The great Mayo myth
Dismissed as chokers over their 60-year Sam Maguire famine, their recent record at all levels shows a county in rude health
On 'The Sunday Game' last week, Tony Davis was asked for his assessment of Mayo ahead of this weekend's All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. Davis' response was largely framed around presenter Des Cahill's first question as to whether he felt there were question marks around Mayo.
"There are always question marks around Mayo when it gets to this stage of the championship," said Davis. "Down the years, Mayo have always been a nice team, they're everybody's favourite second team. But they're losers. They've won absolutely nothing."
Davis did temper his comments with the observation that he had seen a different side to Mayo in their win over Cork before his co-analyst Kevin McStay joined the debate.
As a Mayo man, McStay said that he couldn't muster a sound defence against Davis' claim but he did state that only Kerry had a better record in All-Ireland semi-finals. McStay also said that Mayo were the only championship team in the last 15 years to have beaten the big four -- Kerry, Tyrone, Dublin and Cork.
Yet as McStay was finishing his argument, Davis tapped him on the arm: "When did Mayo last win an All-Ireland, Kevin? It's been 60 years."
Davis' viewpoint is the standard one but it's also always been the easy option when it comes to judging Mayo.
Despite the perception, Mayo's ills have never been terminal. They have seriously underperformed in their last two All-Ireland senior finals in 2004 and '06 but their underage and club sides have always been ultra-competitive, which has kept the arteries to the county team pumping with fresh blood.
Their failure to win an All-Ireland for 60 years has eroded their status but when the health of the game in Mayo is properly screened, they're still in far better shape than most counties.
McStay's argument isn't new either. Four years ago, he had this to say: "In all grades of football, Mayo are in the top three counties in Ireland. But everything is coloured by the lack of an All-Ireland and you just can't get over not having an All-Ireland for that credibility. It's awful unfair but this big elephant in the room always gets in the way of giving Mayo credit."
That fact denies Mayo greater acknowledgment as a footballing county, but they've nearly done everything except win an All-Ireland.
Apart from Kerry, no other county has reached as many national finals at senior, minor, U-21 or club level over the last 20 years. Mayo have reached 23 finals in that timespan, four fewer than Kerry, the same number as Cork but six more than Tyrone, eight more than Galway, nine more than Dublin and Armagh and 13 more than Meath.
Although their strike-rate in finals is poor and is continually held against them, Mayo maintain a level of consistency at all levels that only Kerry and Cork can match.
Since the turn of the century, they've been the second most consistent league team in Division 1 -- behind Kerry -- with a win ratio of 64pc.
Before the All-Ireland quarter-final, much of the match preview was based on Cork's hammering of Mayo in the 2010 league final. However, the Mayo players were focusing on the positive statistics of having beaten Cork in four of their five previous league meetings.
Their level of regeneration has also been remarkable. Only two of the team from the '06 All-Ireland final start on Sunday -- compared to seven for Kerry -- while 11 of the 20 players they used against Cork three weeks ago didn't see any game time in last year's qualifier defeat to Longford.
In the last 20 years, Mayo are one of only seven counties to have had teams in senior, minor, U-21 and club All-Ireland finals. Yet Mayo are the only one of those seven counties not to win a senior All-Ireland in that timespan.
All-Irelands define everything. Comparisons with Galway are still what hurt Mayo the most, too. In terms of Connacht senior titles, there is virtually nothing between them: 44 to Galway, 43 to Mayo. On the All-Ireland roll of honour though, Galway tower above Mayo on a count of 9-3. Although Galway sides have reached eight fewer All-Ireland finals than Mayo at all levels over the last 20 years, Tribesmen teams have still won eight titles, four more than Mayo.
The Galway seniors haven't won a game at Croke Park -- in league or championship -- since the 2001 All-Ireland final, but that statistic would be deemed far more damning if Galway hadn't also won the All-Ireland three years previously.
"If you win an All-Ireland, no-one can damage you," said Conor Mortimer in 2006. "You see some Galway players and if they have a bad game, people will hold back on putting them down because they have that All-Ireland medal. But they can hang you once you don't have an All-Ireland."
Despite their booming club culture and the vibrancy of the game at all levels, not having an All-Ireland has intensified the focus from outside the county. Armagh and Tyrone had to deal with those same unfair jibes before 2002 and 2003, but an All-Ireland grants that dispensation.
When Down beat Mayo in the 1999 and 2005 All-Ireland minor finals, Mayo had to accept the historical logic that Down don't lose All-Ireland finals at Croke Park while Mayo can't win there in similar circumstances. Down may have reached last year's All-Ireland senior final but in the last 20 years, they have contested just eight national finals in all grades, 15 fewer than Mayo.
Since they won their last senior All-Ireland in '94, Down have played 56 championship games and have won just 25. Who is the superior footballing county in that modern context?
Mayo's quest for an All-Ireland is the great but unforgiving legacy left by John Maughan. When Maughan took over in '95, Mayo were languishing in Division 3 and had been hammered in that year's Connacht final by Galway.
All-Irelands were viewed as an unattainable goal back then but when Maughan took his team to consecutive All-Ireland finals in '96 and '97, Mayo broke through significant barriers. They became the first Connacht side to beat Munster opposition in 30 years and Leinster opposition in 24 years.
Maughan will always be associated with not being able to end the great famine.
Yet nobody was even talking about a "famine" before he arrived. They did reach an All-Ireland final in 1989 but Mayo hadn't even beaten Galway in a Connacht final since 1969. Winning All-Irelands wasn't even on the agenda until Maughan made it an aspiration again.
That famine stretches on but, while Mayo is a big county, no other county has been as ravaged by emigration since the 1950s. It is also conveniently forgotten that at no stage in recent memory have Mayo had the best football team in the country. They didn't have the forwards that Galway had between 1996-99 but they still beat their arch-rivals in three of those four seasons.
Indeed, the only occasion that Mayo probably had the best 15 in the country was in '99 when Cork beat them in the All-Ireland semi-final. The only hurdle they haven't been able to jump since has been Kerry and that's why the longing for an All-Ireland has become so acute.
At times, they have also crippled themselves with expectation. Mayo have won just four Connacht titles in the last 11 years yet every championship defeat seems to trigger mass recrimination and soul-searching.
It is easy to continually hammer Mayo football but they repeatedly keep coming back and fronting up to the challenge. They may not have won that elusive senior All-Ireland but they have consistently put themselves up there to be knocked down -- unlike a host of other more traditionally successful counties.
Although they've beaten the All-Ireland champions, if they don't win on Sunday it will be thrown at them that they can't win at Croke Park against Kerry. Yet Kerry have reached eight of the last 11 All-Ireland finals and this Kingdom side is probably the third greatest team of all time, only behind the Kerry of 1975-86 and the Down of the 1960s.
Just 13 months on from the vision of doom after last year's hammering by Sligo and their first-round qualifier exit to Longford, and just three months on from surviving extra-time against London, the eternal renaissance has kicked in again.
Despite all the harrowing disappointments, there has always been an essential optimism deep in the core of Mayo's collective football self. No matter what has happened to them in the past, they have always kept coming back.
The bottom line of winning a senior All-Ireland has become merciless and that's the brutal world Mayo inhabit. Yet they're still searching, always coming back for more. And they deserve immense credit for that.