It’s up to manager to establish a culture of winning
Michael Healy-Rae tweeted on Friday, “Bring Ed Sheeran to Killarney and play the game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Problem solved.” Not even Ed Sheeran could afford the hotels.
Kerry are back in Croke Park on Sunday in what is becoming their favourite competition. I was ridiculed in 2013 for saying the Kerry production line had dried up. Since then, they have won one All-Ireland, in 2014, a fortunate one. Kieran Donaghy rose above the jitters to score the winning goal.
Almost a decade on and they are no closer to winning Sam. They wilted against Tyrone in last year’s semi-final.
As they showed that day, they are a one-man team. Only David Clifford took the fight to the northern anarchists, putting on one of the greatest Croke Park performances in a losing cause.
When he got injured from a hospital pass, that was that. Tyrone were too serious, too defiant, too together. There is a lesson in that for Mayo.
Winning Time, The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, airing on Sky Atlantic, charts how a franchise that had become used to losing became winners.
Jerry West, the legendary Laker from the ’60s, played in six NBA finals series against the Boston Celtics and lost them all. In the last of those, 1969, he was awarded finals MVP.
His autobiography, ‘West on West, My Charmed Tormented Life’, documents how those serial losses wrapped him in a shroud for the rest of his life.
In the TV series, as Lakers head coach (briefly), he is shown going into a terrible rage in his office and smashing his MVP trophy off the walls. As the gold basketball breaks off and rolls along his office floor, he mutters, “I’m a f*****g loser.”
When the extravagant physicist turned entrepreneur Dr Jerry Buss bought the Lakers and Magic Johnson (he picked 19-year-old Magic up at the airport and brought him straight to the Playboy Mansion), West walked straight into Buss’s office and resigned as head coach. “I’m a loser. I can’t coach this team. Get someone who can.”
Larry Bird (described by Magic as “the greatest basketballer that ever lived”) said once, “I never learned anything by losing”.
The usual line is that you learn more from losing. If that were true, Mayo would have won several All-Irelands by now. Perhaps the truth is that losing conditions you to lose.
Perhaps losing becomes a habit (like winning) and the longer the losing streak, the more that essential spirit of defiance is eroded. Perhaps losing becomes comfortable and unsurprising. I cannot speak from experience, as I was fortunate to play on winning teams at club and county level.
Like Jerry West, this shroud of losers hangs around Mayo. Like Jerry’s Lakers, they have provided huge entertainment. They have bucked the trend of dull defensive football that has become the norm. Every game is an event. They have given us vast excitement, playing in at least three of the greatest All-Ireland finals and replays ever seen, never mind some of the greatest semi-finals. In this year’s league, they have again been electrifying, with every game (bar the Kerry snore-fest) see-sawing and providing tremendous entertainment.
Perhaps Mayo’s services to Gaelic football are a sufficient legacy. If the players and manager believe this is enough, then so be it.
But if being glorious losers is not something that will haunt them to the day they die, they will never win Sam. Passengers must be culled because a winning team cannot be built without trust.
Bird again: “Leadership is getting players to believe in you. If you tell a team-mate you’re ready to play as tough as you’re able to, you’d better go out there and do it. Players will see right through a phoney. And they can tell when you’re not giving it all you’ve got.”
James Horan has tough choices. But will he make them? Will he put the good of the team over every other consideration?
They need to get serious. By that, I mean they need to be focused on the key moments. All big games to and fro, but they are decided by decisive contributions. Tyrone’s goals in last year’s final. Mayo’s missed penalty.
In the Gavin era, Dublin had two penalties in finals. The first, in the 2016 replay, when Mayo were two up. Diarmuid Connolly had been destroyed by Lee Keegan up until that moment (Keegan had actually scored a goal). It didn’t matter. Diarmuid drove it firmly to the net. The Dubs won by a point.
Again, in the 2018 final, Dublin were three behind. Penalty. Paul Mannion was delayed for three minutes but calmly drove it to the net. Connolly was asked about that penalty afterwards.
He said: “We weren’t here to defend Sam Maguire. We were here to attack the game and win it. When I take a penalty, I just take a breath, put it in the corner, put it away. That’s all it is.” Worryingly, Mayo have botched umpteen great goal chances in the league already. Creating opportunities and missing them is not an excuse. It is a structural defect.
In 2020, Jim Gavin, referring to the five-in-a-row drawn game, said: “The team will fall to the level of preparation and training I have put into them. All-Ireland final, a point down, a man down, five-in-a-row on the line.
"How well they perform is how well they have trained. You can make tactical adjustments on the sideline, but in reality, you have very little influence. It’s up to the players.”
The manager establishes the culture. He must ruthlessly make decisions based on the good of the team. Diarmuid Connolly, for example, was gone by 2018 and returned a year later, as a bit player who was barely used. In most other counties, he would have played until he retired.
Glory is great. Winning is closure. My great friend, Fergal McCusker, summed it up when his club Glen finally won the Derry senior title in 2021 after 89 long years when they were ridiculed as “losers” and “chokers”.
Out on the pitch, holding his young boy in his arms, beaming, Fergal was asked what this meant. He told the BBC: “It means I can go into any bar or clubhouse in Ireland and hold my head up high. It means self-respect. No one can ever call us losers again.”
Pat Riley took over as Lakers head coach in 1981 and established a ruthless, winning culture. They went on to win five championships. Jerry West still lives with his nightmares. Do Mayo want to live with theirs?