The manner of our defeat to Down last weekend was understandable enough but today’s loss to Donegal up in Ballyshannon was anything but. Five points up at one stage in the first half we lost in the end by seven but it was the complete cluelessness with which we played when we were a man up in the third quarter but still got cut to ribbons by the resurgent home team that was so alarming.
I’m normally very much in the glass-half-full camp where it comes to the team and their future prospects. However, the manner of our slump today – which appeared to stem from the bone-headed stupidity of how we organised ourselves tactically for the second half – is enough to test any optimist. Can we really be sure we’re headed in the right direction (even if it is only mid-March) after such a craven collapse?
Family commitments kept me in Dublin today (and seem set to do so again next Sunday, I’m afraid) and so once again I was reliant on the radio commentary and trusty old PJ to keep me updated on developments at Fr Tierney Park in Ballyshannon. The sun was shining brightly there – as it has been here all day – and we had the benefit of a stiff enough breeze in the opening half.
It was predictable enough that Donegal – having got hosed down in Kerry last Sunday – would revert to their now normal ultra-defensive approach from the throw-in. Less predictable, perhaps, was the way we quickly put it up to them, with Kevin McLoughlin getting our opener from play and, after McBrearty had levelled for them, Conor Mortimer played in Enda Varley who found the net with ease. We remained dominant for at least ten minutes after that, with further points – from Alan Dillon and Mort (a free) – stretching our lead to five.
We seemed to be flying at that stage and Donegal’s tactic of conceding ground and defending deep risked playing very much into our hands. We’d won that opening quarter handsomely but, as it turned out, that was the only period we’d boss in this game.
Three handy frees in quick succession for Donegal – made easier still with Mother Superior Duffy very quick to add 13 metres of territory for dissent – cut our lead to a single point but then Mort and McFadden traded frees, Duffy having again raced to the 13-metre line as soon as he heard a peep out of one of our lads, before Mort (with another free) edged us two ahead at the break.
The main talking point at the interval, however, would have been the straight red issued to Donegal’s Rory Kavanagh seconds before half-time. It was, by all accounts, a carbon copy of the one that led to Aidan O’Shea’s dismissal last weekend with Gallagher swinging at and connecting with Kevin McLoughlin in full view of the ref. So, although we had to face the wind in the second half, the home team had now handed us an enormous tactical advantage.
As I chatted with PJ at the break, we were in agreement that it was good timing for the sending off to have come straight before the break as it would, we reasoned, have given us plenty of time to think about how best to use the extra man. We’d seen how Down had used this advantage so well last Sunday, now it was our turn to exploit a similar situation.
Once the ball was thrown in for the second period, however, it appeared as if it were Donegal who had the extra man. Incredibly, we’d left Kevin Keane as the loose player and even more incredibly – and despite trying to do a Donegal ourselves by camping thirteen men in our half – we started to concede points at an alarming rate.
The sideline seemed paralysed into inaction as Donegal swarmed through us at will, hitting us for six points (two of them frees) without reply as the match canted wildly out of our control. Four down now, the only switch we could come up with (Pat Harte having replaced the ineffective Alan Freeman at half-time) was bringing on Cillian O’Connor for Enda Varley. But things soon got even worse for us when Ger Cafferkey, who had been booked as early as the 20th minute, picked up a second yellow and so our numerical advantage was gone.
Donegal continued to rip into us. Three more unaswered points followed as it now began to look as if we’d fail to raise a flag at all in the second half. We eventually did – via a David Clarke ’50 – and sub Michael Conroy added one from play just before the end but Donegal had raised their tally to seventeen at that stage, sealing a very comprehensive seven-point win.
It’s a while since we played as badly as today. London back in May last year would probably be the last time that a Mayo teamed managed by James Horan showed such a degree of cluelessness and the match against Dublin this time last year would, I guess, count as the last time we suffered this kind of power failure in a league game.
It’s still only just after Paddy’s Day and so, I suppose, it’s not the time to be penning an obituary on our footballing year. But, perhaps for the first time under James Horan, it’s now transparently clear that we’ve got problems both on the pitch and on the sideline and it’s getting ever more difficult to be optimistic about where this team is heading and what the future holds for it.
Onfield, we need to have a very serious think about what forward unit we play. Today we fielded four forwards – McLoughlin, Dillon, Mortimer and Varley – who are seemingly incapable of winning their own ball and any fool will tell you that a forward line like that is easy to control. We can play either McLoughlin or Dillon in the half-forwards, we can play either Mort or Varley inside. We can’t play the lot of them and if we continue to do so we can expect more days like today.
More worryingly, though, is the lack of basic cop-on we showed today. It was clear from early on that Duffy wasn’t going to tolerate any dissent, yet we kept moaning after every free and this handed Donegal an easier target to aim at for at least four of them. Sure, Duffy is a pain in the hole at the best of times but if you know he’s going to do you every time you complain, why keep complaining?
Our lack of cop-on wasn’t limited to this aspect of our play, though. In the second half, we continually carried the ball into their blanket defence – which was exactly what Jimmy McGuinness would have wanted us to do – and I wasn’t at all surprised to be told afterwards that we’d coughed up possession from doing so a total of 35 times over the course of the game.
We were all over the shop on the sideline too. We were too slow to make changes – midfield got destroyed, yet nothing was done to try to improve matters – and obvious switches, like moving Ger Cafferkey off Michael Murphy before he got what was an inevitable second yellow, weren’t made. Likewise, making a double substitution in the forwards as the game was going into injury time won’t go down in history as one of the great tactical changes of all time.
But the worst aspect of today – one shared pretty equally by management and players – was how we contrived to blow the enormous tactical advantage we’d been handed by Gallagher’s sending-off just before half-time. We’d a good fifteen minutes in the dressing room to figure out the best way to exploit this development and the only plan we could come up with was to leave Kevin Keane as the free man. Then we tried, but failed to execute, Donegal’s defensive tactics and, to make matters worse, we persisted with one man up front even after they had started pulling clear of us. Nul points all round, I’m afraid, chaps.
The league play-offs have obviously disappeared over the horizon now and with tough matches to come against Cork, Dublin and Kerry, we’re really up against it if we’re to hold our place in Division One this time out. As things stand, one win from three may not even be enough to avoid the drop but, if we play like we did today, then this is unlikely to be a factor we’ll end up thinking too much about. Cork next Sunday will self-evidently be a huge challenge for us but, after today’s supine collapse, it’s now high time for James Horan and his squad to stand up and be counted.
(Photo of Mayo team warming up from @MayoGAA)
Mayo: David Clarke (0-1, a ’45); Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner, Donal Vaughan, Lee Keegan; Seamus O’Shea, Barry Moran; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Andy Moran, Alan Dillon (0-1); Conor Mortimer (0-3, frees), Alan Freeman, Enda Varley (1-0). Subs: Pat Harte for Freeman, Richie Feeney for Keegan (inj.), Cillian O’Conn0r for Varley, Jason Doherty for McLoughlin, Michael Conroy (0-1) for Mortimer.