Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Thursday 30 August 2012
They are words that have been lost in all the noise since but as a starting point, they are worth now picking out.
Just two years ago everyone heard Alan Dillon when he talked to his county through the Mayo News after their shocking loss to Longford in the first round of the qualifiers. “In terms of team performance, we don’t seem to be fighting for each other,” the forward complained. “Not enough lads were digging out the guy beside them. Everyone’s too focussed on themselves, not the team. In championship, you have to be thinking of how the team can get better, can benefit. Lads started playing as individuals, started to lose the ball, miss passes, and fumble possession. It had a snowball effect and the confidence just seeped out of the team.”
They were cutting remarks but deserved. That wasn’t all that different a Mayo team to the 2012 version as 10 of the players who went to Pearse Park are likely to line out on Sunday while Andy Moran was there too. But it was a very different Longford who were fresh from a Division Four campaign in which they’d managed to beat no one but Kilkenny and London yet that evening Francis McGee kicked five points, Brian Kavanagh four and they won by the minimum.
“I knew we were vulnerable psychologically and you have the fallout then,” says John O’Mahony who oversaw proceedings. “You have a situation of who takes accountability. I felt I had to. There’s a blame game but the disappointment I had, what was needed were leaders. They emerged from that day but weren’t there that day. After losing to Sligo in Connacht, we’d two options. You leave the team more or less as it was and put right what went wrong in Sligo or you make a whole lot of changes where you rejig the team and say some fellas aren’t up to form. We made a lot of changes but didn’t get out of it. As I watched it unfold, I was worried, I was devastated, I was disappointed with some performances.”
They are ruins that are unrecognisable from this height but if Donegal’s revolution has gotten more credit because it’s been slightly more pronounced, it doesn’t mean Mayo’s evolution should be ignored. Quite simply, it is remarkable and uplifting, especially in a place so often highlighted for its flakiness. But this rise has been made of steely stuff, it had to be to rise out of the ashes, and into an All Ireland semi-final where they consider themselves rightly to have a great chance.
O’Mahony mentioned leaders in 2010 and it’s a word that has so much meaning as it is intertwined with the journey of Mayo football in recent times. Liam McHale said of the 2004 All Ireland that they were lacking that day too but was convinced they’d been found two years later. He was wrong. And as much as Mayo are convinced they now have those leaders on the field, it’ll take a day like Sunday for that to be proven true.
What we already know however is that leadership off the field is there in abundance. So is expertise and common sense and unity. In many ways, James Horan has done exactly what Donegal have in terms of preparation. A couple of seasons back, it took a players’ revolt to make sure he got the job and it was worth it because the last thing the county needed was a career coach. Instead, they simply needed a coach who knew how to delegate.
Horan as a player had felt they’d be outclassed in the latter stages of the 1996 All Ireland because of technical deficits. His teammates had hand-passed with the right and turned over ball because they couldn’t hand pass with the left; they’d been caught in possession because they couldn’t make a 20-yard kick pass. But to get Mayo over such hurdles, it needed more than just him and into football management, he’s brought the same business management skills that have seen him rise through the ranks of Coca Cola. He is the leader but also the facilitator. He and his team set targets and show the players the improvements reaching those targets make. One baby step has been followed by another to the extent they’ve covered miles in the space of just two years.
Back in January when they opened their season against Leitrim in Ballyhaunis, those speckled in attendance noticed Cian O’Neill pull the subs into a huddle before throw-in and his hands-on approach during the game reinforced messages about tackle, tackle, tackle, coming off the shoulder at speed and never leaving a defender on his own. He is now the football coach while Ed Coughlan is the strength and conditioning coach and has been vital in so many aspects. Based in the UK, he’s gone back to basics even teaching players hand-eye-co-ordination and to run properly. Much of his university work has been about how you aren’t born with skills, and how they can be taught. Just look at players like Lee Keegan and Ger Cafferkey and you’ll realise his theory is correct.
Deeper still in the backroom team Dr Liam Moffitt, Caroline Brennan and Joe Dawson have devised a programme that has allowed Barry Moran play more this year than he has in the last half decade. The psychology behind the team has brought strength and belief and confidence founded on performances. And all the while Horan has taken no prisoners, getting rid of the Feeney brothers and Conor Mortimer with the minimum of fuss and comment. The only promise he made at the beginning of his tenure was to improve the team and his only responsibility throughout his tenure has been to his players and turning them into winners. There has been no indulgence of media and no side shows.
And after all that, now it’s on to the only show. They’ve promised much before but this Mayo are about 70 minutes as opposed to 61 years. There’s no denying they’ve come a long way but this Sunday will tell us just how far they’ve travelled since they were brought to their knees just two years ago.
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