Saturday 24 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Lions led by Einsteins - This Mayo team does not deserve further heartbreak

Aidan O'Shea and his Mayo team-mates stand for the national anthem at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Aidan O'Shea and his Mayo team-mates stand for the national anthem at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Maybe it really is going to happen at last. Mayo have won plenty of semi-finals before and beaten plenty of good teams. In 2004, 2012 and 2013 they dethroned the reigning champions on their way to the final.

Yet never before have they looked so much like a team which can win the whole thing. The most remarkable championship campaign of modern times is now just 70 minutes away from becoming the greatest.

Sometimes history makes it hard to believe the evidence of your own eyes. The tradition of Kerry victory and gallant Mayo defeat meant it was claimed all week that last Sunday was a blip, a warning sign for the favourites and a lost opportunity for the losers. A Kingdom backlash was predicted with the same confidence as a Kerry victory had been first time out.

Yet Mayo had looked five or six points better in the drawn game, a sharper, stronger, quicker, hungrier outfit undone only by the concession of goals at crucial times. Why should six days change all that? One man who definitely didn't believe in the inevitability of a Kerry resurgence was their manager.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice's significant, and somewhat panicky, restructuring of his team suggested he did not expect normal service to be restored in the replay. He might have got his switches wrong but his reasoning was correct. Mayo really were every bit as superior as they looked in the first game.

Increasingly this Mayo campaign is beginning to look a bit like one of the great Clare hurling odysseys of the Ger Loughnane era. Time and again Stephen Rochford's team are finding enough to survive the latest challenge and doing it so often a sense of destiny has begun to accompany them. Right now it feels like their year. This may have been their sweetest victory of the last All-Ireland-less half-century. Yet a final defeat on September 17 would surpass all others in bitterness and disappointment. This is not a team which deserves further heartbreak.

Given that the Mayo story is all about persistence in the face of disappointment, perhaps it's fitting that their two longest-serving players played crucial roles in this victory. Keith Higgins has been so good for so long it's actually led to his being under-rated.

The Higgins excellence is such a customary thing we mark it down as read and move on to less predictable performances. Yet if what's seldom is wonderful, what's often can be more so. His career has been all about doing the right things at the right time; attacking things like the 47th-minute run which led to a point by Jason Doherty, defensive things like the last-gasp shadowing of Paul Geaney in the drawn game which gave Mayo the chance to deliver this performance.

Few people would have marked the arrival of Andy Moran as a sub late in the 2004 final after Kerry had given Mayo a painful schooling. And though his career has been an honourable one, it has been Moran's fate to be regarded as a forward who'd fallen just short of the top echelon.

This season has changed that. It has changed from 'isn't Andy Moran going well for a man of his age but they can hardly depend on him up front' to 'Andy Moran is nearly as good as he ever was' and become not just Moran's finest season in the Mayo colours but the best enjoyed by any forward in 2017. With two matches to go, the man from Mayo's colonial outpost in foreign territory must be Footballer of the Year-elect.

Moran's 37th-minute goal was the moment you knew there would be no way back for Kerry. He has hardly lost a single ball in direct combat with a defender this year but never had he won one in such emphatic style as with the high catch which left Shane Enright clutching air. Maybe in past years Moran would have stuck the ball over the bar and been congratulated for 'taking the wise option'. Instead he bore down on goal and transferred the ball to Cillian O'Connor who, also eschewing the safe choice, laid it back for Moran to finish to the net. There was a ruthlessness there we have not always seen from Mayo.

In past years the four points on the trot which put Kerry within four points of Mayo with ten minutes left might have seemed ominous. This time they seemed more like a gallant losers' last stand. Mayo did not hang on, instead they regained the initiative and rattled over three points in five minutes. That's the kind of thing the better team does in games like this.

I still don't think they should have played Aidan O'Shea at full-back in either game. But if Mayo produce another 70 minutes like this one in three weeks' time, every single decision Stephen Rochford has made this year will be regarded by posterity as part of a magnificent master plan. In the history books winners are never wrong. And winners are what Mayo look like right now. Lions led by Einsteins if you like.

What would a Sligoman know about Mayo football anyway?

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