'It won't be a crisis if we don't beat Dublin now'
Former boss Maughan insists resilient Mayo are on the right track, writes Colm Keys
When James Horan said that winning a few "tough games on the road" in the league would be a priority in 2014, you can be sure that tomorrow night's All-Ireland final rematch with Dublin at Croke Park featured strongly in his thinking.
Three Croke Park defeats in 2013 to Jim Gavin's side may not make this an absolute 'must win' for Mayo.
But you can't dilute the importance of what inflicting a second league defeat in Headquarters for the champions for the first time since the Spring Series was conceived ahead of the 2011 season would mean to Mayo – it would be a sizeable deposit for later in the season, that could act in much the same way as their 0-20 to 0-8 league victory in the corresponding game two years ago in MacHale Park.
Horan's team selection, announced yesterday, stresses the importance of the fixture to them more than any words could, with 12 of their All-Ireland final starting team back on duty in a team that many feel is very close to what a championship team might look like this summer.
Chris Barrett may find his way back in at Brendan Harrison's expense; Seamus O'Shea is finding it hard to dislodge the in-form Jason Gibbons; and Andy Moran's season is predicated on his body keeping intact, so he may not be sole resident of the No 13 shirt this year.
But outside of that, the team looks more settled than any of the other protagonists, Donegal excluded. Even Dublin have anchor positions to fill and defensive surgery to deal with before the league is finished.
It has struck former manager John Maughan how easily the Mayo players have got things moving again after such a difficult conclusion to 2013.
"I remember thinking last September after a second All-Ireland defeat 'this is going to be a disaster.' But I meet some of them in the gym quite regularly, some of them around Castlebar," he says.
"I don't know does it typify modern footballers or modern sports people, but there is a hardness and steel that has developed in players," says Maughan to stress his point that the scars of defeat have been worn easily this spring.
"We were a little bit slow out of the traps this year, understandably. That was probably a deliberate policy to hold back. Our form was patchy initially and yet registering 2-18 against Kildare, there was nothing wrong with that. There were a lot of decent performances against Tyrone as well.
"It's all about timing and playing your best when it matters most. Having competed in the last two All-Ireland finals, you would be conscious of the team being fresh and energised. We're hitting a sweet spot right now and if we're to benchmark the performance against Cork, there is a lot that we did very well. We made Cork look ordinary at times."
Maybe Lee Keegan best illustrates that seamless carry over from 2013 to 2014 for Mayo. Maughan is sure that Keegan is ranked in the top three Gaelic footballers on current form.
His delivery of at least one score in all six games in last year's championship has been replicated in the first five games of the league. For a half- back, no matter how attack-minded he is, to score in 11 consecutive competitive games is phenomenal.
"He has just driven it on to a different level," says Maughan.
Full-forward on the Mayo team that lost the 1996 All-Ireland final and a regular analyst on Mid West Radio, John Casey harbours concerns, however, that the 'score more' rather than 'concede less' approach that served them so well for much of last season, could hurt them.
They are Division 1's top scorers, with 20 different players contributing 10-77. But their rate of concession (10-70) is extremely high too. In the four divisions, only Antrim have conceded as many goals.
"In the open expanse of Croke Park and a Dublin team that loves playing against us, we could get blown away. That's the most worrying thing," he says. "Our half-back line has been attacking brilliantly, but at the same time you have to mind the house.
"We were nine points ahead against Westmeath and attacking with flair, but Kevin Keane, Brendan Harrison and Ger Cafferkey were left at home on their own.
"Everyone was going forward and goals and points were shipped. I think they went forward as a unit far too much and they could have steadied the ship a little bit that day. And they shipped 2-5 in the last 15 minutes against Cork the last day. I'm sure James will want to steady the ship a little bit."
Maughan and Casey agree that the imperative to win tomorrow night isn't as great as it looks from the outside. Do they really need league play-offs with such an early championship start, asked Casey. They also find common ground on the progression Alan Freeman and Cillian O'Connor can give them over the next few months.
Mayo may not need to 'find' new forwards, rather just get a little more from these two in particular.
"I think that Freeman showed enough the last day to suggest he is returning to form," says Maughan.
"I would persevere with him. I was bit disappointed to see him taken off last year (in the All-Ireland final). I think it's important to get that guy's confidence right back up to where it should be – where it was last year.
"He has something we rarely see in a full-forward these days – he has unbelievable ability to hang in the air. He has done it on a couple of occasions in this league campaign.
"That's the type of footballer that we need. You get so little time in Croke Park or in the championship to pick out the perfect ball so, if in doubt, bomb it in to a player of his aerial ability."
Maughan sees a resilience in these Mayo players that he feels will absorb any setback, thus the importance of victory for him isn't as pointed even if it extends Dublin's winning run to four.
"We have closed the gap on Dublin. But it won't be a crisis if we don't win. I don't think it will do any psychological damage. We're still in a good place," he says.
"Our form in the last couple of games suggests that things are coming right again."