Monday 18 December 2017

Learning from mistakes of the past

By focusing on the collective and not the individual, Mayo hope to set the record straight against an old nemesis, says Damian Lawlor

This Mayo team has started to think, talk, act and play differently. And they shut out teams in the second half of games; an unusual trademark for Mayo football. Photo: Ray McManus
This Mayo team has started to think, talk, act and play differently. And they shut out teams in the second half of games; an unusual trademark for Mayo football. Photo: Ray McManus

LAST week, Joe Canning publicly admitted that the Galway hurlers were suffering from a mental block trying to make a breakthrough at senior level.

When asked about his team's failure to translate underage success -- two All-Ireland under 21 and two minor crowns since 2005 -- into glory at the highest grade, the Portumna man was frank with his reply. "It's more a mental thing now than anything else," he conceded.

Their season ended with another systems failure, a dramatic implosion against Waterford who had just been humbled by Tipperary. Canning is convinced Galway must now break down psychological barriers if they are to thrive.

"It's definitely not a talent problem with us. We've all won All-Irelands at underage level. So it's hard for me to put a finger on it. It won't be easy to fix," he accepted.

While Galway hurling continues to suffer psychologically, a similar cloud hangs over Mayo.

Romantics would say there is a true nobility about their footballers' quest for Sam Maguire, a search that has been passed through the generations since 1951. But even idealists are growing weary of their yearly malfunctions and many of the football fraternity simply see them as chokers on the big stage -- especially against Kerry to whom they have lost three All-Ireland finals and a quarter-final since 1997. That's not just a lazy media label; one former player reckons mental weakness has long been a thorn in their side.

"It was always there in my time," he says. "We were playing a massive game a few years back and we were down seven points when one of the opposition lads started sewing it into one of our forwards.

"What did our lad do? He turned around and reminded your man that he was the top scorer in the championship. Seven points in a huge game but all he could think about was himself. That's what we've been in the past 10 years -- individuals."

Kerry are a regular source of trauma, walloping them 4-15 to 3-5 in 2006, just two years after a 1-20 to 2-9 slaying. But it isn't just a Kerry virus that has infected their bloodstream. Last year, they were lowered by both Sligo and Longford despite boasting a manager of the calibre of John O'Mahony. Every good general needs on-field lieutenants, but few of O'Mahony's players showed any interest in leaving the trenches.

The team that James Horan inherited looked fragile and breakable, so he opted for change, although it looked like he wouldn't even last a full season after London brought them to extra-time in his first championship game at Ruislip. On that Sunday in May, Mayo displayed such brittleness and vulnerability that at one stage they employed a sweeper against the exiles. Even a narrow escape left little hope for the season ahead.

Still, despite that near-upset, they've added another provincial crown, their first since 2009, and produced the shock of the championship by beating Cork. Once again, perhaps foolishly, we're ready to believe in them. Horan has helped to rekindle our hopes and last week he declined to explore the theory that Kerry had a hold on Mayo.

"Kerry have a psychological hold on a lot of teams," he replied. You can link and trend anything if you want to go that route. But this team are just keeping it fairly simple; we will play the game and won't be looking or listening to what is happening outside that."

Today, his team faces their polar opposite: a county that always expects to win, one that doesn't countenance losing. And when they do lose, as against Down last year, they quickly forget about it.

Most teams bow to Kerry's eminence; their football is a cultural force and their landscape littered with footballing gods. Mayo always struggle against them. For instance, in the 2006 decider James Nallen, one of their greatest servants, was replaced after 11 minutes. Such psychological scars are slow to heal.

The Kingdom, on the other hand, are familiar with the big day routine, having featured in six of the last seven All-Ireland finals, and their manager is so adept at direct match-ups that they fear no one. They also boast the best attacking unit of the last decade so they're rarely exposed.

On occasion, they utilise sports psychologist Declan Coyle, but don't usually require much outside motivation or stimulation. Instead, tradition, self-belief and natural skills help ensure they reach their own lofty standards.

This year at least, Mayo have shown mettle too. Worries still surround their scoring power, but this young side is different to teams of the past. After escaping perilous waters in London, they beat Galway by six points, a resounding win considering their recent history. Young free-taker Cillian O'Connor displayed serious potency with an immaculate kicking display against Roscommon, while their new midfield pairing of Seamus and Aidan O'Shea put Cork to the sword with physically imposing displays.

They didn't go off the rails when they beat Cork either and instead of whooping it up at the final whistle, the experienced Andy Moran and Trevor Mortimer made sure everyone stayed composed. Small signs of a big change perhaps.

"Moran, Mortimer, Keith Higgins and Alan Dillon are all that's left from the last All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry so it's a new team," says former midfielder David Brady. "Those four lads know we were always beaten by Kerry because we didn't learn our lessons. If you send out the same players in the same positions against the same opponents, you'll get the same results. In our last two All-Ireland finals, Declan O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy ran riot and set Kerry up. We never learned. No one ever followed Donaghy wherever he went. We had no clear roles, so Kerry dictated to us from the start and we lost the head then. To have any hope today we need a good start. If we can achieve that we'll have a chance because we've only conceded four points in the second halves of our last three games.

"But we'll be forever written off until we actually beat Kerry."

Over the past decade, Mayo have enjoyed great championship wins over Cork, Tyrone, Dublin and Galway and looked capable of beating everyone bar the southern kings. They have 43 senior Connacht titles to their credit but yet receive few kudos for that because of a poor Croke Park record and past collapses.

Up to now, the county has boasted too few leaders prepared to grasp the responsibility of addressing 60 years of shattered hopes and the gradual erosion of their psyche, so it's crucial their mental strength is improved.

"Psychological scars can be draining and we've often played in our shells," Brady continues. "But I don't know about this mentally weak tag that we've picked up. Maybe we were a good team, but just not a great team -- apart from Kerry we've been able to beat everyone else.

"We are vulnerable, however, to not learning from our mistakes. We had the 2004 final lost before we even got to Croke Park. All our focus was on who was playing and who wouldn't. Lads were only intent on getting a jersey, not who would mark Kerry's main men. The 'team' was forgotten about.

"We depended on individualism against the greatest team unit around. They saw our heads were gone again and tore into us. Mayo need to realise that 'I' doesn't matter a shit unless the team wins. And they need to realise today how important a good start is. That will define their mentality."

But under four different managers in the last seven seasons, the same tired old record has been spinning in Mayo heads. So it's hard for the players to ignore this hypothesis that they're inferior to Kerry. That notion was thrown at dual player Keith Higgins.

"I suppose there's that kind of aura about Kerry teams," the corner-back said. "They're legendary at this stage. It's just their six forwards. They're probably six of the best in the country. They can play long ball, short ball, and vary it so much that you don't know what they're going to do. They're great footballers. The likes of Declan O'Sullivan, how do you mark that? He's strong, powerful, and can kick off either foot. The Gooch is the same. If you give him half a yard, he'll take a mile."

It's common practice to talk the opposition up before a game, but in Mayo's case you sometimes wonder if the players have nearly talked themselves out of winning before the game starts.

Mercifully, most of the current side was not around for 2004 or 2006 and are not weary with the weight of the past. The present team is more concerned with collective targets than individual feats. Statistical breakdowns are relayed to them during and after games and digested readily. They like to know the amount of ground they cover and concede, what percentage of breaking balls they win, how many frees are conceded and in what areas. They place huge importance of winning restarts and throw-ins, rather than arrowing sublime 60 yard cross-field passes and shooting Hollywood scores when they're 10 points down.

Horan reckons the result will come once the performance is there. He was wing-forward on the last Mayo side to beat Kerry (scoring 1-1 in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final) and realises that they'll have to play a Tyrone style of football, squeezing the life out of their rivals, closing down space and working like demons all over the field to beat Kerry.

That will require mental strength for 70 minutes but this team has started to think, talk, act and play differently. Their transformation has been symbolised by the rejuvenation of Aidan O'Shea from unpredictable target-man into a hard-working boiler room operator. And they shut out teams in the second half of games; an unusual trademark for Mayo football.

It was always going to take a new solution to solve an old problem. Under James Horan's management, the key to unlocking this ongoing mystery might be forthcoming. Maybe not today, but in the near future.

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