While Sunday's league final win marked a breakthrough for Mayo, there was still an asterisk attached, as is often the case with this iconic team, writes Michael Hannon.
It’s hard to know what significance to attach to proceedings in Croke Park last Sunday.
Mayo and Kerry, two of the top three sides in the country, served up an enthralling game. Mayo might have come out on top to be crowned Allianz national league champions, but realistically does anyone rank either of them higher than second after Jim Gavin's Dublin?
You couldn’t sanely argue that Dublin are anywhere but still in the number one slot. The All-Ireland champions are simply finding their form and fitness over the course of the Spring. Their slow start to the season has seen them miss out on another national league final appearance and has probably given hope to the chasing pack that strides are being made to catch them. That’s important because for the longest time not too many teams carried much hope or belief in their ability to compete with the dubs, outside of Mayo in the championship.
What’s more, there might just be a grain of truth to it all. Dublin might just be coming ever so slightly back to the chasing pack while other sides like Donegal and Tyrone are swelling the numbers doing the chasing.
I haven’t been convinced by Kerry so far this year despite their march to the top of the division's standings. In many ways they remind me of Galway who were in a similar position this time last year.
Kerry’s victory over Dublin in the cold wet surroundings of a February night in Tralee, and the thrilling nature of that contest, maybe added to their mystique as an up and coming side - and they are that – but, if anything, last week's contest showed that Mayo still have their number.
By half-time, though, things looked quite rosy for the Kingdom. They held a four-point lead thanks to two well-timed goals, but what you couldn’t fully tell from watching the game on the television was just how strong a breeze they had at their backs during the opening half.
As usual when playing in Croke park, because of the protection the concrete stadium offers, playing against the breeze isn’t such a handicap when you’re kicking the ball forward, but becomes more of a factor when kicking the ball up, ie if you’re shooting for a point.
It wasn’t such a surprise therefore to see that out of Mayo’s first half total of five points, three comprised of fisted efforts.
Such hard running to get close to goal has always been a key component of this Mayo side going all the way back to James Horan’s first stint in charge. Its one of the things they do better than most other sides.
The running power from their defence allows them to blow away teams and to work the ball deep into the opposition's defence.
Half-forwards who spend so much time chasing the Mayo half-back line quickly find the power going from their legs and don’t end up offering much going forward in the other direction.
The athleticism of the Mayo defence is what so much of their game plan is based on. They are the best team at stopping sides from running hard by tracking players through that middle eight, and they know they can leave their defenders isolated one-on-one at the back because they will come out on top of more than their fair share of those individual battles.
So it proved on Sunday. Kerry, playing against the wind, simply could not work the ball as high up the field as Mayo had.
Even when they played with the breeze they went long stretches in that first half unable to get a shot off. Out of the new bunch of Kerry players coming through Tom O’Sullivan is the one defender I genuinely think has the elite level athleticism that he could slip into any team in Ireland.
So to see Aidan O’Shea tracking him mid way through that first half, forcing him towards the sideline, and then robbing the ball off him, spoke volumes of the options O’Sullvan saw ahead of him.
The Mayo defenders really were so much on top of their respective Kerry forwards that releasing the ball forward was risky business, and as O’Sullivan soon found out, carrying it through that middle eight wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
The second half performance from Mayo will be what steals the headlines as they ran in 3-6 but by the end of the game the feeling I was getting was it should’ve been bigger than the four-point margin of victory they enjoyed.
This is quintessential Mayo. Their two games against Kerry in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final, the drawn game and their victory in the replay, should’ve both been comfortably won.
I wasn’t surprised to hear James Horan make the comment after Sunday's victory that he felt they could’ve won the game by 10-12 points if they had done things a little bit more effectively.
A winning margin of a dozen points points might be stretching it a bit much but as I watched the game I felt they were eight or nine points a superior team.
And yet an injury time goal from Ciarán Treacy was needed to give them daylight from Peter Keane’s Kerry. And that right there is why I find myself questioning the significance of last week's games.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Winning a national title for this particular group of Mayo players in Croke Park felt significant and groundbreaking but having to be nine points a better team and then needing a last minute goal felt all too familiar.
Dublin weren’t present there last Sunday and as such they remain the elephant in the room. If, next September, Mayo need to produce a 'nine-point superior' performance against Jim Gavin's side, which equates to a one point margin of victory on the scoreboard, then the chances of that happening are slim.
But that’s part of the fascination with this Mayo side. Nothing will come easy.
At this moment in time the provincial champions could potentially be Tyrone, Mayo, Dublin and Kerry and if that were to happen we’d have Dublin and Mayo paired off in the Super 8s.
Based on what we witnessed last Sunday it remains the game I most look forward to seeing. And of course, if Mayo defeat them en route to winning the All-Ireland, we’ll all look back with perfect vision and note the significance of last Sunday's title.
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