Thursday, September 23, 2021

By Anthony Hennigan
One of the more annoying defences by the apologists for Mayo’s defeat to Tyrone, which I saw floated around online forums but in newspapers too, was that Mayo had overachieved this season by even reaching the All-Ireland SFC final. Overachieved?

Mayo captain Aidan O’Shea leads his team in the parade before the All-Ireland SFC final against Tyrone. Pictures: INPHO/James Crombie

If beating Dublin for the first time in 18 league and championship attempts is overachieving, how many more defeats would it have been only right that we suffered?
Or was our overachievement winning a Connacht title that we had only won 46 times before?
Or was our overachievement beating Galway who we had only ever beaten 43 times in the championship?
Or maybe Mayo overachieved by winning promotion from Division 2 of the National League when they had only spent the previous 23 seasons in Division 1?
If reaching an All-Ireland final nine months after you have contested your last, when only one other county has reached more finals than you in the past ten years, is considered as overachieving, then it sounds as though Mayo football should be happy to set its level somewhere around that of the Fermanagh hurlers.

Andy Moran, needless to say, is someone who every last Mayo GAA supporter has the utmost respect for; what we would have given for Andy to be on the end of the countless Mayo chances that could have steered this year’s final in a different direction. And yet even Andy, in his Irish Daily Mirror column, also pedalled the opinion that Mayo had “exceeded expectations this year” and that because eleven of their players had featured in the 2018 All-Ireland final, “Tyrone were just that bit further along”. Eleven Mayo players featured in the 2020 All-Ireland final, some of them in four, five, six and seven finals. Did all that not count for just as much?
Likewise, there are not many GAA fans who don’t have good time for the writings of Malachy Clerkin but even the Irish Times man felt it necessary to highlight in the aftermath of our newest disappointment that seven of Mayo’s starting team had only made their championship debuts since 2019. Fact, of course, but overlooks the other fact that four of those players were nominated for All-Star awards last year while Padraig O’Hora is nailed on to increase that number to five this year. It’s not minor football we are talking about here, where a manager will conveniently remind us in the wake of a championship exit that it was as much his remit to develop players for the senior team as it was to try and win something. Senior football is about the here and now – and Tyrone get that.
“Why wait a year or two? We told the players not to wait until tomorrow, to try and do it today, because they might not be ever back in an All-Ireland final,” said Tyrone joint-manager Brian Dooher immediately after the victory over Mayo. At midfield, they had Conn Kilpatrick, who was playing in his first championship, and Brian Kennedy, who debuted in 2019. The opposite pairing, Malachy, of Conor Loftus and Mattie Ruane were members of Mayo squads that contested the 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland finals respectively.
Centre-forward Michael O’Neill and full-forward Conor McKenna only made their senior championship bows for Tyrone in 2020 and used substitutes against Mayo, Darragh Canavan (2020), Ben McDonnell (2019) and Paul Donaghy (2021), had just the same sort of limited experience that Clerkin attributed to Mayo players.
The handy thing about brushing aside another Mayo defeat with the claim that the team had overachieved in reaching the final is that it avoids having to discuss and analyse the more difficult real truth: that Mayo actually underachieved. Again.

It was yet another massive disappointment for Mayo supporters who watched their county lose an eleventh All-Ireland since 1989.

“We need analysis but not bitterness,” wrote columnist Adrian Langan in this newspaper last week. A big problem, though, is that a lot of people in this county tend to see analysis as bitterness, or even abuse, if that analysis differs from their point of view. And I fear that feeling may extend to the very top of Mayo football when what surely is needed, after thirteen consecutive finals without one win, is for people with well-founded opinions and observations to at least believe the questions they raise are heard. And if not answered then at least respected.
I was called out once in the national press by James Horan, not by name but by reference to an article I wrote in the aftermath of Mayo’s defeat to Kerry in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay. I had questioned why management chose not to implement a different plan to deal with the threat of Kieran Donaghy after the towering Kerry full-forward had torn Mayo dreams asunder in the drawn match at Croke Park and who did so again at the Gaelic Grounds. I explored the alternative options that were available to James Horan and offered a reason why each might (and I stress, might) have worked better than the policy of leaving 13.5stone, 6’0” Ger Cafferkey as the preferred man-marker of the Kingdom’s 16stone, 6’5” man-mountain.
I did so in this particular order of players: Barry Moran, Jason Gibbons, Donal Vaughan, Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea, Kevin Keane, Gavin Duffy, David Clarke. Yes, David Clarke. The goalkeeper.
Tongue in cheek? Of course. The eighth option. But how, in an interview with Malachy Clerkin in The Irish Times a couple of weeks later, did James Horan decide to interpret what otherwise was an honest analysis of untried options that could possibly have worked just that little bit better and helped tip the scales towards Mayo? As follows:
“I think there’s a massive difference between national and local media. Overall the national media are balanced, fair and consistent, but I think the local media, particularly in 2014, have been determined to tear things down.
“I’ve heard suggestions that we should have put the two O’Sheas or David Clarke [on Donaghy] with Barry (Moran) in goal and Jason Gibbons sweeping in front of him. Mad stuff.” Mad, but not true, and well James Horan knew it. But maybe it suited to throw the most far-out suggestion out into the national consciousness and deflect from a debate about why he or his selectors never chose one of the more plausible alternatives on either day. Why was Aidan O’Shea the solution to the Donaghy problem in 2017 but not in 2014?
It may sound differently but this really is not me trying to settle an old score or to scratch an itch. It’s to argue that James Horan, as manager, was as entitled to pick and stick with Ger Cafferkey to mark Kieran Donaghy as I was to disagree with his decision but that, as outlined earlier, if honest analysis is mistaken for bitterness or abuse then what hope do we as a county really hold in trying to rid ourselves of the GAA’s ‘greatest losers’ tag?

Where is the trust?

Is it enough to consider the below-par displays of so many Mayo players on the same day, the most important day, as just an unfortunate coincidence or does it point to a malfunction in how the team as a whole was prepared for the challenge put before them by the Red Hands?
Such is the closed-shop nature of most inter-county set-ups these days, it’s impossible for anyone not on the inner circle to know the sort of atmosphere that existed within the Mayo squad in the build-up to the clash with Tyrone but you have to assume that the players were particularly bubbly, especially given the nature of their semi-final victory over Dublin.
I have, however, often wondered if Mayo football has a tendency to get itself bothered about things, especially in advance of All-Ireland finals, that just don’t seem to bother other counties quite so much. Do those in charge see pressure where it simply doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, exist? Take the following as an example.
At 3.14pm on Monday, August 16 – two days after Mayo’s win against Dublin – the PRO of Mayo County Board sent an email to the media explaining that a press night in advance of the All-Ireland SFC final would not be arranged until the other semi-final between Kerry and Tyrone on August 29 had been played. An obvious and sensible decision.
At 10.39pm the following day, Tuesday, August 17 the PRO of Mayo County Board sent an email to the media inviting them to the senior team’s “official and only press briefing before the All-Ireland Football Final” in just two days’ time – a full nine days before Mayo would discover their opponents and all of 23 days before the final itself. What changed in those 30 hours – and why the hurry?
Furthermore, the only people available for interview among every local and national print, digital, radio and television outlet were the manager James Horan and Stephen Coen, who only two weeks earlier had also been the only Mayo player made available to the press ahead of the semi-final. No sign of the Mayo captain, imagine, for the All-Ireland Final press event, yet that same week social media was awash with videos of his commercial endorsement of a mobile phone repair shop. That’s fact, not abuse.
Some might actually applaud Mayo’s approach to their press obligations as cute hoorism, others may think it a bit cynical but whatever your view, when it came to Tyrone holding their own press night a full two weeks later, and only 10 days out from the final, rather than offer one member of management and one player for interview, which they’d have been perfectly within their right to do given the template set by Mayo, the joint managers Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan were joined by no fewer than three players to meet the press.
Among them was Niall Sludden who rather than play things extremely coy, admitted Tyrone couldn’t afford to dwell on the “whole romantic tale” about Mayo’s search for Sam Maguire.

In seven years as manager, James Horan has led Mayo to four All-Ireland finals only to end up on the losing side on each occasion.

“Feargal has been keen to tell us that it’s not too often you get to one All-Ireland final, let alone getting another chance of it, so it’s up to us to bring our ‘A’ game and hopefully we’ll take that chance,” said Sludden, unconcerned that most neutral support lay with Mayo.
“If people want to support us they can, and if they don’t, that’s just sport.”
Talking the talk had no negative impact on Tyrone’s display in the final, or on Sludden given he kicked two points.
I’m just curious to know what inches are thought to be gained from the way the Mayo team now deals with the media. Even in victory, no player was made available to the press for interview after this summer’s championship matches against Sligo, Leitrim, Galway and Dublin. Brendan Harrison was too polite to refuse a few words when this newspaper door-stopped him after his long-awaited return from injury in the All-Ireland semi-final but that one short interview amounted to the entirety of the post-match reaction from the Mayo squad for the entire season.
And yet talking to the press before the final obviously didn’t impact negatively on Stephen Coen as together with Lee Keegan, he was Mayo’s standout performer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you don’t trust that your squad has even a half dozen of players who could hold it together when asked a few run-of-the-mill questions from a handful of journalists, then you’ve no business expecting they’ll hold it together in the cauldron of Croke Park where the real-life questions come much harder and faster.
Who knows, perhaps it might actually do some of the players no harm to get a few things off their chest? It’s good to talk, apparently.
But other things, too, have in the past distracted Mayo from All-Ireland final preparations.
James Horan was quite bothered when a week out from last year’s no fans decider against Dublin, he lamented in the press how “three or four” of his backroom team were not going to be allowed into Croke Park due to the Covid-19 restrictions in place.
It begs the question, where was our true focus that week?

The subject of selection

If you’re in the chair on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, especially if it’s one of the early questions, it’s rare that the audience would see you wrong when asked which of the four possible answers is the correct one. So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you were to poll every student of Mayo football to discover who they think is the best Mayo forward out of Jordan Flynn, Conor O’Shea, James Durcan and Fergal Boland, Fergal Boland would be a resounding winner. Not everyone’s choice but definitely the majority’s.
Does to say so constitute as abuse of Flynn, O’Shea or Durcan? I don’t think so. They’re fine players. But I’d consider it curious the only one of those four players not listed against Tyrone, or against Dublin, or against Galway, or against Leitrim, was Fergal Boland, a player who has scored more in the championship for Mayo than the other three put together.
Even more curious is that he was actually the first substitute introduced by James Horan in the opening round of the championship and within minutes of his entry to the field had fired the ball between the Sligo posts, yet that was Boland’s first and last time to be included in the match-day squad for the entire championship. It begs the question, why?
What is it that has elevated the status of the other three players in the eyes of the management?
But never mind polling Mayo supporters; when Michael Solan pulled together the Mayo U21s at the beginning of 2016 and quite humbly asked his squad if there was any player they reckoned should be in the squad and wasn’t, Boland’s was the name that kept cropping up. By April, he was on Solan’s team that started and beat Cork to be crowned All-Ireland U21 champions. At 25-years-old you’d think the Aghamore man is only nearing his prime now and on Saturday last, one week on from Mayo’s defeat, he scored eight points in his club’s eight points Division 1A victory against Claremorris.
It’s not for one minute to suggest Boland’s absence was the cause of Mayo losing to Tyrone, or that he’d have been the difference if sprung for the last fifteen minutes, but that if there’s any whiff within a panel of some individuals not getting a fair crack, then players are going to smell that. And that has to have consequences on the group, be it the player given the jersey subconsciously knowing there’s better behind them, or the player feeling hard done by losing his sense of purpose within the squad and giving markers an easier ride in training that in turn provides a false reading on performance levels.

Tyrone’s Michael McKernan gets his kick away despite the best efforts of Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor.

But there was also the very puzzling decision of management in the All-Ireland final about the non-use of players who they had declared in the match-day 26.
When Tyrone unloaded some heavy attacking artillery off their bench, which immediately yielded a goal for Cathal McShane, Mayo left a pair of Rolls Royce All-Star defenders in Colm Boyle and Brendan Harrison warming the bench for the rest of the game. Or am I getting way above my station to dare ask for what purpose was either player even in the squad, and why had they dragged themselves back from the brink of potentially career-ending injuries if not to be used in exactly that sort of high-pressure situation, a road they had both travelled so often and effectively before.
An entire country knew to expect the third quarter arrivals of McShane and Darragh Canavan based on the impact the pair had in Tyrone’s semi-final victory over Kerry. But it didn’t look as if Mayo had any pre-prepared plan to deal with these new and different threats, not least because Padraig O’Hora was the first to mark burly McShane before James Horan quickly gestured the responsibility to Oisin Mullin. And then when came the decision to replace corner-back O’Hora, Horan did so not with Boyle or Harrison but by introducing a midfielder cum half-forward in Jordan Flynn to the game. There were only three points between the teams and 53-minutes played at this stage but five minutes later Tyrone had the ball in the back of Mayo’s net for a second time. Curtains.
But using that wonderful tool known as hindsight, you would wonder how some of us had kidded ourselves into believing that Mayo were going to win this final anyway.
Wearing 10 and 12 were Diarmuid O’Connor and Bryan Walsh who ended the championship without a single point to their name. And wearing 11 was Aidan O’Shea who has now played in seven All-Ireland finals without a raising flag and who like the aforementioned, did not score against Galway, Dublin or Tyrone.
Think about that for one moment: for three consecutive games running, half of the Mayo forward line scored nothing. So when you factor in that midfielders Matthew Ruane and Conor Loftus, who between them had struck 1-12 from play in four games, also failed to trouble the umpires against Tyrone, it’s a wonder Mayo kept as close as they did for as long as they did.
Jesus, Anthony. Maybe we did completely overachieve after all.

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