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My team and player of the year, and why in brutal terms, Mayo weren't good enough

Any talk of a curse is complete nonsense. There is no tragic romance to the Mayo story, just hard facts and disappointments

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Kieran McGeary was one of the key men in Tyrone's All-Ireland success. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Kieran McGeary was one of the key men in Tyrone's All-Ireland success. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Kieran McGeary was one of the key men in Tyrone's All-Ireland success. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

I remember reading a Liam McHale interview once, in which this idea of a Mayo curse was being explored, and he saw it for what I believe most intelligent people in the county see it – a complete nonsense.

Liam’s view was that Mayo, sometimes, just weren’t good enough and sometimes simply failed to get the job done. There was, in other words, no tragic romance to this story.

Just hard facts and disappointments.

Liam would have played in the All-Ireland finals of 1989, ’96 and ’97 and been a Mayo selector for John Maughan in 2004.

And there was never a single moment through all of that heartbreak when he found himself wondering about some disgruntled cleric in a graveyard back in 1951.

The very idea of Mayo being victims of some contrary spirit, still hanging around half a century after their last win, has always struck me as delusional and, on some level, maybe even a little self-serving. Because McHale is right.

This isn’t a single story, stuck on some cruel repeat reel. It’s been a hundred different ones, all – sadly for Mayo – just leading to the same place.

I mean how can you honestly compare last Saturday’s defeat with that succession of single-point losses to Dublin? The truth is you can’t.

When Ger Canning sought my prediction just before throw-in at Croke Park, I suggested Mayo could win if they stifled Tyrone’s running game and showed the necessary patience in attack.

On reflection, they did pin Tyrone down sufficiently to create the opportunity of a victory. But it’s in the attacking end of the field that their plan, ultimately, fell asunder.

In brutal terms, Mayo were beaten because they just weren’t good enough. Yes, they created enough opportunities to get there, more than enough opportunities for the goals from which they’d have got those very busts of emotional energy that they thrive on.

But this is not a clinical team. And I’m not entirely sure what James Horan can do to make them one.

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It seems to me that this Mayo team relies on everything just clicking – as happened in extra time against Dublin – rather than presenting irrefutable evidence that they’re substantially different from before. I mean how do you fix those moments with a team when the only pressing need is for composure? Can you do that through coaching?

Every time Mayo take another big scalp, I find myself thinking ‘Maybe they’ve finally cracked this!’

But the closer it got to Saturday’s final, the more I found myself beginning to wonder if we were all falling for the same tricks of the light again. Because the one thing you sensed categorically about Tyrone is that they’d devour any weaknesses they picked up in the Mayo mindset.

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A dejected Ryan O'Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin of Mayo after the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

A dejected Ryan O'Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin of Mayo after the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

A dejected Ryan O'Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin of Mayo after the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile


I find myself asking ‘Is it a case that Mayo compete with such raw ferocity that they are actually punching above their weight?’

True, they invariably knock out a heavy-hitter along the way, but might that actually be some kind of exercise in over-achievement?

Now this isn’t to say it was all clean and easy for the new champions. But maybe that’s the point.

When Mayo had those opportunities to put a foot on the Tyrone jugular – as in those early goal chances for Conor Loftus and Aidan O’Shea – they just didn’t take them. And that’s a killer.

All that said, I hate the way I’ve seen Horan and his team ridiculed in some quarters since, with some of the commentary absolutely toxic. The glibbest finding of last Saturday was that one team had conviction in what they were doing and one team hadn’t.

Well let’s nail that one straight away.

Mayo have plenty of conviction, they are as courageous a team as I’ve ever seen. Put it this way, if my own county – Kerry – had Mayo’s heart in recent seasons, we’d have added to our All-Ireland haul. What Mayo continue to lack is a clinical dimension.

But, trust me, they have so many things right, too.

They still get more out of themselves than most teams can ever dream of. They have great defensive qualities, fabulous ball-carriers and they always play with great aggression and organisation.

But I suspect this defeat will hurt them most, because if you’ve emptied yourself in defeat it’s a little more palatable than when you simply underperform. And this was an underperformance. Butchering three goal chances in an All-Ireland final is always going to be a recipe for heartbreak – and Tyrone just seemed to take their scores with less fuss, less emotion.

Their pulse seemed steadier.

Muscle memory should be a big part of natural finishing but, with Mayo, it’s as if they end up over-thinking things. Maybe there’s a small element of Rory McIlroy to them. By that I mean you can have all the talent, but careers – ultimately – get decided by clutch moments, too.

And in the way, for all his genius, you worry about McIlroy standing over championship-defining eight-footers, you can’t help but worry about Mayo’s shooting when a final is on the line.

It’s a cliché at this stage that if McIlroy was a better putter, his count of major wins would probably be in double digits by now. Yet I read these stories about Brad Faxon working on McIlroy’s putting, and the same question keeps coming back into my head.

That question is: Can you actually coach someone to be cold-blooded in those clutch moments?

Now I don’t doubt that every sports psychologist in the country is shouting ‘Yes!’ in unison at that. But forgive me if I keep my own doubts.

Mayo snatched at those goal chances: Loftus first, then O’Shea, then Tommy Conroy before that penalty miss from a player, Ryan O’Donoghue, who was actually having a fine game at the time.

If, in a tight game, someone full of confidence fails to convert from the spot, you probably know you’re in for a long day. But be clear on this: Tyrone were not miles ahead of Mayo. They were just more clinical.

Look, I know what it’s like to lose an All-Ireland final and every set of circumstances is unique. I’ve lost a small multiple of them, but I’ve won a few, too. And the trouble for Mayo here is that the arithmetic keeps going one way.

I’ll say this, Lee Keegan is the best defender I’ve seen in the last 15 years – and I fervently hope he doesn’t end his career without winning that All-Ireland medal. But it’s becoming a very real possibility now.

That said, the job done by Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher has been nothing short of extraordinary.

I don’t believe the Tyrone of last year would have won this final, but there’s a ruthlessness there now – a level of self-examination in that group that it seems to me has turned them into a different force. They look refreshed – and I have to say they carried themselves with real class during, and after, the match.

Maybe it’s easy to dislike people you don’t know. But getting to know this group, the easier it is to like them.

I mean I see a narrative already doing the rounds that every other team in the country will be on the lookout now for hugely versatile players like Niall Sludden and Kieran McGeary and Conor Meyler. As if Tyrone have settled on some kind of magical prototype for success that everybody else should try to ape.

Let me assure you that that’s nonsense, too. Kerry and Mayo could both have beaten them and probably believe they should have. Kerry especially. But the fashion after an All-Ireland is to turn marginal stuff into gospel. The winners always hold the answers. The losers? Yesterday’s men.

But my admiration for Mayo hasn’t weakened with this defeat, because I still see them as a team of monumental will.

On Saturday, Tyrone were ruthless – their two goals probably capturing the difference between the sides, particularly that second one. Conor McKenna was having a poor game in my opinion, so much so I remember being surprised when they took off Mattie Donnelly. It seemed to me that McKenna just couldn’t get to the pace of the game.

Next thing he delivers this exquisite hand-pass for McCurry’s goal, a hand-pass much more difficult to execute than I suspect most people recognise.

And that moment was the winning of the game. McKenna executed when he needed to. Listen, Mayo need nobody to tell them about all those missed chances and they’ll just have to stew on them over the winter now, a feeling they’re familiar with.

But what they categorically do not deserve today is ridicule.

Last weekend, I ended up just admiring the toughness in Tyrone, a toughness I don’t see right now in Donegal, in Galway or in Kerry.

So, trust me, this problem isn’t specific to Mayo. There’s something always missing in those camps right now when it comes to the crunch.

But history is the stick that Mayo keep being beaten with and, I get it, that’s not going to change until they get their hands on Sam. But, as a Kerry man, I’d gladly take 80 per cent of what Mayo have in terms of resilience, character and a spirit of defiance.

And they’ll come back from this. They always do.

Tomás Ó Sé's team of the year

1 Niall Morgan (Tyrone)
2 Lee Keegan (Mayo)
3 Ronan McNamee (Tyrone)
4 Pádraig Hampsey (Tyrone)
5 Paddy Durcan (Mayo)
6 Kieran McGeary (Tyrone)
7 Peter Harte (Tyrone)
8 Conn Kilpatrick (Tyrone)
9 Matthew Ruane (Mayo)
10 Niall Sludden (Tyrone)
11 Paudie Clifford (Kerry)
12 Conor Meyler (Tyrone)
13 Darren McCurry (Tyrone)
14 David Clifford (Kerry)
15 Ryan O’Donoghue (Mayo)

FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR: Kieran McGeary

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