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The Psyche Of Mayo – How Do They Keep On Coming Back?

The Psyche Of Mayo – How Do They Keep On Coming Back?

If the past has taught us anything, it's that Mayo deal better with heartbreak than humiliation.

In 1982, Mayo's championship ended at the first hurdle with a 3-17 to 0-10 hammering against Galway. Days later, the Connaught Telegraph left an empty rectangle beside their match report in lieu of the team photo, to "save the team from further embarrassment". The headline read "Mayo - God Help Us".

While Mayo have made a habit of losing to Galway of late, those scorelines are a thing of the past. Since losing to Longford in the qualifiers in 2010, Mayo have been remarkably, heartbreakingly competitive. This Saturday, players and supporters will go again, this time to Thurles for an All-Ireland qualifier against Tipperary, which is live on Sky Sports Action from 4.30pm.

They haven't missed an All-Ireland semi-final since, and, 2011 aside, only the eventual champions could find a way of crowbarring them out of the championship. Of those defeats, only two came by more than a score (and one of those, the seven-point defeat to Dublin in 2015, came after a replay).

The only thing more astonishing than the sequence is the fact a sequence exists at all: how do the Mayo players and supporters keep on coming back in spite of the fact that the cosmos seem to be eternally briefing against them?

"The players are a mirror image of the supporters", says Mayo's erstwhile fetcher, David Brady.

It starts in January. The team and supporters say ‘new year, new beginning’. I’ve never come across a player or supporter who didn’t have the appetite to go at it again. In the West, the winters are long and harsh, and I wouldn’t characterise the players or supporters in any other way.

They have an in-built bouncebackability to say ‘right, first National league game, yeah. Let’s go.

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That ability to start afresh is what differentiates this Mayo squad from their predecessors, says Edwin McGreal of The Mayo News. It began under James Horan, who took over after that meek exit to Longford. Although he has since left and will be doing punditry work for Sky Sports on Saturday, his legacy is still felt.

We may be sick of hearing talk about processes, but that was big under James Horan. Before James, it was All-Ireland or bust. In the county it probably still is, but within the group it is different. That’s what they are striving to do, but it’s not all duck or no dinner. It’s a gradual process for them.

The end goal has never been lost, but how to get there has changed. In the past, Mayo were awful boom/bust, boom/bust.

They are in a bubble, keeping things about their processes. Losing an All-Ireland final doesn’t affect them in the same way as it did previous Mayo teams. Of course they are very disappointed, but they are already thinking about next year.

Mayo are player-led, retaining their consistency across three separate management teams, led first by Horan, then Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly before they made way for Stephen Rochford. That it should be this way was first voiced by Alan Dillon. With the wounds inflicted by Longford still fresh, Dillon called on the players to step up. They have done that, with the ousting of Holmes and Connelly the deeply controversial collateral of the players' ensuing refusal to shirk responsibility.

"Resilience is the word that is frequently used about them", says McGreal. "They are never beaten. Part of it is their process, but part of it is that there are a lot of warriors in that team. They will not give up the fight. Colm Boyle is the poster boy for that, but there are an awful lot of them. There are 12 guys who are regulars in that team for a reason - they can always come up with a play when it really matters".

There are practical factors supporting this ability to survive and eventually strive: a fitness and a toughness instilled by wily backroom operators like Ed Coughlan (who left in 2014) and Donie Buckley.

These virtues are not without their caveats. Such has been the conditioning of the core group of players for the last seven years, new players find it more difficult to make an impact on the panel. There is also a concern that their resilience is becoming a reliance. Death, as Ger Loughnane tells us, concentrates the mind and Mayo's often wanders when things are looking straightforward, evident in their failure to close out the 2014 All-Ireland semi final.

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Also, given that their attacking power largely comes from deep, dawdling at anything below absolute intensity often doesn't suit Mayo in the way it does Dublin or Kerry, who can be bailed out by a frightening array of attacking talent.

But Brady points to another great strength. "The players would be nothing without their supporters".

In spite of the unfathomable disappointment, the Mayo fans keep coming back for more. The latest example came at the Gaelic Grounds for an uncharacteristically facile qualifier win over Limerick. Tom Parsons was given a huge ovation by Mayo supporters as he schlepped up the steps of the stand, which was thronged with visiting supporters in spite of Parsons arriving an hour before throw-in. 

But what drives it? McGreal says he knows of Mayo fans who want away draws in the qualifiers as they are "that mad for road".

"We don’t embrace much of the darkness of winter", says Brady.

But when the first chink of light appears, it's not that there could be a good time: there always is a good time following Mayo football. I know there weren’t too many of us saying that back in May when we got beaten on our home turf, but you see what happened in Limerick and now you have Tipperary.

If you are involved in the GAA in Mayo, it’s a question of who’s not going.

I have a father in his mid-sixties, and he's a farmer. As the man says, there isn’t too much going on for him; he’s not one for worldwide travel.
But I see him on a Sunday travelling on a bus to games in the league and the championship with men and women of the same age from rural backgrounds.

I know that a lot of the people on that bus have had hard times, and it is bond and roundtable discussion that is good for people. Are ye going to talk about the hard things in life and the problems in life? Or are you going to talk about the ball that went in or the point that was kicked?

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If the players have inoculated themselves against the lousy fatalism of 'Mayo - God Help Us' by focusing on their processes, Brady believes the fans have done so by subverting it.

We are getting like the Kerryman ourselves. We are the ones putting that out there. You get more Mayo people saying that than Kerrymen saying ‘musha, we dont have a chance’.

We’re getting cute in our old age. Anytime a Mayo person says ‘Mayo - God Help us’ there is a wink at the end of it.

If we ask for God’s help we might get it, but we’re not going looking for it just yet.

[They are really saying] 'Don’t let them know. Don’t let them really know'.

It’s more or less saying that let them all have pity for us, but we’re not going to pity ourselves.

The September defeats certainly linger, but perhaps those looking in from the outside have misconstrued the level of adversity from which Mayo fans return from. "I honestly feel it’s like Paulo Coelho's book The Alchemist", meditates Brady. "Mayo people might look back in the future and say, ‘Do you know what? We were in the promised land for a long time, and we just didn’t realise it until we won something’. The All-Ireland is still the destination and always will be. But the journey is that bit more special for Mayo than for any of the other commuters on the road to Sam. It’s a great bond. It’s not looked on as a sorrowful tale, it is looked upon as a fantastic way to live life during the summer". 

At the Gaelic Grounds, McGreal asked a Mayo fan, "what'll we do if we win it?"

"It’ll definitely be an anti-climax" came the response.

Sky Sports have another live and exclusive match on this Saturday June 23rd. Coverage for the Senior Football Championship Qualifier between Tipperary and Mayo starts at 4.30pm.

For the latest online news go to www.skysports.com/gaa

Follow Sky Sports GAA on Twitter @SkySportsGAA or on Sky Sports Facebook

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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