Our Mayo side was once again placed under the whitest of lights in Croke Park and we all once again waited for coronations. Then the seemingly inevitable uncorked the vitriol. It started in the stands with several around me shaking their heads and leaving long before the final whistle. It is not a nice thing, from a player’s point of view, to see ‘your’ supporters walking out before the game has finished. It is their (the supporters ) signal to the players that, for them at least, the show is over.
What did I make of it all? To be honest I was both happy and sad leaving Croke Park. It was good to be in a league final, our third in six years, and despite not winning any of them, Mayo have displayed a remarkable level of consistency over the last number of years and indeed over the last few decades. I was also proud of the way Mayo tore into Cork in the first half. They were full value for their four point lead at half time. In that opening half they looked stony and confident and all Mayo supporters around me once again become giddy with anticipation. We didn’t put a foot wrong in the first half outside of a few lads under-performing which will almost always happen in finals (Rarely do we ever see a team have all 15 play out of their skins ). However despite the honesty, passion, and guts displayed by most we were practically blown away in a three minute burst at the start of the second half. Cork clearly got a good rollicking from their manager at the interval and ripped the heart out of Mayo with three superb unanswered points, signalling more doom and gloom for the green and red. Those scores appeared to come easy to Cork, a fact which had us eye rolling to one another in my section of the Hogan Stand. Cork’s performance was at a different level after the break and they were ruthless and clinical when opportunities came their way – no doubt with memories of last year’s quarter final defeat still fresh in their minds.
Cork were bigger and stronger, but Mayo hung on in there
Cork looked bigger and stronger than our lads and particularly in the second half bullied a number of Mayo’s younger lads. Mayo players will learn from this experience. This current Mayo team doesn’t lack in belief and I do know that once they pull on the Mayo jersey they believe they are capable of beating any other team in the country. So let us not indulge in our usual tendency of analysing this defeat in enormous detail like all others. It can be very easy to be negative about a defeat, but I was reasonably happy about many aspects of the Mayo team’s performance. The first thing that must be noted is that, once again, Mayo proved extremely difficult to beat last Sunday. Even when Cork enjoyed their period of dominance, they could not shake Mayo off, and that’s a tribute to the staying-power of the team. Assuming Lee Keegan got a nudge when bearing down on goal; Mayo would have tapped over the resultant free which would have reduced the margin to three points. As it transpired we weren’t given the free and Cork went up the field and scored a fortuitous goal off the post which meant a four point swing in that single play. On another day we just might have fought our way over the finishing-line if we had that little bit of luck. You could say Mayo had their share of luck against Kerry in the semi-final.
Mentality is key
Has this current squad the mentality that makes great teams? There is no doubt in my mind that this league campaign has suggested that the resilience of the team is much stronger than that of recent years. Management deserves credit for getting that aspect of things right as this doesn’t happen by chance. Desire, passion and the will to win are very often bandied about the place in clichés but unless the team possesses these basic ingredients it ain’t going no where! The desire in this Mayo team is apparent and, in my opinion, there is no better outfit to rise above a setback, particularly as Mayo have suffered more than most on the big stage and have always remained strong in the face of adversity. Football is, after all, all about triumph over adversity.
Mayo also has some promising material to work with and I for one don’t believe that this defeat will have damaged the morale of the squad to any large extent. Two years ago when we played Cork in the league final we took a terrible trouncing. That result knocked the stuffing out of Mayo and it took a fair while to recover from it. However Mayo are slowly beginning to shake off the shackles of incompetence and capitulation and, although we might not be in the top three in the country, we are very much a strong member of the chasing pack.
Where can we improve?
I believe we need five or six absolute leaders for success to come our way. Leaders, not in terms of being good at talking to the press or even in the changing-room, but in terms of knowing when the chips are down in a game and being able to step up to the plate. We have struggled in producing guys like this. Wouldn’t it have been nice if some Mayo player flattened Noel O’Leary when he bounced Donal Vaughan off the ground? I was outraged when I saw O’Leary do this and was hoping that some Mayo player would give him a thump and put down a marker that Mayo wouldn’t be tossed about the place by a player who was half cocked for a fight all afternoon.
That’s the kind of leadership I’m talking about. It doesn't come from being in the gym a hundred times a year, pumping the guns and looking good in the latest Nike or Adidas top. You don't develop that from pushing weights. It comes from lads feeding off one another, trying to be better than each other all the time.
Aidan O’Shea’s return from injury will no doubt strengthen a weak midfield and provide the kind of leadership I just referred to but we also need more thrust and pace in the full forward line. Andy Moran has proved himself a clever ball winner and should be used exclusively as a full forward. The inside line didn’t perform last Sunday and it would be a mistake to go into championship with the same combination.
I would also prefer to see our defence reserve some of its energy to carry out its defensive duties. It appears to be the team’s philosophy to play with a reckless abandon that has corner backs and half backs attacking at will. We won’t win big championship games with that approach.