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Decades of heartbreak too big a burden for Horan's fading force

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Mayo's Lee Keegan during a press evening ahead of their side's All Ireland semi-final against Kerry on Sunday.  Keegan will be aiming to help his team go all the way this year after suffering defeat at the hands of Dublin in last year's final. Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Mayo's Lee Keegan during a press evening ahead of their side's All Ireland semi-final against Kerry on Sunday. Keegan will be aiming to help his team go all the way this year after suffering defeat at the hands of Dublin in last year's final. Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Mayo's Lee Keegan during a press evening ahead of their side's All Ireland semi-final against Kerry on Sunday. Keegan will be aiming to help his team go all the way this year after suffering defeat at the hands of Dublin in last year's final. Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

When I see Mayo making their way to Croke Park, it initiates hesitation. Almost like a reflex reaction. We know they are good footballers, we know they are people who are passionate about football, yet there is always an element of doubt.

You can't help suspect something is lacking. Just as certain teams in the sporting universe are synonymous with delivering the goods when it matters most, Mayo are perennial underachievers.

Sixty-three years have passed since a Mayo team carried Sam Maguire back west, a burden that gets heavier with each passing year. And despite what those involved with the current Mayo set-up might argue, the psychological element gets greater with each doomed venture to Croke Park.

They wouldn't be human if it wasn't so. Returning to a place you and your people have associated with failure and heartbreak since 1951 has to have barriers.

And I suspect all the psychologists in the world won't fully break those barriers down. The only way Mayo can rid themselves of any stigma is by reigning supreme in Croke Park on the third Sunday in September.

Credit

To their credit James Horan and this current group of Mayo players have come as close as any Mayo men gone before since '51. And in another way, they just added to the opinion that suggests Mayo will always be 'nearly' men.

Last September's defeat to Dublin must have been wretched viewing for those loyal to the red and green. Horan's men displayed remarkable fortitude to get back to another final 12 months after a clumsy defeat to Donegal.

They impressed en route to Croke Park in 2013. Horan's management had seemingly added steel; we speculated they were beginning to look the real deal. We probably should have known better.

While they were only defeated by a solitary point, the scoreline tells little of the story. Bernard Brogan aside, Dublin were far from their best yet they never looked in serious trouble against Mayo.

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Long before the final whistle, Dublin's success seemed inevitable and if there is such a thing as a comfortable one-point victory, last year's all Ireland football final epitomised it.

Two consecutive final defeats surely made for a long winter around Westport and Castlebar. For the players the devastation must have lasted many months.

And so as the business end of another Championship rolls around Mayo remain standing. In light of the fate suffered in the previous two years such a feat is commendable.

However, I suspect the opportunity to right the wrongs of last September won't come their way, for I believe tomorrow's semi-final opponents Kerry will end the Mayo's hopes of a third consecutive final appearance.

Opposing a battle-hardened, seasoned team like Mayo in favour of a team in transition may be folly but on the evidence of the year to date this Mayo team is a pale shadow of the outfit which lined up in the past two finals as genuine contenders.

Convincing

Regardless of what occurred on final day, their form beforehand had been convincing. Their place in a final was merited. That form has yet to be recaptured in 2014.

Finding the drive to get to such heights after the Dublin defeat was always going to be a monumental task, a fact that I believe now makes them vulnerable to a young motivated and well organised Kerry team who will relish the opportunity to follow in their fellow county men's illustrious footsteps within the surrounds of Croke Park.

After the anti-climax of 2013, I wonder has Mayo's 'rehabilitation' been aided by competing in a Connacht championship which realistically didn't require much winning.

Had Mayo been in any of the other provinces, would their form to date have been sufficient to see them progress this far in the Championship?

Victory over Cork in the quarter-final left much to be desired. Against a team whose deficiencies were readily exposed by Kerry in the Munster final, Mayo were hanging on at the final whistle.

One wonders had Cork forward Donncha O'Connor seen action earlier would Mayo have still come away with their one-point victory?

And while Kerry didn't impress in their quarter-final, they appeared to be a team operating in first gear safe in the knowledge that Galway had neither the belief or ability to halt their progression.

Without Tomás Ó Sé, Paul Galvin and Colm Cooper, Kerry have a different look this year. The absence of such big names would be felt by the best of teams but manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice has refused to let it undermine his ambitions.

Clearly a man of huge belief, not just in his own capabilities but in the belief of Kerry football, his performance in the Kingdom hot-seat under trying circumstances has been commendable.

Back-to-back Munster titles and contesting another All-Ireland semi-final at a time when many of the great names in the recent history of Kerry football have departed the scene should not be underestimated.

Shortly into his tenure, Fitzmaurice was forced to find new faces capable of surviving at inter-county level and the signs suggest that it won't be long before he knows ultimate glory.

While this Kerry team is very much a work in progress, I suspect they will be adequately resourced to cope with Mayo forwards who have consistently failed to score enough on the biggest stage.

At the other end, a Mayo defence that conceded 2-15 to a Cork side that doesn't possess the qualities of a James O'Donoghue or a Declan O'Sullivan will face their most onerous tasks of the year in attempting to contain the Kerry forward unit.

And despite the argument that in an era of sports science where teams' dependence on games plans and formations has made the notion of traditions redundant, I don't for one second believe Kerry will fear travelling to Croke Park to face a county they have always been capable of beating. A county they expect to beat.

And for younger generations of Kerry footballers, events tomorrow won't change that expectancy.

Retirement doesn't mean the end for Spencer

I once read an interview with trainer John Gosden where he said: "It's only when you deal with adversity that you find out who you are. Everyone has problems; however it appears on the outside."

The more of life I see, the more I believe John Gosden is right. This past week the former champion jockey in England, Jamie Spencer, announced that he will retire from race riding at the end of the Flat season.

Spencer is only 34. He is currently retained as No 1 rider to Sheikh Fahad Al Thani, a job that has given him regular access to high class horses and ensures his participation at all of the high-profile Flat meetings.

This retainer eliminates the necessity for a jockey to do endless miles for an average mounts in the hope of finding favour when a trainer stumbles upon a champion.

From the outside it seemed Spencer's professional life was in a healthy place. The Irishman's decision to retire at a relatively premature age suggests, however, that reality was very different.

As a former champion jockey, having ridden Classic winners in Ireland and England, he is a young man who has already achieved a great deal in a short time and I'm certain whatever the future holds for Spencer, his list of achievements is far from complete.


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