WE ARE often told that to be considered great, a team must win more than one All-Ireland; where does that leave this Mayo team then, a fixture in great games, most of which they won, for four years running, and yet not a single Celtic cross on their sideboard?
It must be somewhere well short of the g-word, and yet it is clear that whatever awaits them, they will live long in our memories, the sort of team we will still be discussing in 20 years’ time.
It seems an appropriate time to ponder this question, for there is the distinct feeling, having watched them flop over the finish line against Roscommon and Cork, that this side’s All-Ireland window gets slightly closer to shutting with each of those riveting games.
Of course, they should have a strong team for many seasons to come. Many of their key men, such as Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor, are not even 25 years of age yet. But as a group there is the feeling that in even a season or two’s time they will be a very different entity.
Keith Higgins, to our mind their most heroic footballer, is headed closer to 30 and may be either at or just past his considerable peak.
Andy Moran and Alan Dillon do not bear the look of men who have too much more time on their side, and yet we saw how vital they are to this team when the pan was flashing against Roscommon. The identity of any worthy replacements is unclear, probably because they do not exist.
So while Mayo’s average age is probably not much greater than that of a Kerry team universally perceived as young, defeat on Sunday would feel like an ending of sorts, even though only four of the five years that James Horan said it would take to bring the team up to scratch have passed.
This time last year Mayo were obliterating Donegal and Tyrone. This year they give the impression of a side clinging on, winning through sheer cussedness rather than clear superiority.
This raises the very real possibility that they might not cope with the Kingdom. It is not hard to see Mayo dominating the physical exchanges but it is also easy to envisage Kerry rattling three goals and the green-and-red having to endure patronising comments about how they would have walked Sam at some point in the past two or three seasons, if only they could produce a player like James O’Donoghue.
There is, of course, more to it. Blunders such as Kevin Keane’s slip for Colm McFadden’s goal in 2012 and Robbie Hennelly’s poor judgement for Bernard Brogan’s first last year have been just as costly as any failure to inspire at the far end.
We have also heard from more than one quarter that the failure to coax Sam west has been down to a lack of tactical nous on Horan’s part.
This argument runs that if he protected his full-back line better, if he was savvy to the sweeper like Jim McGuinness or Pat Gilroy, the accidents mentioned above would have been avoided and his players would be made men rather than nearly men.
Again, we suspect it is not that simple. Extra men back is not necessarily insurance against unforced individual errors, and would also dilute the pressing game that has been such a rich source of scores for the westerners.
And Horan must ponder why he is perceived by some as a tactical novice compared to McGuinness, as if it was not Mayo who ran a cricket score past Donegal last year.
It is possible that a major factor in the whole journey has been that Mayo have had little luck apart from the bad kind. First there is the obvious misfortune to run into a Donegal team possessed and then, just when Mayo came back stronger, what is shaping up to be a Dublin team for the ages.
Dublin might have been the better team by the end last year but if you watch the game back, as we did last week, it is hard not to feel that that was Mayo’s time, particularly when they led so convincingly early on.
It might turn out, even if they win on Sunday, to have been their best chance, for it is hard to see them toppling a Dublin team that looks incapable of being as unsure of itself as it was last September.
If it is to end for this group, it will be a sad turn, for there is much to admire about them, and they deserve more than to be the punchline of jokes by gobshites who don’t stop to think that it takes something special to get to finals in the first place.
The same people give more respect and a far easier ride to counties that haven’t darkened the door of two All-Ireland finals in the past 10 years, never mind in 24 months.
With that in mind, even if it is hard to back them with great conviction, it would be great to see Mayo have another crack at it. If for no better reason than that alone, we are inclined to focus on the better parts of their play this season, the spirit and doggedness that has carried them this far.
Celtic crosses or not, they are a team of great courage, and that might be enough for this second-to-last hurdle. Mayo to win.