Inter-County

Do Mayo Really Bottle in Finals?

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Mayo won their first All-Ireland in 1936 and went on to win two in a row in 1950 and ’51. Then, arguably, Ireland’s most football obsessed county proceeded to go a staggering 38 years before reaching another final. That year saw them lose to Cork, the first of what would produce one of Gaelic football’s contemporary enigmas. That is that the ’89 final was the first of eight finals (ties) which they would lose on the trot.

The general consensus which has prevailed is that Mayo bottle in finals. And a look at things on face value would certainly seem to suggest that, all things being equal, the likelihood is that they may well have bottle issues. All things being equal, there’s a 50/50 chance of a team winning any given match. In terms of raw probability, all things being equal, the chances of losing eight finals in a row being merely the result of random misfortune, represents just a one in 256 possibility.

But have all things being equal? Certainly, for the first of these three finals, all things were not equal. Mayo were beaten by Cork in ’89, Meath in a replay in ’96 and Kerry in ’97. The crucial aspect to bear in mind here is that this was before the backdoor system was introduced. So, Mayo had qualified for the semi-finals through a five county province (six if you include London). So, let’s look briefly at that in mathematical terms.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that all teams in the All-Ireland were of equal ability. All things being equal, a team coming from a twelve team province would have a 3.125 percent chance of reaching the All-Ireland final (assuming they were one of eight drawn in a preliminary round). Meanwhile, a team coming from a six county province would have as good as a 12.5 per cent chance (assuming they didn’t draw a preliminary round). That’s a radical difference which would allow teams from the smaller province a four times greater chance of reaching an All-Ireland final!

The mathematical balance of this equation is more or less borne out by the record of Connaught senior club champions playing in All-Ireland club finals. They’ve won just six out of 21, something which more or less ties in with the laws of probability relating to champions coming out of a province and through a side of the draw which would represent significantly less than half of the clubs in the country, two years out of three.

Even that, however, fails to look at one key element which is that another significant element wasn’t equal. Between 1952 (the first year of Mayo’s drought) and 2001 (when the backdoor came into existence), excluding Galway, no Connaught team won the All-Ireland. In fact, once again excluding Galway, only two finals saw Connaught sides. On both of those occasions, Roscommon beat the Ulster champions in the semi-finals, Ulster being statistically the weakest province from 1962 to 1990, by a long shot (no Ulster Champions reached an All-Ireland final by beating Leinster or Munster Champions in this period).

 

Quite simply, not alone had Mayo come out of the least numerous province, they had come out of a very weak province. None of London, Sligo or Leitrim had made any serious impact during that period and Roscommon would fit that group from 1981 onwards, when Mayo’s All-Ireland Final losing streak would begin.

Essentially, barring unlikely upsets, a team with any serious championship credentials in Connaught had had, more or less, one serious opponent of note to pass in order to win the provincial championship. For the most part, you’d had two horse races between Galway and Mayo.

From a very simple statistical point of view, all of this is leads to a quite simple conclusion. Before the onset of the backdoor system, there was a very good mathematical chance that a side coming from Connaught could reach the All-Ireland final without necessarily being a top two, or even necessarily a top four or five side.

Essentially, Mayo had comparatively soft passages to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals. There’s a very strong argument to be made that Mayo may not have reached some of these three All-Ireland finals at all had they had to come through a different province. With an almost 50/50 chance of getting out of Connaught every year, even higher when Galway were weak, they had a plethora of cracks of the whip in semi-finals. The laws of probability would suggest that, unless they were miles of the pace, they would surely win at least a few semi-finals.

This all leads to the logical mathematical assumption that this Mayo side were not necessarily “bottlers”, but that had the All-Ireland been run on a seeded and open draw system, they may not have reached some/all of those finals at all.

Furthermore, in the period between 1989 and 1997 when they were beaten in three finals, there’s a strong argument to be made that the relative weakness of Galway allowed Mayo more opportunities to win Connaught than would normally be the case. Mayo’s strength during this period would have to be weighed up against Galway’s weakness. Leitrim winning Connaught in 1994 before being beaten in the All-Ireland semi-finals by 3-15 to 1-9 by Dublin (who were beaten in the final) lends itself to this argument.

Put it another way. Imagine you were to take the modern Premiership and run it on the same system. So broadly speaking you could have Man United and Man City coming from one pool of twelve (like Leinster), Chelsea and Arsenal coming from a pool of six (like Munster), Liverpool and Spurs coming from a pool of nine (like Ulster) and then Everton coming from a pool of six alongside Southampton, Port Vale, Gillingham, Plymouth and Accrinton. You’d have to expect that Everton would be in the semi-final at least every second year on average. Even being, perhaps, fifth, sixth or seventh best in the competition, you’d have to expect that they’d occasionally win a semi-final, especially if those semi-finals were against the winners of the other weaker grouping of nine with Spurs and Liverpool (to compare to Ulster sides between 1989 and 1996 as neither Spurs or Liverpool have won a premiership).

So, they’d be guaranteed to play the winners of the group of nine with Spurs and Liverpool in the semi-final once every three years and even if they caused an upset and beat an Arsenal or even Manchester City in the semi-final every so often, you’d still have to expect that they’d be severe underdogs in the final against a Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United. It would be harsh to call them “bottlers”. The logical conclusion would be that they were beaten by better sides in the final.

In 1989, Mayo, having won a weak province, beat Tyrone in the semi-final. Tyrone were champions of a province which hadn’t seen an All-Ireland win in 21 years at the time. In fact, no Ulster champions had beaten a Leinster or Munster championship winning side in a semi-final for 21 years at that point. Could you really say that there’s statistical evidence that being in the final made Mayo one of the top two sides in the country that year?

In 1996, to be fair, you couldn’t argue with their passage, beating Kerry, albeit a Kerry team who had gone ten years since reaching an All-Ireland final. Regardless of the undoubted merits of this victory, it doesn’t negate the statistical fact that with so many cracks of the whip in the semi-finals, the likelihood is that, unless a side would be radically inferior in terms of raw ability, that they should be expected to win an occasional semi-final, even against a slightly superior team. That’s not to say that this was the case in ’96, that an inferior Mayo team beat a superior Kerry team, but from a statistical point of view, the possibility has to be considered.

The more significant factor regarding Mayo in ’96, however, is that they were beaten in the final by the dominant side of the period, Meath, in a replay. In, fact, the very fact that they lost a six point lead in the initial drawn game may well be the very thing which began the presumption that they “bottled”. In their defence, they wouldn’t have been the first team to have failed to put that Meath side to sword when a good lead had been amassed. The same Meath side were famous for never being beaten, most notably, turning around a five point second half deficit to beat Dublin in the third replay of the famous ’91 saga. All things considered, it’s hard to argue that Mayo wouldn’t have deserved their place in the All-Ireland final that year, but were simply beaten narrowly by the dominant, and more experienced, side of the period.

The following year when Kerry beat them with relative ease in the final, they had, once again in the semi-finals, gone through a less than dominant side, Offaly. Yes, Offaly won Leinster, breaking a Dublin/Meath monopoly, but it’s difficult to imagine that Offaly represented a tougher semi-final challenge than the two previous All-Ireland champions, Meath and Dublin.

That Mayo had beaten Kerry the previous year could lean towards the argument that they “bottled”, except for the fact that this was the first year of which Kerry would go onto win six of the following thirteen All-Irelands. In this period Mayo would never beat Kerry, in any championship game, final or otherwise.

So effectively, in ’89, ’96 and ’97, they came through the smallest province with the weakest opposition of the time. In turn, they got a particularly soft draw in one semi-final and a less intimidating than normal Leinster champions in another, and were beaten in a replay by the dominant side of the era in ’96, the one campaign which saw them go through a big-gun to reach the final.

When you break it down, it looks more likely that they simply weren’t good enough in ’89 and ’97 and weren’t lucky enough in ’96 – not that they bottled.

So, what about the next five All-Ireland finals which they lost – 2004, 2006, 2012, 2013 and 2016? Obviously, the argument that they came through weak provinces doesn’t stack up with the backdoor system in place. In fact, as you might have read in the section titled “Why did Dublin go sixteen Years without reaching an All-Ireland Final?”, it may well have been a significant hindrance to come through a weak province by 2002. It could isolate you from developing tactical innovations in more competitive provinces.

So, could there possibly be a credible argument that they weren’t necessarily good enough to be in all of these five, post backdoor, finals? Whether there is or not, it’s worth noting that the “Mayo Final Bottle” theory was long established by the time that they lost to Donegal in 2012.

So let’s consider their 2004 and 2006 losses to Kerry. As already noted, until the 2017 semi-final, Mayo hadn’t beaten Kerry in championship football for 21 years, since 1996 – not in the final, not in the quarter final, not anywhere! From seven championship attempts, they failed to topple the Kingdom on seven occasions.

Quite simply, there isn’t a shred of credible statistical evidence that Mayo losing to Kerry in the 2004 or 2006 finals had anything to do with bottle. In the 2005 quarter final Kerry beat them by 2-15 to 0-18. In the 2011 quarter final, they pummelled them by 1-16 to 0-8. In 2014, they beat them in a replay in the semi-finals. Losing these two finals had nothing to do with bottle. They just couldn’t beat Kerry.

So how, therefore, did a team so heavily beaten by Kerry in the mid noughties manage to get to these two finals at all. Once again, they didn’t have as tough of draws as you’d typically expect to reach an All-Ireland final.

In those two campaigns, they only beat one side, with a proven record as serious All-Ireland contenders, to reach those two finals – Tyrone. And Tyrone, the holders, had already been beaten by a mediocre Donegal in that year’s Ulster championship! Donegal would lose the next round to Armagh by thirteen points and fail to reach the quarters. Clearly, Tyrone weren’t as formidable as they had been the previous year

Mayo’s 2004 semi-final saw them beat Fermanagh, a side who Kerry had beaten by 2-14 to 0-4 two years earlier. In 2006, they beat Laois and Dublin in the quarters and semis, neither of whom had beaten a serious All-Ireland contender between 2003 and 2010. As draws go, with Tyrone clearly not as formidable as they had been in 2003 and would be in 2005, they weren’t the toughest routes to the final, particularly in 2006.

That’s not to say that they didn’t necessarily deserve to get to these finals, particularly having gone through Tyrone on 2004, but compared to Donegal’s 2012 success for example, when they beat Cork (2010 champions) and Kerry (2009 and would be 2014 champions) before reaching the final, they weren’t the toughest draws, particularly in 2006.

Then we move forward to 2012. Under James Horan, I would argue that they were, for the first time in many years, very serious All-Ireland contenders. However, the Donegal side who beat them in the 2012 final had by far the most advanced tactical system the game had ever seen at the time. There’s no doubt that one piece of eyebrow raising tactics left them unmercifully exposed early on, as Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy were left two on two in the inside forward line, seeing Mayo ship an all too familiar two early goals in an All-Ireland final. That they hauled themselves back to a competitive position after such a tragic start goes contrary to any notion that this was a team of bottlers.

And 2013 and 2016? The Dublin side who beat them in both finals are currently being touted as the best side in the history of the game. A touch premature, perhaps, but once again, while Mayo were undoubtedly worthy of their place in each of these two finals, they were beaten by the stand-out team of the era. At the time of writing, (before the 2017 final) that Dublin side, under Jim Gavin, had lost just one championship game in five campaigns. In fact, apart from that solitary loss to Donegal in 2014, Mayo represent the only glitches on Dublin’s otherwise one hundred percent record in this era – the drawn semi-final in 2015 and the drawn final in 2016. To suggest that Mayo are “bottlers” because they haven’t beaten this side simply doesn’t add up.

The one argument regarding their 2012 and 2013 losses which tends to lend weight to “the Mayo bottle theory” is that in both of these campaigns they lost finals to sides that they had beaten the previous year (Dublin 2013 final) or would beat the following year (Donegal 2012 final).

There are, however, a couple of obvious things worth pointing out. With regards to Donegal, the injury problems as well as other problems within the Donegal camp were well documented, and it’s widely considered that the wheels had come off the wagon well before Mayo put them to sword. Donegal had already been dethroned in Ulster by a Monaghan side who went out at the next hurdle to Tyrone. That’s not to mention, of course, the fact that Mayo would have had the previous year’s defeat to work from with regards to tactical improvements. For example, they weren’t likely to be leaving Murphy and McFadden two on two inside again.

Regarding beating Dublin in the 2012 semi-final but losing to them in them in the following year’s final? The first obvious thing to point out is that they won and lost those respective games by a single point, not a huge variation in terms of statistical analysis. The next obvious thing to point out here is that they beat Pat Gilroy’s Dublin team in 2012 and lost to Jim Gavin’s in 2013. Without taking credit away from Gilroy, that side weren’t anything like as formidable a force as Gavin’s have been and had stumbled past Laois in the quarter-final, before losing to Mayo.

Do Mayo bottle in finals? On the surface, looking at a record of eight losses out of eight (ties), you would imagine that this is a fairly logical assumption to make. A finer analysis, however, shows strong arguments that they had three terribly soft and one softer than average route to four of the first five of these finals. As for the three most recent finals, they were beaten by sides with the newest, most innovative tactics of the time.

In fact, future revisionism will probably tell us that the Mayo side since James Horan’s arrival in 2010 have probably been terrible victims of bad timing. Had they not come along at the same time as two of the greatest tactically innovative sides in the history of the game, and possibly the best side in the history of the game, they may well have won an All-Ireland or three already.

Frankly the entire notion seems absurd that bottle is or could be an issue with the current Mayo side, in a final or any other game. They have come from three points behind, late, to draw the initial 2016 All-Ireland final with Dublin, and twice come from behind, late, in the 2017 championship, against Derry and Kerry, to earn draws.

When all is said and done, the fact remains that Mayo have gone into their most recent five finals as significant underdogs with the bookies – Dublin 2016, Dublin 2013, Donegal 2012, Kerry 2006 and Kerry 2004. Of the first three, they were significant underdogs in both 1989 against Cork and 1996 against Meath. Had we known in 1997 what Kerry were about to unfurl over the next thirteen years, during which they would win six All-Irelands, they’d surely have been underdogs too!

Do Mayo bottle in Finals? A one-dimensional assessment could easily lead you to believe that they do. A more in-depth analysis, however, suggests that their loss of eight All-Ireland final ties on the trot has little to do with bottle. Significantly more likely is that, on each occasion, they were simply beaten by better sides.

This piece is an exerpt from a soon to be published book (eventually) by Stephen O’Meara. The book poses other questions such as “What Accounts for Club Success?”, “Why Did Dublin Go 16 Years Without Reaching an All-Ireland Final”, “Was Joe Brolly Correct in Saying that Kerry Couldn’t Beat Northern Teams?” and “Why are there no Black Players on the Dublin Football Team”?

By Stephen O’Meara

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@grassrootsgaa