Saturday 18 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: There's a curse on Mayo football all right - but you can't blame the Church for this one

Connelly and Holmes saga suggests blame for repeated failures lies with players themselves

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton consoles Aidan O'Shea of Mayo
Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton consoles Aidan O'Shea of Mayo
Another great Mayo mystery has been the consistent underperformances of Aidan O’Shea in big games’. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Martin Breheny's interview in the Irish Independent with Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly is probably the Irish sports scoop of the year. It's certainly one of the most fascinating and revealing insights into the inner workings of a GAA team you're likely to read.

While it might be pushing it a bit to describe the interview as Shakespearean there's no denying that it contains copious elements of history, comedy and tragedy. First and foremost, it's the definitive history of the events which led to the Mayo players demanding that Holmes and Connelly be sacked at the end of the 2015 GAA season.

Their account makes it obvious that certain players had problems with the management from the get-go and were keen to seek confrontation at every opportunity. On this reading the player revolt was merely the culmination of something which had been brewing from the very beginning.

Why? Holmes and Connelly believe it arises from an unwillingness on the part of the players to take responsibility for their part in the team's persistent failure in big matches. They note that when, after taking over, they asked senior players why they felt Mayo had come up short in recent seasons. The players, "told us match-ups were wrong, opposition analysis was poor, there was a lack of adaptability and they had no defensive plan. They also highlighted some errors for goals and also occasions when they had turned over the ball too easily."

Holmes and Connelly observe that this meant the players were largely blaming "factors outside their control" for their underachievement. In fact, they were implicitly blaming the management of James Horan, something which seems to give the lie to the argument that player objections to the new duo were founded on a perception that there had been a drop-off in standards since Horan's time.

On one level this is an unlovely saga. The player letter sent to the Mayo County Board is an unpleasant mixture of self-praise - "We the players have set extremely high standards in the context of our individual and collective approach . . . The experience and knowledge gained by the players . . . will be an invaluable asset to the County Board teams" - and veiled threat: "We wish to avoid making the resolution of these issues any more public or rancorous than it needs to be and we encourage the County Board to try and deal with this matter in private and not in the public arena." This request that the stab in the back be carried out in the dark rather than the daylight is not much of a tribute to the characters of the people who signed the letter.

Yet the story is not without its comic elements. Only the most stony of heart could suppress a giggle at the pettiness of some of the complaints levelled against Connelly and Holmes by the players during their reign. The player who complained because the bus had gone through a small town in Donegal rather than round it on the way to a game in Derry, the complaints about being 15 minutes later than usual to the dressing room because of a Mass, Aidan O'Shea complaining because he wasn't allowed to appear in a reality TV show. They're funny in the way that prima donna complaints always are.

And the element of tragedy? Well, Holmes and Connelly reveal that Seamus O'Shea demanded that his clubmate Rob Hennelly be picked in goal ahead of David Clarke because O'Shea preferred his kick-outs. They quite rightly told O'Shea that his job was to play and theirs was to manage.

A year later and Hennelly was picked ahead of Clarke for the All-Ireland final replay, a decision which struck most people as mysterious but which was justified on the grounds that the Breaffy man had a better kick-out. The decision by new manager Stephen Rochford turned out be the one which cost Mayo the All-Ireland. We have no way of knowing whether O'Shea repeated his preference for Hennelly to the new manager or whether it would have swayed Rochford if he had done. Yet one solution to the biggest mystery of the Mayo football year certainly seems to suggest itself.

It would be a bitter irony that players who had blamed defeats on their previous management teams ended up being deprived of the ultimate honour because of a terrible miscalculation perpetrated by the manager they'd chosen themselves.

Another great Mayo mystery has been the consistent underperformance of Aidan O'Shea in big games. Despite a massive reputation and undoubted talent he has been utterly peripheral in four All-Ireland finals. A possible solution to that mystery also seems to be vouchsafed by the Holmes-Connelly revelations.

Whether giving out because he wasn't let train with Sunderland or spearheading a complaint about the exclusion of a player from the panel of 26, O'Shea does seem overly keen on the kind of distractions which can prevent a player from fulfilling his potential. The former managers' comment about the number of Twitter followers mattering less than the number of All-Ireland medals may not be expressly aimed at the Breaffy player but people will draw their own conclusions.

Holmes and Connelly believe that the egocentricity of certain players is preventing Mayo from taking the final step towards All-Ireland glory. It's certainly true that Mayo 2016 were strikingly similar to Mayo 2015 and 2014. They did make the All-Ireland final but this was largely because Tipperary were their semi-final opponents. Against Dublin in the decider their performances were the same as they had been in the 2015 and 2014 semis against Kerry and the Dubs, drawing the first game and squandering a winning position in the second. For the third time in five years they lost an All-Ireland final. Whoever is in charge you get roughly the same level of performance from the Mayo players.

This tends to be a very good level of performance. That Mayo team is as gutsy and hard-working as any team in Irish sport. They can never be faulted for their commitment. Yet something is missing. And perhaps that something is an inability to fully face up to the pain of defeat.

Last year's coup could be seen as something which prevented them from having to spend a bitter winter answering the hard questions from their supporters. You saw the same thing at work on an individual level this year when, with the final barely over, Rob Hennelly was tweeting about his indomitable spirit and determination to bounce back when he might have spent more time thinking about the mistake which had cost his team the All-Ireland title they fervently desire. Aidan O'Shea and Lee Keegan were also quick to take to Twitter in a way which would have been unthinkable from Kerry or Kilkenny players.

Darragh ó Sé has written very well on the painful times Kerry players go through when they underperform and the recriminations they have to cope with. It sounds unpleasant yet perhaps it's something which is necessary if teams are to drive themselves on to success. Mayo's players seem somehow unwilling to undergo the requisite process of painful personal inventory. Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly's revelations, in an honest interview with an excellent journalist, reveal the extent to which for the Mayo players the buck always stops with someone else.

Invoking the 'they're only amateurs' excuse won't wash. Holmes and Connelly were amateurs too but the players had few qualms about publicly humiliating them. They deserved to have their say, not least because when the inevitable self-justifying autobiography is published by a Mayo player, some more accusations will no doubt be rolled out. Tom Cunniffe's recent public contrition about the treatment of the two men may well be genuine but it does smack a bit of wanting things both ways. Self-exculpating statements from the players are no doubt in the pipeline. They may even in their heart of hearts welcome the controversy as another distraction from the one fact about Mayo football which really matters. That fact is that they are fine footballers but they are also failures.

Not by the standards of almost every other football team in the country but by the "extremely high standards", which, in their letter of no confidence in Connelly and Holmes, the players said they set for themselves. Deep down they know that.

There's a curse on Mayo football all right. But you can't blame the Church for this one.

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