'We need another level yet'
Moran expects more from Mayo as they aim to eradicate demons of last decade at Croker
NO county does September heartbreak more prolifically than Mayo. You've got to wonder if there's a 'good' way to lose an All-Ireland SFC final having exhausted the entire gamut of galling defeats in '89, '96, '97, '04 and '06... and yet Andy Moran reckons last September came with a silver lining.
If the opening chapter against Donegal was like a Groundhog Day version of Kerry '06, what happened over the next hour offered a road map to redemption.
"You can't underestimate it," says Moran, reflecting on Mayo's recovery from a 2-1 to 0-0 horror-show over the first 11 minutes of last year's All-Ireland.
They actually 'won' the remainder by 0-13 to 0-10 – scant consolation, you would imagine, yet Mayo's then-stricken skipper spied hope amid the wreckage.
Eleven months on, the green-and-red look a different beast – more hard-nosed, more intense, more ruthless. And yet the caveats will remain until they cross the Rubicon from rampant pretenders to champions ... and let's not forgot the small matter of Tyrone in this Sunday's semi-final.
Moran was a helpless bystander last September, having torn his cruciate ligament against Down in the quarter-final. Looking on, he was struck by "the guts and the courage" of his colleagues after the double-whammy of those ultimately decisive Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden goals.
Was there a fear factor at that stage of another looming annihilation?
"Oh, you better believe it. When you go two goals down in an All-Ireland final, I'd be lying if I told you there wasn't," Moran admits.
Then something changed.
"I'd pick out a pivotal moment," he explains. "David Clarke's save on Colm McFadden (after 13 minutes) as they were going for a third goal – he nearly broke his own leg and nearly broke Colm's leg.
"He was going to save that ball and it drove us on. To me, that is the major point of that game. Yes, we lost the All-Ireland and it was another All-Ireland that we lost – but we lost it fighting and that's the key thing."
Moran came off the bench in the midst of Mayo's twin meltdowns to Kerry in '04 and '06. Arguing the point that last year was different, our evergreen survivor from Ballaghaderreen says: "If you look at 2004 and 2006, and our age profile at that time, we were probably reaching the end of a great team of the '96/97 era. The likes of James Nallen, Ciarán Mac (McDonald), Kevin O'Neill, these guys were all at the end of their careers.
"This (last year) was at the start of a lot of boys' careers ... like, our average age is 23-24.
"So it was important that the guys fought back like that and it's very important for the stage we're coming to now."
Trawling through the match DVD was a painful process but a revelatory one, too.
"That room was a tough place," Moran recounts. "But we looked at the game and it was skills more than anything that let us down.
"We went away and worked on our skills and worked on our tackling, worked on our tempo of play and again, on Sunday, we've a chance to show this.
"And it's either up to us to show it or to not. We'll go out on Sunday and hope to learn from the lessons of the past but not be hindered by them."
While the (non-)opposition offered by Galway, Roscommon, London, even Donegal, will inevitably be thrown back in Mayo faces by the non-believers, there has been evidence amid the carnage that James Horan's men have moved to a higher level.
Forwards, not just backs, are tackling with a greater intensity – and discipline – forcing turnovers high up the pitch. And when this has happened, quite frequently, the end result has been a Mayo goal.
Moran praises the coaching impact of Donie Buckley during his first season on Horan's management team, but he references a much earlier watershed in the development of Mayo's harder edge.
"The game that stands out in my head is the 2011 league game against Dublin when they scored four goals in the first half," he recalls.
"We had to change some sort of tack that day at half-time, and that was probably it.
"We're three years into that cycle now, so it kind of helps. The likes of Donie Buckley has come in and done a lot of good work with us; James has continued the great work he's done over the last three years; and boys have really bought into it, which is the key thing."
Question is, did this 'new' Mayo reach a quarter-final crescendo with that 16-point obliteration of Donegal, their erstwhile All-Ireland tormentors?
Moran is rightly cautious about the different, and doubtless more dogged, challenge to be posed by Tyrone this weekend, arguing: "We're playing the standard-bearers of the last decade, I suppose; they started off in 2003 and 10 years later they're in another semi-final, which is testament to them."
He then warns: "We won't win this game without a 100 per cent performance, and that's what we aim to do."
As for suggestions that the first half against Donegal was the best he's ever seen from Mayo, Moran counters: "I would argue probably not, to be honest with you. I think the pace we played at times in the first half of the semi-final against Dublin (last year), and I wasn't part of it, was at as high a level.
"We were probably a bit more clinical in our skills and our shot-selection the last day. Is that the peak? You'd have to say it was up there, but hopefully we have a couple of levels left in us."