Friday, September 16, 2016

Do Mayo Really Bottle in Finals?

It's now 27 years since Mayo lost the first of what would be a startling seven All-Ireland finals on the trot from their 1989 loss to Cork to their 2013 loss to Dublin. The theory has long since followed that they bottle in finals, something which obviously doesn't auger well for this Sunday's final clash with Dublin. Is it, however, really credible that seven different teams from the same county, spanning 24 years could really have some sort of culturally shared psychological weakness which prevents them from producing their best stuff on the big day? Or that the weight of history now weighs so heavily on their shoulders that they have come to be chronic chokers on the big stage? At face value it certainly appears as though there could be. To lose seven finals out of seven, all things being equal, the chances of it merely being a coincidence runs at less than one percent.

The question, however, is this : have all things been equal? A significant factor to take into account in all of this is that they qualified for the first three of these finals off the back of an antiquated provincial system. If we're to exclude London as statistically insignificant (they have lost the first round 41of 42 years in Connaught) if 32 teams of roughly equal ability were to enter the All-Ireland in such a system, teams coming from the province of five would expect to have a 12.5 percent chance of reaching the All-Ireland final, while teams coming from the province of twelve, for example, would expect to have just over a three percent chance.

That is to say that Connaught champions typically had to win three matches to reach the All-Ireland final while Leinster teams, for example, typically had to win five. This made it massively disproportionately easier for the Connaught champions to reach an All-Ireland final when there would have been no statistical evidence that they'd have been one of the best two sides in the country. To that end, it would have been highly likely for teams coming from Connaught  to reach more finals than their ability would have warranted, making it highly likely that they'd have been beaten by superior teams who came through much tougher draws when they got there.

Furthermore, however, all things weren't equal. In reaching the first of these three finals they had beaten the Ulster champions in the semi-finals. Ulster was statistically even weaker than Connaught during this period. In 1989 when Mayo reached the first of these finals, they went through Ulster champions, Tyrone. At this point, Ulster champions hadn't beaten a single Munster or Leinster champion in championship football in the 21 previous years. In 1997 they had the fortune of meeting Offaly as Leinster champions in the semi-final. Despite Offaly winning Leinster, you'd have to imagine they'd have fancied their chances more against Offaly than they would have done against Meath or Dublin, the previous two All-Ireland champions.

So not alone were Mayo coming out of a small and weak province, on some occasions they faced soft semi-final opposition too. That is to say that Leinster or Munster champions would typically have had to have won at least two tough games to reach the All-Ireland final. Mayo would have to beat one, and in some cases none. The real pretenders to the throne, having come through much tougher passages, awaited in the final!

Yes, in 1996 they beat Kerry in the semi-final and they may well have merited their place in the final on this occasion. However, it must also be noted that this was the beginning of a resurgent Kerry, 1996 being their first Munster win in five years. Starting the following year when they would beat Mayo in the third of Mayo's septology of final losses, Kerry would go on to dominate the following thirteen years with six All-Ireland wins.

What is particularly noteworthy in terms of Mayo's more recent final losses is the fact that that victory over Kerry in 1996 was, in fact, the last time Mayo have beaten them in championship football. In six championship attempts between 1997 and 2014 Mayo have lost six from six to Kerry. There is simply no evidence to suggest that they bottled in the finals against Kerry in 2004 or 2006. These losses were simply part of a pattern of inferiority against the Kingdom. For example, they were beaten by 1-20 to 1-11 by Kerry in the 2011 semi-final.

And move forward to their 2012 and 2013 losses to Donegal and Dublin respectively. It's almost certainly fair to say that James Horan's stewardship represented their truly strongest period in recent years whereby they undoubtedly were serious contenders. However, in 2012 they were beaten by Jimmy McGuiness' Donegal playing the most advanced tactical version of the blanket defence the game had seen. That Donegal side had come through the toughest draw in recent history, beating Tyrone in Ulster, Cork in the quarter-final and Kerry in the semi-final. Is it really fair to assume that defeat to this Donegal side represented a bottle issue? That they hauled themselves back to a two point deficit after conceding the first two goals and a point would suggest not.

 As for the 2013 final, they were beaten by a Dublin side whose record in championship and knock-out league football under Jim Gavin currently reads 29 wins, one draw and one loss. Can we really credibly say that defeat in a final to this side represents an issue pertaining to bottle? Equally noteworthy is the fact that in five attempts in the National League and three in championship, Mayo as yet have failed to beat Jim Gavin's Dublin.

With a mere one loss in 31 championship and knock-out league games, all odds point towards a Dublin victory in this Sunday's final. Of course, it would be a short memory that would write off how close Mayo came on both occasions to toppling the Dubs in each of last year's semi-final ties. The facile manner in which Mayo took Dublin's defence apart for the majority of their scores over these two games serves as evidence that their players have the capacity to do likewise again.

However, as things stand, with Mayo having had to come through the backdoor for the first time in six seasons, there is no evidence as yet that Mayo are as good as they were last year or that they have warranted a place in this final on merit. Their only somewhat noteworthy result has been to beat one second tier side, Tyrone. Would they have reached the final if they had had to buck the trend and beat Kerry for the first time in seven clashes over twenty years, or Jim Gavin's Dublin for the first time in nine league and championship games? As yet there is no evidence that they would.

If current patterns hold, on Sunday evening, it will be declared throughout the country that Mayo have bottled in final once more. In reality, for the eighth time in a row, they'll most likely have been beaten by a better side.

Follow me on Twitter @somearagaa

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