It’s only the middle of July and already our 2007 championship season is over. It’s been our worst Summer’s football in years and it’s the first time since the new format was put in place in 2001 that we’ve found ourselves idle so early in the year. Think about it this way: today is exactly a year on from the date of last year’s Connacht final. After that narrow win over Galway, we were to have four big days out in Croker in 2006. In other words, our season was just getting revved up this time last year, whereas this year it’s already over.
There’s no Croker for us this year, our only visits to HQ in 2007 will remain those two we had at the fag-end of the league campaign in April. It’s the first time in four years that we’ve failed to reach the All-Ireland series and it’s also the first time we’ve taken such a pasting in the qualifiers. In short, it’s been a year to forget.
So how did it come to this? Seen in the cold light of defeat, the warning signs were there for some time. While the early part of the league was encouraging, the way in which the tinkering with team selection started after the league semi-final with Galway showed that Johnno and his colleagues were in no way sure about what kind of side they wanted to field for the championship. The changes since then have been dizzying, with the result that the team that started in Celtic Park bore only a faint resemblance to that which lined out against Donegal in the league final.
Experimentation with team selection was a definite requirement after Johnno took over, especially in light of last year’s disastrous All-Ireland. But why did it take till late April to start this process? Up till then, changes were largely made out of necessity, due to the severe injury list we’d built up. Two big decisions – Kilcullen at full-back and BJ at centre-back – appeared to be set in stone right through the league but Kilcullen was jettisoned following the semi-final with Galway and BJ’s career as centre-back ended in the confusion in Salthill.
Instead of using the league to try out different players, this year we’ve used the championship and, in particular, the two qualifier games to blood the next generation. Seen in this light, it’s not too difficult to see why we took the hammering we did from Derry. There’s a time and a place for team building and it’s not the month of July.
There are a few factors which I think are relevant in terms of explaining how we came to this pass. The first is, obviously, the residual after-effects of last year’s All-Ireland final. How many of the players – in particular those who had been involved in the 2004 thrashing by Kerry as well – were really up for another long, hard campaign? Not too many of them, I fear.
You need to be up for the fight to stay in the championship and at Celtic Park on Saturday, it was brutally clear that we weren’t. I remember turning to The Brother after Derry got their first goal and saying that this was the moment of truth: we’d soon find out if they had anything in the tank. As became painfully clear over the following twenty minutes or so, we didn’t. It’s hardly a coincidence that our best performers against Derry were the U21s that had just come in. It’s also obvious that these guys will, as early as next year, form the backbone of Johnno’s new Mayo team.
The second relevant factor is the league and how it threw our championship preparations out of kilter. This happened in two ways. I think we became obsessed (I know I did) about the need to finish in the top four and so secure our place in the new Division 1 in 2008. Because of this, league points became more important than building a championship team and, while we avoided dropping down to Division 2, we’ve paid a very high price for our top tier league status. Are Dublin or even Cork any the worse off for having failed to make the league grade? I think not.
The other thing is that, once we’d secured our league status, winning the damn thing became the priority. Think back to the league semi-final with Galway: they didn’t give a rat’s arse about that game and spent most of the seventy minutes toying with us. In large part, our win over them there contributed to our downfall in Salthill. Then, having got to the final, we went and lost it, picking up in the process more catcalls about what chokers we were and how the Croke Park hoodoo had struck again. This was the last thing we needed just as our championship preparations were supposed to be getting into top gear.
Which leads us, inevitably, to the month of May and all that happened then. The sun was shining - remember that? There was an election on too and it can’t be denied that Johnno’s election campaign cost us dearly. It certainly helps to explain why we emerged so ill-prepared and incapable for battle at Salthill. Just at the time when we needed his genius, Johnno was – understandably – using his grey matter primarily in pursuit of the third seat in Mayo for Fine Gael. Running for election is a 24 x 7 commitment and with Johnno giving his all to the election campaign, football was bound to suffer.
You could even argue that the way we approached the league was part of a fiendish political master plan, in that a league title won would have helped deliver the votes. I’m not so sure: the Galway match took place just four days before polling day and so the best way to secure football-minded votes would obviously have been to beat Galway in Salthill. I think the answer is a far simpler one: Johnno’s mind was focused on politics rather than on football during those crucial weeks prior to the clash with Galway.
Whatever the reasons are for our failure to mount a serious championship campaign this year, one thing is sure and that’s that we cannot change the outcome now. We need instead to look forward and so the last thing we need is another witch-hunt by the County Board. While I think, for the reasons outlined above, that Johnno has some questions to answer about the campaign, I also believe that he, along with his management team, is the man who is best placed to engineer another resurgence in our footballing fortunes.
Speaking to the Indo today, Johnno makes the blindingly obvious point that the team is in transition but he also says that the next few years will be a time of great opportunity for players to step forward and show what they’re made of. We're fortunate in that we have an extremely talented bunch of young players coming through - ten of last year's All-Ireland winning U21s are already on the senior panel - and Johnno's task will be to find the right blend of youth and experience for 2008.
Next year we’ll be under no pressure in the league and we can spend all Spring experimenting to our heart’s content. We won’t (unless lightning strikes twice) be faced with the prospect of playing Galway in May and, with the Tribesmen now in obvious decline and the Rossies all over the shop, our main opponents in Connacht next year could well be Leitrim and the new provincial champions Sligo. With Johnno fully focused on the job, we’d have to fancy our chances of front-door entry to the All-Ireland series next year. So while we can only watch from the sidelines as this year's championship plays out, we shouldn't be too downhearted. We’ll be back, more than likely next year, with big days out in Croker to look forward to again. And, who knows, unlike this year, we might even get a real Summer too.