected in their penchant for closing up shop after half-time: they've conceded four points in total after the break against Galway, Roscommon and Cork. But can they restrict the O'Sullivans et al to a second-half brace tomorrow? Unlikely. Far more significant, for Mayo, will be the start. By half-time in the '04 decider, the game was already up. It was much the same in '06 – after 10 minutes! By far the worst part of Mayo's quarter-final display was the first 15 minutes, at which point they trailed by six points. A repeat against Kerry would be suicidal.
For Mayo to have a chance, they must be consistently aggressive in the tackle without being stupidly so. They will hope (and believe) that the burgeoning O'Shea brother axis can establish a platform at midfield, where Kerry are perceived to be less than dominant – but that could yet prove an elusive goal, based on the quarterfinal excellence of Bryan Sheehan. The Connacht champions have one definite advantage – they seem to relish both the underdog tag and the dearth of old Mayo hyperbole surrounding their progress.
Whether they have sufficient forward firepower to blow away Kerry's old dogs in defence and/or to outscore Kerry's marquee forwards is open to serious question, however. And that's why, ultimately, they won't trump Jack.
ODDS: Kerry 3/10, Draw 9/1, Mayo 7/2
KERRY: B Kealy; K Young, M Ó Sé, T O'Sullivan; T Ó Sé, E Brosnan, A O'Mahony; A Maher, B Sheehan; Darran O'Sullivan, Declan O'Sullivan, D Walsh; C Cooper, K Donaghy, K O'Leary.