On the far side of the field from the stand in McHale Park, on a Sunday evening just five weeks ago, Mayo manager James Horan told the massed press pack: “The masterplan doesn’t change just because of a few defeats - if you start to change it then panic sets in. We know what we’re trying to do, it’s a bumpy road, but we’ll keep at it.”
Mayo had just slumped to their third defeat in as many weeks at the hand of Sunday’s opponents, and for the second time in as many weeks despite having a man advantage they were not able to make it count.
While Horan was sticking to his plan and had confidence in it, there were plenty of doubters in the media and elsewhere as to the validity of this plan and the direction it was taking Mayo. But here we stand just five weeks later, two days out from the national league final. After that defeat to Cork, a lot of talk was directed towards the avoidance of relegation as we headed towards the summer and championship. But the hammering handed out to the All Ireland champions the following week in the refixed fixture from the fog of February, a battling draw against Kerry in Tralee the next week, backed up with a teak-tough defiant display against the same opposition a week later again in Croke Park has Mayo busy in action right until the last weekend in spring.
Questions began to be asked, back as far as the abandoned game against Dublin, when it looked like the All Ireland champions were about to cut loose in the second half. But Mayo followed that up with a battling win over Armagh in Armagh on a cold Saturday night at the beginning of March, putting those questions to bed for a while as Armagh had just come off the back of a win in Tralee the week before. The defeat to Down in the next round had some mitigating circumstances, with the dismissal of Aidan O’Shea a serious dent to Mayo’s chances. But the following week’s display in Ballyshannon, had the alarm bells ringing, due to the sheer paucity of the challenge put up by Mayo from the mid point of the first half. Every team has a bad day, this was just one of those very bad days. Mayo did rebound against Cork, but they let a decent lead slip against the 2010 All Ireland champions, despite having a man advantage for a long portion of the game and letting a five point lead with 18 minutes to go slip through their fingers. It was after that game Horan insisted he was not for changing his plan, and the past three games have been a success for his beliefs. So here we are again, in our third national league final in six years, looking to bring home our first national senior title since 2001. But we are also hoping that our summer lasts a lot longer than it did in 2007 when Galway dumped Mayo out of the Connacht championship before May was out, and in 2010 when Sligo and then Longford sent us packing early on.
The numbers game so far
En route to Sunday’s showdown, James Horan has given game time to 29 different players, with Keith Higgins, Alan Dillon, Donal Vaughan, and Lee Keegan the only four men to start all the games so far, if you included the first abandoned game against Dublin (Andy Moran started the eight other games ). The fact that Keegan has started every game has shown how far he has come along in the last 12 months when he was a squad player for the most part, but he looks to have nailed down his position at wing back. David Clarke, who has nailed down the position as Mayo number one and been rewarded with the role of vice-captain, only missed one game in the competition so far, when last year’s number one Robert Hennelly was given the start against Down.
Mayo have scored a total of 6-103 (121 ) in the eight games they have completed in the league campaign while they conceded a total of 3-100 (109 ) over the same period.