Starting off the Spring Series of guest appearances here on the site, I’m delighted to welcome back Edwin McGreal who provides his thoughts on where we’re at following James Horan’s first league campaign at the helm, with thoughts now turning firmly towards the summer campaign.
‘We are where we are.’ A phrase that is fast becoming the cliche of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, used by people in business and politics alike with an air of resignation about our misfortune and almost an attempt to consign to history the mistakes of the recent past. You could well imagine too this phrase spouting from the mouth of a Fianna Fáil loyalist, attempting to only look to the present, not too far into the future and, most certainly, not at all to the past.
‘We are where we are’ has probably taken over from that horrible Celtic Tiger yuppie phrase, ‘going forward’. Thankfully the recession appears to have sidelined that particular phrase, every cloud and all that. But not long ago many spoke about their plans for the future – in business, in politics, in life and in sport – with the use of that horrible two-worder. To stand still was to go backwards, those ‘in the know’ told us. ‘Going forward’ plenty of people had plans but, sadly, too many of those plans were built on shaky foundations, allowed to be thus by regulators and financial institutions asleep at the wheel.
So people who were planning to thrive now must make do with mere surviving.
Mayo football shares too many similarities with the financial crash. Too often we get ahead of ourselves. We see some young footballer playing well in a solitary minor game and his stock soars like property in Dalkey at the height of the boom. Sadly, his real value might be more akin to a terraced house in Roscommon.
Too often we read too much into one result or series of results in spring. I’ve seen it lead to talk about booking the City West for September before the clocks have even gone forward. These days we see the funny side and joke that it would be stupid to book the City West this far off, sure the hotel might be closed by then.
A decent set of early results might force some of us to make a big investment in Mayo that year, only for our stock to fall in the summer like Lehman Brothers, propped up highly by speculation and hope and little in the way of concrete foundations to support our emotional investment.
I had a conversation once with a well-known Mayo GAA man, who shall remain nameless for reasons you’ll soon appreciate. It was the Monday after Mickey Moran’s first league game, a Saturday night victory over Kerry in Tralee in February, 2006. He was at it and told me that ‘this was going to be our year’. Of course, to the uninitiated, ‘our year’ coming from the mouth of a Mayo GAA fan means winning the All-Ireland. I got off the phone at The Mayo News and told my colleagues that we had seen our version of the first swallow of the summer – a Mayo fan predicting an All-Ireland win after one relatively insignificant February display.
Lo and behold, that September we were back in the All-Ireland final and I had to ring this man about another matter. I steered the conversation towards the upcoming game, ready to congratulate him on his perceptive call seven months earlier. But he got in before me with the immortal statement: ‘Do you know what, if anyone had told you last February that Mayo would be in an All-Ireland final, you’d have looked at them as if they were mad’. I think he had his own diagnosis down pat.
But that is often the way many of us have been. Giddy, unrealistic, full of hope. And there’s a certain joy in that journey too but, of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. We ought to be able to temper our expectations at this stage. Of course that doesn’t mean that we target merely staying in Division 1 of the league as a good year. But we don’t need to talk too much about ‘going forward’ too soon either. We are where we are and that currently is having posted a solid if not spectacular league performance which has allowed us to find out plenty about ourselves while plenty more will become apparent in the summer.
Any talk of Mayo in 2011 is backdropped against what happened last year. We had our own version of the financial meltdown in 2010. Getting to the league final, our share price ahead of championship soared. The league final hammering by Cork – described rightly by Cork goalkeeper Alan Quirke as not even as useful as one of their training games – was the first sign that all was not what we thought. And the bottom fell out of our share value after championship defeats to Sligo and Longford.
John O’Mahony had asked for Mayo supporters to inform themselves with a certain realism after the 2006 All-Ireland Final defeat. And many had. But no one was prepared for the humiliation of the consecutive defeats to Sligo and Longford and, more so, the shambolic displays, in Sligo especially. Our house of cards had come tumbling down and we nearly went into the NAMA of the GAA world.
It might have eased the pressure somewhat for the next man in except, of course, that there will always be a certain pressure for being in charge of the Mayo football team.
Many were willing to give James Horan the grace of the league campaign to see what he could discover along the way. There were no expectations or even no desire to be in a league final. For some, even relegation wouldn’t be a bad thing if lessons were learned along the way.
But for others the display against Dublin when we went fourteen points down in the first half meant panic stations. It wasn’t part of the plan and there were a few worrying issues arising from it but it was all part of the steep learning curve.
The 2011 League is now over and, in many ways, James Horan has made progress. League results were not the be all and end all. But he would have preferred not to be relegated, hardly a good start for a new man regardless of what the overall attitude to the league is. The stirring victory over Cork meant Mayo weren’t relegated. And, for Horan, that consolidation was achieved in conjunction with trying new players, trying different formations and systems. He got the balance right.
After the Cork game I spoke to Alan Freeman for an interview for The Mayo News. Among the things that stayed with me was where he spoke about how Horan didn’t want Mayo peaking in the league. Of course this is an obvious wish from a manager but it tallies with how Mayo have played this year, compared to last when we certainly did peak in spring. One gets the feeling that some hard work is going to start for Team Mayo on the training field between now and the London game and, if things go to plan in Ruislip, up to the Galway game in June.
Of course such a statement from Freeman about peaking later on means it is hard to know where Mayo are at just yet. League is league and championship is where it is at. We are where we are and the future is not certain, it can’t be.
But, at the end of the league, it is possible to assess how Mayo have been doing so far. They’ve been hot and cold, to be honest. Some of that is understandable when there are changes in personnel from game to game. But Horan will be worried about how Mayo played in the first half against Down and Armagh, in those horrible first twenty minutes against Dublin and in much of the game against Monaghan. The Ballintubber team he brought to Moclair Cup success last year was founded on workrate from 15 back to 1. He pointedly questioned the lack of same against both Dublin and Monaghan. That is a concern for him.
When Mayo have blown hot, they’ve looked like a serious inter-county side. See the second half against Down, the second and third quarters against Dublin and much of the Cork game, the third quarter especially. We do know though that reading too much into such patchy performances is fraught with peril. What Horan will hope for is a greater consistency of display. Obviously those spurts cannot be kept up over 70 minutes as most teams will enjoy periods of dominance. But the polarity of going from dominated to dominating and back again is a concern.
In terms of new players Horan certainly has cast a wide net and the competition for places has intensified, as can be evidenced by the quality of players Horan felt he was able to leave out of his championship squad last week.
New players to this year’s panel like Richie Feeney, Aidan Campbell, Jason Doherty, Cathal Hallinan, James Burke, James Kilcullen, Jason Gibbons, Lee Keegan Robbie Hennelly and Cillian O’Connor, among others, have all staked their claims. Alan Freeman, who impressed in his debut season last year, has continued from where he left off while Alan Feeney, a fringe panel player last year, is now in serious contention for the full-back jersey.
A few other things have worked. Horan has found that Aidan O’Shea’s best position is midfield, or, perhaps, in the half-forward line but certainly not at full-forward. Ger Cafferkey has looked decent at centre-half back, a spot that has been a problem position since James Nallen retired. Kevin McLoughlin showed in the Cork game that he has the brain and football ability to play as Mayo’s seventh defender, a system Horan seems likely to employ. But McLoughlin does need to bring consistency to the role.
Last week’s culling of five players – Aidan Kilcoyne, Tom Parsons, Barry Moran, Mark Ronaldson and Brian Benson – has created much debate. Can we afford to be without such talent, many ask. It is a fair question. The first four all played a decent bit of football in 2009 and, it ought to be said, all five still have plenty to contribute towards Mayo football.
But, leaving aside the individual merits of each of the five players, it does send out a message that past performance is no guarantee of keeping your spot. It will keep other established players on their guard and send out a message to younger players that they will be given their chance. That wasn’t always the case in times gone by.
It could be a decision that Horan will regret in time. It may turn out to be an inspired one. It is hard to tell from this juncture. We are where we are. The future is never certain but it looks brighter than the recent past.