Pushed very close by the renaissance of 2004 and the goal-glut of 2013, 2017 is probably the most enjoyable Championship campaign I can remember since I started following the fortunes of the Mayo senior football team.
Ten games, four draws and the priceless scalp of Kerry don’t even tell half the story as Mayo’s summer routinely lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous.
As Connacht championship campaigns go, it was actually a pretty forgettable year. A nine-point defeat of Sligo wasn’t as comfortable as the margin might suggest and a goal each from the O’Connor brothers – the first a stubborn solo effort from Diarmuid – proved crucial. Next up was Galway in Pearse Stadium and a game that will forever be remembered for the Keith Higgins red card after 26 minutes. That moment of petulance from the Ballyhaunis man was probably the difference in the end despite a seriously spirited second-half showing from Stephen Rochford’s men.
That period of reflection – it was an agonising 20 days between the Galway defeat and Mayo’s first qualifier meeting with Derry – seemed to last forever and the prospect of Croke Park in mid-September had never felt further away as the snake-pit of the qualifiers beckoned once again.
After a scratchy performance notable for a flurry of missed chances, a 69th minute Conor Loftus strike looked to have finally kick-started Mayo’s championship campaign against Derry but Mark Lynch’s fisted effort just a minute later after a high ball was sent in reminded us all that nothing is ever straightforward when it comes to this team. Mayo eventually pulled away in extra-time as their superior conditioning told though and the first qualifier hurdle had been negotiated.
Despite finding themselves 0-06 to 0-01 down after twenty minutes on a gorgeous evening in Cusack Park, Mayo eventually ground out the result against Clare next time out before heading to the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick two weeks later for a typically bonkers qualifier clash with Cork.
Having put together a quietly efficient performance for much of the game which saw Mayo lead by seven at one stage, Sean Powter’s goal changed everything. Front that point, it was Mayo in peak qualifier mode. Sun shining? Check. No sense of control at any point? Check. Come perilously close to losing before somehow grinding it out? Check.
Once again superior conditioning and no small amount of grit dug them towards a remarkable 0-27 to 2-20 victory and an even more remarkable seventh consecutive All-Ireland quarter-final.
Kevin McStay played the underdog card nicely in the build-up to Mayo and Roscommon’s Croke Park clash and when Roscommon had somehow snaffled a 2-02 to 0-01 lead after just twelve minutes, it looked very much like the underdogs were about to have their day.
The immediacy of Lee Keegan’s response that day (there was a grand total of 38 seconds between Roscommon’s second goal and Keegan’s strike) will forever be underrated. Roscommon were motoring along with an outrageous self-confidence in the early part of that game and if Mayo’s response hadn’t been so swift it’s difficult to know how bad the damage on the scoreboard might have been.
As it was, a more even contest ensued from that point onwards and even though Paddy Durcan must have thought he had nicked it late on with a super strike, Donie Smith’s impressive injury-time free signalled Mayo’s third summer stalemate.
Both teams returned on the August Bank Holiday Monday and after a few false downs in the previous three months, it was here that Mayo’s championship challenge for 2017 truly came to life. Just when you had given up hope of them producing a controlled, fluent performance free of all the usual heart-stopping antics, this masterclass arrived.
The goal-scoring swagger of 2013 returned in a 4-19 to 0-09 demolition which left the Rossies shell-shocked and had Mayo fans everywhere wondering if it was a glorious one-off or the sign of a great team finding their confidence once again. Keith Higgins and Kevin McLoughlin, in particular, looked unplayable at times and the fuse was lit as we once again looked very much at home in the Croke Park surroundings.
By this point it was at HQ that Mayo had put in so many of their finest performances in the previous seven years and it’s hard to believe that the Dublin venue brought out anything but the best in this bunch of players.
As Kerry loomed into view it was difficult to forget that it had been all of 21 long years since Mayo’s last Championship win against them and in that time the scar tissue accumulated was too obvious to ignore.
There were, though, a couple of factors that provided real hope in addition to that Roscommon annihilation. An inexperienced Kerry defence were just begging to be tested and in Andy Moran, Mayo had a player at arguably the peak of his footballing powers. Tactically aware and ruthlessly efficient, Moran would go on to claim Footballer of the Year in 2017 and his early strike in the drawn game signalled a man and a team who had no fears of ghosts from the past. The O’Shea/Donaghy private battle, Colm Boyle’s goal and Paddy Durcan’s delicious late equaliser were among the remaining highlights in a pulsating semi-final which eventually ended in the now-familiar draw.
Stephen Rochford by this point had come in for more than his fair share of criticism surrounding tactical decisions over the last few years and it is important to remember that specific context when recalling the atmosphere surrounding the replay. Given that some of that criticism was more than just a little ‘over the top’ it was hard not to be pleased for the Crossmolina man as much as anyone else when Mayo well and truly buried the Kerry ghost in a performance that oozed maturity.
Both goals (Diarmuid O’Connor and Andy Moran) were close-range strikes after great build-up play and they were due reward for a side who firmly had Kerry’s number by this point having been the better side across both games without a doubt.
It would be easy to gloss over another dose of All-Ireland final heartbreak but it is pivotally important to point out that it was a final notable for what was surely Mayo’s most controlled, measured performance in the decider for quite some time – arguably our best All-Ireland final performance since 1951!
In what is widely regarded as one of the best All-Ireland finals of recent times, Con O’Callaghan’s early goal could have been the first scene in the nightmare movie we’d seen many times before but instead the Mayo response was simply to edge their way back into things. Moran, Parsons, Barrett and Boyle were among the standout performers in a firsthalf which saw Cluxton’s kickouts malfunction thanks to a good deal of pressure from the Mayo full-forward line.
Mayo emerged for the second-half with a one-point lead and in a remarkably tight second-half neither team managed to ever lead by more than two points. The two red cards essentially cancelled each other out but it’s impossible not to imagine what might have been possible had Donie Vaughan not waded into events uninvited given Mayo would have been looking at almost twenty five minutes of normal time left with a one-man advantage. Maybe the 2019 final taught us that Dublin’s resilience means it might not have made the all-important difference but it’s hard for the mind not to wander at the possibilities.
Dublin were starting to find an increasing number of gaps at this point as James McCarthy grew into the game but Lee Keegan’s 54th minute strike sent Mayo back into the lead in emphatic style. In hindsight, that was exactly the type of move we could have done with seeing more often on a day where a more prominent goal threat could have swung things our way.
We all know how things played out from there as Dean Rock eventually pinched the winner but the furious energy of those final fifteen minutes was like nothing we’ve seen before or arguably since. Once again it all ended without the big prize but at this stage, that was nothing new! Only Mayo could produce two individuals to be crowned the Footballer of the Year as well as the championship top scorer in a single campaign without claiming an All-Ireland title. As bonkers as it was brilliant, 2017 was a summer like no other!
What do you reckon – what was your favourite year following the Mayo team? Let us know in the comments.