Saturday 18 November 2017

Why Dublin's 'death zone' just won't faze Mayo

Former forward O'Malley feels men in Green and Red are ready for ultimate test

Austin O’Malley in action for Mayo, where he feels expectations are not getting out of control this year. Photo: Sportsfile
Austin O’Malley in action for Mayo, where he feels expectations are not getting out of control this year. Photo: Sportsfile

Jackie Cahill

Austin O'Malley gazes out the window of his Donnybrook office and is struck by the calmness.

It's Thursday afternoon and while the flow of traffic is constant, O'Malley's eyes are drawn to a pod of animal figurines on the green.

This is former Armagh All-Ireland winner Enda McNulty's new base and O'Malley, who was part of the Mayo squads that lost All-Ireland finals to Kerry in 2004 and 2006, has been working there for the last three months as a fitness and performance lead.

"I'm managing the performance element of the business - a number of performance and strength and conditioning staff that are implementing programmes with elite corporate and also professional elite athletes, and the performing arts crucible as well," O'Malley explains.

He's also on the home stretch of a strength and conditioning degree with Setanta College, where one of the remaining modules is sport psychology.

It's a field that fascinates him and while Mayo's craving for a first All-Ireland senior football crown since 1951 has reached almost desperate levels, O'Malley detected a 'controlled environment' back home.

Who will win the All Ireland football final?

A general view of the pre-match parade ahead of the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

He was in Louisburgh last weekend for a charity event to raise funds for a leukaemia wing in Galway.

There were the usual flags and bunting but 'a steadiness' in the air that O'Malley liked. In the city this week, he's describing the build-up as "quiet".

"If you landed in cold from New York or Boston, you wouldn't know an All-Ireland final is happening. It's a funny one," he says.

But it's very much the calm before the storm as Mayo prepare to tackle what, in O'Malley's eyes, is a "phenomenal" Dublin team.

Mayo fans don't need reminding that they've been down this road before - 70 minutes from the Holy Grail but watching it slip away.

"Mental strength is everything," says O'Malley.

"Everybody refers to the top four inches and that's where the game is won and lost, and where most things are played out.

"It's a huge part of it. Back in my day, we were physically conditioned to the hilt but maybe not enough attention was paid to the psychology side of it.

"I was involved in two finals and I would know in terms of the build-up about the psychological pressures around them.

"I was lucky enough to be exposed to them, in many ways, and that stands to you.

"But you need to find a safe place where you can completely zone in on the things you need to zone in on."

Mayo may carry psychological scars from previous defeats but O'Malley doesn't necessarily see it that way.

He points out that fine margins have separated Mayo from silverware and while supporters will bask in negativity in the immediate aftermath of a defeat, it's the ability of players to sift through the wreckage that keeps them coming back year on year.

"Fans get caught up in the drudgery and negative emotions and connotations associated with losing but you can't let yourself go there as an elite competitor," he says. "When you sit down and look at it in the cold light of day, they've been within a hair's breadth all along, and so there shouldn't be a whole pile of baggage there.

They haven't been beaten out the gate in any recent final and that's why it's easier to convince yourself that you're very close and look for the small margins to tighten things up. You've no other choice - do you fold your tent and not come again?

"That would haunt you, if you decided this isn't for you. And so you keep going back, keep emptying the tank. If you're not good enough and Father Time has caught up with you, you've done your bit and there's great comfort in that as well."

Armagh native John Morrison was Mayo's coach in 2006, alongside manager Mickey Moran.

He's spoken in recent weeks to Mayo's elder statesmen David Clarke, Andy Moran and Keith Higgins, and describes their mood as "buoyant".

Clarke is one of Morrison's favourite characters, and he says that dropping the goalkeeper for last year's All-Ireland final replay was the "one act that cost them the All-Ireland".

When Morrison was involved 11 years ago, his "mental nickname" for Clarke was 'confidence'.

He'd tell other players who were lacking in that key trait and feeling down to follow Clarke's lead.

"He has such a calm and composed personality," says Morrison.

"And he doesn't do grudges or anything else.

"He was seen as the best goalkeeper in All-Ireland last year, he won an All-Star, and there's no way they'll drop him again.

"In many ways, that one act cost them the All-Ireland."

But Morrison believes that players and management have learned, and there's a wealth of knowledge to call upon.

O'Malley is convinced they're ready for the ultimate test.

"The balance and the actions have to be predicated on what you've done to this point.

"Mayo have had over 700 championship minutes of intense football, taken into the death zone on a number of occasions and yet found something.

"Plus they delivered one of their most complete performances (Kerry) in a number of years.

"Those one-percenters add up in your head and collectively, as a group.

"So, Mayo will look at Dublin, their strategy and the way they play.

"But they'll find a way to play their own game and implement their own strategy while also being cognisant of what the opposition are doing.

"The key thing will be getting their match-ups right, the strategy nailed on and everybody bringing all the things from the last number of games - ferocious appetite, work-rate and composure.

"Those are the things that win big games on big days - and there's that underpinning self-belief that, this year, those are all there."

Irish Independent

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