I got a bit bogged down last night on the detail of the match leaving me with no time to put down in words anything that might, if one were to get pretentious about it, be described as analytical. So, here goes.
In broad terms, I thought it was a solid, committed night’s work on an ugly old evening where the wind and rain meant that the playing conditions were far from ideal. Regardless of the mistakes that were made – and there were more than a few of those – I was impressed at the work rate the lads displayed and the fact that we kept plugging away right up to the final whistle.
We also played a lot of good football, as we did against Donegal, and – as BJ said in the interview he did with NewsTalk that I heard on the way to the game – I think it’s fair to say that we’re playing better football so far this year than we are at this stage last year. Then, we managed to scramble a number of scrappy wins but all this did for us was to mask problems in the side that needed to be addressed, with the result that our settled league team ended up being pulled apart, first on the sideline and then, eventually, on the pitch at both Pearse Stadium and Celtic Park. This year, we don’t have the comfort blanket of a strong league position but I think we’re learning far more about the capabilities of the squad that we have.
After the Donegal game, I opened with negatives so this time it’s only right to start with the good points about last night’s performance. First up in this respect would be what I said above about the overall performance and the excellent attitude shown. I don’t think our precarious league position is weighing down on the lads – like the rest of us, I don’t think they’re all that bothered about how the league pans out – but that doesn’t mean that they’re not trying. Far from it – they’re all putting in the work but you get the sense that they’re already looking ahead to June.
In terms of who did what, Austie obviously deserves the limelight, with his four excellent points from play making it his best performance in a Mayo jersey for a long time. I’d prefer to see him operating closer to the opposition’s posts – his points showed what he can do when he gets the ball in that part of the world – as he’s far less effective when he roams deep.
Andy Moran also had some good moments, especially in the opening 20 minutes when he took his marker to the proverbial cleaners. He also made and then converted the penalty we got in the second half and that goal was crucial to securing the draw. But he didn’t raise any white flags and, as half of a two-man full-forward line, you’d really be expecting him to do so.
Peadar Gardiner did trouble the umpires, with a point from play in either half, and I felt he played much better than the last day in Castlebar. He was full of all his old running and you could easily imagine him wearing the same jersey come Summer.
It was also good to see Killer make up for the poor second half he’d put in against Donegal by getting well stuck in when he replaced Mickey Mullins at half-time last night. He got a point himself and, with a surging run from midfield, he set up another for Trevor Mortimor. He did enough to repair the damage to his reputation arising from the previous outing.
Alan Dillon also did well for the twenty minutes he was on. Dillon can be notorious for blowing hot and cold but when he’s on his game, and he was last night, he can be a real handful for the opposition. I’ve no doubt but that had he stayed on and continued to play like he did in that opening period, we’d have won with a bit to spare.
We had fewer stars at the back but David Clarke, Keith Higgins and, in particular, Trevor Howley all deserve a mention. Clarkie was rock solid between the posts and made two crucial saves early in the second half when Laois were bombarding us, trying to get a second goal to break our resolve. The second block he made, from Quigley, probably kept us in the game at that point.
Keith was excellent again, appearing everywhere in defence and joining the attack when the opportunity arose. He did commit the foul on Quigley from which Laois got the final equalising point but his overall performance was impressive.
However, our best defender – especially in the second half – was Trevor Howley. Time and again, he came to collect crucial intercept ball and break up Laois attacks, moving the ball swiftly forward. He was an absolute rock at centre-back in that second half and, as a result, laid serious claims to the no.6 jersey for the Summer.
So, plenty to enthuse about but, of course, it wasn’t all good. Our full-back line was as bad as the last day, with Liam O’Malley’s consistently poor showings in the corner now a serious cause for concern. He seems either unwilling or unable to mark his man and his looseness so close to our goal makes it easy for whoever is on him to make hay. We really have to start looking at other options in that corner at this point.
Tom Cunniffe had another shaky start but, unlike the previous day, he stayed on and he improved as the evening progressed. He’s a young player, still adapting to senior level and has the skill to succeed in this position but with O’Malley so suspect in the other corner and BJ (who I’ll come to in a minute) a square peg in a round hole at no. 3, any slip by Cunniffe is going to get noticed.
BJ had a tough time with Quigley, which wasn’t surprising given the height advantage the Laois full-forward enjoyed, an advantage that Laois did everything they could to capitalise on by their Route One tactics. BJ actually did okay until Quigley got his goal but, as the Belmullet man himself pointed out in his interview with the Times in midweek, any slip he made would be costly.
I have a huge amount of time for BJ – a hard-working and committed player, whose versatility is almost a curse to him – but a full-back he clearly isn’t. Brendan Quigley proved the point last night and if Johnno leaves him there for the next match, Kieran Donaghy will surely confirm the fact emphatically. I still think BJ has a role to play, but I’d now put him at corner-back instead of O’Malley (another change of position for him but, at this stage, what’s another one?) and try someone else at no.3. That young Kieran Conroy looked alright in the ten or so minutes he played there last night but it would be a baptism of fire to let Donaghy loose on him. Do we have any better option right now? I’m not sure we do.
Elsewhere, midfield was poor, with Heaney and Gill totally at sea against the high-fielding Padraig Clancy. Heaney did get through an amount of work in his own half in the second period, while Ronan McGarritty, although patently unfit, curbed Clancy’s aerial dominance after he came on late in the first half. Gill was a disappointment, especially after his sparkling performance the previous day. He got a delicious point in the first half with the outside of his boot (he hit it so smartly that the ball was already in flight by the time I got the camera rolling) but drifted out of it after that.
Our use of the ball moving forward was also poor enough, especially in the second half where most of that ball won by Howley at the back was pumped in high to our small full-forward line. We wasted numerous chances with this aimless tactic at a stage in the game when we could have been asking some serious questions about the opposition’s appetite for the fight.
In summary then, we mixed the good with the bad. Our lack of presence at midfield is bordering on alarming but Ronan will get fit again and the likes of Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons (both, somewhat oddly, left on the bench all night) have what it takes to make a difference in this sector. What’s going on in the full-back line simply isn’t funny anymore: changes have to be made and they have to be made now. There’s nothing to be gained from letting the Kerry full-forward line having the same kind of sport with them as that enjoyed by Laois last night.
Today’s results leave us outside the relegation zone on scoring difference but, having thrown away two points against Donegal and having now dropped another one last night, we’ll need to win at least two of our final four games to have any chance of staying up. I’m not sure we’ll manage this but if, in the process, we make every effort to fix the elements that aren’t currently working while performing in the same wholehearted way as we’ve done in our opening three league fixtures, the campaign won’t have been a failure. As we know to our cost from last year, such assessments can only validly be made far later in the year.