Mayo in a league of their own
Remarkable consistency puts Mayo in line to launch a real challenge for championship glory
QUESTION: what county has been the most consistent in the Allianz Football League since the turn of the millennium? Answer: Mayo.
That may come as a surprise to many, not least because Kerry, Tyrone, Derry and Cork have won more league titles in that period, but if longevity in Division 1 is to be used as the consistency criterion, Mayo have outlasted everybody.
They were matched in the Division 1 survival stakes by Galway until last year, when the Tribesmen's steady decline finally sucked them down the relegation chute into territory that has housed all the top counties -- except Mayo -- at some stage over the past decade.
Mayo's survival in the top flight for such an extended period points to a consistency level that hasn't been replicated in the championship, where the pursuit of an All-Ireland senior title is now into its 61st year.
It adds another dimension to the conundrum that is Mayo football, whose capacity for alternating between highs and lows in rapid succession was perfectly illustrated last year when they dethroned reigning All-Ireland champions Cork with a remarkably efficient display, only to lose to Kerry by nine points three weeks later.
It's that tendency to fluctuate that has bewildered Mayo supporters for years. Yet, since the league system was changed after a one-off season where strong and weak were combined across various groups in 1997/'98, Mayo have, unlike all the other top counties, remained in Division 1.
They won the title in 2001, were runners-up in 2007 and lost semi-finals in 2002, '05 and '06.
Now, as they set out on another campaign, hopes are again high in the county that they can build on last year's championship progress (up until they played Kerry) and use the league as a springboard for a strong summer challenge.
Former Mayo manager John Maughan experienced them at first hand last Friday night when he took NUI Galway into battle in the FBD Connacht League final, and was impressed by what he saw.
Mayo won easily and Maughan predicts that they are heading for a progressive year. "They'll be in the top five in the country," he said.
"Will they win the All-Ireland? Probably not, but there's no doubt that their graph is going very much the right way and if they get a few lucky breaks, who knows what might happen?
"I'd certainly expect them to win the Connacht title again. I think they're ahead of the rest in Connacht, including Galway, who are in transition.
"Alan Mulholland will do a good job with Galway but he'll have to build, which can take a bit of time. I'd certainly expect to see Mayo arriving in Croke Park in early August as Connacht champions." Maughan was very impressed by Mayo's fitness levels last Friday night, which suggests they may be ready to enjoy another good league campaign.
Of course, even if they were to win the title, it wouldn't come anywhere close to satisfying either the squad or the supporters. But, as recent All-Ireland winners have shown, Sam Maguire no longer ends up in a county that hasn't done well in spring, so it's crucial to make an early impact.
"I'd fancy Mayo to do well in the league and to build on that in the championship. They have a very compact defence and some fine forwards, too, but there would be a slight issue around midfield," said Maughan.
"If they can work through that, it would greatly improve the overall balance, which you need once you get to the serious end of the championship."
Cian O'Neill, who trained the Tipperary hurling team in recent years, is now with Mayo so it will be interesting to see if there's any noticeable difference in their physique and overall fitness levels.
His addition to the back-room team certainly adds another dimension at a time when there's a growing sense of optimism in Mayo. The first target will, of course, be to remain in Division 1, followed by clinching a place in the semi-finals (the top four qualify).
Said Maughan: "There are a lot of good footballers in Mayo right now. The same applies in several counties, but Mayo have more reason than most to be optimistic.
"They're definitely top-five material. After that, who knows? But they'll certainly be looking up rather than down."