Dick Clerkin: All guts but no glory in Mayo's pursuit of Sam Maguire
The men from the West need a 'franchise' player if they're going to make the breakthrough
I remember the build-up to the first round of the 2014 Ulster Championship and barely being able to sleep because I was thinking about marking Sean Cavanagh in our first round game against Tyrone in Clones.
In the twilight of my career, would I have the legs to contain, for me, the greatest player of his generation? As it transpired, we turned over Tyrone that day and I got through the game with minimal scars from my duel with Sean.
For the only time in my career I was able to shake his hand at the end of a championship game as the victor. Maybe not that day, but on so many other occasions Sean has shown his star quality in big matches. His performance in the 2008 All-Ireland final against Kerry ranks up there with the best.
Similarly, Michael Murphy's tour de force in the 2012 decider set Donegal apart from a Mayo team who were equal or better in nearly every other department. Cavanagh and Murphy were star players with wholehearted determination who've made the difference on the big days.
If you look back at the 2005 All-Ireland final, Peter Canavan had the ball in his hands for less than three seconds in open play. Yet, for many, he was man of the match, such was the impact that his isolated moments had on the final outcome.
How Mayo could have done with a Canavan-type intervention - and the inspiration his scores provided - in so many of those agonising All-Ireland final losses.
Canavan was a natural leader as he could influence a game, not by how many hits or tackles he could get through, but by stepping up and hitting the big scores under the greatest pressure, on the biggest stage. His mere presence had opposition defenders filling their gear bags the night before with rosary beads and Miraculous Medals.
Playing Mayo over the years, albeit only in Division 1 league contests, I never went out fearing them or was overly focussed on any of their players. In contrast, leading up to games against Tyrone, Kerry or Dublin, I would find my whole being consumed with thinking about the challenges that lay ahead.
Formidable yes, and on days when you weren't tuned in, they could give you the runaround. But match them physically and you knew that you would never be far away. To paraphrase Paul O'Connell, Mayo would "never put the fear of God in you" and I imagine that has been the case for most of their top-tier opponents, especially those come All-Ireland final Sunday.
At the same time, I have huge regard and respect for Mayo's players, particularly their resolve and the way they keep coming back for more.
While working as an analyst with Sky Sports before last year's All-Ireland final, I forecast a Mayo victory in the pre-match chat. As the game reached its crescendo, I was urging Mayo to claw Dublin back as if it was Monaghan I was watching, and literally jumped with delight when Cillian O'Connor kicked the equalising point to bring the match to a replay.
Coming out under the Hogan Stand afterwards, I spotted Andy Moran, and promptly went over to wish him luck in the replay. I have huge admiration for Andy and it would be marvellous to see him finally win an All-Ireland. Alas, it wasn't to be, with Dublin winning the replay more comfortably than the scoreline suggested.
As the annual prediction game kicks into full gear, Mayo come under the spotlight more than most.
After failing to get over the line last year, and following an abject league campaign, I simply can't see Mayo ending their 66-year famine and lifting the Sam Maguire this September. I'm not alone in holding that view, yet I don't think most pundits and neutral supporters would begrudge them if they go on to prove us all wrong.
Some suggest a lack of mental toughness is what has cost them in big games over the years, but I don't subscribe to that hypothesis. Why? Because the fact of the matter is you don't get to within touching distance of the All-Ireland summit, as Mayo repeatedly do, by being weak of mind.
To come back year after year, defeat after defeat, on the biggest stage takes a huge amount of mental strength and conviction. Lesser players and teams would simply fold and gradually break up. Guts, heart, fortitude, whatever you want to call it, Mayo have it in spades. Don't let anyone tell you different.
Yet for all their resilience, what Mayo have lacked is the calibre of blue-chip players required to get you over the line. A footballer of sheer class, who can deliver the goods under the greatest pressure, has been absent on too many occasions. If we were in America, where I am writing this column from, they would call that a 'franchise player'.
Sean Cavanagh and Michael Murphy are franchise players. Kieran Donaghy, Alan and Bernard Brogan - franchise players. The Gooch, Peter Canavan, Oisín McConville, Pádraic Joyce - franchise players.
Mayo have never had and are yet to find their franchise player. Some would suggest Aidan O'Shea fits into this category - a quality player, around which an All-Ireland team can be built. Harsh truths dictate that until Aidan can deliver on the biggest stage, he cannot be bracketed in this band of star players.
A sufficient crew of decent footballers and a solid team ethic will win you a few provincial titles, and get you a long way on the road to the third Sunday in September. Mayo have an abundance of such performers who aren't short of leadership qualities, but to finally claim an All-Ireland they badly need one or two of these franchise players with real star quality.
On the evidence of this year's league they still haven't found any and with the passing of the years their players are getting older and their stock will inevitably fall.
The harsh reality for most teams is that, more often than not, they lack the star quality needed to win at the highest level. That, however, is what makes these players so special whenever they come around. What is seldom is wonderful.
Unfortunately for Mayo, they haven't been able to harvest footballers with the ability to reach this level - star performers who can make a real difference when needed most and thereby inspire those around them. If this current Mayo team does somehow get over the line, it will be through a collective belligerence and refusal to allow their limitations hold them back from their ambitions.
However, sport at the highest level is seldom sympathetic to persistence. Few would begrudge Mayo reaching the promised land, but unless a star is born en route, I'm afraid they will stay in the wilderness, without Sam Maguire.
for all their resilience, mayo lack the calibre of blue-chip players needed to get them over the line