Sunday 25 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Mayo players must ask themselves if they're the real problem'

Players need to accept that responsibility should come from within themselves

The Mayo panel ahead of Roscommon defeat
The Mayo panel ahead of Roscommon defeat
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The irony was unmissable as Anthony Cunningham beamed his way around MacHale Park in the teeming rain after presiding over a Roscommon win which left Mayo with their worst run in the Connacht Championship for 60 years.

A player revolt forced Cunningham out as Galway hurling manager in 2015 at exactly the same time as the Mayo squad were telling the county board that unless Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly were removed immediately, a player strike would follow.

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Holmes and Connelly had been in charge for one season, during which Mayo retained the Connacht title, beat Donegal easily in the All-Ireland quarter-final and drew with Dublin in the semi-final before losing the replay.

Bizarrely, the players obviously blamed management for losing a game where Mayo led by four in the third quarter. A heave followed, with the county board given a four-day ultimatum: 'remove them or we'll strike'.

'We won't tell them why we want them out. Also, we demand equal representation on the committee appointed to search for new management. And if the county board appoints an independent member to the committee, run it by us first and we'll let you know if we agree. If we don't, it won't be happening.'


It was player power in its ugliest form as the squad knew that, however long it took, they would get their way.

As it happened, the wait was short as the two men who had given massive service to Mayo football over many years made another generous contribution by resigning, rather than prolonging the controversy.

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Almost four years on, you wonder if the players who drove the heave ever reflect on whether they were wrong.

In their quieter moments, perhaps while revisiting the many failures by the narrowest of margins, do they ever conclude that the problem rests with them, not management?

The squad's silence as Stephen Rochford went through an uncomfortable time before eventually deciding to walk away last September didn't exactly strengthen his case.

Silence can sometimes tell more than statements.

For a group who were so strident in their views in 2015, they were decidedly meek last year. The obvious conclusion is that they weren't unhappy at Rochford's departure.

Prior to 2016, Mayo had won five successive Connacht titles - four under James Horan, one under Holmes and Connelly - but since then they have failed to even reach one final.

It's the first time Mayo have gone four successive seasons without qualifying for the final since 1956-59. It didn't end there, of course, as their next appearance in the final wasn't until 1966.

Galway (three times) and Roscommon have blocked them over recent seasons, with three of the defeats coming in Castlebar.

Under Rochford, they failed to solve the Galway puzzle in 2016-17-18 and the difficulty has continued under Horan, with Roscommon exploiting fault lines which have undermined Mayo for so long. That they shot 15 wides is somehow being put forward as an excuse for the defeat. It's based on the misguided view that wides are an aberration that won't be repeated.

It's akin to a golfer who shoots 80 explaining that a better round eluded him because he didn't hit enough fairways or sink enough putts.

Everyone can see that, so the question is not how it happened, but why it happened.

It's the same with Mayo. Why have they lost nine championship games in six seasons by one-score margins?

Why have they missed crucial frees at the end of games, including last Saturday?

Why have they fared so poorly in Connacht since 2015?

Their close runs with Dublin - initially as Connacht champions and as qualifiers in 2016 and 2017 - ensures that they are always ranked as potential title winners, which is fair enough.

It hasn't happened though, largely because of self-inflicted wounds at crucial times. It happened again last Saturday, suggesting that nothing has changed over recent years except the management.

Mayo can still rescue the season via the qualifiers, but after the latest setback it's very difficult to see them take it all the way to All-Ireland glory.

Their loyal fans regard them as the ultimate summer mystery, which will ultimately be solved to their satisfaction. The rest of the football world remain a lot more sceptical.

Testing times

Provinces differ and hurling championship prospects die!

Well, maybe not, but counties' health can certainly be affected by the order of games.

Munster left last weekend free, thereby having five weekends with two games each. Leinster chose a different schedule, playing two games on four weekends and one each on the other two weekends.

Leinster's approach means that no county has a game on three successive weekends, unlike Munster where Clare and Limerick are the unlucky two as they face three games in a fortnight.

The All-Ireland champions have the heavier load as they will be away to Waterford and Tipperary, whereas two of Clare's three games are at home, to Tipperary and Cork.

Leinster's system gives a more even spread, but it's not totally balanced either, requiring Wexford to travel for their first two games, while Galway will be on the road for their last two games, against Kilkenny and Dublin.

Connolly remains a summer mystery

For a man who didn't feature at all for Dublin in last year's championship and who played a bit part only in 2017, Diarmuid Connolly continues to attract a whole lot of attention, perhaps even a disproportionate amount.

Jim Gavin must have grown weary at being repeatedly asked if Connolly is to rejoin the squad, but then his answers merely encourage similar queries next time.

'Would Connolly be prepared to spend most of his time on the bench, which is the best he can hope for now?' Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

That's what happens when responses raise more questions than they answer, as happens all the time on the Connolly situation.

So here's a theory. Gavin would like to have Connolly back, on the basis that he still has something to offer the squad. If the five-in-a-row bid were to fail while Connolly is sitting in the stands, questions would be asked as to why he wasn't aboard.

But would Connolly be prepared to spend most of his time on the bench, which is the best he can hope for now?

Is he demanding more than a super-sub role, something Gavin could never accept?

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