AT the Mayo banquet in the Citywest hotel on the night of the 2017 All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin, Cillian O’Connor delivered a speech with the grace, poise and class expected of him.
Each word was an elegant reflection of the remarkable group of men he had led to within one point of Dublin, again. The sadness and disappointment was audible in O’Connor’s voice but his words, and the splendour of his delivery, underlined the conviction and deep stoicism hardwired into the character of O’Connor and his teammates.
After the 2016 All-Ireland replay defeat, O’Connor spoke about fighting the good fight. Another heart-breaking final loss a year later was not going to dilute the group’s courage and ambition to keep going, to continue their manic pursuit of the ultimate glory. “We’re going to continue to fight the good fight,” said O’Connor that night in 2017.
The past had shown that, if anything, serial disappointment had always strengthened Mayo’s resolve, and bonded them even tighter together. That Mayo team’s reflex response to adversity had always been to go again. To come back better and stronger.
Could they? Could Mayo find that tiny few extra per cent in 2018? They couldn’t; after losing to Galway in Connacht, Mayo were knocked out of the qualifiers by Kildare in Newbridge.
Mayo returned to fight the good fight again in 2019 but were whacked by Dublin in the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final.
After being blown away by Dublin’s tsunami of power and pace, finding more players with the speed and athleticism to cope with those Dublin waves had to be James Horan’s starting point for 2020. Transition had to be managed, especially when so many key players had so much mileage on the clock, but Horan packed the panel with young players.
The lockdown granted most of them an additional six months to grow into senior inter-county players while they had the club championship as a shop window to show Horan and his management how much they had stepped up. When the time came, Horan handed eight players – six as starters – championship debuts against Leitrim.
The team was filled with the prototype footballers required to take on Dublin, and perfectly tailored for the game Mayo are now playing. With Tommy Conroy’s development as a real finisher of note alongside Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor, Mayo now have a full-forward line that has perfectly married the art of scoring with forcing turnovers.
Mayo got 0-11 against Galway in the Connacht final from turnovers, while they bagged 3-9 from that source in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary.
Trying to turn Dublin over in possession though, is a whole different level again; against Cavan, Dublin only coughed up four points from turnovers over the 70 minutes. And two of those scores arrived in the dying minutes of a game long over.
Dublin are still the standard when it comes to turnovers because this team’s greatest strength is how they continue to play with the mindset of underdogs, over-powering and out-working teams with their voracious appetite and sheer force of will and raw desire; 1-11 of their total against Cavan came from turnovers, with 1-6 sourced from hounding and turning Cavan over in possession.
Dublin haven’t missed a beat all year and their main men are now hitting top speed; Brian Fenton, Ciaran Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan had a combined 82 possessions against Cavan, scoring 12 points from 16 shots, with seven assists thrown in.
Dublin didn’t need to regenerate their team like Mayo but they still have; along with Fenton, Dublin’s best player against Cavan was Robbie McDaid – he had 38 possession and bagged 1-2 from three shots. What other county could replace Jack McCaffrey with a player of that quality, and produce that level of performance in an All-Ireland semi-final in his debut season?
There is no facet of Dublin’s play now that isn’t of the highest standard. Dublin scored 0-8 off their own kickout and mined 0-4 off Cavan’s re-starts. Dublin had a colossal 359 possessions in that match, and got off 18 more shots than their opponents.
Most of Tipp’s late goal chances came off the Mayo kickout. If that happens against Dublin, the match will be over before half-time.
Mayo may not have wanted to show their hand in the second half against Tipp when the match was already over but playing a sweeper will surely have exercised Mayo’s minds.
That has never been their style, especially against Dublin. Mayo regularly had someone dropping off on the D in those past games against Dublin, but they still largely trusted themselves and their man-markers to go toe-to-toe with the All-Ireland champions. Yet that’s a very high-risk strategy now, especially with a handful of All-Ireland final rookies in their defence.
No matter where they look, the challenges are stacked up high in front of Mayo. Dublin will go after David Clarke’s kickout. Do Mayo have enough players in good form to stop Dublin’s main men from dictating? Mayo have only got 0-3 from their bench so far in this championship, so have they someone to come on and make a difference?
The odds inevitably favour Dublin winning six-in-a-row but Mayo will do everything in their power to halt this relentless charge. Mayo just keep coming back, refusing to give up, always playing with incredible resolve, pride and fearlessness.
And Mayo will continue to fight the good fight.