It’s Thursday already and so the time is ticking down rapidly to our next all-or-nothing championship clash of the summer. Having gone the qualifier route last year, this glut of games shouldn’t really be a shock but, compared to the gentle schedule involved when going through the front door, it does take a bit of getting used to, even second time around.
Last year the two matches at home got us back into our stride nicely following the unexpected Connacht semi-final loss to Galway. The Kildare match, in particular, provided us with great momentum before we headed to Croke Park for Round 4. This year, HQ won’t be available to host the Round 4 games but, more pertinently, it’s Round 3A we need to be focusing exclusively on now because if we don’t get the required result on Saturday that’s our championship race run for this year.
Clare are more dangerous opponents for us than Derry were and having to play them on their home patch – the first time we’ve played at the opposition’s home ground in the qualifiers since Longford in 2010 and only the second time we’ve ever had to do this – increases the existential threat to us still further. That said, Cusack Park in Ennis is a ground that holds happy memories for our U21 players of 2006 and 2016 as well as the many supporters who were there to see those All-Irelands won at the venue.
There’s a good chance it’ll feel homely enough for our lads too on Saturday. This piece in the Mayo News (which is worth a shifty, by the way, as it contains plenty of practical info about Saturday’s game, relating to parking and what-not) quotes an official estimate of 8,000 supporters from the county making the trip to Ennis. We’ll be the like the Dubs soon, shouting loudly about going on away days to exotic locations.
As we know from last year, if you get a run the qualifiers it can prove to be a place to find out what works with the team. The readjustments made don’t need to be enormous – either in personnel or in playing style – but small tweaks can have big effects.
The main changes we made going the back door last year were replacing Robbie Hennelly with David Clarke (though let’s not reopen that whole debate again), re-integrating Seamus O’Shea – who’d been injured for the London game and only came on as a sub against Galway – back into the engine room and starting Andy Moran, until then largely a bit-part player in 2016, in the forwards.
Last year’s run wasn’t exactly without its issues and we struggled to maintain consistent form from one round to the next. But the changes we made – which later included going with a ‘false’ 3 and Kevin McLoughlin as sweeper – by and large worked. By the time we finally made it to the decider we were once again an extremely formidable outfit.
I’m not going to attempt to pick the team here or second-guess what Stephen and his selectors should do. I do think, though, that the form showed by a number of lads the last day needs to be recognised in terms of the team we pick to play Clare. Sure, we have to think about the whole 70+ minutes and making sure that we’re as strong at the end as we are at the start. I don’t accept, however, that we should be slaves to this kind of thinking either.
There’s a lot to be said for picking a team that has the capability to take this match by the throat and end it as a contest as rapidly and as painlessly as possible. One of the most frustrating aspects of our playing style right now is how long it takes us to impose our will in games. A Mayo GAA legend (in deference to whom I’m not going to name) summed up for me in a single word after the Derry game the essence of our current approach. Tentative.
He’s right, we’re too cautious, too hesitating in how we go about our business. There’s too much safety first, which starts with kick-outs to the corner-back position and then a slow, laboured build-up followed by low percentage kicked passes into the often double-teamed Andy inside.
This approach saw us give Sligo – who admittedly played an ultra-defensive game against us for the most part – way too much respect and it also meant that we diced far closer to death with Derry than we needed to. It was patently clear that we had the players to beat the Oakleafers the last day and when we eventually went for them bald-headed (our risible shooting notwithstanding) they had no answers.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to see us imposing our will on the game from the start on Saturday. With Aidan and Tom in the middle – perhaps aided and abetted by Donie and Stephen too – we should have more faith, Gary Brennan or not Gary Brennan, to put a bit more air in our re-starts and provide the platform for more devastating bursts into their danger zone.
I’d also like to see us with more shooters on the pitch from the off. Whether this is Conor or Jason or Diarmuid or Evan I’m not too bothered but we definitely need four scoring forwards on the pitch from the start and we need to get ball into them far faster than we’ve been doing so far this year.
Taking the game to the home team with a sense of purpose would also ensure we hit them in an area where they’ve proved themselves to be strong this year. Against Limerick, Kerry and last week against Laois, the Banner lads were out of the traps fast – they were 1-4 to 0-2 up on Kerry playing into the wind after 18 minutes – and a sure-fire way for us to ensure that this becomes a real battle would be to let them get a run on us early on. Instead, I’d love to see us take the game to them, build up an early lead and really ask questions of them.
Needless to say, this is a huge game for both counties. That’s the way it is when it’s knockout football. We’ve obvious ambitions to make it back to where we feel we belong, while Clare will have the same aim, perhaps hoping that, like Tipp last year, they’ll get paired in the quarters with a Galway team feeling a mite too self-satisfied about itself.
But while the road to Croke Park will begin to open up for whichever of us emerges victorious on Saturday evening, lofty thoughts about showcasing our respective talents at HQ a bit later in the summer have no place in the scheme of things now. Saturday’s contest is, for both counties, an elemental them-or-us battle for survival.
We’re favourites to win – of course we are, just look at the two counties’ contrasting records in recent years. But, as the saying goes, past performance is no guarantee of future returns and so while we deserve to go into this game as the team fancied by the bookies to advance, this will mean nothing once the ball is thrown in by ref Seán Hurson at 5pm on Saturday evening.
For what it’s worth, I’m confident we’ll do it but, for the reasons outlined here, I’m concerned that our style of play will make that job harder than it needs to be. Although I know that our buccaneering, all-action style of the Horan years is now, sadly, consigned to history, what I’d love to see from the team on Saturday is a more positive, daring approach, one aimed at seizing control of the game right from the throw-in.
If we can do that, victory will surely follow. Added to this, a win achieved in that fashion would also inject some serious momentum into this championship campaign for us, proving as it would that there’s life in this old dog yet.