The brighter the evenings the louder the noise. The league has passed and championship creeps into view so Mayo footballers must contend with talk of The Curse or growing psychological barriers or being told we are not good enough.

It’s human nature and, particularly living in Mayo, it becomes impossible to ignore all the tweeting. We should be numb to the pain by now. Four All-Ireland final defeats since I stepped away in 2012. Nine in my lifetime.

Far too much misery.

The Dubs know what I mean. It took until 2011, when they won their first All-Ireland since 1995, for the confidence of their players to rise up. Belief is a powerful weapon. Five minutes to go in a close game, everyone is convinced Dublin will find a way. Listen to Jim Gavin interviews. Protocol and process. That’s what winning sounds like. Nondescript, revealing nothing.

In my time wearing the jersey, even the night before All-Ireland finals, we would be talking about where we’d be going the week after – we lost a bit of focus it is safe to say.

The longer the wait the bigger the party. In Dublin it is almost normal for them to go to the function after an All-Ireland and not go out the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday because they have been doing it year in, year out. Loads of counties would love to be in that position: to win just once and make a week of it!

It’s that time of year again, when talk of what’s coming builds. Galway’s form is a good thing for Mayo. Having them in the way will focus the mind because it’s not just about the All-Ireland this year. The provincial title matters more than it used to, the Super Eights and all that, but the past will always be dredged from the bottom of the barrel – the worst days that were meant to be Mayo’s greatest days. Maybe they will be in time. Just one winter with Sam Maguire and all the hurt would seem worthwhile.

We need an ending to this story, at some stage. If Mayo had got over the line in one of the nine All-Ireland finals since 1989 I think that team would have captured two or three. Like Tyrone after 2003. Instead, we’ve had to live through new Kerry and Dublin eras. We’ve had to stomach Donegal coming and going. Kerry sneaking one in 2014.

The last few All-Ireland finals left us empty, devoid of hope, but then the league comes and goes, and championship dreams begin again…

The Curse: I don't think it's true. Just people clutching at straws.

Mayo have experienced plenty of bad luck in finals, more than any other county, and if you didn’t see the matches, just heard the stories, you would put it all down to some sort of hex. Particularly 2004 and 2006, but I was on the pitch both days and we were beaten by far better Kerry teams.

The “Better Team On The Day” theory against Dublin in recent years can be looked at. They weren’t at their best in the 2013, 2016 and 2017 finals. Perhaps Mayo were at full stretch. We didn’t drive on. It wasn’t through lack of effort.

There is also quality of player to consider. Gavin sent in Diarmuid Connolly late last year. No county has been able to do that since Paidi O Se held onto Maurice Fitz.

What’s gone wrong for Mayo is a combination of all the above. Minus the curse. That’s not relevant at all. If your starting fifteen do not produce their best performances you cannot expect to win an All-Ireland. Now, that said, Dublin subs, Cormac Costello in 2016 and Connolly in ’17, took Sam out of the fire for them. Mayo don’t have those options. Sure, who else does?

We are living a unique period of Dublin dominance but we all know Mayo should have knocked them off at least once. Above all other counties, we have shown that they are beatable.

For all the sum of parts that make Dublin a great team on Jim Gavin’s watch they still needed Connolly to get them over the line. It’s common knowledge that he’s head and shoulders above most players in the country. The aura surrounding him is because he doesn’t do much talking in the media.

People don't know, in any detail, about his personal life. Due to the nature of Irish people that is not intriguing, it is irritating. That's just the way we are. People get annoyed that they don't know anything about Diarmuid Connolly.

Other players show a little or enough about their lifestyle or talk about their careers or where they come from just in sound bites, but it’s enough to satisfy peoples curiosity. Connolly hasn’t done that. When he plays he performs. That’s all any of us really know about him. We don’t even know where he is!

Dublin will find four-in-a-row hard going without him. They revealed a few more fabulous footballers during the league and the core of their team has five All-Ireland medals each, but that little bit of extra class, Connolly’s unpredictable brilliance, remains irreplaceable. It can go either way: he could throw a box or score a magical point. Remember the foul he drew against Mayo in the 75th minute last year? Effectively, that free won Dublin the game.

Mayo have four players we still cannot do without. One of them, Lee Keegan, is injured. Add Aidan O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran, to the list of stalwarts. Whereas you look when Connolly takes a “rest” and Cian O’Sullivan gets injured, Dublin go and win another league title pulling up. Mayo are in big trouble if any one of Our Four are out long term.

It gets tougher the longer this losing streak in All-Ireland finals goes on. We know this Mayo group are made of stern stuff but it seeps into the brain after a while. Not again. Losing is torture. It can’t keep making you stronger.

I’ve been living up in Dublin ten years. I’d be a fan of the way they play the game as opposed to being a fan of Dublin. I’m from Mayo and always will be but anyone with a deep interest in the game will warm to what they are doing. It’s relentless.

Similar to Mayo. Our mindset since James Horan was manager has transformed the way Mayo football is perceived.

It’s also a good time for Dublin and the reason I say that is the standard of other teams has dropped substantially. For the last five years it’s been Dublin then Mayo with Kerry and Tyrone further back but Dublin have been consistent winners right the way through. As have we. Minus the trophy. Minus the only win that matters.

Mayo people my age and older have been through the mill. I played in two of the nine finals. Probably should have featured in at least two more. That’s part of the story I suppose.

1989

Cork 0-17

Mayo 1-11

I was seven years old. Everyone was talking about “Larry” Finnerty. In All-Ireland finals there are moments that determine how the ship will sail. We had chances, we missed them. One great one. It was a lot easier than the goal that was scored.

 

1996

(Replay)

Meath 2-9

Mayo 1-11

’96 was harder to take, being fourteen, and in the Canal End and with Kenneth, the brother, playing. Anyone who saw it would say it was there for the taking. We were in a very good position but look at the Meath forwards: Ollie Murphy, Trevor Giles, Graham Geraghty, Tommy Dowd – class footballers. John Maughan had a physically strong side, big Mayo men, but that was the start of it really. Of the real hurt. We were in pole position and they came back and snatched a draw.

The replay; obviously we start with Liam McHale, our best player, being sent off and Meath losing Colm Coyle, who wasn’t their best player. Liam wasn’t the best footballer in Mayo (that was Ciaran McDonald), but it was his influence, he was the leader of the team. Hard to see much of the brawl down the Canal End but some of the boxes thrown were proper clouts and a lot of them came from Meath. I think some Mayo lads were a bit shell-shocked or trying not get sent off in an All-Ireland final. Meath didn’t care. It was surreal. It didn’t win them the game but they got a mental edge: we aren’t going to back down. That Meath team never backed down.

All Ireland Football final replay 1996 Referee Pat McEnaney sends Colm Coyle of Meath and Mayo's Liam McHale off. A� Matt Browne/INPHO - Conor Mortimer - TSC

All Ireland Football final replay 1996 Referee Pat McEnaney sends Colm Coyle of Meath and Mayo’s Liam McHale off. Matt Browne/INPHO

I felt for Kenneth but I was still hopping around having the craic. I was on the pitch afterwards. The old Croke Park. The goals seemed so big. It was a massive field to me. I wondered what it would be like to be out there playing. It felt different when I finally got there.

Look at the era that grew from that. The two minor finals we were beaten in. The under-21 final. Our two senior finals and four defeats in the last few years. Losing three more minor finals until finally winning in 2013 and winning at under-21s in ’16.

That’s All-Irelands, All-Irelands, All-Irelands. Every year All-Irelands. If we won one I think we’d have three. Look at Dublin. That’s what happens. The belief drives you on, it must be better than the nothingness.

1997

Kerry 0-13

Mayo 1-7

Everyone in Mayo was very confident in ’97. I remember the day before talking to Kenneth, “Yep, we are going to win the game.” For one player to dominate a final like Maurice Fitzgerald did, scoring 0-9, his team deserves to be up the Hogan steps. Changes could have been made by the management. Kenneth was the best corner back in the country at the time and has the All Stars to prove it. It would have made more sense, to me and others, to put Kenneth on Maurice Fitz. The Pat Holmes switch could have come sooner but it didn’t. It was tough to take because the confidence was so high going into it. But the confidence always builds as you watch Mayo earn their right to play football in September.

It was the Maurice Fitz final and that’s that.

 

2004

Kerry 1-20

Mayo 2-9

A well rounded Kerry team that became a great Kerry team. We had struggled in the semi-final against Fermanagh. We needed a replay to get past them. No disrespect to Fermanagh, they had some serious players and they put Armagh out but you need to be playing well in the semi-final.

The feeling was relief to have made it. That’s when we lost focus. We prepared well but Gooch Cooper was coming at that stage. Kerry suffocated us. Aidan O’Mahony was very good on Ciaran McDonald. I didn’t play well at all. Tom O’Sullivan kept me quiet. It is easy as a corner forward to say we weren’t getting ball in but I lost most of the balls that did come in. My point should have been a goal. You have games like that. Unfortunately for me it happened in two All-Ireland finals.

It happened to a lot of us and you can’t help anyone else when you are struggling. Your own patch is priority number one. When that isn’t working all the practice in the world becomes irrelevant. You can’t prepare for an All-Ireland final in Croke Park.

I enjoyed the fans on the way in, embraced the build up, but it took us longer to find our groove. Kerry were so smooth. Click of a finger and they were switched on.

They were packing their bags for home when we finally found the light.


2006

Kerry 4-15

Mayo 3-5

Mayo beating Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final was huge for the rest of the country. Not us. Dublin were not that strong in ’06. We weathered their best and proved ourselves better. We were a natural footballing team. We came up and beat Dublin in Croke Park after being seven points adrift with 10 minutes to go.

Kerry caught us early and regularly. Shell-shocked, again, by 2-2 in 10 minutes. 3-6 with 25 minutes played. Our two goals gave us some belief at half-time. We went point for point for a while but Kerry had six scoring forwards and they all scored. On the great teams somebody always picks up the slack.

All Ireland Senior Football Final 17/9/2006 Mayo's Conor Mortimer at the final whistle Mandatory Credit A�INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

All Ireland Senior Football Final 17/9/2006 Mayo’s Conor Mortimer at the final whistle Mandatory Credit, INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

2012

Donegal 2-11

Mayo 0-13

I had a good league. Not in the final. Cork beat us well. I was training away, frustrated about not being picked for the Leitrim game, with the voice in my head telling me to walk if I wasn’t picked for the Connacht final. I had enough at that stage. James Horan rang me on the Tuesday before the Sligo game to tell me I was not starting. I said ok, hung up. I rang him back a few minutes later. Told him I was leaving the panel. That was it. There was no talking to me, not my missus, not my mates. When you go past a certain stage there is no way back. He wanted to meet me. I wouldn’t.

I made a mistake.

Maybe my perspective was different because I was living up in Dublin, and not around my teammates and family. There is a totally different support base when you are away from home. I had been told I was the impact sub. I had been told James wanted three of his best defenders in the full forward line. If I have to defend I will defend.

Allianz Football League Division 1, Elverys McHale Park, Castlebar 31/3/2012 Mayo vs Dublin Mayo's Conor Mortimer with Michael Dara MacAuley of Dublin Mandatory Credit A�INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Allianz Football League Division 1, Elverys McHale Park, Castlebar 31/3/2012 Mayo vs Dublin Mayo’s Conor Mortimer with Michael Dara MacAuley of Dublin Mandatory Credit,INPHO/Morgan Treacy

 

I’m old enough and wise enough now to understand that sometimes a manager doesn’t fancy a player. That’s what I felt was the nub of the issue.

The family statement that night was the final nail in the coffin of my inter-county career. Don’t get me wrong, family is everything to me, right or wrong, they have always been there for me, but should not have come out. It didn’t come from me. My parents were supporting me. It will never be an issue, regardless of how it all played out, but that was it.

I watched the All-Ireland final in a pub in town. Not even sure where. I didn’t go because there was too much chat. I did plenty of media leading up to the game. I thought, “I’ll be ok watching Donegal win this” as it would justify my decision, but it felt terrible. These were my teammates. Five minutes killed them. The early 2-1. The usual story: we had chances.

People say if I was playing Mayo would have won. I'll probably have to hear that 'til the day I die.

I played in two All-Ireland finals and was shit, what’s to say I wouldn’t have been shit in this game? And we were a better team in 2012.

It took me over a year before I accepted the mistake I made in leaving the panel. My fault. My decision. You just live with it. I was 29 years old. My life used to revolve around football. I only started working age 30. When others were studying for college or of getting jobs I was always kicking a football. It’s hard to be motivated by the club game when you still feel you should be playing inter-county. I haven’t played for anyone in over two years.

 

2013

Dublin 2-12

Mayo 1-14

I was never contacted to go back. A mediator approached me at the end of 2012. Noel Howley. I know him well. Used to travel up and down with him for training and games. We met in the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin for a glass of wine and bite to eat. I went into the meeting adamant I wasn’t going back but came out willing to meet James. Nothing came of it. It wasn’t for me to contact them. I didn’t realise the lasting impact of a statement four days before the Connacht final. I didn’t feel I could ring a manager and say I didn’t write it.

I made a mistake. If I could go back and sit tight on the bench I would, but I can't. It's only six years but I have matured. Only thought about myself in those days. Give me the moment again and I would consider my teammates.

Not getting to play at that level with those players ever again…If you don’t make mistakes in life you will never learn anything about yourself. I learned plenty in the months and years after that decision.

I walked away in my prime having joined the Mayo panel as a teenager. As an inter-county player you are coasting through all your days. You train, get fed, there is physio, coaching, sports psychology. Being a good footballer means you don’t have the normal upbringing of a teenager so it’s only when you step out of that environment that you realise what life is really about. The guys who can grasp that while still inside the circle tend to be more successful when they leave the game behind.

That’s my story.

Mayo have been contenders every year since. In 2014 we didn’t make the All-Ireland final but Kerry beating us in the semi-final replay in Limerick felt as bad as losing in Croke Park. Cillian and Aidan running into each other; there is no answer when that happens. We can’t afford that sort of loss. Never could. Not Donal Vaughan, not Liam McHale, maybe not even myself in 2012. Mayo need everyone pulling in the same direction. That’s when something special happens. Until something else goes wrong.

 

2016

(Replay)

Dublin 1-15

Mayo 1-14

Changing the goalkeeper is what will always be remembered. Easy to blame the manager but I think it was a brave call. It didn’t work because Rob Hennelly made mistakes. More bad luck. David Clarke’s kick-out hangs but he’s a better shot stopper. Rob’s kick out tends to be on the money but his handling error and black card, for pulling down Paddy Andrews for the penalty that Connolly buried, proved very costly.

 

2017

Dublin 1-17

Mayo 1-16

Of the three Dublin finals the John Small/Donie Vaughan incident should have propelled Mayo to an All-Ireland. Yes, Donal made a mistake. Your teammate is hit. You can’t coach that reaction: “do nothing” can’t be coached. This is not professional sport. These are amateurs.

James McCarthy bombing through for scores from midfield sticks in my mind. 40 metres of hard running, and still he was able to kick it over the bar. For Jim Gavin to know to put McCarthy on Aidan O’Shea, when Aidan was tiring, seeing that in the heat of battle, proved the difference.

Andy Moran being named footballer of year at 33 years of age tells its own tale. Change is needed in the team now. The same squad for the last five, six years will not be good enough to go again. Conor Loftus has come into the team and delivered scores under real pressure. Cian Hanley has returned from Australia.

I could still do a job.

Ah now.

Dublin win four-in-a-row if Connolly returns. If he doesn’t it is going to be a lot harder but, like Kerry before them, they don’t seem burdened by any fear of failure. They have their All-Irelands, they can just go out and play without the worry, whereas Mayo nerves are always just beneath the surface because if we lose it would mean another procession.

Not that there is a curse. Every year more fuel gets added to the fire. Every time we lose the flames soar higher.

Imagine the bonfires.

 

Conor

April 2018

 

The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.

This all began with a contribution from Jamie Heaslip, one of the greatest servants to Irish rugby, with The End is Really The Beginning Part 1 and Part 2.

You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.