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Why Mayo need to win league title far more than their rivals

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Mayo players Robert Hennelly, Colm Boyle and Aidan O'Shea after their All-Ireland Senior Championship Final loss to Dublin

Mayo players Robert Hennelly, Colm Boyle and Aidan O'Shea after their All-Ireland Senior Championship Final loss to Dublin

Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly being consoled by Dublin's Jonny Cooper at the end of the All-Ireland Final. The social value the volunteers, and players, within the GAA have created for free for decades will, to a certain extent, be commodified by the Sky Sports deal.

Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly being consoled by Dublin's Jonny Cooper at the end of the All-Ireland Final. The social value the volunteers, and players, within the GAA have created for free for decades will, to a certain extent, be commodified by the Sky Sports deal.

David Maher / SPORTSFILE

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Mayo players Robert Hennelly, Colm Boyle and Aidan O'Shea after their All-Ireland Senior Championship Final loss to Dublin

Twelve months ago, new Dublin manager Jim Gavin let it be known in advance of the start of the Allianz League that he was targeting the title.

Some others were happy to peddle the "building for the championship" line, but Gavin made it clear that winning the league was a key component in the overall plan.

He wanted to put down an early marker in his debut season and besides, Dublin hadn't won the Division 1 title for 20 years. Dublin brought real intensity to their game all the way through last spring and duly won the title in late April.

Five months later, they were All-Ireland champions, having completed the perfect season. It's unlikely that Dublin will be quite as driven in this season's league because their early season need is not as great as last year.

Still, Gavin will be determined to avoid a repeat of Dublin's experience two years ago when, as All-Ireland champions, they ran a lethargic league campaign which turned out to be an accurate pointer of what lay ahead in the championship.

Avoiding a post All-Ireland slump, while giving emerging talent an opportunity to gain experience, will be Gavin's priority in the league. All the better if that's good enough to retain the title, but it won't be a major setback if the prize goes elsewhere.

The same applies to most of the other Division 1 counties, but not to Mayo, who have an overwhelming need to land a national title. Mayo supporters tend to become irritated when the county's dismal record in All-Ireland and NFL finals over the past 40 years is highlighted, but it will continue to be pointed out until such time as a breakthrough is made.

One win (2001 league final) is Mayo's solitary success from 14 finals in Croke Park since 1972, a truly dismal record which, however hard they try to ignore, must have psychological implications.

That's why this year's league is so crucial to Mayo. Their need is greater than any of their seven Division 1 rivals and while that may look like a burden, it can actually be channelled into a positive. If Mayo go about their business with the same level of determination and structure that Dublin applied last year, there's no reason why they can't win the title.

Winning the league would be hugely beneficial to Mayo for a number of reasons. Not only would it break their hoodoo in finals, it would also show that the disappointment of losing successive All-Ireland finals had not eroded their confidence.

HISTORY

The latter has to be a real concern for Mayo. For, while history has plenty examples of counties who lost successive All-Ireland finals before winning one, it also has lots of examples where a double-setback was followed by a decline.

Indeed, Mayo have bitter personal experience of the latter. They started the 1998 season as top contenders for the All-Ireland title after losing the two previous finals only to lose to Galway in the Connacht quarter-final. They were also well beaten by Galway in 2007, having reached the 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland finals.

Galway (1973-74), Dublin (1978-79 and 1984-85) and Meath (1990-91) are other examples of counties who declined after losing successive All-Ireland finals. Wexford hurlers endured the same experience after losing the 1976-77 finals.

Still, there have been success stories too for double All-Ireland losers. Cork (1984), Galway (1987) and Kilkenny (2000) won hurling titles off successive defeats in finals, while Cork (1989) did the same in football.

In the case of Galway hurlers and Cork footballers, their relaunch was greatly facilitated by winning the league title in the season after their second All-Ireland final defeat. Cyril Farrell, the then Galway manager, has always maintained that beating Clare in the 1987 league final was the turning point for a Galway squad on the verge of despair after losing All-Ireland finals in 1985-86 and a league final in 1986.

Naturally, James Horan has to talk a cautious game when it comes to Mayo's league ambitions, but the reality is that they have to go for it with as much energy and determination as it takes. And while they will be away in four of their seven games – including their first two – there's every likelihood of them getting into the semi-finals, which is where the real pressure begins.

Mayo turned in a flat performance against a much more enthused Dublin side in last year's league semi-final, but if the opportunity arises again, they will need to be far more enterprising. League success paved the way for All-Ireland glory for Tyrone (2003), Kerry (2004-06-09), Cork (2010) and Dublin last year, underlining the benefits of a winning spring campaign.

Mayo's need is made all the greater by the All-Ireland disappointments of the past two years. Naturally, they continue to insist that they will not allow the dual setback to unsettle them, but this is something that may be well beyond their control.

They beat the reigning All-Ireland champions in 2011 (Cork), 2012 (Dublin) and Donegal (2013), yet found other opposition too good. That's deeply frustrating and leaves them facing a massive psychological question. Winning the league title wouldn't automatically provide the answer, but it would certainly leave Mayo in a much more confident mindset going into the championship. As of now they are facing a number of possible scenarios for the league.

Obviously, relegation would be the most damaging, but, oddly enough, the next worst option would be to lose the final. Yet another defeat in a final in Croke Park would further add to their insecurities at a time when they are raw enough anyway.

What Mayo need most of all is to power their way to a league win, before heading into the summer action with a new sense of confidence. The opening is certainly there for them, not least because they should be approaching the campaign with a greater sense of urgency than most – if not all – of their rivals.

Of course, the big danger is that they will start slowly and, with three of their first four games 'away,' it could leave them with a lot to do in the closing three rounds. Still, they should be good enough to reach the semi-finals, at which stage they've really got to make a bold statement. For the sake of Mayo's sanity, a national trophy has to be draped in green and red soon.

Irish Independent