Wednesday 24 April 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Mentality issues are not to blame - but pattern of Mayo's final flops needs to change some day soon'

Football Focus

'In 2016, big-day hang-ups had nothing to do with Mayo's decision to drop goalkeeper David Clarke for the replay.' Photo: Sportsfile
'In 2016, big-day hang-ups had nothing to do with Mayo's decision to drop goalkeeper David Clarke for the replay.' Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It can never be changed, but neither can it be ignored. So bad is Mayo's record in finals that even those who dismiss superstition as a crutch for the demented become queasy when faced with the raw facts.

No win from their last ten All-Ireland and Allianz League finals. One win from their last 18 finals since 1971. And if you stretch it back over 50 years, Mayo have won only two of 19 finals, the 1970 and 2001 leagues. Even then, there's an asterisk against the 2001 success as Tyrone, the team showing the best form that spring, were forced to withdraw from the competition because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

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It was a strange campaign in other ways too, with four Connacht teams, Mayo, Galway, Roscommon and Sligo, reaching the semi-finals. Mayo beat Galway by a point in the final, but there was venomous sting in the tail for the winners later in the year as they had to watch their great rivals take the All-Ireland title.

Something similar happened a few years earlier. After coming so close to winning the 1996 All-Ireland and running Kerry to three points in 1997, Mayo's misery was compounded a year later when Galway came from nowhere to win the All-Ireland.

And if that wasn't difficult enough for Mayo to stomach, one of their own had presided over the success. John O'Mahony, the man Mayo let go some years earlier, was now bringing Sam Maguire back to a neighbour's house.

Given the heavy loss to win ratio in finals, there's an obvious temptation to attach a psychological dimension to Mayo's dismal record. It's easy to argue that so many defeats has to be down to some form of mental inadequacy, triggered by the sight of a trophy.

Yet, there's no evidence of that, certainly in recent times. Yes, there have been no fewer than four one-point defeats in All-Ireland finals - three in the past six years - but ascribing them to psychological hang-ups is fitting an unproven theory to a fact and claiming it's responsible.

Mayo's defeat by Dublin in the 2017 All-Ireland final came down to a tale of two free-takers, rather than some deep mindset dynamics. Cillian O'Connor missed a chance to put Mayo ahead from a free in stoppage time. A few minutes later, Dean Rock got a similar opportunity and nailed it to win the All-Ireland for Dublin.

In 2016, big-day hang-ups had nothing to do with Mayo's decision to drop goalkeeper David Clarke for the replay. Rather, it was a tactical gamble that backfired spectacularly, with replacement, Robert Hennelly gifting Dublin the goal chance that turned the game.

In 2013, Mayo dominated possession for long stretches in the first half against Dublin, but failed to convert it into scores. Nothing psychological about that, it was simply a case of technical inefficiency.

The same applied against Donegal a year earlier when, after recovering from a disastrous start during which they conceded two goals in the opening 11 minutes, they were back within three points in the second half. They missed three good chances and ended up losing by four points. Flick back to the drawn All-Ireland final in 1996 when Meath's equaliser came from Colm Coyle's long range effort which bounced over the bar.

It shouldn't have happened. You expect either a defender or goalkeeper to deal with a ball bouncing so close to goal, so no hard luck stories there either.

It was different in the replay when, after the notorious bust-up early on, Liam MacHale and Coyle were somehow picked out from a feuding cast of 20 and sent off.

MacHale, man of the match in the drawn game, was a bigger loss to Mayo than Coyle was to Meath, who won by a point. Of all the finals, that's the one where Mayo could justifiably claim that bad luck played a big part in their defeat.

It's often claimed that the early injury to corner-back Dermot Flanagan in the 1997 final, which led to changes in virtually every line, was a major contributor to the three-point defeat, but that ignores the fact that Kerry lost attacker Billy O'Shea with a broken ankle 10 minutes later.

A far more important factor than the forced changes after Flanagan's departure was Mayo's inability to come up with a solution to the Maurice Fitzgerald puzzle. He scored nine of their 13 points from play and frees in a truly memorable exhibition.

In 1989 against Cork, inexperience undermined Mayo, appearing in the final for the first time since 1951, but even then they had chances to cause an upset.

The 2004 and 2006 finals were examples of days when Mayo were simple blitzed by better opponents. When a team loses by eight and 13 points respectively - as happened against Kerry in those years - it points to a chasm that wasn't opened by mental insecurities.

So while Mayo's awful record in finals encourages claims that it's down to their psyche becoming corrupted on big days, the reality is probably a whole lot more straightforward. Quite simply, they haven't been good enough.

Still, the 'curse' theories will continue to flourish until such time as they win a final.

That's why tomorrow is more important than many would have you believe. Winning a league title won't scratch Mayo's nagging itch, but it would leave the squad with a real sense of achievement to take into the championship.

They were not expected to reach the final after early losses and Galway still controlled Mayo's fate going into the concluding round last Sunday, but failed to beat Tyrone which allowed James Horan's crew to nudge into the final.

It's the sort of break they now need to exploit. Kerry are road-testing a new-look squad, hoping to flash out a signal to the rest of the All-Ireland contenders that they are a bigger threat this year. Mayo introduced them to some hard facts two weeks ago, but then there's a big difference between Tralee on a cold, miserable night and Croke Park on a spring afternoon, with Kerry trying to turn it into a test of pace and athleticism.

"We are still a bit up and down, but we are definitely progressing on some of the key things," said Horan after the win over Monaghan last Sunday. Another defeat would simply further fuel the theory that Mayo just cannot win a final, which is not what they want from this campaign.

Losing a league final wouldn't normally be a major downer, but Mayo's case is different. They need a big occasion boost in Croke Park with silverware to go with it.

Otherwise, it will be two wins from their last 20 finals and all the negativity that goes with that.

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