Echoes of 2001 as Mayo have no time to rest on league laurels

If McStay’s side lose to Roscommon, will counties risk a league final so close to the championship?

Time flies.

Already the football championship is less than a week away. It was widely observed at the weekend that Sunday’s Division One and Two finals featured four of the five teams, who with champions Kerry were most likely front-runners for the All-Ireland.

If for Dublin and Derry the status as curtain-raiser was underwhelming, the main event brought together two counties alive with genuine ambition. It’s unusual for both Mayo and Galway to be so highly rated at the same time but equally there’s no disputing it. They have contested the last three All-Ireland finals.

Galway rose steadily last year and came very close. Their neighbours are no strangers to that experience and many of the current group were in two of those finals, maybe not impressing as much as Galway but accumulating experience of the big day.


That may sound hollow for a county with 11 successive All-Ireland defeats in the past 34 years and hardly in need of such experience, but the fact is that this year’s championship is wide open, which has not always been the case.

The league, a competition that in the past frequently dared not speak its name, has also been transformed into not only a direct influence on the championship but an accurate gauge of form. Not every team takes every match on its merits but where each county stands is clear during its blitzkrieg scheduling.

In the 20 years since the qualifiers were introduced, the rhythm of seasons has changed. Teams needed to approach the new structure with an emphasis on consistency rather than violent mood swings as they moved from league to championship.

That was with a gap of a few weeks between the competitions but now, there is no break, as Mayo are experiencing with six days to go before a serious championship encounter against Roscommon. Consistent rhythms are now even more important.

Galway manager Pádraic Joyce articulated that connection after they had beaten Kerry. He more or less said that league titles weren’t some mysterious initiation rite for All-Ireland success, but the sort of thing that genuine contenders should be accumulating.

It was both brave and practical for Kevin McStay to take no issue with a prospective league victory but to treat it as a byproduct of proper preparation. If you go out to win matches and succeed, this is where you will end up and that will necessitate playing championship a week later.

The prospect could be problematic but as he points out, the early part of the year is taken up with almost weekly matches. Next Sunday will be the ninth in 11 weeks. The training and S&C work will have earned its corn when Mayo face a team that has had a fortnight off, but this is an outcome they have been preparing for all season – a sign of success or where they always intended to be.

It may be a new world but there are plenty of portents from times past. Mayo’s three most recent league titles, stretching back 53 years, have all been followed by defeat against Roscommon in the Connacht championship. Their only success as league winners in the fixture goes back to 1949.

On reflection, only one of those defeats came out of the blue and it is the most distant. In 1970, having beaten the All-Ireland champions of two years previously, Down, in the final, Mayo followed it up with a win over All-Ireland finalists Offaly in the then prestigious Wembley Tournament and were considered front-runners for Sam Maguire.

Writing here, Paddy Downey described it as, “perhaps the biggest turn-up of the 1970 season”. As an aside, his report from Tuam jointly led the page with an account of Brazil’s destruction of Italy in the World Cup final.

Roscommon’s two other defeats of Mayo as recent league winners featured a 74th-minute goal in the 2001 Connacht final – after they had already beaten the previous year’s All-Ireland finalists Galway – and four years ago.

Differences between this weekend and 2019 were obvious. On Sunday there was no protracted on-field celebration and an almost awkward embrace of the success as if it automatically entailed a challenge.

Circumstances were different. For many on James Horan’s team it was a destination – a tangible achievement after so much harrowing disappointment, as he pointed out himself.

“I am not trying to play it down. We are absolutely delighted to win a national final – there are some guys out there who have given 15 years to try and win something significant.”

Furthermore they weren’t in championship action for more than a month and that entailed a trip to New York a full fortnight before the Roscommon semi-final.

This time, there is no alternative but to focus immediately.

They will be trail blazers. Lose and who in the future would want to risk a league final so close to a daunting championship encounter?

The echo of 2001 is also interesting for Galway. Then as now they lost the league final against Mayo and went on to be beaten by Roscommon in a Connacht semi-final.

It was the first year of the qualifiers and Galway grasped the opportunity on offer – in that inaugural season, some counties were unable to get their heads around losing in their province and re-entering the championship. By the end of the season they were All-Ireland champions.

That prospect this year is largely unaffected by Sunday’s defeat. They will face the Castlebar winners at home two weeks later. It was a blow not to win the national title that has now eluded them for 42 years but Joyce’s panel is stronger than last year and still has last season’s FOTY nominee Cillian McDaid to return.

The team has also steadily improved during the league. He acknowledged that they had been a little flat at the weekend but, equally, noted that the same could be said of Mayo.

He also mentioned that Galway had now lost three Croke Park finals in 12 months, including last year’s Division Two decider, against Roscommon – which didn’t stop them turning the tables in the Connacht final.

It is another echo of 2001. Defeat in the league final wasn’t the third reverse in a year but it was the third failure to win a final in little over six months after the drawn 2000 All-Ireland.

Either way, Mayo are unbeaten in three matches against Galway this year, from FBD to the opening weekend draw in Castlebar to Croke Park.

There’s no doubt that McStay’s team will be challenged to perform optimally next weekend. If it’s a consolation they have a guaranteed third seeding in the championship should the next few weeks not work out.

So far though they haven’t been looking for safety nets.