Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: The precision of winners

MAYO’S efforts against Dublin in the modern era have been as successful as Enoch Burke’s court cases. Another Mayo man who seems to be cursed.

Yet, for all those defeats in big games, Mayo remain the most popular and entertaining team in Gaelic football.

Like a happy labrador lining up in the traps against a greyhound, they enjoy the race, thoroughly entertain the crowd, and even though they have no real chance of winning the Derby they are not in the least bit put out.

On Sunday, they laid on another thriller for us. On Sunday, as they have done throughout the modern era, they did everything only the important bit at the end.

They remain our greatest sporting conundrum. During the 2012-2017 era, they truly believed that they could win the All-Ireland. But by the 2020 and 2021 finals, they no longer did.

In 2021, even when they were presented with a Tyrone team that couldn’t quite believe they had gotten to the final, they crumbled, allowing Tyrone to win an out of the blue All-Ireland, which is a very rare occurrence these days.

That Tyrone team couldn’t have laced the boots of their great noughties team, and since they unexpectedly won those Celtic Crosses that day against Mayo, we have seen how ordinary they really are.

I wrote before that final that it must be the greatest day in any young footballer’s life when he hears the sentence, “Boys, we have got Mayo in the final.”

Tyrone, sensing Mayo’s lack of conviction, cantered to victory. If 2017 wasn’t the end of Mayo’s dream, that 2021 final most certainly was.

Since Kevin McStay and his multitude of co-managers took over, they have been as enjoyable to watch as ever. They play with honour and in the right spirit. There is no treachery and no nastiness. Every game is fun. Every game is unpredictable, and for that we should be thankful.

When they played Derry (remember us?) in the National League in MacHale Park, it was hugely enjoyable. When it looked as though we were going to annihilate them, they suddenly staged an electrifying comeback, taking full advantage of our patented off side trap. Their comeback only came to an end when Ryan O’Donoghue attempted to lob the Derry goalie as he raced back towards his unguarded net but put it a few inches over the bar, a problem not encountered by any of our opponents since then.

The problem with Mayo is that they remain unstructured up front, and porous at the back. In an era of micro management and endless rehearsal, there is no head nor tail to them. This was vividly illustrated in their league game against Tyrone, when they were three up and cruising at half time, then unaccountably collapsed in the second half, and again against Galway in the Connacht final, when it wasn’t clear what they were trying to achieve and they muddled through to defeat. No structure, no pattern, no strategy. Or if there were any, it wasn’t obvious to the naked eye.

I was sceptical when Kevin took over and brought in three strong minded co-managers. Why would he have done that? Was it a lack of confidence in himself? Was it a political decision, to attract the widest possible support for his managerial bid? It is, after all, impossible for four strong characters to unite into one voice. As a result, the broth has been spoiled.

This year, they are down to three managers after Liam McHale left at the start of the season. Big Liam told reporters his reason for leaving was that he had “a totally different philosophy on how the team should play” from his co-managers. He said, “I’m surprised at Kevin (his brother in law) because normally we’d be in sync. I just felt there is no point in me being there when I am so far removed from their thinking.”

This is the very heart of Mayo’s problem. A team needs one clear minded, dominant leader: Jim Gavin. Brian Cody. Jim McGuinness. John Kiely. Malachy O’Rourke. Jack O’Connor. Not Mickey Harte.

Meanwhile, at Mayo training, there are now three managers roving about, speaking to players, advising and all the rest. This explains the lack of structure in the team, their unpredictability from game to game, their confusion, and their lack of conviction. Consensus management is not management at all.

A barrister friend of mine at the top of his game was asked once to go and meet a very high profile potential client. The man spent an hour telling him how his case should be conducted.

Finally, the man said to the barrister, “So, will you take my case?” “No,” said the barrister, “there is only ever room for one general.”

In spite of everything, the Mayo people still fancy Mayo to win this year’s All-Ireland. Like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, they are optimists who appear to live only in the present.

The last five minutes of their game against Dublin was a perfect snapshot.

They went a point up. There were 20 seconds on the clock when Stephen Cluxton took the kick out. Calmly, he arrowed it 60 metres to Ciarán Kilkenny, who is a monster in the air. Kilkenny caught it cleanly in the crowd. Jack McCaffrey was already running through the middle, smoke billowing from his boots. A perfect pass. McCaffrey took it on, then another perfect pass.

Then another, this time to Costello. He slipped, but as he went to ground, as though his life depended on it, he fisted over the point that saw them into the quarter finals.

Like the All-Blacks, when it comes to the most important moment, they steel themselves. Now, the handling, movement, passing and finishing is precision itself.

Had it been Mayo who needed that point, they would not have gotten it. Probably no other team could have done what they did. This is why they have won nine All-Irelands in the last 12 years. Mayo meanwhile showed why they have never won the only one that matters.

In a race between a labrador and a greyhound, there can only ever be one winner.

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