So, we’ve played three rounds of League games and it’s as case of so far, so good for James Horan’s second stint in charge. We’ve won all three games, we lead the Division One table, we’re level on points at the top with Kerry but ahead of them on points difference, as we’ve made our best start to a League campaign since 2006.
It’s fair to say we didn’t expect this. The widespread belief before the League began was that, once again, we’d be battling against relegation. We certainly didn’t think we’d be top of the table after three rounds of games so we’ve every reason to feel pleased about how we’ve done to date.
The three games played so far have given us a mixture of positives as well as a few negatives. As you’d expect, three wins from three mean there are more of the former than the latter at this early stage in the year.
On the positive side, the obvious first point to make is that we’ve discovered the happy knack of winning matches in the League. We’ve more points on the board already this year after three games than we garnered from all seven NFL outings in 2018. We’re starting to get used to winning League matches for a change.
The victory up in Omagh – especially the manner of that win – was a pleasant surprise. It’s surely of greater satisfaction, though, that, after a truly abysmal run, we’ve started to rack up wins once again at MacHale Park. It’s far from a fortress for us yet and the heavy sod combined with the tight confines make it a pitch on which we struggle to perform well regardless of who we’re facing. It’s encouraging nonetheless that we’ve begun to rediscover how to win there.
The way James has been able to blood so many new players – with seven lads having made full League debuts so far – and the encouraging performances put in by all the debutants, in particular Michael Plunkett, Fionn McDonagh and Brian Reape, also augurs well for us.
This isn’t just experimentation for the sake of it either. The new lads have been introduced alongside a solid core of experienced players, whose own early season form has been good. The mix has, so far at least worked well.
The injection of new talent has certainly deepened the playing panel and it has given us different options all over the field. It’s still very early days, though, for the new lads who, in truth, are only starting to bed in. We can’t be certain how many of them – if any – will be pushing hard for a place on the first fifteen come summer. The early signs are, however, good.
In his Mayo News column this week Billy Joe Padden used the term ‘Horanball’ to describe how we’ve been playing so far this year. James has always put an emphasis on high workrate, skill execution and, yes, results. If this is ‘Horanball’ then we’ve seen at least some evidence of it already in the three games we’ve played.
I’ve always felt that James’ second coming was never going to be about reassembling all the players he’d managed before. We’re already seeing his appetite to use exciting raw talent but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for a revival of some of the traits we saw in the 2011 to 2014 era.
For me, the most visible sign of this retro style has been the way Aidan O’Shea and Donal Vaughan are being deployed. Aidan isn’t – despite what some pundits might tell you – operating as a conventional no.11. Instead he’s dropping deeper and working hard to hold up opposition attacks and force turnovers. Once he does this, he’s moving the ball on rapidly. To me, this reminds me of the deep-lying role he played so effectively for us back in 2012/3.
Donie never, it’s true, operated as an out-and-out midfielder in James’ previous tenure. But he did frequently barrel forward, chest out, giving and going, a vital link in the middle third. It’s a part he appears to be reprising with effect once more.
But, of course, what we’ve seen so far this year isn’t all positive. Wins so often gloss over the things a team doesn’t do so well. James was surely aware of this after the Cavan game, when he said that, despite the victory, we’d done “a lot of daft things.”
I’ve no wish to stoke the goalkeeping debate but, on the evidence of the three games we’ve played so far, it’s clearly a discussion that remains open. Is Robbie too scarred from big day mishaps to be a realistic Croke Park option for us should we find ourselves back there? Can David Clarke sort his restarts so that he’s giving his men a better than 50:50 chance of claiming possession from his kickouts?
I don’t know what the answer is to this conundrum. But I do know it’s one that James Horan and his backroom team need to sort ahead of the summer.
Midfield is also a bit of a concern. While both Donie and Diarmuid are going well, primary ball winning isn’t their strongest suit. Aidan can, of course, field with the best of them his lack of mobility means there’s only so much he can do, though his presence there does certainly help.
It was, then, good to see Mattie Ruane getting a run there the last night but, of course, it’s way too soon yet to judge whether or not he’s ready this year for a summer in the engine room. There’s surely still a role for Seamus O’Shea as well so maybe how he and Mattie share that job between them could be key. It’s certainly an area that needs further work.
Of course, our restart strategy is relevant here too. The range of kickouts we use impacts directly on the ball-winning load the middle third will be expected to carry. That in turn brings in the winning of breaking ball and who is best placed to contribute there. Happily, we’re far from bereft of options in that regard.
Free-taking is another issue we need to sort conclusively before the summer. Once he returns to the fray, Cillian will, once again, be our go-to man in that department.
While he’s still a very good man to have on placed balls, Cillian is no longer the best in the game. Coming up against the likes of Dublin – for whom Rock rarely misses – and Kerry, where young Seán O’Shea is popping over frees for fun, we need to be nailing every opportunity we get in this area.
So we’ve some things we can be happy about, with other aspects still a work in progress. That’s not surprising – it is only the middle of February, after all.
What’s good is that the three wins we’ve got so far in this League don’t appear to have given us any inflated notions about our standing in the world. It’s widely accepted by supporters that these wins came against the easiest opposition – admittedly, there’s some after-the-fact reasoning about the Tyrone win but anyone who was in Omagh will readily admit that they were pretty awful that day – and that far harder assignments now face us.
The next three games are all huge for us. While we’ve given Dublin the biggest tests they’ve faced in the Gavin era, we’ve never beaten them, not once. You have to go back as far as 2012 – yes, back to the Horan Mk I period – for our last win over them. Kerry, by contrast, have got the better of Dublin in the League twice in the last three years, including in the Division One final in 2017.
So the Dublin game is a big one for us. So too, however, is the match against Galway a week later. Back on our stodgy, suffocating home ground, we’ll be up against a team that has really got under our skin in recent years, one we haven’t beaten in League or Championship since 2015. Yes, that one will also be a big test for us.
Then it’s Kerry, arguably – in light of their win over Dublin the last night – the form team of the League so far, down in Tralee the night before St Patrick’s Day. That one, though, is sufficiently far away to park for now. In any event, how we get on in the intervening two matches – and how they do in the meantime as well – will largely dictate how we’re feeling about ourselves as we point ourselves towards Tralee.
The bottom line, then, is that, while we’ve made a good start to 2019, James Horan’s charges have yet to face their first proper challenges of the year. How his team fare out in those will tell us a lot about how we really are shaping up. These upcoming tests will also give us at least some indication of what we should realistically be expecting from the team this year.