Photo: Geograph.ie/Kevin Higgins
Robert Johnson wrote it, Cream, Eric Clapton, John Mayer and the late and great JJ Cale sang it. The song is called “Crossroads” and Mayo are at it. Truth be told, and it’s only my opinion, we have been loitering at the crossroads for a while.
First let’s put things into perspective. Between 1952 and 1985 Mayo won five Connacht senior titles. Indeed the decade 1957-1966, Mayo played 14 Championship matches winning four, drawing three and losing seven. In four of those years we went out in the first round. Sligo and Leitrim beat us and also drew with us in that era. Since 2009 we have won four Connacht titles, played around 22 championship matches, reached two All-Ireland finals along with two League finals. So we are operating on a higher plane and very much in the public eye.
“What’s not measured doesn’t get done” – so says the carpenter and tradesman. So too did the Dublin County Board with the publication of, I think, called Blue Wave strategic plan. In it they tasked the various managers with targets. Currently they are running ahead of schedule. Funnily enough for a county like ours who tend to do their sums on the back of an envelope, we aren’t a million miles behind them.
Dublin wanted two All-Ireland senior titles every five years, a minor every three and U21 every three as well. In Minor they have won a single one and contested one. Our record since 2005 has seen us contest four and win one. At senior they have contested two finals and won both. We have contested two and narrowly lost both.
This area is one in which we are blessed with a lot of material and counties to compare with. Two managers and counties started out in 2011 with new managers: Mayo and Donegal. Both men took diametric positions in how to do business. Both men reached semi-finals. Donegal’s McGuinness brought a stifling defence roller-ball game to the fore and almost reached an All-Ireland final in year one.
Horan also brought a Mayo worn out from underachievement and lowered expectations to a semi-final, wiping Cork off the map en route. However it was the man in year three of the project who scooped the casino. Dublin’s Pat Gilroy discarded his startled earwigs, reinvented the wheel and stole an unlikely All-Ireland from under the noses of the Kerry men.
A combination of a strict plan, the sacrifice of a few sacred cows and a steely nerve saw Dublin fall over the line. Year two in the compare and contrast stakes saw Donegal loosen up the Cattenacio defence, prime Mark McHugh as a roving link man, muscle up the squad and go for broke. They won an All-Ireland the hard way, the long route through Ulster, taking out Cork, Kerry and Mayo. We reached a final but allowed ourselves, in my humble opinion, to march to Donegal’s tactics instead of posing them a few conundrums.
Year three saw a new Dublin manager go the whole way first time out. Caution to the wind as all out attack took precedence. Mayo also looked good, whaling Galway and Donegal. However the win over Donegal came at a cost. Mayo had peaked, the exertion and emotion involved in beating a team we were eminently capable of beating in the preceding final took its toll.
Donegal were a beaten docket as we flat tracked them. However to me, it seemed as we battered the lad who married our former girl friend. At the end of the day he still went home to her as our quest for an All-Ireland continued. In other words Sam still resided in Donegal and was still to be earned by ourselves. Players were turned into legends on the basis of that result by the followers. That’s not their fault however they are not immune from the hysteria and hype. Legendary status is acquired with a different exam paper.
The final saw Mayo repeat the mistakes of a year earlier. Turn overs not tracked back, high balls into the square not dealt with and a pathetic ending when we had to stake the entire house, we instead put up the back kitchen hoping that the clock and a clean fetch would allow us a draw. Only Sean Boylan has won an All-Ireland after year three in charge.
Tactically we are an Ajax – flat out or no gears at all. When we are good we are great. When we are bad, we are awful. Looking at the lynch-pin of our game and to me it seems to be located along the half-back line, we then can compare that to the Dublin mode as well. Whereas we use Keegan and Vaughan to bomb forward, leaving Boyle more or less back, Dublin keep Brennan and McCarthy back allowing McCaffrey to bomb forward.
The Dublin forwards also take up their share of attacking responsibility with prime roles for the Brogans. The spice is mixed with the addition of McManamon and O’Gara. Andrews and Connolly are a manager’s dream. We tend to get our forwards to play off the runs of the half-back line. When our main men get the ball a tendency develops where they slow the play down thus undoing the head of steam already built up.
Going forward and this is possible heresy but the half-back line may need switching or new riding instructions. Keegan and Vaughan cannot both be going forward. The full-back line has been exposed almost beyond repair. Sixteen league goals in eight matches need no analysis. Higgins needs to come back and the sooner Clarke is fit the better.
However the players only do what’s instructed of them. I would find it hard to explain to an outsider what exactly our game format is. I haven’t a clue as to what Plan B is and I am stumped at how orthodox we are regarding certain players and positions. We are overloaded with midfielders but lack a real cutting edge full-forward. Currently and for a few years we operate without a proper 11. Is it time to deploy two big boys into those positions and replace them with more mobile centre fields? Currently we are like a well that’s drying up.
One thing Dublin has done is empower their youth. Kilkenny, Mannion and McCaffrey have been trusted with vital roles. Lowndes from the minors of two years ago along with Costello are now with this year’s team. There are others. That type of blood freshening keeps the bigger piranhas hungry and challenged. We don’t do that, we don’t trust our youth. We need to.
Brian Dooher, Darragh Ó Sé, Tomás Ó Sé, Kieran McGeeney, Sean Cavanagh are/were leaders. When the fat was in the fire they could be relied upon to stick the hand in and pull it out. How many times did we see Darragh stand hands on hips beneath his own crossbar awaiting a ’45 to drop in? His standing there reassured his own players and followers that the net would not be breached.
Brian Dooher, diminutive, but with a heart as big as his body as he patrolled between the two 45s on behalf of Tyrone. Recall his run after McConnell’s great save against Kerry in the 2008 final. Avoiding two murderous lunges from Kerrymen intent on killing him, little Brian drilled a right to left bomb from about 45 metres out over the Kerry crossbar and broke them.
Peter the Great did similar things. Look back as he demanded the ball from Mulligan and rolled it past the Kerry keeper to stick another nail in their psyche back in 2005. McGeeney defined Armagh and their journey, stoic and serious. And us? We are quieter and less demonstrative. I don’t know why but apart from David Brady I’ve never seen a Mayo lad go to war. Dublin have Brennan and Connolly do what’s needed. Cavanagh knows the ropes too for Tyrone. Donegal have them, so too have Derry.
We need visible leadership on the pitch, the kind of guy who knows when a yellow, black or red card is needed. John McEnroe from Oldcastle, erstwhile Meath footballer, was a hard player. He never got much of a chance under Boylan though. McEnroe himself put it eloquently: “Sean wanted lads that cut deep, the problem for me was that I cut too deep and that was no good to Sean”. In the likes of O’Rourke and McEntee he got guys who cut deep but knew when to discard the scalpel. You cannot teach that type of stuff but once in the trenches if you don’t have it, expect to get gassed.
Loughnane’s Clare team came to an end when they squabbled over free mobile phones in the dressing rooms. Ger saw that and so did the players, the camaraderie and die-for-each-other was gone. The Meath dressing room of 1987-1992 was a sacrosanct place. It too came to an end as a newcomer arrived and put his bag where one of the “regulars” always sat. A swift kick and the bag flew across the room, so did the glue that made them great.
I think it was Christy O’Connor who, in recently lauding Mayo in a Sunday paper, extolled the confidence of some of the forwards. He noted that they seemed “to be no longer looking over their shoulder”. I know what he meant. Some are cast-iron certainties and some are forever glancing in the mirror. Within the Dublin set up last year Bernard Brogan was made sweat for his spot. I don’t see that with Mayo.
At a crossroads we choose to go one way or the other. Longevity is the calling card of this team now. Armagh had the same type of issues as we have, around a long time until one final surge in 2002. Big Joe pulled out the stops and the team responded. They were battle weary but also battle hardened. Mayo are there now. Tired limbs and tired minds need lifting once more.
So too might the manager’s. A new voice beside him to tell it as it is not as how it seems. No need for that person to be mentioned in the match programme or given a title, all he needs is that both sides trust each other. Who am I talking about? Not a clue really but I have always thought that Billy Fitz was a man who read a good game and called it as it actually rather than what the narrative might like to be. Mayo need refuelling and refreshing. So too does the top man. All have much to offer but time and tide won’t wait beyond this season for this particular group. The choice is theirs, the crossroads are reached.