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14 September 2006 Edition

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The Matt Traecy Column

Tradition and Aplomb to triumph?

I once wrote here - after Armagh had beaten Mayo in the League semi-final last year - that Mayo must look forward to visiting Croke Park in the same way that Aztec girls looked forward to a day out at the oul human sacrifices. It was meant in jest of course but by God it has come back to haunt me! The only ones being sacrificed on their last visit were Dublin.

There is, however, an element of truth in the fact that the latter stages of the championship have not been a happy hunting ground for the men from the west. Since 1901 Mayo have contested 38 All Ireland semi-finals. Including last month's victory over Dublin, they have only managed to win 11. They also had a walkover from Tipperary in 1921. Of the 12 finals they have been in, they have lost nine and won three.

Even worse is their record against Kerry. Out of their 18 championship meetings, Mayo have won just three. Not the sort of statistics then to inspire confidence in the followers of the red and green as they set out for Croke Park at the weekend. Curiously, Mayo have a far better record in the national league and have won 11 of the 15 finals they have contested.

Of course it will be argued that such statistics mean nothing and that past results are no predictor of future events. True. But the statistics do tell us something. Historically, the Connacht football championship, and indeed the Ulster championship, were weak in comparison to Munster and Leinster who between them have won 89 of 118 titles. Indeed both Dublin and Kerry have won more titles than all the counties in either Ulster or Connacht combined.

There is the undoubted fact that the burden of historical failure has weighed heavily on the shoulders particularly of Mayo teams coming out of Connacht. It has become somewhat of a cliché but there were many who were quick to dismiss Mayo's chances against Dublin on that basis. Although Mayo overturned that expectation, the same pundits are still convinced that whatever about turning over a fragile Dublin team, with issues of its own, Kerry could nearly throw out a set of green and gold jerseys onto the field next Sunday.

Insulting? Perhaps. But unfortunately it is not a belief that is exclusive to Kerry people. I was at the 2004 final, which Kerry won by eight points. The pessimism of the Mayo supporters was palpable. The chap I was sitting beside, who had come over from London, could barely bring himself to watch and relied on me to relay a running commentary as he sat with his head in his hands, sideways to the pitch. "Kerry point. Kerry point. Eh, point for Kerry." Interjected only by the odd "Oh, for the Lord Jesus." Then he was gone. And a sad sight it was. A veritable procession of red and green jerseys heading for the exits with 20 minutes left. Not an encouraging sight for the team, one would imagine.

The question is, can Mayo build on the massive psychological boost of beating Dublin for the first time in championship football? More importantly, do they possess the footballing ability? The answer to the latter has to be an unequivocal yes. Mayo have been one of the top teams in the country over the past four or five years and already this year have won the All Ireland Under 21 title. Five of that team - Higgins, Moran, Dillon, Kilcoyne and Conroy - featured at some stage in the semi-final.

They come into a side that has a wealth of experience and talent with the likes of Mortimer, McDonald, and Nallen. It was a blend that worked well against Dublin. A worrying aspect of that performance, however, was the way in which Dublin were able to create four or five goal chances and to build what should have been a match-winning margin of seven points in a short period at the beginning of the second half. One wonders if Kerry would have either spurned those opportunities or allowed Mayo to come back at them in the manner in which they did. I suspect not. Indeed, if Kerry continue to play as they have done in their last two matches then Mayo are going to have to improve a lot even on their performance against Dublin if they are to win.

What can you say about Kerry? The fact that this is their fifth final in seven years and that they are chasing their third title since 2000, and this in perhaps the most competitive era ever of senior championship football, says it all. A win on Sunday, and with more in prospect, will have people talking about them in the same breath as the great team of the '70s and '80s. If they do not win, and given the relative value of such matters in the Kingdom, the verdict will be radically different and Jack O'Connor's reputation could be totally reappraised.

So there is as much resting upon it for them as there is for Mayo - despite the myth that All Irelands do not have the same cache as they do for counties for whom each one is as rare as a grey-cheeked thrush. We Dubs used to think back then that Kerry only won All Irelands to annoy us and that they had forgotten all about it by the time the train passed Cherry Orchard. Not so, and I am pleased to report that losses in finals cause them just as much pain as the rest of us!

The current team has also managed to knock the not inconsiderable 'northern monkey' off its back. Just as with Down in the 1960s, Armagh and Tyrone were becoming a bit of a jinx for the Kerry boys. So the effect of Kerry comprehensively putting Armagh on the seat of their pants can not be overestimated. It will have come as a massive psychic boost and Kerry looked relaxed and confident as they brushed aside Cork in the semi-final. If they maintain that aplomb this week then they will beat Mayo.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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