Right team, wrong time – Mayo GAA in the 2010s

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The History Makers

It is the 23rd of September 1951, Mayo has just beaten Leinster champions, Meath, in Croke Park to pick up their third All-Ireland title. The players jubilant in their success, travel home on the back of a truck.

While passing through a funeral in Foxford.The team decided not to pay respects and carried on with their celebrations.

Infuriated, a local priest put a curse on the team. That while every player from the 1951 team was still alive and well, Mayo would never win an All-Ireland title.

That was over 70 years ago, and Mayo has yet to lift the famous Sam Maguire cup. Those who witnessed its last success in 51 will share fond memories. Watching captain Sean Flanagan from their black and white TV is a Mayo person’s dream in the modern era.

Not competing in a single All-Ireland Final until 38 years after their 1951 victory in a losing attempt against Cork.

Not competing in a single All-Ireland Final until 38 years after their 1951 victory in a losing attempt against Cork. In 1996, 1997 against Meath and Kerry, Defeats did nothing for morale while whitewashes to Kerry in 2004 and 2006 saw great Mayo players leave the panel with no All-Ireland medals.

Sometimes you got to take a step back to take two steps forward

Fast forward to 2010 and Mayo have just been eliminated from the championship in the opening round of the qualifiers by Longford, the so-called Johnno II era was over with.

By the start of the 2011 campaign, former player James Horan became manager. New players such as Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor were finding their feet, the optimism around Mayo was growing.

Beating Roscommon to win their 41st Connacht title, eliminating All-Ireland Champions Cork in the Quarter-Finals. Before losing to Kerry in the All-Ireland Semi-Final was nothing to scoff about. This was the same group of players, who a year before lost to Longford.

The Bridesmaid Era

Conquering Connacht in 2012, and yet again knocking out the All-Ireland Champions in Dublin. Yet, losing another All-Ireland final to a ferocious Donegal side was deemed a success in some ways.

By 2013, Mayo was seen as the favourites for the championship, for the third year in a row, eliminating the All-Ireland Champions in Donegal before losing in the final to Dublin by a single point.

Cruelly losing to Kerry in the 2014 All-Ireland Semi-Final in Limerick saw James Horan step down as manager shortly after the loss.

Mayo later appointed Pat Holmes and Noel Connolly as joint managers in September of 2014.

Mayo ultimately lost to eventual champions Dublin in a Semi-Final Replay in 2015.

Shortly after, controversy fell upon Mayo once again. With Holmes and Connolly being ousted out of their roles by the players themselves. A vote of no confidence in the pair led to their resignation with the majority of players in favour of the decision.

Scrutiny around the camp was at an all-time high, many pundits criticizing the ‘’celebrity’’ nature of a team that failed on the big occasion time after time.

As a result, Stephen Rochford became Mayo manager in 2016.

Struggling in Connacht before battling their way through the Qualifiers. Another meeting with Dublin was set.

Their first meeting on All-Ireland final day was a classic and for the first time in history. Mayo scores two own goals, giving Dublin the advantage. Cillian O’Connor brought the game to a replay and another day in Croke Park loomed.

After an opening goal from Lee Keegan, Mayo ultimately lost by a single point, and it was back to square one.

A game they should have won became a constant theme throughout the decade, especially against the all-conquering Dubs was a hard pill to swallow.

Luck is for Winners

The start of the 2017 All-Ireland campaign showed the wear and tear of this Mayo team. Many ageing stars stuck around in the hope for one last hurrah. With Andy Moran committing for another season.

Losing to Galway in the Connacht Semi-Final did little to hamper spirits. The Qualifiers were up and running, and so was Mayo.

Beating the likes of Derry and Cork in close games before meeting Roscommon and Kerry in the Quarter and Semi-Finals, each tie going to a replay.

In the latter games, Mayo played with passion, ferocity and a willingness to put their bodies on the line for a united cause. They stormed through to the final where Dublin awaited yet again.

As soon as the match started, Mayo fell behind to a goal and played catch-up for the remainder of the first half before taking the lead heading into half-time The second half saw goal chances, red cards and a movie like finish that saw the Dubs come out victorious.

Mayo lost again, and it was clear that it was not for a lack of trying. Lady luck had swung in Dublin’s favour again. Mayo’s golden generation had come up short once more on the big occasion.

The Why, What, Where, When?

Looking back, the Mayo team from the last decade is easily one of the greatest GAA teams. The only team to never win the holy grail that is the All-Ireland, but nonetheless, their quality and level of consistency was the main reason why the GAA was as popular given Dublin’s dominance.

There are many factors as to why this group of players could never get over the line:

1. They are the perfect example of the right team, at the wrong time. 

Dublin had Kerry and Tyrone to deal with in the 2000s, Dublin had Kerry in the 1970s and 1980s and Mayo had Dublin in the 2010s. Not one team could say they gave Dublin the level of problems that Mayo did. Facing off against the Dub eight times (replays included) and only winning one.

This was before Dublin really hit their stride and Mayo were just coming into theirs. Dublin simply knew how to win. Many of classic games between the pair, Mayo should have come out victorious on more than one occasion, with 2017 being a standout.

2. Politics, game-management, bad decisions and lack of killer mentality.

No one can question Mayo’s fight throughout the years, but what can be seen as an Achilles heel is the self-sabotage that comes with Mayo. The 2016 and 2017 finals in particular are when bad decisions came into the fray.

For the 2016 final replay, the baffling decision to drop David Clarke for Robbie Hennelly backfired when the Breffy man fumbled a ball into the square, leading to a Dublin penalty which subsequently made the difference in Mayo’s defeat. Reports of outside influence from certain players to include Hennelly put pressure on the management team were denied throughout.

In 2017 Donal Vaughan needlessly got sent off at the start of the second half for violent conduct when he struck John Small (who was on the verge of being sent of himself). A player of his experience should have known better and with Mayo a man up.

3. Conceding goals

What separates the good teams from the great teams is knowing how to win.

What separates the great teams from the greatest team is knowing how not to lose.

To put it simply, Mayo lost on big occasions because of conceding unnecessary goals. Conceding two goals in the early stages of 2012 gave Donegal a gap that was too tough to close.  2013 saw Bernard Brogan flatten Mayo’s mental fragility with two goals.

While two own goals in 2016 and a goal in the first minute of the 2017 final sealed Mayo’s fate before it really begun.

What Next?

James Horan returned in 2020 and managed to get a faltering Mayo side to the All-Ireland final, in another loss to Dublin. This time, however, the disappointment was minimal. With many young players joining.

2021 saw many retirements from the established group of players. Andy Moran, Keith Higgins, David Clarke, Tom Parsons, Chris Barrett and Donal Vaughan all hung up their boots after years of incredible service.

The squad still has influential players such as Aidan O’Shea, the O’Connor brothers, Lee Keegan, and Kevin McLoughlin. Along with new additions such as Matthew Ruane, Tommy Conroy, Oisín Mullin and Ryan O’Donoghue bring a much needed youthful outlook and will be challenging Dublin in years to come.

Conclusion

This Mayo team will be looked upon as a nearly team and rightfully so. However, the grit, determination and pure entertainment this group of players brought year in, year out cannot be disputed

 

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