Wednesday 21 November 2018

Comment: They didn't win Sam - but this Mayo team will be remembered far more vividly than some sides who did

Painful defeat in Newbridge feels like the end of an era for everyone's favourite other team

The Mayo team. Photo: Sportsfile
The Mayo team. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The two-goal start handed to Donegal in the 2012 All-Ireland final, the defensive mix-up which gave Bernard Brogan his first goal in the 2013 decider, the five-point lead with five minutes left lost in the 2014 semi against Kerry, the two own goals in the drawn 2016 meeting with Dublin, the decision to replace All-Star goalkeeper David Clarke for the replay, the red card for Donal Vaughan just when it looked like they'd have an extra man for the closing 20 minutes of last year's final.

No team ever amassed quite as many might-have-been moments as Mayo. Their story is one of turning points which turned the wrong way. Hope and history never quite rhymed. Lady Luck always left with someone else.

A momentous era ended in Newbridge on Saturday night. It began on July 31, 2011 when an unfancied Mayo side, who'd only defeated London by a single point in their opening Connacht Championship match, beat reigning All-Ireland champions Cork 1-13 to 2-6 in a Croke Park quarter-final. Kerry disposed of them easily enough next time out but Mayo, under manager James Horan, seemed a team on the way up. The following year they once more upset the reigning champs, beating Dublin by three points in a tremendous semi-final. Yet this was Donegal and Jim McGuinness's year. Cynics suggested Mayo had merely made life easier for the new champions by clearing a better side out of the way.

Mayo demanded respect in 2013. For the third year in a row they deposed the title-holders, beating Donegal by 16 points in the quarter-final. The final could have gone either way but it went Dublin's by a point. Yet it looked like Mayo's time would surely come soon.

They were perhaps never better than in the 2014 semi-final against Kerry. Mayo played the second half with 14 men after Lee Keegan was sent off just before the break but looked to have won the game before Kieran Donaghy came on.

The moment when the big man superbly fielded a high ball before slipping it to James O'Donoghue who stuck it into the net felt like a significant turning point. Mayo lost the replay after extra-time, their disappointment exacerbated by a sense of injustice. There were some dubious refereeing decisions and the game had been played in Kingdom-friendly Limerick because Croke Park was hosting an American Football match.

The resignation of Horan afterwards seemed to confirm the feeling that this Mayo side, like their predecessors who'd lost the 1996 and 1997 and 2004 and 2006 finals, would fade away in the face of sustained disappointment.

Yet they were back in the semis the following year, under the joint management of Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes, and led Dublin going into the final quarter before being undone by a devastating three-goal burst.

A players' putsch saw Stephen Rochford take over as manager for 2016 but a first Connacht Championship defeat to Galway in eight years and a halting progress through the qualifiers suggested a team in decline. Few predicted anything other than comprehensive defeat for them in the final against Dublin.

Instead Mayo would have won the drawn game but for own goals from Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle which kept the floundering Dubs in the contest. The unfortunate nature of both scores made you wonder if somebody up there didn't like Mayo.

In the replay, the misfortune was self-inflicted. Rochford's decision to replace Clarke with Rob Hennelly may well be the worst miscalculation in All-Ireland football final history. A botched kick-out by the replacement led to Lee Keegan, the best player in football that year, getting a black card. A Hennelly fumble gave Dublin a penalty converted by Diarmuid Connolly which proved vital as Mayo lost a second final in four years by a single point.

By now Mayo's attempts to finally land the All-Ireland had become Irish sport's great epic quest. Their 2017 championship campaign was extraordinary. Another defeat by Galway led to an odyssey which saw them play seven games, two of which went to extra-time, before encountering Dublin once more in the final.

When an inspired Mayo led by two points with six minutes left, the grail seemed within their grasp. Instead Dublin prevailed by one point for a third time. Cillian O'Connor's free to put Mayo ahead in injury-time came back off the post, Dean Rock's similar effort for Dublin sailed over.

The Mayo story had come to seem like the saddest GAA story ever told. Yet the memories are not all of what might have been.

There's also Kevin McLoughlin's rocket against Cork that announced the team's arrival, David Clarke pulling off a point-blank save from Bernard Brogan, Aidan O'Shea soaring high and finishing with aplomb against Donegal, Cillian O'Connor landing a last-ditch equaliser against the Dubs, Lee Keegan galloping through the Dublin defence and lashing a shot past Stephen Cluxton, Keith Higgins hunting down and foiling Paul Geaney with the game in the balance, Chris Barrett's herculean blocks, intercepts and dispossessions in last year's final and the whole of Andy Moran's incredible 2017.

Saturday's game ended with Moran firing a shot narrowly over. Last year he produced probably the greatest veteran season in GAA history. This year he fought to the bitter end. He deserved better and so did his team-mates. A popular cliché tells us that no-one remembers the runners-up. But everyone will remember this Mayo side.

They'll be remembered when some teams which did win the Sam Maguire are forgotten outside their own county.

Mayo's big fault may have been that sometimes they cared a little too much and tried a little too hard. A touch more sang-froid at key moments might have worked wonders. But their flaws only made this big-hearted team all the more engaging. There was something emotionally involving about almost every one of their games.

Mayo 2011-2018 were a team unlike any other. They were everyone's favourite other side. They were Ireland's team.

God, we'll miss them.

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