Mutiny may backfire for Mayo as spotlight shines intensely
By turning the gun on Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, in their very public mutiny, Mayo’s players invited an increasingly harsh spotlight to shine on their journey through 2016.
It resounded thunderously, the kind of clinical, pitiless, game-changing kill-shot many deemed beyond Mayo’s boys of summer.
That the silver bullet was fired not in September’s theatre of action, but instead aimed at their own commanding officers means that the charge of a soft underbelly has yet to be invalidated.
The season ahead has the feel of a last stand for a county consumed by their pursuit of a healing for a 65-year wound.
They will spend their Division 1 campaign, which commences next Sunday, under the most unforgiving microscope.
There are conflicting opinions on the palace coup which overthrew the joint managers just weeks after they appeared to have Dublin at their mercy – only for Lee Keegan’s mishit shot to become the latest disabling catastrophe in Mayo’s history of hurt.
One school of thought is that men such as Aidan and Seamus O’Shea, the O’Connor siblings and Keegan are to be commended for exhibiting the badge of the supremely ambitious.
That their actions confirmed the team which brought the eventual All-Ireland champions to a semi-final replay in each of the past two summers would refuse to settle for anything less than the very best.
A counter-argument is that Holmes and Connelly were scapegoated, that the fault lies with the players; that it was they who exhibited a brittleness with Kerry and Dublin on the rack; that any post-mortem on the summer of 2015 needed to begin and end with the players staring long and hard into the mirror.
What is certain is that Mayo will – yet again – offer spring and summer’s most compelling narrative.
This football-obsessed giant of the West exists as a contradiction.
On the one hand, they are perennial challengers, perhaps the last legitimate threat to the Dublin and Kerry superpowers.
Yet, equally Mayo are tragic heroes; like Sisyphus, it seems, cursed by the cruel gods to push the stone up the mountain only for it to fall back after all that back-breaking industry just as the summit looms.
Thirteen different counties – including Louth, Offaly and Cavan – have won the All-Ireland since Mayo’s 1951 coronation.
It is not that the Connacht powerhouse are detached from the fight for glory, quite the opposite.
In each of the last four years (twice in the All-Ireland final, twice in the semi-final) they have been cut down by the eventual champion. Six times in the last 20 years, they have been beaten finalists.
Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins
For no other team would the momentum generated by a successful Division 1 campaign be more welcome.
Though their league campaign begins against Cork next Sunday, it is Saturday week’s Castlebar clash with Dublin that could act as a weather vane to the year ahead.
That contest will reveal the scale of post-traumatic stress that has attached itself to their subconscious following that epic – and for Mayo, haunting and brutal – 140-minute battle with the Sky Blues.
Remember, Mayo led by four and seemed rampant deep in the final quarter, only to be crushed beneath a three-goal Dublin steamroller.
Even in early February, the sense is they cannot afford another blow to their psyche, certainly not a repeat of last March, when Jim Gavin’s side stormed McHale Park, inflicting a 14-point slaughter.
Mayo are hardly in rude health.
The O’Shea brothers, Keith Higgins, Kevin Keane, Cillian O’Connor, Chris Barrett, Andy Moran and Alan Dillon have all featured on a long injury list.
Their Castlebar contingent are absent on All-Ireland club duty.
And while summer is everything, a first Division 1 title since 2001 would silence any negative whispers about the internal strife, which, ultimately, saw Stephen Rochford replace Holmes/Connelly. The flip side is that with every poor result the argument that the ousted duo were badly wronged will amplify.
By insisting that the shaping of their destiny had fallen into inadequate hands, by demanding change, the Mayo players have hugely multiplied the onus on themselves to deliver.
Anything less, and the verdict, even from their steadfast support, might well be damning.
The best of the rest
League champions in each of the past three seasons, the imperative this spring is the unearthing of a full-back.
Rory O’Carroll’s loss is inestimable: Jim Gavin’s team selection for Kerry’s visit to Croke Park next Saturday will be all about the No.3 spot.
Does he turn to an established star like Philly McMahon or Jonny Cooper, or will an upcoming talent, Jarlath Curley or John Small, be offered the chance to seize the title deeds to the edge of the square?
Whether Paul Mannion and Eoghan O’Gara, back from overseas and injury respectively, can re-establish themselves after a lost 2015 in an attack stripped of Alan Brogan will also interest Hill 16.
It is all about Gooch: The stellar forward struggled on his return after a long cruciate convalescence.
Peripheral in the All-Ireland final, the questions inevitably surfaced about whether the hour-glass has emptied for Colm Cooper.
The league offers Gooch the stage to refute any suggestions that the decline is irreversible.
With James O’Donoghue a long-term absentee and Paul Geaney out until March, a resurgent Cooper – who has resumed training after a pre-Christmas shoulder injury – would reanimate Kerry.
Watching Donegal fade to grey against Mayo last summer, the urge was to check the sell-by date branded on the Tír Chonaill shirts.
The team looked jaded, spent, the intense investment of the golden Jim McGuinness years seemingly leaving them running on empty.
Manager Rory Gallagher’s headline grabbing flourish to coax 33-year-old veteran Rory Kavanagh out of retirement hardly suggests – despite underage success – another golden generation is about to reignite the 2012 champions.
Stripped of Mark McHugh, the omens are not good for the Ulster side. McGuinness sometimes treated the league with something close to disdain; Gallagher cannot afford such a luxury.
Has Mickey Harte still got it? The veteran Tyrone manager came under internal pressure last year – not even his three All-Irelands insulated him against dissent.
Having lost to Donegal in Ulster, the team built qualifier momentum and defeated rivals Monaghan before falling by four to Kerry in the semi-final.
The glass half-full verdict talked of a rebirth; the glass half-empty version argued that Monaghan had been their only meaningful scalp and that Tyrone were never credible All-Ireland challengers.
A poor league could see pressure mount on football’s longest serving manager.