There are better things in the world to be doing than sitting here writing about a Mayo defeat. But, then again, there are worse things. Such as The Voice of Ireland. So here goes with a few short thoughts.
Like the rest of you, I’m disappointed and more than a bit despondent at the outcome of today’s game and with many aspects of our performance against Derry at Croke Park today. We played in a disjointed, incoherent kind of way, much of what we did – especially after we crossed half-way – was painfully laboured and our defensive shortcomings were all too apparent (albeit explained, at least in part, from the absence of first team players for the second half). And we had another bad day on the sideline, epitomised by the utterly pointless move of pitching Richie Feeney into the action with a minute left on the clock, by which time it was already clear that we were beaten. So, all told, it wasn’t a good day at HQ for us.
It was, too, the first time under James Horan that we’d gone under to a side we were fancied to beat in a match at Croke Park. In fact, you have to go back to the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Meath in 2009 for a similar reversal. Today’s defeat bore some similarities to that one – in that this was was also eminently winnable and that we conceded goals at precisely the wrong time – but I’d give Derry more credit for today’s win, which they dug out with fourteen men and a great, never-say-die attitude.
The other difference between those two games is, of course, that that one was a championship match whereas this was, at the end of the day, no more than a League game. While it would have been great to win today, and even better had we gone on to win the League, losing at this juncture in this competition can’t ever be seen as a very big deal. We were fairly abject in how we went under so tamely to Dublin in last year’s League semi-final but I don’t think that defeat had any impact on our championship campaign. Maybe – though I’m not entirely convinced that this is so – it’ll be the same this year.
I’m not going to get into a blow-by-blow account of today’s match here. If you were there or watched it on TV or followed it on the radio or online you’ll know how it went. In short, we were going well twice but on both occasions conceded embarrassingly soft goals to let Derry back into it. Coming down the closing stretch, we lost all composure while the hard-working Oakleafers grew in strength and belief, shooting three magnificent points from play to seal a well-deserved win.
A few things from this match, and the wider League campaign, are worthy of a mention, though. The first relates to how our backline – the bedrock of our re-emergence under James Horan – has proved so creaky this year. I don’t think this is just down to whether or not Keith Higgins (never the tightest man-marking corner-back when he was at 4, let it be said) plays there but rather it points to a complete failure on our part to find a way to defend under the black card rule. This year we’re letting teams saunter right through our backline and our alarming goals-against tally proves that we’ve got more problems than most in finding a way to defend effectively under the new rules. Unless we fix this problem, and soon, it’s difficult to see us competing where it really counts this year.
Secondly, what has happened to our version of the choke tackle? Last year and the year before, we were excellent at defending high up the field and great at turning over ball all over the place. I know that this kind of high-intensity game is something that really came to the fore in 2012 and 2013 when the serious action started but it’s like we’ve forgotten this crucial piece in our armoury. Hopefully, the summer campaign will see this deployed in earnest again.
Next, it’s unavoidably the case that we’re just not capable of getting scores from our forward line in the assured way that other leading counties so clearly are. Today kinda summed that up – Derry effectively won the match with three high-quality long-range strikes but before this scoring burst, in an eight-minute spell in the final quarter, we kicked four wides from scoreable positions, two of which were of the horrendous variety. I know this is out of the if-your-aunt-had-balls-she’d-be-your-uncle type of analysis but had at least two of those misses been points, I doubt we’d be licking our wounds right now.
Finally, it’s inevitable that talk will turn to possible burnout and the accumulated psychological damage wrought by those two All-Ireland final defeats. It’s very hard to know if this is a factor, either to a significant degree or at all, but I’ve always felt that this year we need to hold off on any judgment about how we’re shaping up until the August Bank Holiday weekend. I still believe this to be the case.
What we need to do now is assimilate all that needs to be learned from this up-and-down League campaign and get ourselves organised in a way that ensures we’re still in the hunt then. All manner of other talk – both of the frothy Mayo 4 Sam nonsense as well as pointless doom-laden predictions of failure and long-term decline – is simply irrelevant at this stage as our focus shifts once more towards getting back to the business end of the championship.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Brendan Harrison, Ger Cafferkey, Shane McHale; Lee Keegan (0-1), Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan; Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Jason Gibbons (0-1); Keith Higgins (0-1), Andy Moran (1-0), Jason Doherty (0-2); Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Freeman (0-5, four frees and a ’45), Mikie Sweeney (0-2). Subs: Kevin Keane for Cafferkey, Enda Varley (0-1) for McLoughlin, Tom Parsons for Higgins, Seamus O’Shea for Gibbons, Richie Feeney for Doherty.