Mayo backed to keep cool in heat of battle
John Maughan, who led westerners to three All-Ireland finals, insists James Horan's team are free from baggage of previous disappointments and unafraid of Kerry, writes Vincent Hogan
John Maughan heard this week that someone had been on Highland Radio recycling the story of "the curse". That old tale of a funeral being disrupted by revellers on their homeward journey from the '51 final and some enraged priest swearing vengefully that, until every last one had clay above them, Mayo would not win the Sam Maguire again.
"Stop, stop, stop," he says, the laughter bursting out of him. "Let's not be going there, back to that crazy stuff. You always hear this question of is there some kind of voodoo, some kind of miadh on Mayo football? I don't buy into that at all.
"It's just a kind of oul' flippancy that keeps coming back. But on any occasion we were beaten in Croke Park, maybe with the exception of '96, we weren't good enough."
The idea that folk in Donegal might be drawn to explore the landmines of Mayo's psyche is, perhaps, not a positive harbinger on the cusp of their own bid for an All-Ireland final place. But grief fascinates the oppressed and, somehow, Mayo's colours have long since become an emblem of that condition.
It is as if the red and green came to represent an eternity of blood-soaked grass.
In their history, the county has won a meagre three All-Irelands. Yet the second and third came back-to-back, by which time they had also won four consecutive Connacht titles. In the '51 provincial final, they beat Galway by 16 points. A slaughter.
It is sometimes observed now that Mayo maybe never got over '96 and the cruelly arbitrary circumstance of their All-Ireland final replay defeat to Meath. But it was '51 that gave them their vanity.
They went from there to 1989 without making another final and, though Maughan subsequently guided them to three in nine years ('96, '97 and 2004), their failure to win one somehow ransacked his credit rating. The county had grown fat on conceit and loathed the reflection in the mirror.
Martin Carney spoke a few years back of defeat becoming "the accepted companion" of Mayo football. He'd been manager of a gifted U-21 side beaten by Kerry in the replayed All-Ireland final of '95. It was their second consecutive final defeat and he recalls sitting on the steps in Thurles afterwards, thinking "Well f**k this!"
His county-man and fellow RTE analyst Kevin McStay has spoken of Mayo's tradition of travelling to Dublin with "big, happy heads" only to return home to yet another black and empty winter.
Mayo's recent history has forged this language of mistrust. True, they are routinely competitive at club and underage but, at senior inter-county, they have become inclined to follow shows of epic brilliance with an odd listlessness, a fatalism maybe.
Yesterday on 'Morning Ireland', McStay predicted a Kerry victory tomorrow. Why? "Guile" he said. The one quality that, conventionally, eludes Mayo.
People were refreshed and a little startled by how smart James Horan's side proved against Cork in the quarter-final, but in football, you knock over one giant oak and another comes jolting up through the earth's crust.
So McStay spoke of Kerry's edge in experience, adding "maybe we can hope that it just turns into old age!" Or maybe they can buy a Lotto ticket.
The idea of Mayo beating the two great juggernauts of Munster football within three weeks is difficult to reconcile with anything we know of them. The final defeats of '89, '96, '97, '04 and '06 have, maybe, conditioned us against any degree of trust.
Local journalists expressed surprise at Horan's decision to put forward Keith Higgins and Alan Dillon for interview at their recent press night, given the two are the only remaining links to that '06 mauling by Kerry. Knowing the media's pre-occupation with exhuming dead bodies, was this really wise?
Maughan suspects Horan was making a statement.
"I don't think he's over-concerned with the past," he says. "James has enhanced his reputation as a pretty cool customer. Looking at him on the line, he never seems to be flapping. He's very cool, a little bit like Mickey Harte. And, maybe, the team is buying into that coolness."
Almost three months on, then, the chaos of Ruislip at the end of May returns to Mayo minds as a fleeting aberration. Maughan remembers being at home, squirming in his chair as the radio commentary described their desperate last-minute chase for an equalising point that would bring them the refuge of extra-time.
And the parallels with '96 seemed compelling.
For they started with a horror show in London that year too and Maughan winces with mortification at a performance redeemed only by Maurice Sheridan's frees. "I sat straight on the bus after that game because I was too embarrassed to go into the clubhouse" he recalls.
"We won by six points in the end, but we were awful. It can be a little bit claustrophobic over there in Ruislip."
Despite the heavy change in personnel since May 29, the idea of Mayo almost imploding against London and, two months later, strong-arming the All-Ireland champions out of town seems oddly faithful to their personality. They swim on extreme tides, always just one game away from a bonfire or a wake.
There is actually something impossibly open and decent about their yearning for an All-Ireland. Mayo teams don't do the black arts. And, for all the heartbreak visited upon their people, threats of abandonment have never amounted to anything more fleeting than a fist thumping a table.
The players often speak of the '89 homecoming and their first glimpse of the throng below as their plane began its descent into Knock. Out of a miserable, charcoal Monday, a million blinking lights of defiance seemed to be there to greet them.
In his beautifully evocative book, 'House of Pain', Keith Duggan writes how the 'Western People' carried a homecoming schedule that week. It would include, the newspaper declared, "a tour of West Mayo, Westport and conclude in Castlebar."
The formal closing line then concluded "the festivities will conclude with a reception in The Beaten Path", a sprawling pub near Balla.
The idea of "festivities" to mark wretched disappointment would, in any other county, seem perverse. But it had been Mayo's first final in 38 years. Even in defeat, they sensed looming liberation.
Two years later, though, John O'Mahony was gone as manager and the infamous image of training reduced to a sketch of players pushing cars around a pub car-park prefaced the mutiny that would evict his successor, Brian McDonald. From there, they had gone to Jack O'Shea, suffered humiliation by Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final, then lost the '94 Connacht final to Leitrim.
So what Maughan subsequently brought was miraculous, albeit it unfolded against a nagging sense too of sections in the county always being impatient for O'Mahony's return.
O'Mahony had been manager of that Leitrim team in '94 and, four years later, of the Galway team that won the All-Ireland. The following July, Mayo took the Connacht title back off the champions, Maughan chaired off the pitch on the shoulders of supporters.
A few weeks later, Cork beat them by two goals in an All-Ireland semi-final and they were disappointments again. On and on, a story of mix-up and pain.
Sixteen years would pass before O'Mahony finally returned in '07, taking over from Mickey Moran. The Derry man had guided them to the '06 final and, if Kerry did to them that day what Kerry so often do, hope was ablaze now. It was misplaced.
As one former player put it rather colourfully this week, "The assumption was the players would now be sent to finishing school only for O'Mahony to discover they couldn't even write." His second term ended last season with a whipping by Sligo followed by qualifier defeat to Longford.
So Horan was, essentially, handed a set of rosary beads. Has he changed Mayo? People talk about a more defensive system now, of them dropping bodies back to flood areas of worry and playing a game that is a kind of muscled poker. Maughan, though, is more interested in the team's demeanour than its style.
"Look, the style of football you play is dictated by what you have at your disposal," he says.
"I mean if we had the likes of Kieran Donaghy on the edge of the square, our style would probably be to get the ball in any way at all, preferably long and early.
"Likewise, if we had six Keith Higginses in defence, I don't think we'd have to be looking at getting extra players back behind midfield. I was far more interested in the fact that they went out and had such a cut at Cork the last day.
"Mayo are recognised up and down the country as being a nice team, great for sportsmanship and all this lovely stuff. But I saw us getting stuck into Cork physically, which was refreshing.
"Young fellas don't carry baggage and they didn't care a damn about the fact that we hadn't beaten Cork since 1916. You can go into semantics and talk about voodoo or whatever, but that's the bottom line. History has nothing to do with these lads. If you're good enough, you win."
He sees a lot in Kerry this week that speaks of opportunity for Mayo.
"For some reason, they're not buzzing," says Maughan. "They have some frightening names on the team-sheet, no question. But I watched them closely in the Limerick game (quarter-final) and Gooch isn't putting the frighteners on corner-backs like he once did. Donaghy got one fisted point. For some reason, they're not sparking.
"Okay, they have an uncanny knack of delivering when it matters most. But I think Kerry's defence and midfield can be exploited a little bit too. Three of the backs have, effectively, been forced out of retirement and Darragh O Se hasn't really been replaced at midfield.
"Look, I just hope we have the same bite in us as we had against Cork. Maybe they had their eye off the ball. Maybe even two eyes if I'm honest. I hope we ask the questions of Kerry we asked of them because it was so refreshing. Tear into them, in other words.
"That evening, we went home with our heads up and our chests out. There is nothing wrong with Mayo football when you can do that."