Saturday 21 July 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Mayo are the team that can return honour to the summer

Mayo’s Andy Moran fires a shot at the Donegal goal despite the best efforts of Neil McGee in Ballybofey yesterday. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Mayo’s Andy Moran fires a shot at the Donegal goal despite the best efforts of Neil McGee in Ballybofey yesterday. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Mayo are the team the All-Ireland senior football championship needs right now. They have been for a couple of years. With Kerry in obvious transition and Tyrone frustratingly inconsistent, Stephen Rochford's side are the most realistic candidates to deny Dublin a four-in-a-row. The green and red knights from the West must once more save the championship's honour.

Can they do it again in 2018? They probably don't have a clue themselves. It's hard to make a definitive judgement on any team at this time of the year, but with Mayo it's downright impossible.

The injury-time comeback against Donegal in Ballybofey which preserved the county's Division 1 status was a classic example of something they've specialised in over the last couple of years, an exciting escape from a self-created tricky situation.

The last-ditch rescue effected by points from Eoin O'Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin can be seen as a demonstration that Mayo's indomitable never-say-die spirit remains undimmed. But does a team of their stature really need to cut things so fine in a pretty undistinguished Division 1?

It's reminiscent of last year when Mayo were extravagantly praised for prevailing against Derry and Cork in extra-time and Roscommon in a replay. The very ease with which they eventually swept aside the opposition raised the question of why they'd made such hard work of things in the first place.

You can also ask why Mayo's best football of the league campaign occurred in the last few minutes of their final match.

In their first outing they needed a similar finish to overcome a depleted and hard done-by Monaghan, before stumbling on to a rare home defeat by Kerry, a comprehensive beating by Galway and a trouncing by Tyrone.

The ostentatious celebrations after the final whistle yesterday were understandable given the nail-biting nature of the finish, but you can't help feeling Mayo should be aiming a little higher. A Dublin team which has breezed through to another league final would hardly be satisfied with such crumbs of comfort. And it is Dublin with whom Mayo must be compared.

The rod the Westerners have made for their own backs is that anything other than an All-Ireland title this year will be seen, however unfairly, as a failure.

Mayo mightn't be that bothered about failing to qualify for the league decider. Yet it's doubtful that their ambitions at the start of the campaign were limited to avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth.

Getting a crack at Dublin in Croke Park would have done them good.

Last year's league final ended with Dean Rock missing a long-range free which would have given the Dubs a draw against Kerry.

He spoke later about how that miss encouraged him to put in the extra work which guaranteed the success of his last-minute free in the All-Ireland final. This year Mayo will yet again have to do almost all their learning in the championship.

That's not necessarily a drawback. Galway have won the last two championship meetings between the teams and amassed 13 league points to Mayo's five, yet it's the home team who'll be favourites in Castlebar. Their overall record as championship performers commands huge respect. Even if they'd been relegated yesterday, plenty of Rochford loyalists would have suggested the drop might be part of a tactical masterplan.

Mayo's league campaign has not been entirely devoid of positives.

Conor Loftus looks a forward of substance and, perhaps most importantly, one who can slot the kind of frees which have proved to be just beyond the range of Cillian O'Connor at crucial moments in recent years. O'Donoghue is a find at corner-back and showed exemplary character to thunder forward and land the first injury-time point as the forwards floundered.

That floundering will be a concern. Mayo scored less than any other Division 1 team, slightly more than 13 points a game, and found the net in only two of seven matches.

Their dependence on Andy Moran verges on the pathological. The Ballaghaderreen man's three points in the first 10 minutes yesterday showed the dangers of presuming his 2018 won't match his 2017. However, he shoulders a very heavy burden for a veteran.

Midfield also remains a problem, with Tom Parsons increasingly resembling some lovelorn singleton waiting for the ideal other half to come along.

The impression persists that more might be extracted from Aidan O'Shea, that towering monument to the curse of versatility.

On the other hand, there could be no more fitting player to score the saving point than Kevin McLoughlin. Efficient, brave, enormously hard-working and diligent about making the best use of his ability, the Knockmore wing-forward can seem like the personification of modern-day Mayo.

But is he? Conventional wisdom paints Mayo as a team who triumph against the odds, getting the very last drop out of themselves to match more naturally gifted opposition.

Yet this reading may partake of the condescension generally applied to anything from the West of Ireland.

Perhaps, in reality, Mayo are a hugely-talented bunch of players who've been underachieving, not overachieving. Perhaps they shouldn't be quite so pleased with last-minute scrambles and circuitous qualifier odysseys.

Perhaps it's significant that seven of the last nine All-Ireland football champions played in that year's league final and that it's 23 years since a team won the All-Ireland after winning only two games in the league. Perhaps Mayo are already on the wrong road this year.

Well, we shall find out.

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