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Dublin: 17 °C Monday 13 July, 2020

Have Mayo proved they've got what it takes to win an All-Ireland final?

Eight months into Stephen Rochford’s reign, they’re back to within touching distance of Sam Maguire.

EVEN AFTER AN entire season’s worth of evidence, it’s hard to get a sense of where exactly Mayo stand. When Stephen Rochford took the reigns last winter, he inherited a team loaded with talent that had been to the semi-finals or final every year since 2011.

Colm Boyle celebrates scoring a point Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Pairing a tactically astute manager like Rochford, an All-Ireland winning manager at club level with Corofin, with Mayo seemed like a smart move.

“We need to get back to a situation where we are ultra-competitive across all games,” Rochford told the media shortly after his appointment. “We’re looking at 2016 to write our own element of history, and that’s game by game, performance by performance.”

Eight months later, Mayo are back in their first All-Ireland final since 2013. They didn’t blitz their way through Connacht as in seasons gone by, instead playing seven games of varying degrees of difficulty to make it this far.

The quarter-final win over a Tyrone team unbeaten up to that point in 2016 was Mayo’s most complete performance of the season. But a semi-final defeat of Tipperary, where it could be argued that Mayo only played well for nine minutes, leaves us with one big question – has the 2016 version of Mayo proven they’ve got the stuff needed to win the All-Ireland?

The problem with Mayo is they’ve been here so often before. In 2013 they outclassed Tyrone by nine points in the semi-final, while the year previous they dumped out champions Dublin in the last four.

Both times, Mayo went into the final on the back of great form. And both times they lost.

So now common sense tells us that you’re better off coming into an All-Ireland final on the back of an unimpressive semi-final. That’s a load of nonsense.

In 2004, Mayo needed a replay to sneak past Fermanagh by two points. Kerry pasted them in the final. They had the game as good as wrapped up by half-time, leading by eight points.

Another myth: Croke Park is Mayo’s house of pain. Far from it, Mayo’s recent record in Croke Park is actually quite formidable. Of the 16 games they’ve played at HQ since James Horan’s arrival in 2011, when much of this team arrived on the scene, they’ve lost four, drawn two and won 10.

Lee Keegan is consoled by Keith Higgins after the game Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

This group of players pushed eventual All-Ireland champions Kerry and Dublin right to the wire in the semi-final replays of ’14 and ’15 respectively. They fell at the final hurdle to Donegal in ’12 and Dublin in ’13.

It’s understandable Mayo found it difficult to get to the emotional pitch required to blow Tipperary out of the water. They knew deep down they were going to win that game and sometimes its tough to convince your own mind otherwise.

Mayo’s season has followed a similar arch to Kerry’s 2009 All-Ireland win. Dumped out in the provincial semi-final to their oldest rivals. A tough, patchy run through the qualifiers leading up to a big quarter-final performance.

In 2009, Kerry blitzed Dublin’s ‘startled earwigs’ in the quarter-final and had just four points to spare over Meath in the semi-final. They hammered Cork in the decider.

Losing to Galway in Connacht and forcing themselves into the deep unknown of the qualifiers might well be the making of this Mayo team. It’s taken them seven games to reach the final, but that has given Stephen Rochford plenty of time to mould this team in his image.

One of Rochford’s priorities has clearly been to shore up Mayo’s porous defence. In Horan’s last year in 2014, they shipped seven goals. Under the Pat Holmes- Noel Connolly ticked of 2015, they allowed nine goals in just five games.

Stephen Rochfort Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

There were warning signs in Connacht last year, when they conceded two goals to both Galway and Sligo. It was three-pointers that ultimately proved their undoing, when Dublin scored five goals over two games to book their place in the All-Ireland final.

Consider the games that have ended Mayo’s season since 2011:

  • Donegal 2-11 Mayo 0-13, 2012 All Ireland SFC final
  • Dublin 2-12 Mayo 1-14, 2013 All Ireland SFC final
  • Kerry 3-16 Mayo 3-13, 2014 All Ireland SFC semi-final replay
  • Dublin 3-15 Mayo 1-14, 2015 All Ireland SFC semi-final replay

The pattern is easy to spot, so it was logical for Rochford to focus on keep clean sheets. Galway, Fermanagh and Westmeath have all breached the Mayo rearguard this year, but nobody raised the green flag more than once.

Much of that is down to Mayo’s use of a sweeper. It should be noted that Kevin McLoughlin was utilized in that position a number of times in league and championship by Horan in 2012.

This year, the 27-year-old has sat back quite deep, protecting his full-back and the goal behind them. McLoughlin had his best game in that role against Tyrone and could very well re assume those duties for the final.

Despite a summer of grooming McLoughlin, on Sunday Rochford showed his nous by tailoring his defensive system to counter Tipperary’s dual aerial threat. Barry Moran provided the cover, as he did against Donegal in last year’s quarter-final.

It was an effective tactic, which prevented Tipperary from finding their two finishers with kick-passes inside.

The big worry for Mayo is their fouling in defence. As highlighted by The Sunday Game last night, they’re conceding two many frees within scoring range of the goals. Of 10 kick able frees they gave away to Tipperary, the Munster side scored 0-9.

Bryan Sheehan and Dean Rock are two of the best free-takers in the country, and they’ll face one of them in the final.

sunday game Source: Sunday Game/RTE

The best-case scenario for Mayo is they’ve learned from past mistakes and are saving their best performance for last. It’s a dangerous way of thinking, but it’s possible they were confident they’d reach the final and planned that way all along. Will we see a vastly superior team in four week’s time?

It’s a squad up to the eye-balls in experience. David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan, Seamus O’Shea, Kevin McLouhglin, Aidan O’Shea, Jason Doherty, Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor and Alan Dillon have all been down this road plenty of times before.

They showed an edge and a steel in those last two games. When the game hung in the balance, they used all their experience to get over the line. Mayo have learned the sort of lessons that you can only acquire after suffering painful defeats on the big day.

They have four weeks to prepare for an All-Ireland final, having flown in under the radar, unlike previous years. Four years on from their first final together, these players are back in the final as underdogs. Eight months into the Year 1 of Rochford, they’re within 70 minutes of writing their names into history.

That’s not a bad place to be.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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