Ending 59 years of hurt for Mayo's footballers
Mayo’s fertile football soil has failed to yield a Sam Maguire since 1951, but there’s light at the end of tunnel for boss O’Mahony writes Martin Breheny
Never mind Shakespeare, King Henry and their "once more unto the breach, dear friends" line; instead try John O'Mahony, the Mayo football team and their "once more unto the reach, dear supporters" approach.
In Mayo's case, the reach is across a yawning chasm, stretching back to 1951 when the Sam Maguire Cup was last carried into Mayo by Sean Flanagan. The intervening 59 years have yielded 15 Connacht and three National League titles, while also inviting Mayo to the All-Ireland final party six times only to turn the lights out on them each time.
If frustration can be defined as a condition where you have ulcers, but still aren't successful, then every surgery in Mayo would be packed on a daily basis by a public who can't understand how such a fertile football county continues to come up barren on the All-Ireland plains.
It's as if a glass ceiling was fitted over Mayo all those years ago, preventing them from rising above a certain level, while allowing them to watch all their main rivals share the bounty. If that weren't bad enough, they had to live with the frustration of observing neighbours -- and greatest rivals -- Galway win three All-Irelands in a row in the 1960s.
And while Galway hit their own All-Ireland desert for a long time after that, they returned to glory land again in 1998 and 2001. What's more, they were led by a Mayo man.
O'Mahony's success with Galway made it inevitable that if Mayo hadn't won an All-Ireland during his spell away, he would eventually return home to deal with unfinished business, stretching back to his previous term in charge in 1988-91.
His appointment as Mayo manager at the end of 2006 was regarded by many as the corner-pieces of the jigsaw. Mayo were All-Ireland runners-up that year, so O'Mahony's arrival, accompanied by his success rate and experience, sent heart-rates rising all over the county.
The excitement further increased when, by late April 2007, Mayo had reached the league final after winning seven of eight games. Less than three months later, they had been demolished by both Galway and Derry in the championship. And Donegal had beaten them in the league final too.
A year later, after Galway beat Mayo in the Connacht final and Tyrone had ended their interest in the All-Ireland race, O'Mahony talked of the need for patience. He had a year of his original term still to run, but knew that questions were being asked, even by some of those who hailed his appointment as the best thing to happen Mayo for years.
"I have never stayed in any job where I wasn't wanted. I've no problem walking out the door if somebody else can come in and win an All-Ireland for Mayo next year. I've also got a fair idea of what needs to be done, so it's important to hold the nerve," said O'Mahony immediately after the qualifier defeat by Tyrone.
The County Board were always going to give him as much time as he wanted and when the Connacht title was captured last year, it looked as if O'Mahony had finally placed Mayo in an excellent position well up the slopes before pressing on towards the top.
But, not for the first time with Mayo, it became a case of one step forward, one step back as they delivered a sloppy performance against Meath in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Meath's subsequent defeat by Kerry -- which was far more emphatic than the four-point margin suggested -- and the Royals' disappointing showing in Division 2 this spring suggested that Mayo were very much the architects of their own defeat last August.
Once again, they were headed for a winter of discontent as supporters wondered what exactly was going on. They awoke to a New Year to find Mayo favourites for relegation from Division 1 alongside Monaghan.
A few months later, Mayo are back where they were in 2007, having qualified for the Division 1 final, where they play Cork in Croke Park tomorrow week.
Their All-Ireland odds have been slashed to 12/1 fifth favourites behind Cork, Kerry, Tyrone and Dublin and some way ahead of Galway at 18/1. The reason for Mayo's ratings upswing is their excellent league form: they beat Galway, Tyrone, Derry, Kerry, Monaghan, Cork and lost by a point to Dublin after kicking 18 wides.
Suddenly, Mayo is a county on optimism alert and while the supporters may not be checking hotel rates in Dublin for the All-Ireland weekend just yet, they're beginning to dream.
O'Mahony may be dreaming too, but he's disguising it well because his vast experience -- this is his 19th season in senior inter-county management -- has long since taught him that the present is all that counts.
For him and his panel, this league is fulfilling two roles. It's restoring confidence after the bleakness which descended post-Meath last August and also solidifying the structure which needs to be in place for the championship.
"What happened against Meath was very frustrating. We all accepted it wasn't a good performance, but there was nothing we could do about it afterwards except wait for the months to pass until the start of the new season.
"It wasn't easy. We all took a lot of stick -- both inside and outside the county -- and while I'm long enough around to shoulder criticism, it was tough on the players. It was unfair too, but there was no point responding to it. We had a lot of young players on the team, but people seemed to overlook that and just let them have it," said O'Mahony.
With a rather cynical public recalling the worst aspects of Mayo's performance against Meath, several players unavailable either through injury or travel, and four away games on a tough league programme, O'Mahony was in no way surprised to see them tipped for relegation. It wasn't something that bothered him. Instead, he set the target in terms of performance.
"It was about getting a degree of evenness into our performances. Great, if that was enough to do well in the league, but the important thing was that we would come out at the other end with a good balance. We've done that and been lucky enough to get to the final as well," he said.
The public took quite some time to acknowledge that, far from being unfit for Division 1 purpose, Mayo were actually reaching heights others couldn't reach.
"It was funny to hear people saying after we beat Galway that it was down to how poorly Galway played. When we beat Tyrone, the line was that they were short-handed. Then, when Dublin beat us by a point on a day we missed a load of chances the word was out -- 'same old Mayo'.
"We got no credit at all for any of the performances. We ignored all that stuff and just got on with doing the best we could. It was a great league all round and while you'll always end up with finalists and teams who are relegated, I'm sure everybody will have taken a lot out of it."
Having manoeuvred themselves into the final against Cork, Mayo are back under real scrutiny as GAA observers assess the state of play just ahead of the championship. Despite last Sunday's win over the Rebels, Mayo are 15/8 outsiders to repeat the success next week -- which doesn't surprise O'Mahony.
"Cork have been right in the mix for the All-Ireland for the past few years and are one of the top sides in the business. For us, it all comes back to performance and to testing how we can cope in a final against a team like Cork. There has been a changing of the guard to some degree with the retirement of James Nallen and David Heaney and now it's up to others to take up the leadership baton. In fairness, they have been doing that so far this year," he said.
"I'm not one for making predictions or for suggesting we're getting everything right, but I'm very pleased with the attitude and the approach of the entire squad. There's a great honesty there and now the challenge is to keep working and improving."
Ultimately, of course, he knows that judgement will be delivered on the basis of how they fare in the championship, where their first opponents will be Sligo in Markievicz Park on June 5. A win there would see Mayo play Galway (once Joe Kernan's boys have jumped the New York fence).
"It's not exactly the easiest run in the world, is it? Sligo are stirring nicely for Kevin Walsh and once the league final is out of the way, that's all we'll be focused on," he said.
"Don't ask me about Galway because they're not on our horizon at present. Sligo will be all that counts from Monday week on."
It's nine years since Mayo last won the league title, beating a Galway team managed by O'Mahony in the final. Five months later, Galway won the All-Ireland, so O'Mahony knows that whatever happens against Cork, the season could open up nicely for Mayo.
"If you told me last January that we'd be preparing for the League final in mid-April, I'd certainly have taken it, especially since most people thought we'd be relegated. Having said all that, we know what lies ahead after the League final. We've made progress this spring -- that's the situation, no more and no less. Still, we'll take that for now."
In reality, the season couldn't have gone much better for Mayo, who have lost just one of 11 games. It's enough to put a real pep in O'Mahony's step as he continues to combine his busy roles as football manager and Fine Gael TD.
The Mayo public placed their football faith in him a long time ago and added their political trust at the last general election. Now, three years later, one suspects that if he steered Mayo to an All-Ireland win, canvassing would not be necessary at the next election.
Indeed, he might even steal some Fianna Fail votes.