Kildare and Mayo bound by need for league title
JOHN Maughan is bemused by the suggestion that if Mayo beat Dublin tomorrow and claim a place in the Allianz NFL final on April 28, it might set them up for a first-fence fall against Galway in the Connacht championship.
As a former Mayo player and manager, Maughan is an expert in the psychology of his county's rivalry with Galway and is adamant that their prospects of launching the championship with a significant surge in Pearse Stadium on May 19 would be greatly enhanced if the league trophy were wrapped in green and red.
"Winning brings confidence – it's as simple as that. Win and you feel better about yourself, lose and you have to ask why it happened," he said.
Peter McConnon, a former Kildare senior star and U-21 manager, is as excited as every other supporter in the county after watching the impressive progress made by Kieran McGeeney's squad this spring and believes that if they were to press on and win the county's first ever league (Division 1) title it would be a huge boost for the championship.
"Kildare have been a top six/seven side for four or five years. We need to take the next step. There's no point being in a league semi-final unless you beat one of the big guys," he said.
Jim McGuinness may have dismissed the league as an irritating blockage on the back roads leading to the championship motorway, but then it's easy to do that when you have Sam Maguire as your guest.
Therein rests the challenge for Mayo and Kildare, two counties who have spent their lives on the outskirts of success in recent years, only to be blocked every time they try to get in among the bright lights.
If frustration was a saleable commodity, Mayo and Kildare would be mega-rich, feasting off the proceeds of close calls, hard-luck stories and general disappointment. Mayo's case is the more pronounced, having failed to win an All-Ireland final from seven (including a replay) attempts since 1989.
They won one league title (2001) in that period, but that has an asterisk against it, as Tyrone, who were making impressive progress at the time, were forced out because of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
However, it didn't distract them and the Red Hands were even stronger in 2002 when they won the league title for the first time under the leadership of Art McCrory and Eugene McKenna. And, when Mickey Harte took over at the end of the year, he too recognised that the league could be an important springboard for championship success as Tyrone powered on to spring glory for a second successive season in 2003.
McGuinness openly dismisses the league, but that's not the case in Tyrone for the obvious reason that their double success in 2002-2003 opened the door into the All-Ireland hall. Having made a grand entrance in 2003, Tyrone have remained in the inner sanctum ever since.
It's a world which Mayo and Kildare have observed enviously, noting that the league was a major contributor to Tyrone's advance.
Still, there are people in both counties who believe that winning the league could in some way set them up for a championship fall. The feeling is especially prevalent in Mayo, who face a championship opener against Galway just three weeks after league final day.
The concern is that arriving in Pearse Stadium as league champions would play right into Galway's hands in a deeply personal rivalry that has always thrived on local issues relating to the relative standing of the counties at a particular time.
Thus, Mayo derived huge satisfaction when they ended Galway's bid for an All-Ireland four-in-a-row with a resounding win in Pearse Stadium in 1967 and again when they ended Galway's reign as All-Ireland champions in 1999. Similarly, it was Galway's turn to upset the odds in the 1990, 1998, 2005, and 2007 seasons after Mayo had reached – and lost – All-Ireland finals.
This is another post-All-Ireland-final-appearance season for Mayo and, as luck would have it, they are paired against Galway in the first round. Meantime, they have a league title to pursue.
Maughan disagrees with those who claim Mayo's championship interests would be best served by slipping quietly out of the league race tomorrow.
"You don't win a league title without playing well, so if Mayo were to beat Dublin and either Kildare or Tyrone, it would send out a clear signal of just how well they were going," he said.
"The idea that somehow it's better to be out of the league makes no sense and I'm sure James Horan and the players aren't thinking that way."
Many Mayo supporters get irritated when reminded of the number of finals the county has lost over the past 40 years, but it's not something that concerns Maughan, who accepts that it will continue until they win an All-Ireland.
A league crown won't end the drought, but Maughan believes that it can be an important step in the right direction. What's more, he reckons it can be done without in any way impinging on the championship preparations.
"Mayo's fitness levels are right up there with the very best. They're well able to take in a league semi-final and final without losing sight of the championship game against Galway in May.
"It would be great for Mayo to win this league. It would give the county a huge lift and leave the team in perfect shape for the Galway game."
The same applies to Kildare, who, who unlike Mayo, have never won the league title. Like Mayo, they have been in the top six over recent years without managing to drive on in the manner which took Donegal through the pack and onto the All-Ireland podium last September.
Kildare differ from Mayo in that their strike rate against the top counties is not as high (see table). Breaking through that barrier is the next big challenge facing them, according to McConnon.
"We need to start picking off a few of the big guys – otherwise there's no way through. Winning a league title by beating Tyrone and Dublin or Mayo would be a massive boost for Kildare," he said.
Mayo's frustration is increased by the fact that while their record against the other top counties is good, they have failed to make the big breakthrough.
According to Maughan, that should not be mistaken for a psychological weakness. "Mayo will always get that thrown at them until such time as we win an All-Ireland, but I wouldn't take a bit of notice of it and neither does James Horan or the players," he said.
He was very impressed by Mayo's win over Cork last Sunday in a game which also carried possible relegation consequences.
"There was a huge determination to win in Cork to make sure they wouldn't be in relegation trouble. Not many teams win in Cork, so it was a big success for Mayo. It not only took them out of the relegation area, it also set them up for another big game in Croke Park, which is great for their confidence," he said.
Maughan coaches at U-14, U-15, and U-16 level these days and identifies closely with the yearning of the young generation to see Mayo as All-Ireland champions.
"Young lads see the current team as real stars anyway, but it would go to a completely different level if they won the All-Ireland.
"As long as we go without winning an All-Ireland, the monkey will be on our backs. The only way to get rid of him is to win the All-Ireland. Winning the league would be a helpful step along that road."
Similarly in Kildare, for whom winning a league title would send out a clear signal that they have moved higher up the ladder, where the finals steps have proved extremely difficult to negotiate.
"Not many people thought that Kildare would be challenging for the league title, but now that we're there, it would be great to win it and head into the championship with all the confidence that would bring," said McConnon.
Dublin (no league title since 1993) and Tyrone (conscious of how helpful the league was a decade ago) have their own reasons for wanting to win it this year too, but neither can quite match the yearning that exists in Kildare and Mayo.
Both are outsiders going into tomorrow's semi-finals, but are driven with an intent which should not be overlooked.