Eamonn Sweeney: Mayo have no one to blame but Mayo
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We need to talk about Mayo. Because we've got them all wrong and in doing so have missed the real meaning of not just the 2017 football championship, but probably the 2016 one as well.
The conventional wisdom is that when Mayo take on Dublin they are underdogs battling the odds who deserve the height of praise for going so close. It's as though the Westerners are a team reaching a senior final the first year after a promotion from intermediate.
Yet watching last Sunday's final it was clear that Mayo actually have better individual players than Dublin. Lee Keegan, Aidan O'Shea, Andy Moran, Cillian O'Connor, Keith Higgins, David Clarke, Chris Barrett, Colm Boyle, Kevin McLoughlin, these are all great footballers. They're also the kind of players who don't come along too often for any county. Failing to win an All-Ireland with them is criminal.
Mayo's story is one of not over- but of under-achievement. This is less a plucky team of warriors getting the very last drop out of themselves than a supremely talented side which has contrived to throw away successive All-Irelands.
You can excuse Mayo losing three All-Ireland finals to Dublin by pointing out it was an outstanding team which beat them each time.
Yet I think the last two of those defeats had more to do with the nature of the losers than that of the winners. Mayo, though packed with outstanding players and full of fighting spirit, happen to be the worst team in a close finish that the GAA has ever seen.
Let's examine this year's championship. In the Connacht semi-final, Mayo found themselves a point down with two minutes left against a Galway team who were panicking and looked out on their feet. Yet, though almost monopolising possession during a lengthy period of injury-time, Mayo kicked three bad wides and found themselves propelled into the qualifiers.
This was the second year in a row Galway had shocked Mayo. On both occasions this was hailed as a breakthrough for Kevin Walsh's side but Tipperary last year and Roscommon this year subsequently revealed Galway to be a pretty average side. They're certainly not the kind of opposition a team with Mayo's firepower should have lost to.
So to the qualifiers where first time out Mayo encountered surprisingly feisty opposition from a poor Derry side whose manager would resign soon afterwards. Yet as normal time expired, Mayo led by three points and looked home and hosed. Then, two minutes into injury-time, up popped Derry's Mark Lynch to fist a goal which sent the game into extra-time. In that extra-time Mayo disposed of Derry with such alacrity, moving 11 points clear in 20 minutes, you wondered how they'd ever made such heavy weather of it.
Two rounds later Mayo met a Cork team coming off a woeful defeat in an abysmal Munster final. Once more Stephen Rochford's team led by three points going into injury-time. Luke Connolly got the goal which levelled matters on this occasion but a Patrick Durcan point put Mayo back ahead. Yet, seven minutes into injury-time, Connolly got the chance to force the game into extra-time where once more Mayo prevailed against opposition who really shouldn't have been allowed to take things that far.
A pattern was beginning to emerge. Against Roscommon in the quarter-final Mayo, stop me if you've heard this one before, led going into injury-time and looked to be in control. Four minutes later Enda Smith was kicking a free which gave Roscommon a draw. Even then Cillian O'Connor had two shots to win the game for Mayo but missed both. Mayo overwhelmed Roscommon in the replay, yet again raising the question of why they'd previously made such modest opposition look so good. You shouldn't really be drawing with a team you're able to beat by 22 points just eight days later.
Mayo received lots of praise for the character and fighting spirit they showed in recovering from such close shaves. But this was a bit like praising a man for fighting back from bankruptcy when he could have avoided it in the first place by taking a few precautions.
In reality, with the ability in the team, their progress to the semi-final should have been as easy as that enjoyed by Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone. An inexplicable sloppiness made life much harder for them than it should have been against teams who'd hardly have got a player into Mayo's first 15.
In the drawn semi-final against Kerry it was Mayo who equalised having trailed going into injury-time. All the same they gave Kerry a chance to reply only for Bryan Sheehan's long free to drop short. In the replay Mayo's dominance was such that their ability in a close finish never had to be tested. Once more the question was why, given their obvious superiority, they hadn't concluded the job the first day.
You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that so many similar finishes can't be a coincidence. Mayo are much, much better than Derry, Cork and Roscommon yet they were unable to prevent these vastly inferior teams from sneaking draws at the death. So when they led by two points with eight minutes of normal time remaining against a team who are as good as them, it looked unlikely that they'd close this one out either. So it proved. Like Lynch, Connolly and Smith before him, Dean Rock landed a crucial score against Mayo in injury time. Only this time there wasn't going to be any second chance.
Mayo have been unfairly accused of bottling it in the past. Yet they were slightly weaker than both Donegal in 2012 and Dublin in 2013 and probably did well to make those games as close as they were. In 2004 and 2006, they came up against vastly superior Kerry teams and though they had a real shot in 1996 and 1997, the sending-off of Liam McHale in the former year and the extraordinary display of Maurice Fitzgerald in the latter took matters out of Mayo's hands.
In 2016 and 2017, on the other hand, victory was in Mayo's grasp and they let it slip away. The sense of a missed opportunity will only grow with time because it's become abundantly clear that Dublin are in a period of transition, the team which won the 2011, 2013 and 2015 finals being gradually succeeded by a new model. Dublin's starting line-up last Sunday bore six changes from the one which faced Mayo a year previously. All-Ireland-winning teams rarely see that much upheaval in the course of 12 months.
Those teething troubles were masked by a semi-final which now looks a testament to Tyrone weakness rather than Dublin greatness. And for all the talk of Dublin's 'awesome reserve strength' the final displays of O'Gara, Flynn and Brogan showed that it's much easier to kick late points when a game is already won than make an impact on a game against serious opposition. Kevin McManamon did OK when he came in but had a quiet year. Diarmuid Connolly's crucial interventions showed what a loss his attenuated campaign represented to the Dubs.
Brian Fenton, so dominant in the past two years, struggled this term, Jack Barry, Kevin Feely, Tom Parsons and even Colm Cavanagh getting the better of him in big games. The travails of the full-back line are shown by the fact that both Kildare in the Leinster final and Mayo in the All-Ireland final amassed the highest ever scores by losing teams in those deciders during the 70-minute era. Philly McMahon had a better year in 2015, Jonny Cooper was better last year and Michael Fitzsimons, Dublin's best defender up to then, had a nightmare final. The final was also an unhappy experience for Dublin's three post semi-final Footballer of the Year front-runners: Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs went astray, Ciarán Kilkenny was anonymous and Jack McCaffrey went off injured early on. Dublin were there for the taking.
They survived partly thanks to some magnificent individual performances, James McCarthy proving again that for five years he's been the most under-rated player in Ireland, Paul Mannion giving an extraordinary second half performance against a terrific opponent in Brendan Harrison, Dean Rock, like Andy Moran, illustrating that nothing is as effective as the perfect unflashy execution of the basics, Cian O'Sullivan, showing once more that he's Dublin's Tomás Ó Sé figure, never more evident than when his team is in trouble, and Con O'Callaghan, whose Messiesque goal prevented Dublin from being swept away in the first half.
Yet they also survived because of Mayo's almost pathological inability to finish off an opponent. For the second year in a row, the Connacht team have spurned the opportunity of their lives. All the condescending talk about their passion, all the rousing promises to return and the suggestions that they have lost little caste in defeat pale into insignificance next to that one brutal fact.
This winter Mayo must come to terms with the fact that they are their own worst enemies. They must ignore the well-meaning supporters who tell them they couldn't have done any more and that they owe the fans nothing. They owe them an All-Ireland. More importantly, they owe it to themselves. For players with their talent, anything else just isn't good enough. It's time to stop being the team everyone loves and become the team everyone envies.
Forget talk about 'bad luck'. Forget blaming the ref or population stats or money. These things are not preventing Mayo from winning an All-Ireland. The culprits are much closer to home. In sport, as in life, you almost always get what you deserve. That's the terrible thing about it.
Sunday Indo Sport