Tuesday 20 February 2018

Six years is too long for any squad to finally flourish


‘Stephen Rochford has been emphasising how to manage a match to its conclusion, rather than setting it on fire and burning themselves out in the process’. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
‘Stephen Rochford has been emphasising how to manage a match to its conclusion, rather than setting it on fire and burning themselves out in the process’. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Tommy Conlon

We know they'll be back again next year, it's a basic law of sport that every team returns next year, but today's All-Ireland final is the endgame for Mayo.

This afternoon they reach the last stop on the line. This is it. There are no tomorrows for this Mayo team; it is now or never. Today they face the firing squad and they will either stand or fall. If they fall, they will fall for good. The break-up will begin, the rebuilding will begin, the remorse for another generation of gallant soldiers will begin.

James Horan started the last reconstruction in September 2010. Nowadays there's a cloud hanging over them, the sense of a team living on borrowed time. This is their sixth season tilting at the windmill, their third All-Ireland final. In the conventional life cycle of sport, six seasons is too long. If there hasn't been a substantial makeover along the way, a squad that's been pushing for six years to reach its destination simply starts to stagnate. The essential elasticity in body and mind begins to wither.

It speaks volumes for the integrity of this team that it is back in another All-Ireland. In sporting terms theirs is no longer a journey, but an odyssey. Call it a dream, an obsession, a quest for history, but it has taken over their lives. They have refused to give up on it; they will not let it go until they are forced to let it go.

The overwhelming consensus is that Dublin will finally force a core quota of Mayo players to finally let go of it this evening. After which, they will begin the banal business of getting on with the rest of their lives.

If they have a measure of hope, it may be found in the modern history of the football championship. The facts tell us that it has become enormously difficult for the champions to retain their crown. Only Kerry, in 2006 and 2007, have done it since 1990. The common explanation is that the title-holders allow some psychic slippage into the system. It might only be a minute trace of complacency, invisible even to the intimate eye of the manager, but it is usually discovered afterwards, somewhere in the rubble of defeat.

One should not underestimate, therefore, the scale of the challenge that Dublin are facing today. Kerry themselves traded on this hope as they planned their assault at the end of August. They believed that they would exceed the Dubs in pure desire for victory.

Mayo are entitled to nurture the same hope today; that they will be more ravenous in the tackle, in the running, in the hunt for breaking ball. But unlike Kerry, they don't have the luxury of presuming that if they can beat Dublin for zeal, they will match them for talent.

At times this summer they played football that was straight out of the bad old days, as if the serious standards laid down by Horan had been forgotten: sloppy decision-making, shot selection and finishing.

To win this afternoon, Mayo will have to make a quantum leap, not in attitude but performance. For if we assume that they will throw the kitchen sink at it today, it still won't matter if they continue to shoot from wrong positions, drop the ball short into the keeper's hands, or pile up the wides count. A high level of football efficiency will have to be executed hand in hand with demented levels of energy and courage. It will require an irresistible combination of fire and ice.

Finding the precise combination, the exact sweet spot between the two, is a devilishly difficult balance to strike. In previous years they never looked better than when they were in full, spontaneous flow - all out and foot to the floor. Against the best sides however, it left them looking naïve and fatally vulnerable.

This year they've been trying on a more cerebral, conservative suit of clothes. Stephen Rochford and his coaches have been emphasising how to manage a match to its conclusion, rather than setting it on fire and burning themselves out in the process. They have had to learn the system on the hoof while surviving game by game. Obviously they will have to have absorbed it fully by today. But have they had enough time by now to deploy it by rote? Has it left any sort of lingering confusion about their identity as a team?

They cannot give away cheap goals. Ideally, they cannot give away any sort of goals at all. But equally it is hard to see them shocking Dublin out of their comfort zone if they don't send the likes of Keegan, Higgins and Boyle rampaging downfield either - and on a fairly regular basis too.

And it will take a lot of heavy shelling to knock the champions out of their comfort zone. They have plenty of reinforced concrete in the fortress these days. This is a mature and hardened outfit; their mental strength looks implacable. They can absorb major setbacks and maintain their composure.

No team has ever been unbeatable, and this applies to Dublin as well. Mayo don't need to be the better team, they just need to be better than them today. Sounds simple, when it's put like that. But the simplest formula of all is that the best team usually takes the crown. Dublin are the best. Dublin by six.

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