Saturday 21 April 2018

'Weigh it all up and Mayo have a great chance. I genuinely believe it could be their year'

A series of setbacks should harden their resolve, claims Larry Tompkins, who had similar experiences with Cork before making the breakthrough

Dejected Mayo players and manager Stephen Rochford wait for the match presentation after losing to Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland final replay. Photo: Sportsfile
Dejected Mayo players and manager Stephen Rochford wait for the match presentation after losing to Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland final replay. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Once more then, with bad memories discarded, resolve hardened and ambitions fully tuned. Mayo have safely negotiated the first fence but are about to encounter a much stiffer obstacle in what could be a season-defining afternoon in Salthill.

A win over Galway would leave them well-primed for another Connacht success and, even more importantly at this stage in the squad's lengthy cycle, avoiding a qualifier minefield.

They carefully picked their way through it last year, helped it must be said by accommodating 'back door' draws, which handed them home games against Fermanagh and Kildare, before heading for Croke Park and a Round 4 clash with Westmeath, who had been well beaten by Dublin.

The qualifier route might not be as inviting this year, which makes tomorrow's game so crucial for Mayo. It's important for Galway too, but they are still in the development stages where bumpy journeys are to be expected and setbacks regarded as part of the growing process.

For Mayo, it's all about getting to Croke Park for the All-Ireland quarter-final by the most direct route, expending as little energy as possible on the journey before beginning the arm-wrestles with the other top contenders.

It may not be that simple, of course. Mayo aren't even the defending Connacht champions and are lining up against a Galway team that has lost only four of their last 19 league and championship games, albeit in Division 2 each spring.

A key question centres on Mayo's mindset as they set out on another summer campaign after five seasons of tantalisingly close calls and a nagging sense of what-might-have-been.

Their ability to return fresh and motivated season after season has been most impressive but won't count for much in the end unless an All-Ireland title is delivered.

Views are polarised on the likelihood of that happening, ranging from claims that Mayo's chance has passed to the argument that the longer they keep getting into Croke Park in late August and September, the more likely they are to finally make the breakthrough.

History shows that coming close without landing the big prize can either make or break a squad. Mayo have experienced the latter three times in the last 20 years but there are examples too of how big disappointments hardened a squad's resolve to a degree where they simply refused to take 'no' for an answer.

Larry Tompkins, who has first-hand experience of what it's like to come up short in All-Ireland finals before eventually reaching the summit, is adamant that, with the right attitude, disappointment can be channelled into a hugely positive force. What's more, he believes that Mayo are well capable of doing it this year and predicts that it could end in triumph.

"Dublin might be gone back a bit and all the three-in-a-row talk adds to the pressure on them. Kerry are coming but this might be a year too early for the younger lads. Tyrone are still depending too much on Seán Cavanagh to provide leadership," Tompkins says.

Larry Tompkins lifting the Sam Maguire for Cork in 1990. Photo: Sportsfile
Larry Tompkins lifting the Sam Maguire for Cork in 1990. Photo: Sportsfile

"Donegal aren't as good as they were when they won the All-Ireland in 2012 and you'd have to think that anything less wouldn't be enough to go all the way now. Monaghan have a lot of ability, but maybe not enough to win an All-Ireland. Galway are improving but probably aren't seasoned enough to cope with all the top teams.

Weigh it all up and Mayo have a great chance. I genuinely believe it could be their year. They will have closely analysed what happened last year and will feel that they were the best team in the country without winning the All-Ireland."

Tompkins knows from his days as one of Cork's most influential performers in the 1980s-'90s the thoughts running through Mayo players' minds as they start another championship campaign after having come so close so often in recent years.

Cork lost to Meath in the 1987 and 1988 (replay) All-Ireland finals, raising doubts about their capacity to see the big challenge through to a successful conclusion.

It changed in 1989 when they beat Dublin (semi-final) and Mayo (final), before completing a double with a win over Meath in the 1990 final.

"When you lose two All-Ireland finals - as we did - you're bound to be a bit apprehensive. We felt that way going into 1989 but when we looked back at 1988, we knew how close we really were. It's all about the winners after an All-Ireland final but we lost to Meath by just a point in 1988, so we must have got a fair bit right.

"Mayo will be looking at it in the same way now after what happened to them in last year's draw and replay with Dublin. They didn't win but they got a lot right," he says.

Unfortunately for them, they got a lot wrong too in both games and while it was devastating at the time, Tompkins believes it can be used as a force for good now.

"Mayo had no luck at all in the first game against Dublin. Two own goals, for God's sake. When did you last see that in any game, let alone an All-Ireland final?

"It would have killed off most teams but Mayo still got a draw out of it. In fairness, that was some achievement. And then they had the nonsense with changing goalkeepers for the replay. Even then, they might have got away with it but instead it backfired badly.

"Yet, they were still there at the end with a chance to send the game to extra-time with that late Cillian O'Connor free. They might well have won if it went to extra-time.

"Mayo beat themselves in the replay - there's no doubt about it. They know that but they also know just how close they came on both days. They can't play those games again but they can shape what happens in this championship.

"Pick the right team, cut down on the mistakes and they will be a match for anyone."

He does not believe that failing to make the breakthrough from so many attempts will have damaged Mayo's spirit.

"I remember thinking going into the 1989 championship that if we put the lessons from 1987 and 1988 to good use, we could beat anybody.

"The rest of the Cork lads felt the same. I'm sure Mayo are thinking the same way now and why wouldn't they? They haven't won the All-Ireland but they've come very close. One more push could well be enough. Look at Cork in 2010. They had a lot of disappointments over the previous four or five years but they kept at it and their day came.

"They got some lucky breaks along the way in 2010 but every team needs them and Mayo will definitely feel they deserve a few after last year.

"They've got to believe they can go all the way. I'd give them a right good chance if they get out of Galway with a win.

"That won't be easy but I'd fancy them to do it. After that, they should win the Connacht final and arrive in Croke Park fresh and ready," adds Tompkins.

Fifty years ago this month, a Mayo team went to Pearse Stadium and smashed one of the most successful empires in football history. Mayo 3-13 Galway 1-8. It was a scoreline that stunned the GAA world, bringing Galway's quest for an All-Ireland four-in-a-row to a shuddering end.

Older Mayo supporters still recall that great day for the green-and-red and the team that they thought would end a 16-year wait for a return visit by Sam Maguire. It didn't happen and, a half century later, the quest continues.

It's back to Salthill to get it under way again.

Irish Independent

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