At the tail end of last September, James Horan took on the challenge of rebuilding and renewing the Mayo team. In the first flush of his tenure, only a couple of minutes after being approved by the county board delegates in fact, he faced the press and gave a very simple promise that his side kept up last Sunday to the very end. “I know a lot of Mayo supporters are down in the dumps with how things finished last year, but what we will insist on is that any time a Mayo player goes out he will give it absolutely everything he has.”
Giving everything you have seems like one of the most rudimentary things that any sports man or woman can do, but when the chips are down, the heart can often go before the body. Horan and his side kept that promise over a roller coaster year of highs and lows, and if they did not keep give absolutely everything they had they were not in his side.
There were times when it may have seemed that it was only the heart and pride that kept them going.
It is only the thousand or so die hards and ex-pats who made the trip to Ruislip in London 13 weeks ago along with the team who can fully understand how close Mayo came to being kicked out the frontdoor of the championship by the exiles in the Connacht Championship quarter final. London had pushed themselves into a deserved two point lead with four minutes to go and it took a huge point from Trevor Mortimer and the cool headedness of Kevin McLoughlin at the death to force extra time in that game, and it was only in the final 10 minutes of extra time that they were able to put the game to bed.
This was always going to be a year about progress and the Connacht title was delivered in conditions that were not suited to the playing of the kind of football that excited the soul like previous Connacht title wins in 2004 and 2006. But it was progress no less. A poor Galway side were put to the sword in McHale Park in the semi-final with a solid, sure footed, second half display. The Connacht final itself was played out in conditions that bore no resemblance to the middle of July date it was played on. Cillian O’Connor stepped up to the plate that day and kicked eight frees to edge Mayo to victory over a coming Roscommon team who 12 months previously had claimed the Nestor Cup in McHale Park. While Mayo football supporters were happy that progress was being made, on The Sunday Game, Pat Spillane said that if Connacht football was examined by the ratings agency Moody’s it would be given junk status. Spillane’s comments were an affront not only to the football folk of Mayo, but Galway, Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo. When the draw from the quarter finals were made, the defending All Ireland champions Cork stood in the way. Mayo were made 5/1 outsiders in a two horse race, it is not often that the bookies get it wrong, on that day they did. After 15 minutes, when Cork charged into a 1-4 to 0-1 lead, it looked like bookies had called it right. But a monumental display over the next hour or so saw Mayo outscore the defending All Ireland champions by 1-12 to 1-2. It was a display full of organisation, heart, belief, and at times abandon that warmed the hearts of Mayo football followers for many a night and pointed towards what can be achieved over the next few years. That win brought us to last weekend in Croke Park and the itch that Mayo just cannot seem to scratch, Kerry. The end result was not any different than our last few meetings with the Kingdom, it was they who entered the winners’ enclosure while we were left to pick over the bones of what happened? What went wrong? What do we have to do?
But stepping back from the game by a few days, the simple fact of the matter was that Mayo were beaten by a better team. Plain and simple that is the fact, there is no shame in that. Had a couple of things gone a bit differently it could have been a different outcome, but they did not. Time to move on and look at the positives, of which there are a quite a number. Mayo kept plugging away till the very end, they fronted up and were not afraid to take on Kerry in the physical stakes, they gave their all as James Horan said they would 10 months ago, and you cannot ask for more than they have to give. This year has put Mayo back where many supporters would believe that they belong, in the top six or so teams in the county, but with a team that are learning about themselves, the other players on either side of them on the field, and what the man in the bainisteoir bib wants and expects from them, it takes time for the whole thing to come to fruition. It has been a learning curve for everyone this year. Next year will be around soon enough, and rather than starting from the bottom a solid baseline has been established and a clear line to judge how far we have come.