Mayo seeking to end an extraordinary losing sequence at Croke Park

James Horan’s men take on Kerry looking for a first league title since 2001.

Aidan O'Shea is aiming for league glory with Mayo this weekend.
Aidan O'Shea is aiming for league glory with Mayo this weekend.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

IF PERSISTENCE WAS the key to major success, Mayo would easily be the team of the decade.

Tomorrow’s National Football League Division One final against Kerry will be the Connacht side’s seventh at Croke Park since 2010, yet no Mayo captain has climbed the Hogan Stand steps in that time, with every defeat becoming progressively more painful.

James Horan was at the helm for four of those deciders — two of which were All-Ireland finals in 2012 and ’13 — while the county’s last league final came in the former year, when they lost out to Cork, just as they did two years earlier.

Perhaps, then, it would be fitting if they were to break their Croke Park final curse — which has lingered since they overcame Galway in the 2001 league final — under the manager who during his first stint moulded arguably the greatest team never to win Sam Maguire.

James Horan Mayo manager James Horan. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Indeed, should they prove too strong for a Kerry juggernaut whose only league loss under Peter Keane has come against the Westerners, it would be the most extraordinary victory, delivered in typical Mayo fashion.

They would, after all, have managed it having been caught in a mid-campaign rut that led to some pundits writing them off as later-year contenders and without beating either of the sides who have inflicted the most pain upon them since Horan’s 2014 departure, Dublin and Galway.

Following an unusually brisk start to the league, which earned them wins over Roscommon, Tyrone and Cavan, Mayo were rudderless against the Dubs — their winless run against the All-Ireland champions being extended to 12 matches and seven years — and sloppy in losing at home to Galway, a reverse which leaves them without a victory over their provincial neighbours since the 2015 Connacht final.

That was followed by their most gritty display of the season — and potentially a year-changing one — as they left Tralee having beaten Kerry, as they have done more often than not over the last number of years, offering a timely reminder of the credentials they possess in the process.

Mark Griffin tackles Matthew Ruane Kerry's Mark Griffin and Matthew Ruane of Mayo during their round six league clash. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

There was a time, of course, when Mayo seemed to freeze on sight of the Kingdom. Think of the 2004 and ’06 All-Ireland finals, or the 2011 semi-final. Times have changed, though, and while outsiders this weekend, it’s maybe Kerry who have more to prove where these two are concerned.

Horan’s prior spell earned Mayo the first four of five consecutive Connacht titles, but he could be accused of failing to develop his squad’s depth in that time, their team retaining an all-too-familiar look across his tenure, particularly post the 2012 final.

And while the likes of the O’Sheas, Cillian O’Connor, Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle remained part and parcel of subsequent regimes, the team the Ballintubber man inherits is one of greater depth, with several of the county’s All-Ireland U21 winners from 2016 becoming main figures in the equation.

Horan has continued the investment in youth, Fionn McDonagh and Brian Reape having caught the eye during a league campaign that saw Mayo finish in their highest league position in nine seasons.

Westport winger McDonagh was particularly impactful in the round two win over Tyrone, scoring 1-3 in that outing, and while his omnipresence on the scoring sheet waned to a degree over the programme, as established campaigners like Kevin McLoughlin returned to assume the limelight, the UL student will have a key role to play in Horan’s plans.

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Fionn McDonagh scores a goal Fionn McDonagh celebrates scoring a goal against Tyrone in round two of this year's league. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Nevertheless, Mayo still seem to lack a forward capable of getting them over the lines that matter. Granted Cillian O’Connor is still to return, but the fact that Mayo’s top-scorer across the league was Jason Doherty is significant, given the Burrishoole man’s capacity is likely to entail more withdrawn duties as the year progresses.

He fired 27 points, many of which were from frees, over the seven matches, including two against Monaghan in a game where Mayo had 11 different scorers, compared to the Farney County’s five, in a 3-15 to 1-18 win.

Of their points tally, though, no player managed more than three, compared to Conor McManus and Jack McCarron for Monaghan, who contributed 15 points between them. Likewise, Kerry are able to rely on a select few to tally up scores regardless of the situation they find themselves in, think Seán O’Shea, Paul Geaney and David Clifford.

Ultimately, Mayo are a work in progress and their overriding requirement this year must be to reclaim the Connacht crown. They’ll most likely have to break their wretched run against Galway to do that, but before then, fracturing a losing finals cycle at HQ is on the agenda.

Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman look ahead to a huge weekend for the provinces in Europe and Ryan Bailey catches up with Ian Keatley on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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