Mayo back in the big house
YEAR four of the James Horan era and his battle-hardened history-chasers return this Sunday to Croke Park - a place where Mayo dreams are made of but also a mausoleum where so many All-Ireland quests have turned to dust.
The unanswered question is whether Horan's four-in-a-row kings of Connacht are any closer to the prize that matters. Are they poised for lift-off or running to standstill?
The signals, thus far, are mixed. Last year, Mayo cruised past Roscommon by 0-21 to 0-9. Last June, they trailed the same opposition by three points on the hour mark before escaping with a one-point victory.
At the start of last summer, Mayo pulverised Galway away by 4-16 to 0-11. Come this year's Connacht final, that 17-point chasm had narrowed to seven - 3-14 to 0-16.
Have Roscommon and Galway improved over the last 12 months? Yes: the evidence of our eyes tells us so. But have Mayo regressed, even marginally, in the interim? "I do think they have, if I'm being totally frank and honest here," says John Maughan (pictured, left), who led Mayo to three All-Ireland finals during two spells in charge only to be denied each time.
Maughan, for the record, expects Mayo to overcome Cork in this Sunday's All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Moreover, he reckons there's a distinct chance we'll end up with a repeat of last year's All-Ireland. "We have an opportunity here. We could very, very, very well find ourselves playing in an All-Ireland final. Are we capable of beating Dublin? I don't think so," he concludes.
In that scenario, Horan would emulate the unenviable record of his one-time boss - leading Mayo to the brink in three All-Irelands only for the 'curse', or a lack of craft, to leave them high and dry.
With this team, though, it's the same core group seeking to qualify for three finals on the bounce. The evidence of their league semi-final against Derry, and their Connacht semi-final against the Rossies, raised all manner of ominous questions about fatigue or staleness.
The Galway performance was a notable step-up, rebutting some of those questions. Perhaps, too, what we are seeing is a Mayo team incrementally improving with the aim of peaking in the home straight. Last year, after all, having laid waste to Connacht, it was gradually downhill after their Donegal show-stopper.
Roscommon manager John Evans (pictured, below inset) recalls how Mayo were "firing 50 cannons" against Galway last summer and proceeded to blow away their next few opponents.
"I just don't see the same energy coming out of Mayo at the moment. Now, what was great to see, I saw Andy Moran, Aidan O'Shea, Seamus O'Shea, all these guys jumping five and six feet high in the air when they won the game against Roscommon. So the enthusiasm is there, but I just don't see the same energy, the same power, the same pace in them. Not yet anyway.
"Are they as good as last year? Not yet," Evans repeats. "If they're going to produce it, I suppose this is the time to produce it - from here on in. Quarter-finals on is when you time your run."
The first question on every pundit's lips - whenever it comes to critical assessment of Mayo's All-Ireland prospects - entails those two words most loathed by their manager: Marquee forwards.
"I felt that we didn't needed a marquee forward last year - we just needed one good one," Maughan counters. "Just a good forward that would kick the point or two that would get us over the line against Dublin."
The one big positive compared to last summer is that Cillian O'Connor hasn't been derailed or even curtailed by that recurring shoulder problem. The Connacht final, according to Maughan, was "his finest game I've ever seen in a Mayo jersey. He appears to be playing with this huge, confident swagger."
Evans echoes that point, saying: "You know nothing about football if you don't class Cillian O'Connor as a marquee forward." He goes on: "Alan Freeman, on his day, can wreck any place. (Kevin) McLoughlin is absolutely playing fantastic football. Andy Moran is not firing for the full 70, but it depends on how you deploy them."
Maughan reflects on the recent form of two "great stalwarts of Mayo football" - Alan Dillon and Moran - who "just seem to be a little bit leg-weary. And I've the greatest respect for both, but you'd love to be able to think we'd have the luxury to hold one of those two. In fact, maybe both of them - as happened in the Roscommon game, the huge influence they had coming off the bench."
Of all the Mayo wannabes who have failed to nail down permanent forward tenancy, Maughan cites one exception: "Alan Freeman, obviously, is a confidence-type player. I know in last year's All-Ireland final, the one thing that really excited Dublin football prior to them actually lifting the cup was the fact that Alan Freeman was taken off. I felt it was a little bit premature, and I felt that he was one guy who could have troubled the full-back line because of his aerial ability. Up to that point he'd been playing with great confidence and, since, he's looked a little bit shattered. So I hope he plays on Sunday; I'm a fan."
Asked if fatigue is Mayo's big enemy, after four years on the road, Maughan sees it as just one aspect. "We just haven't produced one or two young players to come through and nail down a spot," he points out.
"The management deserve wonderful credit for getting them back competitive again," the former boss stresses. "Our team look confident, capable, and deserve great credit. They're up there ticking the box every year, being ultra-competitive, and I think we will be difficult to beat. I don't think we'll win the All-Ireland in 2014, I'd love to be proven wrong, but it will take a very good performance to beat us."