Photo: Mayo Mick
As supporters of Mayo it’s revealing that when we speak anymore of this team that mostly we talk solely in terms of All-Ireland glory. That seems to be the common denominator now for the fan base within the county. This is certainly a laudable (and slightly arrogant) standard to shout about. But is this goal possible anymore for this team, after three hard years where they have come so close? The consensus among the national experts was that falling again in the 2013 final was the end of this current era. Another glorious failure and so we were immediately written off after that defeat.
But here we are now in 2014 and another championship road beckons. What is going to happen with this team this year and what is in store for us? It’s a tough one to call as in truth no-one knows the exact mind-set of these guys after all they have been through. All we can do is examine the players, our form to date, and look at the possible paths and where they would lead.
Firstly when you look at the talent within the squad there is little doubt that this is the best championship panel in the history of the county. The return of Tom Parsons and the addition of Gavin Duffy may (or may not) be the final pieces in the jigsaw to push on this team. The possible A versus B combination matches would be exciting tough encounters and could have a variety of combinations, such as the following (based on everyone being fit):
The assumption always is that the A team should automatically beat the Bs but it would certainly be a close call and a real physical contest in the above match-ups. I would suggest the B team sit back and defend and invite the As to dominate possession. When broken down they look to counter attack. Overall perhaps the As would shade it in pace and experience, but not much else.
The above also shows how many are competing along each line and on the face of it this panel is just as strong as any of the other favourites for this year’s All-Ireland. When you look at our team we have at least nine quality backs, five midfielders, and at least twelve forwards who are fighting for places and can lay claim to the ability to play senior inter-county championship football.
The bottom line is that the open-ended panel that the county team currently have is the correct one given the level of professionalism needed. Plus the requirement of a top panel will be key this year because of the intensity of the big games and the new black card rule. It is up to the management now to decide how these pieces fit together and what blend of football they want to produce. So far it has been a running game with attacking half-backs however the alternatives are there if so desired. Personally I would like to see a mixture of running, quick kick-passing and the addition of players who can score points from distance.
Also judging from the League the team has improved. Last year on the final day of the League campaign we needed a win in Cork to ensure our survival. This year we qualified comfortably for the semi-finals. However the failures against fourteen-man Dublin and against Derry in the second half of this year’s League semi-final do raise serious doubts about the mentality of these players to close out tight games.
Another area of concern is do we have enough experience in the panel to cope with injures? Last year we lost our star corner-forward for practically the entire season and the year before the captain was out. And already our star League man is gone now for a considerable period. However it is something that we have to put up with. All teams with aspirations have the same issues – Kilkenny is missing from Dublin and Gooch from Kerry. This is another reason why the panel has to perform.
Management though must perform as well. Match-ups and changes need to be quickly addressed. If a guy is not making it in training he should not be automatically on the team. There was a suspicion in years gone by that some fellas inevitably made this team regardless of their performances at club or even in training at county level. If this is true and it persists, well, James Horan can forget about any success. He needs to be ruthless in addressing any shortfalls within this team. No one inside or outside the panel can or will complain if the strongest performers take to the pitch. After that it’s up to those guys to show why they are representing the county in those fifteen jerseys, and why they are ahead of the rest.
Also he will need to spot when tiredness or complacency is creeping in. When we played Dublin earlier this year they deliberately matched Ger Cafferkey with Cormac Costello. The young Dub U21 is a fine player but more importantly is very fleet of foot. Later on in the game they switched in the rangy O’Gara, who came in to plough through what was presumably seen as a tired defence. It reaped fine dividends on the evening. What plan is there for such tactics in the future? Can Kevin Keane or Shane McHale come in on our side to deal with more physical guys? Are they up to it yet? Is this what Gavin Duffy is for? Is this part of the fragility and mentality issue? So many questions and possibilities, that as yet remain unanswered.
Overall when we look at the championship there are probably three or four teams who will realistically challenge this year, and on their day with a bit of luck and momentum, most can go out and beat each other. Peaking at the correct time, though, is very important. To this extent a smooth exit through Connacht would be beneficial.
But Roscommon are unlikely to just turn up and doff their caps to us. Their recent hammering of us at U21 along with home advantage and the strong showing to win Division Three offers serious hope to the Sheepstealers. And it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Remember last year’s Division Three champions Monaghan won the Ulster title beating a tired Donegal on home turf. Victories like these offer real hope to Roscommon of an upset.
The last time we played them in the Hyde we won by two points on a miserable afternoon. Since then Roscommon have improved. So it would not be a major upset were James Horan’s team to fall at this hurdle. Therefore it is imperative that the team concentrate on this match. If they were to lose and go through the back door, then the likelihood of any possibilities later on in the year would be remote to say the least.
And in truth these guys probably do want another crack at Dublin. Certainly if I were one of the players after this year’s League match, I would like another shot at them in Croke Park. For now, however, that prospect is far away and James Horan and this team must concentrate hard on the next obstacle. After all of the experts have us written off this year maybe instead of game one of five it should be one game at a time in 2014.