I was a little later than usual getting to work in Dublin city centre on Monday morning. As a result, I listened to the stoic and lifeless radio broadcast that was the Round 3 qualifier draw on my Luas commute. A few obligatory quiet Sunday evening pints were had the night before which made it a tad more difficult to rise from my slumber.
I wasn’t long wakening up.
First out of the hat…….Mayo.
Home advantage at least, I thought immediately – well actually maybe not advantage the way things have been going lately! I could sense the stares of my two fellow commuters sitting opposite me. It probably wasn’t helping that I was mouthing the words “Offaly, Offaly, Offaly” over and over again to myself for about 5 seconds.
And Mayo will play………
Nope. Not my lucky day. Bloody Armagh! That is a potential banana skin if ever there was one. Or perhaps orange skin in this instance if the metaphor has the same effect. Damn you Seán Cavanagh. You can forget about Seán Cavanagh as far as he’s a man I thought.
I listened dutifully to the rest of the draw and forgave Seán a bit when he pulled out a tricky away tie to Newbridge for his own county. I turned off when John Horan, the President of the GAA (yes the whole GAA, John, not just Dublin) started to ramble on about how fourteen Leinster titles in fifteen years was in no way linked to the funding that the county receives. Try to remember John, (or at least have the decency to pretend in public) that you’re the President of the GAA as a whole and not just Dublin.
So it is Mayo against the Orchardmen on Saturday evening in Castlebar. Admittedly, I think we all would have taken a handier draw. Armagh are not a side to be feared but there remains a vulnerability about Mayo at the moment. These qualifier games are just about getting through to the other side – a means to an end in reaching the Super 8s. There will be plenty of time for testing ourselves against high quality opposition at that stage. Still, it is what it is and we will need to be at our best this weekend. Improvement from the showings to date will be needed.
Those Sunday evening pints were a necessity in my journalistic endeavours for the week ahead. Aided and abetted by a dedicate Mayoman, we dissected Saturday night’s events in Newry, predicted (wrongly!) the Round 3 qualifier draw and to try and answer (again!) the all too often pondered question – “So, where are we at now”? The answer is: none the clearer.
First off, Mayo were decent on Saturday evening – no more than decent I would say, but no less either. In many ways, it was a similar game to the Roscommon fixture four weeks ago. However, on this occasion, Down were more wasteful and inefficient in front of goal than Roscommon were. In contrast, Mayo were slightly more patient and much more accurate than in their Connaught semi-final defeat. There was a control to Mayo’s performance in the first half that unfortunately went missing for longer periods in the second.
Still, there were plenty of positives. I’m trying to be less pessimistic in life as a rule; we will see how long this lasts. Aidan O’Shea was excellent throughout. He continued his irrepressible form and some of his fellow elder statesmen of the last decade also followed suit by putting in impressive performances. Lee Keegan looked back to his rampaging best, finishing the game with three points from play and David Clarke provided an assuredness that settled an at times nervous defence. I had been of the view that Hennelly should be retained but have no gripes about Horan’s call whatsoever. Clarke has earned the right to retain the jersey next day out too.
Brendan Harrison put in a much more solid performance too at full-back and overall, probably edged his dual with his namesake Connaire Harrison. Of most encouragement for me was the performance of Conor Loftus. He was predominantly accurate from frees and looked more comfortable in the centre forward role with more of the play in front of him. Loftus is a classy footballer but not the paciest and therefore thrived with a bit more open space around him, rather than being confined to the full-forward line. Fionn McDonagh’s championship debut provided cause for optimism too. Mayo’s forward line needs the impetus of youth.
Disappointingly, at times we made a rather average Division Three side look much better than they actually were. As I have written previously, we afford every opponent a chance and allow them to believe they can beat Mayo. Saturday night was no different. Mayo do not put teams to the sword in the robotic and efficient way that Dublin do.
For Down’s goal, it was like the parting of the Red Sea by Mayo. Moses and the Israelites had a more difficult passage than Caolan Mooney did in Páirc Esler. It was unforgivable that Down’s noted danger man Mooney was allowed to slalom through the middle of the Mayo defence without a glove being laid on him. Colm Boyle was selected in a sweeping role presumably to provide protection to the full-back line but the Mayo defence looked suspect every time Down ran through the middle. Mooney should have repeated the trick in the second half only to blaze his shot over the crossbar. Clarke, too on a separate occasion was forced into an excellent save in the second half. All in all, none of my fears concerning the porous nature of the Mayo defence were allayed in Newry.
The loss of form of a few of our key players too is worrying. Quite simply, stalwarts such as Keith Higgins, Jason Doherty and Kevin McLoughlin are not at the top of their game at the minute. Diarmuid O’Connor is just not quite himself either.
Management too were slow to make changes on Saturday night and some of the lessons from the Roscommon game were not learned. By the 62nd minute, James Horan had only introduced two substitutes. Boland had replaced Doherty in the 53rd minute and a forced change was imposed on Mayo early in the first half when the black card shown to Darren Coen brought Evan Regan into the fray. One of the main findings from our National League success, or so I thought, was that we finally had some squad depth rather than just a strong first fifteen. It’s time for the men on the line to be more ruthless and make changes based on performances out on the pitch.
My own personal bugbear is our inability to control and shut down games that we should win comfortably. The last championship game I can remember Mayo winning with ease was the All Ireland quarter-final against the Rossies in 2017. And even that was a replay! When Loftus goaled, we had a six-point lead against inferior opposition. It was time to put the tie to bed and have a calm, composed final twenty minutes. It was time for patience and possession. Except that’s not the Mayo way.
Down never truly believed they could win the game but we gave them every opportunity to start thinking they could. Our first half display, despite the concession of a terrible goal, was much better than the second half. In the first half, we were patient, retained possession, picked our moments to attack and took some nice points. For some reason the second half turned into an end-to-end scramble that we just didn’t need to engage in. There was far too much goalmouth action at the wrong end of the pitch for my liking. Nevertheless, in the end we ran out deserved winners in a tricky away venue and live to fight another day.
That day is Saturday and Armagh will be a step up in class of Ulster opponent. However, whilst Armagh will be a better calibre of opposition, the step up is not seismic. Armagh will doubtlessly be imbued with confidence following their defeat of Ulster neighbours Monaghan. Kieran McGeeney’s charges are playing an exciting attacking brand and have two or three forwards that would certainly make the Mayo starting six. Jamie Clarke and Rian O’Neill will warrant special attention from the Mayo full-back line and it will be interesting to see how Horan goes about his match-ups. If our defensive side of the game, both individually and as a collective, is not significantly improved, an upset could be on the cards in MacHale Park.
Yet for all the attacking prowess Armagh possess, their defence has proven to be their Achilles’ heel. This gives me the hope and confidence of a Mayo victory. Cavan scored twenty-three points in their Ulster semi-final victory and in four championship games to date, Armagh have conceded an average of nineteen points per game (extra-time against Down included). Mayo should and must exploit these deficiencies.
The absence of Matthew Ruane for the remainder of the championship is a huge blow but the Mayo midfield remains a source of strength. Jarlath Óg Burns looks a fine talent but I would still expect O’Shea to dominate aerially and if Diarmuid O’Connor can find his running game again, then this should give Mayo the platform they need for victory.
At this juncture, it is hard to make the case for All-Ireland success in September. Dublin look formidable. Donegal look more complete than Mayo right now. No other team have made a statement of intent. However, the good news is that it’s not September yet. Mayo do not need to be good enough to beat the Dubs right now. We need to do enough to beat Armagh and just stay in the reckoning. I firmly believe Mayo remain the most capable team to stop the ‘drive for five’. Plenty of hurdles lie in wait before then. Let’s get over Saturday night first.