As the dust began to settle after our All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry a fortnight ago a few contributors to the debate on gaaboard.com from outside the county expressed some puzzlement over the general feelings of satisfaction being voiced by the Mayo lads over how we’d done against the Kingdom. How could we possibly be happy having just lost an important match by nine points? Given that this losing margin was a point more than our 2004 All-Ireland final defeat to the same county (a match in which, we’d readily acknowledge, we took a hammering), one could understand why some might question our positive assessment of where we stood following this latest championship beating by Kerry.
But what this line of argument failed to factor in is where we were coming from this year and, in particular, how far we’d advanced since our car crash championship campaign of 2010. Sure, we were eventually outclassed by Kerry at Croke Park two weeks ago but that was a whole load better than being beaten in the first round of the qualifiers by Longford at Pearse park in late June last year. In the end, it’s all a question of relativity.
To underline this still further, it’s instructive to cast your mind back to twelve months ago when the process of selecting a successor to John O’Mahony – who bears such a heavy responsibility for those wasted four years while he was at the helm – was in full swing. It was clear that we needed a new direction if we were to have any hope of restoring our reputation in the world of Gaelic football but the behind-the-scenes attempts to parachute first Mick O’Dwyer and then Tommy Lyons into the job seemed to show that we were in danger of ending up with a celebrity bainisteoir in charge for 2011, a move that would surely only delay the kind of fresh start we so urgently needed.
Eventually, though, the County Board took the brave decision to appoint James Horan and although the appointment was in many respects a complete leap of faith, for those (including myself) who supported the move it felt like the new beginning we craved.
Retaining our Division One status, winning Connacht and then not making asses of ourselves in an All-Ireland quarter-final was always going to be viewed as a good first year for the Ballintubber man and so the fact that he banked this and more in 2011 provides the obvious answer to those who wondered why we were so happy after the Kerry game. Many might have felt that after 2010 the only way was up but we had no guarantee at the start of this year that this would be the case. Relegation from Division One looked a distinct possibility and with a Connacht semi-final date against Galway looming in late June, a provincial title wasn’t exactly a gimme either.
The house needed solid foundations and the dizzying experimentation that took place, first in the FBD and then in the league (with never fewer than five changes in the starting line-up from one game to the next), was James’ clear statement of intent about building for the future. Gone was Johnno’s bullshitting about managing a team in transition while failing to experiment as James cast his net widely and gave everyone a chance to be part of the new Mayo squad of 2011.
This widespread evaluation of available talent looked for most of the spring like it would cost us our Division One status, with narrow home defeats to Kerry and Armagh leaving us firmly in the danger zone. It was still hard not to be sanguine about such a fate, however, as it was obvious that this work needed to be done and the league was the time to do it. As long as progress was being made, relegation might perhaps be a price worth paying, even if it didn’t feature on the Year 1 to-do list.
Then came the Croke Park shootout and the first signs of panic about the new order. With the scoreboard reading 4-4 to 0-2 in Dublin’s favour after around 20 minutes of that game, it looked as if we were going to ship an unmerciful whipping, one which would surely have done irreparable damage to the squad’s morale and left us in no fit shape for the coming summer battles. Our subsequent comeback in that game was perhaps the first sign that James was building a side with strong mental character and even though we ended up losing that one, two weeks later we secured our Division One status with a game to spare by claiming a morale-boosting win over the All-Ireland champions Cork.
As our opening Connacht championship match against London came into view, we seemed to be in good shape with the team coming together nicely and hopes rising about what the summer would hold. Then came Ruislip.
Looking back on it, it seems obvious that many things were wrong about how we prepared for that match, not least the zany travel arrangements, and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that James viewed this as one final chance for widespread experimentation before the real stuff started against Galway the following month. Whatever it was, we were damn lucky to get away with the extra-time win: at two down with two minutes to go, it looked like we were dead in the water. Had we lost it, our championship campaign would surely have been a very different one and I doubt very much if we’d be heading into the winter feeling any satisfaction about how we’d fared in 2011.
But while sometimes the fates conspire to curse you, at other times they cut you some rope and this they did that day in Ruislip. Somehow – largely thanks to Andy Moran’s excellent point-taking in extra-time – we managed to dig out the win and scramble home red-faced to prepare for the clash with Galway.
At half-time in McHale Park, however, I wasn’t exactly filled with too much hope for us. A dirty, cold day was about to become a wet one too, we were four points down to one of the worst Galway sides I’d ever seen play championship football and we didn’t seem to have any discernible gameplan. And, like Ruislip, we were spurning chance after chance from frees. But the second half that day showed us the kind of team that James was assembling – one that defended like tigers, worked tirelessly all over the pitch and had the ability to get the scores when it mattered.
We eventually beat Galway with some ease and although we had to face defending champions Roscommon in their own patch in the final, a provincial title was now firmly on the radar. I wasn’t there to see it but I’m told the conditions were even worse than they were in Castlebar for the Galway game, which meant that the opening half against the wind had to be a containment job while the second saw us apply the same template to the Rossies that we’d used against the Tribesmen. We’d restricted Galway to a single point after the break and Roscommon only managed to get two while, in both matches, we were building a winning total at the other end.
With the Nestor Cup in the bag, most of the year’s wish-list had been achieved but when we drew Cork in the quarters, the chances of our completing a clean sweep and doing well in the quarters looked slim.
Few gave us a chance of winning and the small crowd of just over 20,000 in HQ that day hinted strongly that the team’s own supporters felt largely the same way too. While I didn’t pitch up at Croke Park without any hope of seeing a shock victory for us, deep down I didn’t think we’d win it either and, like most other Mayo people in the place, after 15 minutes I feared that another Cork massacre was on the cards.
But then we got into the game. And then this happened:
The second half that day was pure bliss. It’s not often that with twenty minutes to go in a championship game involving Mayo, least of all in a big match against vaunted opposition, you could be sure we were going to win but that afternoon was one of those rare days for us. The fact that we’d been written off in advance – with Spillane making that crass remark about Connacht’s ‘junk’ status and Brolly boorishly dismissing us by claiming that Cork would ‘wipe the floor’ with us – only made it sweeter.
Beating Kerry in the semis would, of course, had been sweeter still but it wasn’t to be. We had our chances to put it up to them properly but then they too had a few opportunities to bury us at the outset. They always looked like they had the edge on us and while the final scoreline jarred a little, we knew that day we’d been beaten by a better team. Crucially, though, we also left Croke Park knowing we’d given our all and that, for a significant part of the game, this had been good enough to keep us in touch with a great Kerry side. Our efforts weren’t enough for victory but the Longford defeat the previous year did, at last, feel like it belonged to another era.
While I guess we still need to see how the final later this month goes before we can judge how far off the summit we’ve ended 2011, it’s pretty obvious that we’ve made enormous progress this year. The team is far from the finished article and more new blood will need to be injected next year but it’s now a team with real promise and one that we know can cut it against most of the teams in the country.
Defensively, we’re in better shape than we’ve been in ages. Ger Cafferkey had a very uncertain start to his inter-county career but against Kieran Donaghy the last day he showed that he has what it takes to make the full-back position his own. Donal Vaughan – out injured all spring – got better and better as the summer progressed and now looks for all the world like our new James Nallen. Tom Cunniffe (who should have been moved off the Gooch earlier) and Keith Higgins were solid all year in the corners (even if I still think Keith would be better further way from goal) while Richie Feeney and the reborn Trevor Mortimer were strong and combative in the half-backs.
Over the spring next year we need to see other lads – notably Lee Keegan, who I think is definite first fifteen material in 2012, Dermot Geraghty (who was recalled to the panel after the league and who started in Ruislip) and Eoghan Reilly – get a proper run in the backs and we also need to see if others, maybe the likes of Kevin Keane, Shane McHale and Shane Nally, are capable of making the step up to the senior panel. We also needs to see where Trevor Howley (out injured for much of this year) might fit best.
The two O’Sheas bring great strength and solidity to midfield but while I think there’s a place for both of them, it’s not clear that pairing them at midfield is the best option for us. It worked a treat against Cork’s highly rated pairing but against a limited enough Kerry midfield the lads struggled for long periods. Ronan or Pat Harte with one of them might be a better option and the league might also be a good time to give someone like Danny Kirby a taste of the real stuff. James also needs to decide what to do with James Kilcullen and Jason Gibbons, two players who featured strongly during the league but who seemed to fall out of favour after Ruislip.
In the forwards, Andy’s excellent form all year (our most likely candidate for an All-Star) and the emergence of Cillian O’Connor (surely a strong candidate for Young Player of the Year) were enormous positives for us. Andy steered us away from the abyss in Ruislip, was excellent against Galway and then gave Michael Shields the skinning of his career. Cillian took on the freetaking responsibilities in foul weather conditions at Hyde Park and then demonstrated his class at Croke Park, notably with his excellent goal against Kerry.
Kevin McLoughlin’s speed and intelligence on the ball added an edge to our attacks but our formation against Kerry meant that he was operating for much of that game in defence. This kept us in the contest that day but it also robbed our attack of some of its potency. Alan Freeman didn’t deliver this summer in the way that he suggested last year that he might (though his match-winning goal against Galway was a significant contribution to the championship campaign) while Jason Doherty’s inability to bring his goal-getting league form into the championship was also a disappointment.
There’s definitely work to be done in the forwards but we have talent there in spades if we can get the most out of then. There’s no reason why Alan and Jason won’t rediscover the kind of form they showed earlier in the year and Aidan Campbell can certainly contribute more as well. We do, though, need to rethink what we do at centre-forward as it’s obvious that Alan Dillon is not cut out to be a playmaker and the kind of man who can deliver the rapid, accurate ball that the inside men need. Could Cathal Freeman do this? Could Aidan O’Shea? The league is the time to find out.
Next year’s league campaign is sure to see further experimentation but we know from this year what the core of next year’s championship side is likely to be. However, we also know that, while a welcome improvement on the desperate underachievment of the O’Mahony era, the level we got to this year still isn’t likely to be good enough to land the big one anytime soon.
If we’re serious about competing at the highest level, we’ll need to improve markedly on our best form this year and it remains an open question as to whether or not we’re capable of doing this. But at least we now have the ambition to do so and after this year’s ultimately uplifting championship campaign, we have a fair idea where the target we need to reach is at. That’s more than we’ve had in a long while and, as the evenings start to close in once again on us, the prospect of good days ahead should give us plenty of encouragement for 2012.