I humbly returned to Dublin on the Sunday evening after the Roscommon game with my 8 year-old son. He has been dyed and donned in the Green and Red since birth despite our Dublin 15 postcode.
I felt it my duty to fight the good fight against the sky blue epidemic that has swept the capital this past decade. He had been quite the good luck charm for Mayo actually, with a championship win-to-loss ratio higher than the average Mayo fan.
The qualifier runs of 2016 and 2017 greatly helped that win percentage and he has so far escaped the ignominy of being in attendance at the subsequent All-Ireland final defeats. Dick Clerkin will be pleased with my parenting! An 8 year-old has no business at an All-Ireland final. Sorry Dick, to be honest I actually just couldn’t find him a ticket!
On my drive back east, my initial and predominant thought was simple – the Rossies. Not the bloody Rossies! That eejit in work will be insufferable tomorrow.
However, I began to analyse the game in a bit more depth and was able to take stock with a bit more clarity. My mood improved greatly as I listened to Radio 1 on Monday morning. Little did I know that the combination of self-righteousness, a deluded politician’s ego and live radio was the perfect recipe to cheer even the most downhearted Mayo fan. Thank you Maria Bailey – you truly are the gift that keeps on giving!
Unfortunately, good luck charm in tow or not, it wasn’t enough for us, and a ticket scramble in August and September for Mayo fans seems highly improbable to ensue at this stage. Mayo are currently fifth favourites with most bookmakers for the All-Ireland. It is hard to argue with our place in the betting as a long qualifier road and some potentially tricky opponents lie ahead.
Prior to the game, there was a sense of optimism surrounding Mayo football, predominantly arising from the return of James Horan. It was felt by many, myself included, that Mayo needed to go the direct route this year and Horan was in the business of delivering Connaught titles.
Such optimism was emboldened further by National League success less than two months ago. The general consensus was that we had finally found some squad depth to assist the old warriors with miles on the clock. Players like Carr, Coen, McDonagh, Ruane, Plunkett and Treacy proved to be revelations during the spring.
In recent years, we had relied heavily on the same sixteen or seventeen players. Unlike Dublin, we lacked the luxury of being able to replace quality with quality in the final quarter which proved our downfall in the 2017 final in particular. Now there was real competition for places and even making the match day squad was no longer a formality.
Whilst not trying to diminish Roscommon’s victory, a win of which they were worthy, I would not necessarily infer from the result that they were the better team. Roscommon were organised, well-managed and efficient. Make no mistake about it though – it was a game Mayo could and should have won.
The concession of two early goals immediately turned the tie into a contest. The routine six or seven point win Mayo supporters had hoped for was no longer on the table. Roscommon held an early lead and they now held belief.
The first goal saw Keith Higgins roasted for pace by Cathal Cregg. Higgins is a wonderful footballer on the front foot and also plays the sweeper role when used to great effect. What he is not – and I would argue never has been – is a tight and tenacious man marker. Once the Roscommon forward got a run on him, he was in trouble.
Mayo were far too open at the back. The whole full back line had half of MacHale Park to defend throughout the game. Plunkett or perhaps even Boyle should have been deployed in a deeper role to shield their colleagues a bit more, particularly in the early stages of the game.
Whilst the commitment to offensive football and constantly pushing up on the opposition is admirable, there needs to be a greater balance between attack and defence. In the League, our defensive vulnerability was highlighted against Dublin and Kerry in Croke Park with the concession of numerous goal chances being all too prevalent. Indeed the signs were there to a lesser extent against Galway and Monaghan in Castlebar. Scoring 0-17 may win most championship games. Conceding 2-12 most certainly will not.
The second goal conceded was a calamity. There is no point sugar coating it; Robbie Hennelly had a shocker of a game. His judgment in thinking the short kick-out was on was poor and his mistake unquestionably affected the rest of his performance. He was wayward with the long distance placed balls and every miss sapped the confidence from Mayo and buoyed Roscommon, both on and off the pitch.
However, notwithstanding that, I do agree with the selection of Hennelly over Clarke. In the modern game, a goalkeeper’s accuracy and ability on the restarts is the primary requisite. I concede that Clarke is better in the air and has a better focus but I would persist with Hennelly. However, he needs to eradicate these meltdown moments that can crop up once every too often. The rashness of youth is not an argument that can be made for him. Horan has a big decision to make on this front.
The most disappointing aspect of the Mayo performance in their Connaught semi-final was that our composure in front of the posts deserted us for large periods. Such profligacy ultimately cost us victory; fifteen wides are unforgivable at this level. These errant shots, coupled with dropping a couple of efforts short into Darren O’Malley’s hands, proved costly.
Of the seventeen points we did score, many were absolute peaches in difficult conditions. Coen, Regan, Boland, Durcan and Moran all kicked some beautiful scores, yet too many times our shot selection was poor. We lacked calmness when met with twelve or thirteen yellow and blue jerseys. This is not a new issue. Even against New York, Mayo kicked a plethora of wides and one would have hoped this had been worked on in the intervening weeks.
In the recent post-match podcast of this parish, the Mayo manager conceded that there were learnings to take from this game. However, I would argue that this team is on the road a number of years. This is a seasoned outfit with only two of last Saturday week’s starting fifteen embarking on their first championship campaign. It’s well past time these lessons were learned.
Horan will need to take a look at every facet of this loss, and he could well start with looking at his own performance on the line. Management were slow to make changes and in such an attritional game it is bizarre to think that we finished the game without using our full complement of substitutes.
Mayo were out-coached on the day with Roscommon having a clear and effective game plan with the resources they had at their disposal. The Mayo substitutes seemed almost pre-planned and O’Donoghue and Boyle must be scratching their heads as to why they weren’t utilised.
The debacle of the McLoughlin free at the death also calls into question the planning and decision-making on the sideline. At the top level, there should be a clear plan who is taking free kicks even if the regular free takers are substituted. It is clear from the farcical scenes involving McLoughlin, O’Connor and Loftus that no such strategy was in place. Again, these are lessons which must be learned from for the rest of the campaign.
In taking stock, we certainly haven’t become a bad team overnight. Mayo are still a Super-8-worthy side with talented footballers. We do, though, lack a killer instinct. In recent years, we have rarely put minnows to the sword in the way Dublin, Kerry or Tyrone do on a regular basis.
The ruthless drubbings of Connaught opposition of Horan’s first reign are but a distant memory now. Be it Fermanagh, Kildare, Derry, Cork, Clare, etc. we tend to allow almost every team an opportunity to beat us. We let the opposition into the game regardless of their quality, regardless of their place in the Gaelic football food chain.
This was elucidated all too starkly against Roscommon. We gave them an inch, followed quickly by a couple more feet; fair dues to them for taking their mile by the time David Gough’s final whistle pierced through MacHale Park.
That all said, Mayo also possess the capacity to put it up to any team as shown by our performances against the very top teams in the country on the biggest stage. One could argue we simply play to the level of the team we are playing.
Such an approach, however, means the qualifier route is fraught with danger. Our summer progression was curtailed last year by a Kildare team who had been relegated from Division 1 and knocked out of the Leinster Championship by Carlow. We can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.
As Willie Joe outlined in his post last week, the draw for Round 2 will be held next Monday morning and, unquestionably, Monaghan (should they overcome Fermanagh) are the team we most want to avoid. Potentially tricky ties to Down, Westmeath or Derry are possibilities also but if we can’t beat Division 3 and 4 opposition, then frankly we don’t deserve to progress in the competition. The Roscommon game was a defeat we did not want, nor need, but it is not one we can’t recover from.
There are plenty of positives to draw from. Mayo are National League champions, having defeated fellow All-Ireland contenders, Kerry in a final in Croke Park. This should still give this group of players and management confidence if we are to reach the latter stages of the All-Ireland series.
Mayo have an exceptional group of young players and a kind draw in the qualifiers may help ease them into championship action. Allied with youth, Mayo have plenty of experience on the big stage and this should stand to them in the big games.
Also, the much maligned Aidan O’Shea is arguably having his best season since 2013. The Breaffy powerhouse is getting through a mountain of dirty work in games, winning primary possession and playing a simple but effective game.
O’Shea is proving the perfect foil for club mate Matthew Ruane who has the ability to roam into more adventurous positions and take a score. More of the experienced players need to reach O’Shea’s levels of performance if 2019 is to be a successful year for the green and red.
Finally, the impending (please God!) return of Cillian O’Connor should provide a much needed boost to the team and supporters alike. Mayo’s all-time record scorer will add leadership on the pitch and composure to the full-forward line. Even if shy of full fitness, his free taking prowess alone is enough to merit selection next day out.
So all in all, there are reasons to be hopeful as we await word on our Round 2 qualifier opponents. I have every faith in Horan’s ability to instil confidence and belief in his players. With a few tweaks and a bit more defensive solidity, football in August is an achievable aim. We are bloodied but unbowed.
As the great American football coach, Vince Lombardi, once postured “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up”. There’s no other band of brothers I would trust more than these Mayo warriors to follow this mantra to the death.