Saturday 18 January 2020

Pat Spillane identifies 10 reasons why Mayo have missed out on Sam Maguire

Pat Spillane

You know the feeling you get when an elderly relative dies. Even though their demise is expected, it’s still a shock. Well, that’s how I felt in the wake of Mayo’s exit from the All-Ireland series.

Remember, they had stumbled through the qualifiers in 2017, yet came within touching distance of beating Dublin in the All-Ireland final.

So there was an expectation that they would have another Lazarus-like resurrection this summer and at least reach the Super 8s.

We will miss them. Mayo is a wonderful county with great people. They have the best supporters in the game – bar none.

You have to admire their swashbuckling style, their classy players, their positive philosophy on how the game should be played, but most of all their remarkable resilience.

Take your pick from this list of hard-luck stories: the two own-goals conceded in the 2016 All-Ireland final; Donal Vaughan’s red card which possibly cost them an All-Ireland last year; the defensive mix-up which led to Bernard Brogan’s goal in the 2013 final.

Yet they bounced back, year after year, and boy what a record they had in the All-Ireland series.

As well as drawing against Dublin in the 2016 final, they lost to the same opposition – supposedly the greatest football team of all time – by one point in the 2013, 2016 (replay) and 2017 All-Ireland finals, while Donegal beat them by four in the 2012 decider.

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Then there was their heroic All-Ireland semi-final replay loss to Kerry in 2014 when poor refereeing decisions probably cost them the game.

What about this for a record? Since 2012 they have lost by an average of just under three points in their seven championship losses. 

Furthermore, the six counties they lost to between 2012 and 2017 went on to win the All-Ireland.

So are Mayo the greatest team never to win the All-Ireland? Perhaps, but in terms of its irrelevance this phoney accolade ranks alongside ‘greatest player never to win an All-Ireland medal’, winning the Man of the Match in an All-Ireland final when losing and playing on the team beaten in the ‘greatest game of all time’.

Sport is cruel – essentially it boils down to winning or losing. The rest is just noise.

The title of the autobiography of Leeds United footballer Billy Bremner sums it up best: You Get Nowt for Being Second.

Two questions immediately spring to mind in the wake of their exit. Can they bounce back and why didn’t they win an All-Ireland?

I don’t think they will bounce back next year. Against Kildare, six of their starting 15 – David Clarke, Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle and Andy Moran – were 30 or over.

Furthermore, their first-choice midfielders Tom Parsons and Seamus O’Shea – who both missed the game through injury – are also the wrong side of 30. So, eight of Mayo’s first-choice players – including five defenders – are in the late autumn of their careers.

They will need time to rebuild their defence.

And why were they the perennial bridesmaids on All-Ireland final day?

I don’t go along with the idea that any team – Mayo included –  deserve to win an All-Ireland. No county deserves an All-Ireland, it’s the ultimate team honour in Irish sport and must be earned.

Let’s address some of the issues which afflicted Mayo down through the years...

1. They never had a consistent full-back.

2. Ill-discipline cost them dearly – particularly in recent years.

Lee Keegan was sent off in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry in 2014; Keith Higgins was dismissed in the match against Galway last year while Diarmuid O’Connor saw red in this year’s clash.

Arguably, the most ruinous and unnecessary one of the lot was Donal Vaughan’s red card in last year’s All-Ireland final.

3. Injuries to key players. It’s often forgotten that Andy Moran missed the 2012 All-Ireland final, while Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Lee Keegan, Tom Parsons and Seamus O’Shea were absent for big games.

4. Key decisions made by team managers backfired spectacularly. James Horan left Ger Cafferkey on Kieran Donaghy for almost the entire 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry and Stephen Rochford replaced goalkeeper David Clarke with Rob Hennelly in the 2016 All-Ireland final replay.

5. Mileage on the clock. Aside from the age profile of the squad, some of their players have played at the top level for nine seasons.

Remarkably, David Clarke, Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins, Kevin McLoughlin, Andy Moran, Aidan O’Shea and Donal Vaughan – who came on as a sub against Kildare – all started when they lost to Longford in Round 1 of the qualifiers in 2010.

6. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Mayo were a bit like that.

Apart from dispatching Aidan O’Shea to mark Kieran Donaghy in the two All-Ireland semi-finals last year and a couple of other tweaks, Mayo essentially deployed the same tactics over the last eight seasons.

7. Their style of play was woefully taxing on the players, particularly as their age profile increased.

Their relentless style of attacking based on a running game was wonderful to watch. 

However, apart from a half-hearted effort to deploy Aidan O’Shea as a target man, they never really developed the option of deploying a target man on the edge of the square, which would have given their ‘runners’ a much-needed breather.

8. They had a habit of stumbling within sight of the finish line – particularly in the really big games. Perhaps exhaustion had set in, but I believe it was a mental issue which stopped them closing out games.

The best (or worst) example was probably the drawn 2014 All-Ireland semi-final when they allowed Kerry wipe out a five-point lead in the dying minutes.

9. Their replacement bench was perennially weak. I could be wrong, but other than the match-saving contributions made by Kevin McLoughlin and Alan Dillon when London took them to extra-time in 2011, I can’t recall when the introduction of a Mayo substitute changed the course of any championship game.

10. Lack of quality in their forward line. Cillian O’Connor may be second only to Colm Cooper as the leading scorer of all time in championship football, but even he occasionally failed to deliver – particularly from crucial frees in All-Ireland finals.

The bottom line was that Mayo never had the three marquee forwards on the field at the same time which a team needs if they are to win an All-Ireland.

So farewell Mayo; they may be gone for some time.

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