Can we triumphantly claim that a team is ‘back’ after just two games, especially since their preceding absence was only for the business end of one Championship season?
Kildare ended Mayo’s 2018 season in a pulsating third-round qualifier clash within the blazing furnace of Newbridge. The game culminated a week of fixture venue controversy, Lilywhite defiance and a GAA u-turn, and the white-hot Kildare carried through that self-determination to win their war having won their battle in midweek.
Mind you, Mayo turned up and duly played their part in the classic too, showing the same nearly-nearly endeavor that they’d embodied for most of the past decade. This was typified none more so by Diarmuid O’Connor’s emptying the tank to such an extent that he collapsed on the St Conleth’s Park turf from exhaustion in the game’s dying embers.
Mayo had contested four All-Ireland finals in the previous six years, agonisingly coming to within a point of the Dublin juggernaut on two occasions, including once after a replay. Add to that two further semi-final appearances, and there’s a reasonable claim that they’re the greatest side never to win Sam Maguire.
That rare early Championship exit did give us a moment for the first time in years to consider: “Is this the end of the road for this Mayo team?”.
Was Newbridge effectively showing us what so many demanding campaigns, year after year after year, can do to an overly taxed group of players? That the steam had simply, eventually, ran out?
Seven of the 15 players who started their Connacht Championship defeat to Galway last May were on the wrong side of 30; David Clarke, Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Séamie O’Shea, Andy Moran and Tom Parsons. Coming in just behind them in the mid-to-late twenties bracket were Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea, Kevin Mc’Loughlin and Cillian O’Connor. This was a team with many, many miles on the clock, and the lingering doubts over whether they could return to the reckoning in 2019 hung over them in the wake of the Kildare defeat.
“It can’t be the end of an era,” said wing-forward McLoughlin in an interview for the Mayo News last July. “There have been retirements every year and a few new lads coming in. Maybe in the next few years there might be a few more young guys blooded, so it’s hard to say that it’s the end of an era. It certainly doesn’t feel like that.”
There was significant change though. Stephen Rochford announced in August that he would remain on for his fourth year in charge despite his backroom team of long-serving coach Donie Buckley, goalkeeping coach Peter Burke and selector Tony McEntee all vacating their roles. Spectacularly though Rochford then stepped away a fortnight later following a meeting with Mayo’s Executive Committee, and in October James Horan returned to the fold for a second stint in charge, the county board ratifying a new four-year term.
Horan had previously held the reins from 2011-14, guiding Mayo to back-to-back All-Ireland defeats and also four successive Connacht titles, and he was reportedly heavily endorsed by the more senior cabal of the Mayo dressing room when Rochford’s exit was declared. The job was there for him if he wanted it essentially.
And so it was in with the old for Mayo, and they’d go back to the well once more in an unquenchable mission to bring Sam to Castlebar after 68 years.
“I love it. I love being involved in football, working with players who are very keen and motivated to do well,” Horan told RTÉ Sport’s Marty Morrissey last month as they embarked on the new season. “There’s a bit of madness in it of course, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I did miss it. You worked with guys for four years, day in day out and you get a strong connection with them. You miss that element when it goes. Look, Mayo have huge support. Football is a big game in the county, so many people play it. I think our approach to football is strong in terms of how we play the game and in terms of the principles we adopt.”
Those Mayo fans are indeed a passionate bunch, and winning back the Connacht crown for the first time since 2015 and claiming a place in the ‘Super 8s’ will be the minimum requisite for Horan’s men come summer.
In the league, there is a similar high bar to meet, preserving their twenty-year stay in the top flight, and they got off to a solid start with a gritty home win over Roscommon, where the woeful conditions were arguably as testing as the challenge from their provincial neighbours.
What really pricked the ears of the GAA world though was last week’s thoroughly impressing beating of last year’s All-Ireland runners-up Tyrone in Healy Park. The Westerners dominated the majority of the game, and what was telling was the star performances from the experienced old hands.
Andy Moran was named to start in the full-forward line just before the throw-in, and the 36-year-old former Footballer of the Year put in a typically evergreen performance, proving a handful for the Tyrone defense with his movement and distribution and scoring two points.
Keith Higgins was another of the Mayo old guard who displayed his class in the heart of the defence, while also making an impact at the opposite end of the field. He seamlessly drifted past three Tyrone defenders to fire the ball to the net after 31 minutes to put Mayo firmly in the driving seat.
“Well, Keith is just a special type of guy, everyone knows that at this stage,” Horan told reporters after the game. “He got up there and got a goal, gave us momentum just when Tyrone were at us a little bit. And Andy was just relentless in his movement, he kept two Tyrone guys busy in there, mightn’t have got much ball but the work he did in there was phenomenal.
“Aidan O’Shea’s tackling, some of the discipline in his tackling, he is one of the best tacklers in the game. Delighted with that, few things that we are working on, trying to add to our performance, they were very evident today.”
The New Generation
However, the Mayo vintage were not alone in the thumping of Mickey Harte’s men, as rookies Fionn McDonagh, Ciaran Tracey and Michael Plunkett also captured the attention.
Particularly McDonagh was outstanding throughout, and he capped his first Mayo start with 1-3 from play, the goal on the hour mark putting the visitors 11 ahead and killing off any remote chance of a Red Hand fightback. The Westport man was a key figure in his club’s All-Ireland intermediate success last year, and he built handsomely on the promise he showed when kicking four points against Roscommon in the FBD Connacht league last month.
Fellow wing forward Tracey registered two points on his Mayo debut, while late inclusion Plunkett, a Connacht Club runner-up with Ballintubber last year and 2016 All-Ireland Under-21 medalist, put in an assured display in the half back line as the Westerners made their best start to a Division One campaign since 2012. That was during Horan’s previous stint as manager when they last reached the league final, finishing runners-up to Cork.
“We have some good work done and we had Fionn McDonagh and Ciaran Tracey, two wing-forwards, and Michael Plunkett at centre-half-back, they did extremely well,” said Horan on Sunday.
“They are very good players, very mobile, very athletic and full of enthusiasm. We are delighted with how they have done, they have added to the team and added to competition. Fionn and Ciaran had 1-5 between them, have to be delighted with that.”
After years of wheeling out the same tried and tested players under Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly and then Rochford, Horan feels the time is now to usher in a new generation of talent. While the large core of the team from his previous tenure are still present, and seemingly up to the task, Horan’s time in Mayo club football managing Westport has given him good scope of the coming crop of promising players around the county. There are also both the 2016 All-Ireland U21 winners and last year’s U20 All-Ireland finalists to draw from.
Mayo can expect their deck to be strengthened in the coming weeks with a number of key players coming back from injury, namely marquee forward Cillian O’Connor. Mayo’s all-time leading scorer underwent keyhole surgery on the knee joint in mid-December following Ballintubber’s Connacht final defeat to Corofin. He has since returned to light pitch training and Horan expects him to be available again in early March.
James Durcan is another to return, as well as a few other promising prospects. Ryan O’Donoghue, the under-20 captain from last year, is recovering from injury, and so too is former Mayo minor captain Cian Hanley, who ended three years in Aussie Rules with the Brisbane Lions when he came back home last February.
The optimism in Mayo is on the rise. Two wins from two while experimenting with new players is a huge boost for Horan and given that Mayo have just about salvaged their Division One status in recent seasons, another win against Cavan this Sunday should leave them safe from relegation and allow Horan to hand more opportunities to the younger lads and build some depth for summer.
Then we will see if Mayo are really ‘back’.
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