Mayo on mission to break Croker jinx
O'Mahony must get back to basics in bid to build mental strength for new attack on Headquarters
THERE must have been times last Sunday when John O'Mahony wondered if Mayo would have been better off had they lost narrowly to Cork two weeks earlier.
That way, Mayo would have finished level on points with Dublin in Division 1, but missed out on a place in the final under the new head-to-head regulations. He could have talked up the positives, derived from winning five of seven games, while reminding the sceptics that Mayo were favourites to be relegated with Monaghan at the start of the season.
As it happened, Monaghan avoided the drop too, albeit by the tightest of margins, leaving Derry and Tyrone headed for Division 2.
Meanwhile, Mayo won their last game down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh to book a place in the final and a rematch with Cork in Croke Park.
Different day, different teams, different result, different aftermath. Cork's changes were largely in personnel, whereas Mayo had undergone a startling metamorphosis, altering a team that had looked so convincing during the group stages into insecure shells that had no idea how to react to the new challenge.
Man-of-the-match Daniel Goulding, without being in any way disparaging, admitted to puzzlement as to why "Mayo didn't turn up." It was a conundrum which he didn't have to ponder on for long as Cork left Croke Park with the league title and a favourites' rating for the All-Ireland. The opposition's problems were no concern of his.
And Mayo? An eight-point defeat, which actually should have been much greater, left them wide open to the 'same old Mayo' jibes that have accompanied the green-and-red out of Croke Park so often in the past.
O'Mahony, a seasoned veteran of the post-match interview and, in fairness, a man who maintains a balance to his views whether in victory or defeat, knew that Mayo's poor record in major finals would inevitably be raised.
It has to be the ultimate in frustration for a manager to find himself confronted with claims that somehow there's a link between defeats in the 1955 All-Ireland semi-final and the 2010 National League final. Essentially that's what happens now as every Mayo defeat in Croke Park is categorised under the same broad heading.
"What you're assuming is that these lads have lost on all the other (Mayo) teams as well. We'll put our hands up for today's performance alright, but we won't put them up for the last 40 or 50 years," he said with as much patience as he could muster.
That's, indeed, as it should be, but O'Mahony knows that until such time as Mayo win a major final in Croke Park, the barren years will be repeatedly recalled. Whether it's inferior teams, bad luck or a Croke Park curse, Mayo can't escape the reality that they have won only two major senior finals from 13 attempts in Croke Park in 40 years.
They were both in the National League with wins over Down in 1970 and Galway in 2001. They lost All-Ireland finals in 1989-96 (in a replay) 97-2004-06 and League finals in 1971-72-78-2007-10. It's a dismal record, especially when coupled with the many other defeats in All-Ireland semi-finals, quarter-finals and minor finals.
In all probability there's no genuine connection whatsoever between any of them but, in the public mind, Mayo are regarded as being less effective in Croke Park than elsewhere.
Galway, in contrast, are seen as a Croke Park team, despite the fact that they haven't won any of their last seven games there since beating Meath in the 2001 All-Ireland final. Still, the memories of that victory, plus the 1998 success over Kildare, portray Galway in a positive Croke Park light compared to Mayo.
It shows how perceptions can influence thinking and, while that can be a positive in some circumstances, it's very definitely a negative for Mayo. The opposition are encouraged by Mayo's poor record in national finals whereas however hard they try, it must be very difficult for Mayo to ignore the hand of history tugging at their jerseys once things go against them.
And yet, Mayo have had some outstanding days in Croke Park, including in the last decade when they hauled back a big lead to beat Dublin in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final, the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final -- where they beat reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone -- and the 2001 league final where they out-pointed Galway.
It was easy to locate Mayo sceptics last week with many predicting that they wouldn't even beat Sligo in the first round of the Connacht championship. Sligo's stock rose further with a very enterprising performance in the Division 3 final last Saturday, but there's a vast difference between Cork and Antrim so it's important to keep things in perspective.
The irony for O'Mahony and Mayo is that they would probably be under greater pressure in the championship had they won last Sunday. Suddenly, they would be talked of as potential All-Ireland champions in a season when you get the feeling that something strange is about to unfold. Now, they are regarded as vulnerable against Sligo, a rating that should make life fairly easy for the management team to generate a siege mentality over the coming weeks.
Mayo can't be back in Croke Park for well over three months, so one suspects that O'Mahony will succeed in getting them back to basics very quickly as they zero in on the Connacht championship. Galway remain bookies favourites, but only because they have a far easier first-round tie against New York.
There's every chance that Mayo will be back in Croke Park in August where, once again, the test will be to operate somewhere near full power as opposed to low-watt performance last Sunday.
It's fashionable to ascribe some sort of psychological hang-up to Mayo's Croke Park failures and, while there certainly have been days when it looked as if some crazy gremlins were operating their boots, a colder analysis suggests that they lost games because they weren't good enough to win.
That's the first challenge facing them if they are to solve the Croke Park problem. Others can remind them of the grim past, but that can't be changed.
O'Mahony conceded last Sunday evening that Mayo's mental strength, once they arrive in Croke Park, would be raised repeatedly in the post-match analysis and acknowledged there was nothing they could do about how others saw them.
Instead it was time "to head back under cover and go again" because there was no other option.
"That's what keeps the GAA going, week on week," he said.
Mayo's championship rivals may regard last Sunday's crash as a season-defining game for O'Mahony and Co but, in reality, it's not.
Mayo started the league final as fifth favourites for the All-Ireland behind Cork, Kerry, Tyrone and Dublin and ahead of Galway, Derry, Armagh, Monaghan, Down, Meath, Kildare and Donegal.
They still occupy the same position because, while they may have flopped in Croke Park last Sunday, they at least got there. What was everybody else's excuse?