Back to the drawing board?

I wrote the piece below for this week’s Mayo News (here) to provide an overview of what supporters were saying on the blog in the wake of Mayo’s defeat to Dublin.

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The mood among supporters following a Championship-exiting defeat is understandably downbeat. That’s true of those Mayo supporters who contribute to the debate on the Mayo GAA Blog where, in the days since the team lost out to Dublin in this year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, the analysis has been wide-ranging and at times rather unsparing.

The manner of the defeat invariably frames the post-game discussion.

If it’s a narrow loss then the focus tends to be outward, with the referee often the main object of ire for a crucial decision that had gone against us. If the beating is a bad one, though, as the Dublin one was, then the debate tends to turn inward, drilling deeply into our own failings.

A number of clear themes have emerged from the painful internal analysis that has taken place in the wake of the Dublin defeat.

Chief among these is our failure to implement on a consistent basis the kind of modern defensive structure that all of the other top teams have hard-wired into how they play. This was, in fairness, a consistent theme for supporters on the blog all year, as our pre-McStay propensity to concede goals more easily than others continued unabated under the new management team.  

While this failure to bolt the door at the back was a fear for fans all year, two further issues, as well as two overarching themes, came strongly to the fore following the defeats to Cork and Dublin. These all relate strongly to the manner of those two deflating losses.

The first of these is our perceived weaknesses around the middle of the field. No-one, least of all those contributing regularly to the debate on the blog, doubts the quality of the players we’re deploying in the middle eight. There’s a clear sense, however, that we’re not getting the best out of the available talent.

The second, which has been a feature all summer, is the lack of sufficient scoring power up top. Here again there’s no doubting the ability we have in our ranks but the manner in which the scores simply dried up for us as this Championship campaign developed – aside from down in Killarney, a performance that looks now like a complete outlier for us this summer – has been identified by supporters on the blog as a key failing for us this year.

Leavened on top of these specific issues are two broader concerns, which, under closer examination, appear to be two sides of the same coin.

One relates to our off-field efforts this year, focusing on our inability to get the most from the playing panel, while the other points to an absence of on-field leaders, in particular at crucial moments in the big games. The first points to a clear concern about how the team is being prepared for battle, the second about the players’ inability, individually and collectively, to surmount problems as they arise out on the field.

Mayo supporters are often criticised for getting over-excited when things go well and then being too downbeat when the wheels come off. That wasn’t, however, a trend I observed among those contributing to the blog this year, over the course of an inter-county season where Mayo both hit the heights and plumbed the depths.

In large part, fans chatting on the blog – some of whom had voiced support for one or other of the alternative management teams last year – were willing to row in behind Kevin McStay and his charges this year.

But Mayo supporters nowadays are reluctant to hop onto the bandwagon in the way so many of us so gleefully did in those heady days when it really did feel like we were all in it together. The 2021 final defeat – surely the worst one of the lot – jolted Mayo supporters badly and the scars from that one are still there.

Mayo fans nowadays need more convincing before they’ll make the same emotional investment in the county team. How we fared in 2023 didn’t ultimately convince many.      

The post-mortem since the Dublin debacle has left those contributing on the blog with the clear view that this year was a missed opportunity for us. As was the case in 2021 and again last year, there are no truly outstanding teams on the scene right now and so a team of our standing could and should have been in the mix this summer.

The fact that we ultimately weren’t points to the need for a different approach next year. For the blog’s contributors, this would need to encompass both a shake-up in playing personnel and changes within the backroom team, as well an altered playing approach. In other words, for many supporters it’s back to the drawing board in several respects as the focus starts to turn towards 2024.

25 thoughts on “Back to the drawing board?

  1. I can’t help feeling that we’re always playing catch-up, always a year or two behind. Chasing. I’m going to be ultra cynical here and say that even if we perfected a defensive structure next year the game would move on, oppositions would adapt, and different playing styles would be deployed. Maybe we’re too easily figured out and that’s why chaos suits us.

    If I’m being more positive, I’d look to 2016 when we DID employ a sweeper and overall it was a definite success. The two own-goals in the final were just batshit crazy. Extremely bad luck. So perhaps we’ve a tried and tested template there to draw on…

    But too often we’re full of bluster and excuses. And maybe the defensive excuse is overstated. Look at Monaghan and Derry at the weekend. How often did both teams pop that crucial ball over the top to a runner sprinting from the 40? How many goal chances did this create? Lots. How did they achieve this in Croker yet we couldn’t? I don’t have the expertise to know how, but it’s very obvious that this was a key difference.

    Tom Parson’s words circa 2017 always stuck in my mind, saying when that team went behind, even with a few minutes to go they always had the self belief that they’d get the scores to get over the line. Which they often did. Keeping working that ball. Then again, that was a different team back then, one that soldiered together through an altogether different journey.

    All things considered, my honest view is that our time for now has passed. But that could change again in 2-3 years. Nothing to suggest it can’t.

  2. It’s an excellent piece.

    I think the nature of our exit was particularly deflating.

    We’d clearly messed up badly against Cork after a signature win down in Kerry. We then go to Salthill and grind out a huge win against a good Galway side. We then bounce into Croker and open up fairly positively, before completely falling out of the game.

    And when you look back at that sequence, it pretty well accurately captures our fluctuating form line all season. Even within games we are capable of staggering swings – examples of this against Armagh, Cork and Louth.

    To be honest, it’s just hard to trust this Mayo outfit at the moment. There’s lots of potential there – the potential to fly out of the traps or implode on impact. The opposition is nearly irrelevant.

    Where does this leave us? It’s very hard to say at the minute. We’ve a young squad and a relatively new management team, so no need to panic. We did win a national title so we’re hardly on our knees.

    But I still think we should class this season as a missed opportunity. We need to set our sights higher, and therefore rank ourselves honestly. We’ve a hell of a lot of work ahead of us, but if we’re brutally honest in the post season then improvement is possible.

    Just need to find a midfield for a start!

  3. It’s gonna be a bit of a rebuild where we need new blood because this is not Horan’s team anymore no.more coat tails we gotta start a rebuild , one or two Mr Reliables on the team that when I watched the semis they wouldn’t get within an assessment roar of them panels let alone the team we want forward momentum. Not rugby passing believe in youth as I see it they have been our mainstay last few seasons and our goalie I’d top man , only to get better in my opinion but we need to add to these young men Donoughue and fly n are new leaders diarmuid and paddy are youn men yet let’s try and freshen group

  4. My view is this year was definitely a missed opportunity.As I have stated before I was delighted mcstay got the job as I thought he definitely deserved a shot but while winning the league was great mainly because of who beat in the final our championship form was in the main catastrophic.Going back to our first game and the first goal conceded where orme ended up in the full back position marking matthew tierney and this mismatch wasn’t noticed by the management or by players on the field is extraordinary.This sort of thing continued until our final game when mcbrien is pulled out of position to leave a pace mismatch in front of our goal.Did we have eyes in the stand to pass on information if this wasn’t been picked up on the sideline.The very strange defensive that was adopted which had very little chance of working was persisted with when there was clearly an issue.All of our management team have huge experience which makes it even more baffling so it’s difficult to see what they can learn now that they didn’t know before.Anyway hope springs eternal but I am getting too old to be listening to stories of learnings being taken .

  5. Willie Joe, good summing up but it raises more questions than answers I’m afraid. We’ve all pointed out our lack of leaders yet in 2021 we came back from the dead against Dublin in the AI semi final and from that outfield
    starting 14 I believe only Lee Keegan and Michael Plunkett were not available for this year’s rematch. So it appears that the only leader we have lost is Lee. Sure, Keegan is a one in a million player but added to 21’s team are David McBrien and a returning Cillian so methinks either one or both of our S&C or psychology/motivation departments need to be seriously scrutinised.

  6. Chaos will never win an all Ireland for us, that’s for sure. Our inability to close off that game against Louth is a failure we are going to have to carry with us for some time in that every county will fancy there chances of cracking us in that vital last quarter. When we need to be at our most clinical, we go chaotic. That a monkey we need to get off our back in 24.
    I’d love to know why stars like Ruane, Carney lost confidence. But the potential is definitely there in next few years. Big challenge for the management… Theve got to do better.
    I wouldn’t see it as a missed opportunity in that we were never going to win an all Ireland but a missed opportunity in that we collapsed into a shapeless heap when we needed to be at our most composed.

  7. Maybe some interesting stats to raise the mood.

    This year we blooded a new full back line and goalkeeper.

    Last time we blooded a new full back line we were relegated, but were in an All Ireland final 9 months later. (It was the covid year so time was a bit funny. Technically we weren’t relegated until the resumption but the damage was done before the break)

    In both David Clarke and Robbie Hennelly’s second championship campaigns we also reached all Ireland finals.
    (David’s first season ended at the quarters. Robbies a semi. But neither were thrust straight into the action in the way Colm Reape was. Both had been around the panel for a few years)

  8. Finally, we have never reached a final the year after a manager who lead us to one resigned.

    @WJ – it’s only when I went looking that I realised you can’t search the Archive by manager. Is it something you have looked into?

  9. One thing that got mentioned to some degree, but I think it was a glaring flaw. We tried to play a patient game around the 45, but it looked telegraphed and in particular this specific move of out near the wings turning your body and sending backwards an obvious handpass.
    That will need addressing because it’s necessary that type of play but our version of it had no threat

  10. A well written piece WJ, which sums up the general mood of supporters very well.

  11. There are questions for Mcstay and the management team. I think there needs to be a radical shakeout of the backroom team. The biggest failure was in the preparation for some games especially the Cork game.Is it a good idea that McHale should be there simply because he is the manager’s brother in law or is he there on merit. Should Rocheford and Buckley be there given all their past failures to get across the line. Ultimately it is the managers job to hire his backroom team which begs the question should McStay be there. I have no knowledge of the structures involving physios, nutritionists, psychologists, medical staff and all the rest but they all have to be looked at. Is the county board being supportive enough in terms of funding and sponsorship.
    These are all the hard questions that have to be asked if we are to be serious contenders for Sam. The players are amateurs but the management are paid professionals and have to be held accountable.

  12. An interesting article as usual WJ. I would think however that this year we went back to the drawing board. New manager and a lot of new players introduced. Some genuine positives and successes during the year, but too many new fellas to reach the consistency required. A bit like Horan first year in charge. Hopefully we can do better next year. Wonder what the Galway public thought of their year. A I finalists last year and one of the favourites this year, they must be desperately disappointed. True they won a Connacht title but I am sure PJ had greater aspirations. Maybe they will claim they were knackered because of injuries and it’s a fair point. What about Tyrone and Armagh. Must be hugely disappointed. Even Derry in their second year as Ulster champs couldn’t make A I final. I could go on but I reckon the only counties feeling good about themselves at the moment are obviously the two A I finalists, Monaghan who did so well to stay in Div 1 and qualify for AI semi final and perform so well in it and Cork who came from such a low base. Other than that all counties will be asking questions of themselves, but only 2 teams can make the final and unfortunately that’s not us this year.

  13. There is no question the problem comes from an inability to kill off a game because we don’t have a defensive gameplan to lock down a team for 10-15 mins when things are not going well. We can easily cough up 1-5 without reply at any time in a match.
    We have been doing it for years.

    We need the following
    1. a defensive 6 (as we have lots of attacking defenders)

    2. A defensive 8 (to hild the middle and nullify the likes of Fenton)

    3. A creative 11 who will kick accurate ball in to the FF

    4. A scoring 14 who can win ball

    5. A substitution strategy which starts making subs from half time onwards regardless of the score. Either to change things up or to slow the game down. If the game is tight we don’t put in the subs and end up running out of legs.

    Against Dublin, the whole stadium could.see O Hara was in trouble after 10mins but it took another 22 mins to make the change.
    The game was over when the other subs were put it.
    Against Cork we made 4 subs and 3 of those were made to help get us ahead. Once Cork started to come back we made only one more and didn’t use the other two.

    How many times have we powered through in a close game and won a close game in the last few minutes against a Dublin/Kerry/Tyrone/Donegal.
    All our big wins come from a bad first half and then a comeback as we are forced to throw on the subs early to try to get back into it.

    Anything we are ahead, we don’t put the subs in early enough and end up not scoring I’m the last 10 mins.

    We are tactically niave – no point saying anything different

  14. A key point is this: when have Mayo ever beaten Kerry or Dublin out the gate in a knockout Championship match in Croker? Never. Yet both those teams have done this to us with little fuss. We’ve had our foot on their throats in these big games, momentum firmly with us, but we’ve been incapable of driving it on from there.

    Yet the Corks, the Tyrones and the Donegals, despite winning by small margins, have been able to get over the line over the past decade or so. Yet they haven’t had near the consistency of Mayo in Croker in that time frame. We’re an absolute disaster.

    At the very least, we should by now have scraped a solitary All Ireland, like those other counties. We’re not getting to the route of the problem. But I genuinely don’t know what the problem is, especially in light of our incredible consistency and never-ending final appearances.

    Because of this, I could see us going another 71 years without Sam. Brace for impact.

  15. Maybe we’re just not a top team, but you don’t have to be, for example like Cork, Donegal, Tyrone.

    So we need to find out what’s wrong with us.

  16. There used to be a sense of anticipation and enjoyment following Mayo. On the Sunday morning of Mayo’s historic defeat of Dublin way back in 2006, I went into a shop in Dublin to buy the Sunday paper’s to see what they would say about the big game. Sure enough the headlines on the front page was all about Dublin V Mayo. Me in the shop wearing my Mayo jersey and a few more Green and Red heads, but a few boys in Blue as well. I was reading the headline about to pay the Asian propieter (who unlike the jersey wearing punters in his shop had enough sense not to be really too concerned about any game) I asked yer man who he taught would win the big game?, he said that he did’nt know but they were two fantastic Rugby teams.

  17. Great post WJ.
    Tough year, but I think we’re all a little too despondent about it, we met our start of year expectations. However the league form upped those to levels that weren’t reachable this year. New management/team will need time to bed in. One concern is that narratives are being formed around the team – kickout strategy, inability to close out games and blanket defences, the worry is these become self-fulfilling(although not convincingly, we’d beaten the Louth/Cork blankets before being pulled back).

    Bit disappointed that we haven’t seen the management team out in the press since the defeat. Feel like it’d be useful and help put this year to bed(RoD was great on though). It is worth noting that although it was a QF exit, it was a QF exit to the likely champions. Better wait until the end of next year before giving a proper assessment on the management team.

    And well done to the lads, intercounty requires tremendous sacrifice and I had many joyous moments following them this year, but alas not to be.

  18. Great article @willie joe really does sum up the mood of everyone Atm!

    @Liberal row in the tie I think we are def still a top team I think its to do with past defeats is well plays some part and the whole stigma around our history could affect players to. That’s why Niamh is so important for the guys!

    @Tirawleybaron agree with you that there was some bad calls made .

    I’m just hoping that next year is better ha I’m sure we will Improve I do think we’ve found a great goalie in colm reape in fairness was his 1st year starting nearly every game and he made some super saves ! I think he will get better over time he’s only young and so are a lot of the guys.

    Also Bob touhy is a very exciting young player but young still but one to watch . With Tommy conroy back at full 100% fitness levels next year and a lot more game time he’ll be hard stopping. Not all doom & gloom I do think the questions should be asked as to why we can’t close out games and other mistakes made etc as others said to but we will bounce back again next year !

  19. Big podcast news! We’ve an hour-long interview with Kevin McStay on the way shortly – it’ll be up on Patreon at 7am tomorrow.

  20. Have to say, I don’t totally agree that there is no question about the quality of the players we have at our disposal. It is an issue for us that we don’t really have top level personnel in the middle of the park. Who in the squad could we say is as good a fielder as the likes of Fenton or Brendan Rogers? We don’t have that type of player in our ranks. Even Tyrone had a top midfield pairing when they beat us in the final, and in fact, the difference in quality there played a part in why they won that game.

  21. Problem is simple. We are weak. Weak spirit and no self belief. Even at our peak, ya, we all thought we’d win one. But when opposition stood up to us we buckled. We are, in really harsh terms, spineless.
    I’m not talking about individuals, but our sense of ruthlessness is pathetic.
    I may be lambasted for my opinion and I understand we’ve seen some monumental games from Mayo. But when the fat is in the fire we haven’t been up to it.
    Look at limerick… copy and paste and we might start winning the big ones.

  22. Where was our middle diamond all we want is a half decent cb a half decent midfield pairing and a half decent cf is he a full back is he a full forward is he a midfielder is he a lucky captain

  23. Why burden oshea with free kicks he’s the guy that goes in for the throw in at the start of each half

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