Colm Keys: 'League can give Mayo Croke Park boost'
It has taken dramatic interventions from Kevin McLoughlin in the last two years to preserve Mayo's status as the longest occupants of league football's Division 1.
In 2017, Mayo required a win over Tyrone in Omagh to stay 'alive' going into the last round against Donegal at home and it was a spectacular McLoughlin point deep into injury-time, which broke a 15-minute deadlock without a score, that provided an unlikely winner.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Almost a year to the day later, on an Ulster field again, McLoughlin and Mayo left it much later to pull themselves back from the brink, the Knockmore man producing an equaliser at the death against Donegal in Ballybofey, just when it looked like it was over for them.
Each time it felt like the entire county was standing on the edge of a cliff, as if one wrong move to send them plummeting would push them out of sight forever.
Of course, their future could never be staked on league survival but it does present an important psychological edge that they have been able to tap into with the exception of last year.
McLoughlin's habit of shaping late March games continued against Monaghan in Castlebar on Sunday when he got on the end of moves that yielded 2-2. But this time his influence carried weight at the other end of the table, earning Mayo a first league final appearance in seven years.
Thus presents a potential psychological edge at the other end of the spectrum, an opportunity to win a national final in Croke Park, to give some of best players who have played the game but don't have that decoration a chance to address that.
Mayo won't need reminding of the days, 10 in all (seven All-Ireland finals including 2016 replay and three league finals), that they have come away from the place empty-handed since their last national success at the end of the 2001 league. But whether some of those players referred to above feature in Sunday's final with Kerry remains to be seen.
Last weekend, with relegation long off the table, Mayo still had a game they needed to win to stay in the hunt for a league final but instead of handing the task over to the tried and trusted, James Horan selected arguably his least experienced side of the campaign to absorb the pressure.
Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins, Andy Moran and Ger Cafferkey weren't in the 26, Colm Boyle was but was unused, while Cillian O'Connor, Tom Parsons and Seamus O'Shea continue to rehabilitate on the margins.
It was strong endorsement from Horan but also a reflection of the path they are heading on. That they have been able to win while introducing so many new players and make so many personnel adjustments from game-to-game is a trick that few have been able to pull off.
In that sense, Mayo's league can already be declared a considerable success. When Horan came back in for a second time last September, the question of loyalty to those who had played for him before was prevalent but the balance struck over the last two months has answered that.
Ardagh's James Carr came off the bench late on against Monaghan on Sunday to make his debut and become the 34th player that Horan gave game-time to in this year's league. For any top team, 34 is a little above the average but not out of the ordinary. Stephen Rochford used 35 different players in last year's campaign.
The difference between the two years is significant. O'Connor and Parsons are injured, Barry Moran has retired but there are 12 others who featured last year that have not been part of this campaign.
In their absence Michael Plunkett, Matthew Ruane and Fionn McDonagh have been some of the most opportunist while James McCormack, Ciarán Tracey, Brian Reape and Conor Diskin have enjoyed brief but effective cameos at different times.
There has been rejuvenation for Darren Coen, Fergal Boland and especially Rob Hennelly over the last two months. Yet Horan has never strayed too far from a core of players that have provided this campaign with a firm structure.
Aidan O'Shea, redeployed with great effect towards the end as a more conventional midfielder, played every minute of every game, so too did Jason Doherty whose importance to the functioning of the Mayo attack grows. After that, Brendan Harrison, Higgins and Diarmuid O'Connor sat out one game each while Donal Vaughan and Stephen Coen played a part in all seven.
Mayo's fine league can't window-dress two of the glaring inadequacies that still exist. The two games they lost are, most likely, the two games they would have most desired to win for obvious reasons, Dublin because they are now 14 games without a win against them since the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, and Galway where the sequence without a win is half that.
The Dublin defeat was particularly galling but being outsmarted by Galway once again when the game presented itself to win in Castlebar will have cut deep too.
In the broader context, given the position that both counties occupy on Mayo's horizon, they just might have traded where they are for those two wins.
And there is some irony in their victories over the three teams - Monaghan, Kerry and Tyrone - who all inflicted defeat on Dublin.
It wasn't all perfect and it may not manifest into what they want in the summer but what this league campaign has done for Mayo is point them firmly in the right direction, giving some of their warriors of the last decade an opportunity to finally plant a national medal on their chest. It can't be dismissed as a step when it's a little plateau in itself.
Coming Soon: Independent.ie's new GAA newsletter. Sign up here