THE story of Mayo's journey to their opening championship match in London bears the hapless quality of slapstick legend. While the reasons behind it may be contested, the facts of the expedition are not in dispute. On the day before the fixture, the players took a flight from Galway which stopped over in Waterford, before resuming and landing at Southend airport on the outskirts of London two and a half hours after initial take-off. At which point Ruislip was still a 60-mile coach ride away.
Some players were said to have tweeted messages reporting their surreal location as they sat for 20 minutes in Waterford until the flight resumed. The protracted journey meant everything scheduled that evening was rushed -- the meal, the team meeting -- and it is anyone's guess what messages the ordeal conveyed to management and the players. The next day they were almost ambushed. Those who witnessed the final desperate minutes can't say for sure how they managed to survive.
In the post-match period, after Mayo forced extra-time and won through to the semi-final, witnesses remarked on the ghostly-white visage of James Horan who would almost certainly have been one of the most short-lived Mayo managers had they failed to avoid a calamitous defeat. On and off the field, Mayo had the appearance of a crisis waiting to unfold. But, bad as things have been, at least they didn't lose to London. They survived. And survival has been the bottom line for some time.
Their baroque travel itinerary drew an explanation from county board secretary Seán Feeney, who claimed the journey taken had been down to a confluence of factors outside of their control. The air carrier had altered its route, adding the Waterford stop-over after the flights had been booked. And the Knock departure option didn't suit because it would not have allowed players to return on Sunday night as some, allegedly, had to.
Not a huge amount was made of the prolonged journey by those directly affected for fear that it would be seen as making excuses for the inept performance that followed. But it can't be completely ruled out of the equation and it is hard to imagine any serious county allowing something like that to happen. London was not the kind of start Mayo needed after last year's performances sank to a low many feel they last experienced over 15 years ago.
The meltdown by the team in 2010 created a huge yearning for some action and soul-searching. The abject league final defeat by Cork was seen by optimists as offering an ideal springboard for a redemptive strike at Sligo in the championship at Markievicz Park. Instead, Mayo continued in the same lifeless vein and were beaten convincingly. From there, they could not find enough willpower to save themselves in the qualifiers, defeated by Longford. John O'Mahony's reign, ultimately a great disappointment, was over and the question on people's lips was: where next?
Instinctively, they knew that lasting solutions went beyond the next management appointment. The county board seemed to agree. At the board's behest a strategic review body under the chairmanship of Liam Horan, a former national newspaper journalist and ardent Mayo follower, was established to examine the issues and come up with recommendations. Horan deployed 86 people over six months covering every conceivable issue of relevance to Mayo's affairs and produced a comprehensive set of recommendations. But the board failed to sanction all its findings, instead reproducing a diluted version which the original committee shunned.
Some of the issues in the review are concerned with the next five years, covering areas like underage development and coaching, but some had greater urgency. A request that a full-time commercial director be appointed to get Mayo's financial affairs in order was rejected. Mayo is facing a giant debt arising from a €10m redevelopment at McHale Park comprising loans taken out prior to the recession. The review committee hoped to tap into various revenue streams including Mayo people and businesses abroad in a bid to deal with that debt and explore the fundraising potential of the Mayo 'brand'. But these were rejected too.
On the field, meanwhile, Mayo have spluttered along without revealing enough compelling evidence to be easily judged or summarily dismissed. They managed to avoid relegation from Division 1 and they have won the Connacht title. That isn't a poor return for James Horan in his first year given how poor Mayo were when he came on board. But they won't know much more until they see how they handle Cork in Croke Park this afternoon. Their record against the Rebels isn't encouraging and there is lurking in every Mayo man's heart a fear that they could be wiped off the field. Beating a terrible Galway side and then overcoming Roscommon in monsoon conditions at Hyde Park hides as much as it reveals.
"I find it difficult to be optimistic really," says Pat Holmes. Holmes was part of the Mayo team that stunned Kerry in 1996, a year after being thoroughly beaten by Galway in Connacht and only three seasons after being annihilated by Cork in Croke Park. But he doesn't draw much hope from that. "When you look at the last few games, and at how Mayo and Cork have played, there is no comparison. Mayo scored 13 points against Roscommon, of that only five came from play. I know you have to take into account the conditions, but Cork scored 2-20 the last day, a large amount of that from play. So when you look at it like that it is difficult to be optimistic.
"I don't think you can compare it to 1996. The big problem Mayo have is around the middle of the field. The O'Sheas have done well there, but to win an All-Ireland or be competitive when it comes down to the serious business you need one primary midfielder. Back in '96 we had a primary midfielder in Liam McHale. The teams that won All-Irelands in the last 15-20 years, they all had those type of players -- John McDermott, Darragh ó Sé, Kevin Walsh -- we haven't had one since McHale retired in 1999. We had a very big, strong, physical team in '96 and some very good forwards. I don't think that we have the same quality of players at this moment in time. James Horan was one of those, especially when he went to Croke Park -- he was capable of scoring four or five points from play."
Mayo don't expect much from here on and are willing to extend Horan some time. Holmes was involved in managing the under 21 team that won the 2006 All-Ireland, and managed the senior team previously, but despaired like everyone else with the displays Mayo produced last season. "It was very negative," he recalls of the mood, "because the belief in the county was that we were better than we had shown both against Sligo and against Longford. Anybody who was at those games would have seen a spiritless display really. The players afterwards more or less put their hands up and pretty much admitted as much. It was the lowest Mayo had been since 1995 and you could maybe go back to the 1970s. That was the kind of level that Mayo were at."
On the night the review findings and recommendations were to be considered at county board level, it is believed that up to 20 clubs were not represented at the start of business. Apathy among clubs is part of the problem -- there is no rigorous testing of the systems in place and insufficient holding of the main committee to account. Local sources feel that the strategic review committee went much further than the board executive anticipated. A review of financial affairs over the last three years was one of the recommendations that did not meet with an enthusiastic response. The call for a full-time coaching director also fell on deaf ears. In many instances the executive would have felt the review was overstepping the mark and that existing structures were already adequate.
Among those who criticised the board's response was Anthony Egan, a board delegate and former Mayo player and manager. He contributed to the review, making recommendations to broaden the coaching structure to ensure that all coaches are "singing off the same hymn sheet". In that respect he feels a full-time director is necessary even though the current coaching officers are doing a competent job. "There would be an opinion that the review has failed as there was very little of it taken on board -- the county board have come up with their own plan. They say they are going to implement some of ours, but we don't know much. Generally we have to be disappointed."
Another member of the review body, Stephen Rochford, had proposed the formation of academies to ensure the best minor footballers are preserved and not lost in the void which follows. "We wanted an academy set up for 19-22-year-olds," he says. "There has always been that kind of myth that Mayo have had great minors and the question of where they all went to. We were putting an academy in place to bridge that gap from minor to senior."
In the review body's strategic plan, it is noted that Mayo and Tyrone both participated in 16 All-Ireland finals (minor, under 21 and senior) from 1989 to 2010. Tyrone won 12; Mayo won just one. Rochford is a former minor captain who won an All-Ireland medal with Crossmolina in 2001.
"There are a lot of changes for men at 18 -- women, drink and drugs -- and they come out of a home environment. This (academies) would involve looking at all those issues. Or where you have lads coming through at 18 maybe playing with a junior club, they come out of the county scene and go back to some prehistoric training methods where they might be 11 at training."
A revised version of the strategic plan first proposed by Liam Horan's group was unanimously backed by the county board in April. But the group sought to disassociate from this modified version, feeling it does not delve deeply enough to treat the problems that exist. At county convention in 2009, it was reported that loan repayments arising out of the McHale Park redevelopment would run to an estimated €730,000 in 2010.
None of this encourages much hope regarding Mayo's future prospects. They head into Croke Park this afternoon to face the All-Ireland champions with much more than football to occupy them.
Sunday Indo Sport