Saturday 18 January 2020

Comment: Hand of history will weigh heavier than expectation now for inconsistent Mayo

Alan Campbell gets to drips with Keith Higgins. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Campbell gets to drips with Keith Higgins. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When David Coldrick finally brought this All-Ireland semi-final to a conclusion the lack of expression and emotion from most of the Mayo players on the field said much, not just about the type of game it was, but the season it has been so far.

Aidan O'Shea booted the ball into the Hogan Stand but there was no fist pump like there had been three weeks earlier when Tyrone were in their slipstream.

Embraces were gentle and smiles painted pictures of relief more than joy.

The game dictated it had to be that way, their staggered, stuttered progress aided and abetted by a second goal that had a freakish bit of luck about it in the build-up, Evan Regan slipping as he launched a point attempt only for the ball for to fall kindly for Conor O'Shea to pivot brilliantly and catch it sweetly in the same movement.

How would the closing 12 minutes (including six minutes of added time) have played out without that little rub of the green nudging them six clear?

How might the game have played out if defender Colm O'Shaughnessy had not coughed up possession in an advanced position, allowing Mayo to counter through the explosive Keith Higgins and Jason Doherty to finish to bring parity (1-3 to 0-6) after a turbulent opening?


Seven of the next eight points over the 10 minutes that remained in the half were Mayo's, once again underlining that when they play it fast and furious few teams can live with them.

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From three down to six ahead at the break it left them very comfortable and mirrored the surge that anchored them against Kildare in their third-round qualifier in MacHale Park in July and even the five unanswered points they reeled off at the same venue in June just before half-time when Galway knocked them off their provincial perch.

But that's been the thing about Mayo in 2016 - fits, starts, bits, pieces.

When they've been good, they've been very good. But those spells have been all too fleeting.

Yet they've made it to their third All-Ireland final in five years with far less of the pomp of previous years.

All-Ireland semi-finals involving Mayo, even those replays they have lost, tend to be blockbuster Broadway affairs. This had more of a village hall feel to it, underwhelming in every way.

"The way we've gone this year it has kind of kept it all under wraps a bit as well," acknowledged Keith Higgins afterwards.

"It's probably hard to look at the game when you're playing in it but there were spells that we played well, but there's also spells that I'm sure we aren't going to be one bit happy with. So I suppose sometimes you probably go out and you hit 21-22 points and you win a classic, you're the best team in the world, but we realise we still have a lot of hard work to do."

Such sentiments were echoed by manager Stephen Rochford who reflected on the ambition last December to get back to an All-Ireland final and take their chance.

"All-Ireland semi-finals are there to be won. We all have enough experience of playing epic finals and one thing or another so we are just content with getting to the final at this moment."

Some might take their understated journey as a sign that it's written in the stars to finally lay the ghosts of so many All-Ireland finals past.

The kind nature of their qualifier draw (first two games at home), their survival at the end of the Tyrone quarter-final and their low altitude flight this summer feed into the narrative that this could be their year.

But in truth the form book discloses none of that optimism.

Maybe that's a reflection of this team's maturity now, that they had to ride the storms and rough passages.

They controlled a lot of the second half here through the work of Aidan O'Shea, Keith Higgins and Colm Boyle but the sparks never really caught fire.

Strikingly, it was two players with more than a decade of service put down who exerted some of the strongest influence.

The pragmatism this season was reflected in their posting of Barry Moran, their primary high fielder, as a screen in front of Conor Sweeney and Michael Quinlivan to quell their aerial threat.

It was right out of the Pat Holmes/Noel Connelly playbook from last year's All-Ireland quarter-final win over Donegal but it worked well and showed a tactical flexibility after a summer cultivating Kevin McLoughlin in a covering role.

"They have quite an obvious aerial threat in Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney. It was an aspect if we could reduce or not concede a goal then that would place us in a really good position to win the game. In many ways that's the way it played out.

"Tipperary were a tough, tough team. They had scored a goal in every game this year and that included two against Kerry. There was no case of saying we would come in here and win this game at 80 per cent and then come back for a final."

The acclaim with which Andy Moran was received as he made way in the 62nd minute for Regan is a reflection of his status in the county but also an appreciation of the 32-year-old's contribution in the first half, especially when he landed four points, two off his left, and consistently presented himself as the central target.

With Cillian O'Connor somewhat subdued they needed every bead of sweat from their former captain.

That he has been able to hang in and make such a contribution might have an element of destiny attached to it too. But even Mayo have had their heart broken too many times to let their minds wander. What they need most over the next four weeks is significant improvement. How much though?

"I don't think it's a measurement of anything," said Rochford.

"We just have to be more consistent and better in front of goal with some of the opportunities that we created.

"We have played some fabulous football in 15-18-20 minute blasts and we have created gaps in the scoreline. At times when we have maybe not been as good up front or not as efficient we still looked quite solid at the back and haven't been given the goal opportunities that had been given earlier in the year."

For Higgins the flame of hope has never flickered, even on the darkest days of last autumn when they sought the heads of the previous management.

"The bunch of guys in that dressing-room are highly ambitious. They know what they want and there was never any kind of negative thoughts."

It was Moran who captured it best however when he sensed that the team was now facing the "biggest four weeks of our lives".

Their resilience to keep chasing the dream and come face-to-face with more potential pain is admirable.

A strange summer dictates that the weight of expectation won't press down on them nearly as hard as the hand of history inevitably does.

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