It’s after ten at night and I’m still none the wiser about today’s helter-skelter league defeat to Dublin at Croke Park. As well as that, I have an 0600 flight to catch in the morning so, by necessity as much as by inclination, this account of events earlier on today at GAA HQ will have to be fairly brief and to the point.
RTÉ have a full match report, with post-match audio quotes, and there are also match reports available from the Mayo Advertiser, Hogan Stand, Breaking News and Sports News Ireland. As a result, there’s no need to dwell here on what happened during the match on a blow-by-blow basis.
I can, with some justification, I think, claim to have seen something of this sort coming. Our starting fifteen didn’t look like the kind of unit that would be able to contain Dublin’s goal-hungry forward line and our decision not to name an orthodox full-back seemed more than a bit odd. With twenty minutes or so gone today and a deficit of 4-4 to 0-2 staring back at us from the scoreboard, it appeared like utter lunacy. Which, in truth, it was.
The ease at which Dublin scored those four early goals against us was frightening. We let them waltz through us – never once landing a hit on any of them – our defensive positioning was all over the place and time and again the full-back line failed to keep themselves goal-side of the attacker when the killer ball was played inside.
The entire full-back line was ripped to shreds and I guess the only surprise was that we didn’t end up conceding more than the four goals we did. Regular readers here will know of my opinions on playing Keith Higgins in the full-back line. After today’s performance, I seriously hope that this is no longer an issue meriting any further serious debate.
But it’s not just Keith. Chris Barrett and Tom Cunniffe were also filleted, Kevin McLoughlin (a man with many admirable qualities) showed he just isn’t physical enough, Ger Cafferkey was cleaned out at centre-back and while Richie Feeney manfully took the fight to the Dubs at a time when we really needed to do this, this was at the expense of a complete derelicition of duty at the back.
And that’s before even mentioning playing Peadar Gardiner in a sweeping role. Sweet Lord and His Holy Mother, Peadar won’t stick to defending even when he’s named in the backs and it was obvious with less than ten minutes gone that the tactic of playing him behind the half-back line wasn’t working. And yet he stayed on the pitch right to the end.
Tom Parsons was hauled off well before then but not before putting in yet another anonymous shift. I must admit that my heart sank when I saw he was back in the starting line-up – shades of Meath 2009 all over again. Facts have to be faced: on current form, Tom can’t be considered for a place in the first fifteen right now. I’d far sooner have seen Jason Gibbons start there but if James Kilcullen was fit enough to come on, then why not go ahead and start him?
Further up the field, the story got a bit better. Ronan battled doggedly all day, as did Andy Moran whose contribution and scores when we were at our lowest point helped us to inch our way back into this crazy, crazy, game. Aidan Campbell hit a few horrendous wides but he got some scores too, Alan Dillon took too long to get into the game (and 11 obviously isn’t the position he’s best suited for) but when he did he contributed well to our recovery.
But, of course, everything that was positive about our performance today came from Alan Freeman and Jason Doherty in the full-forward line. As a duo, they were absolutely lethal: both have good hands, quick brains and superb finishing ability. All three goals – and, in particular, Jason’s second – were of the highest quality. Neither deserved to end up on the losing side.
So, where do we go from here? I think it’s fair to say that James Horan’s honeymoon as Mayo manager ended today and that he now has some serious questions to answer in terms of team selection and tactics.
While experimentation during the league is all very well, all the chopping and changing has led us to a situation where we still haven’t the first clue about who should be where in the backline (even if, after today, we have a better idea as to who shouldn’t). We’re also shy a midfielder and at least two, possibly three, forwards.
And we’ve repeatedly shown that we’re not able to get stuck into a game from the off but instead insist on letting the other lads gallop off well into the distance before bestirring ourselves. I’d thought our start against Down was alarming enough in this respect but today’s early doors implosion took the biscuit altogether.
The other question I’d have for James after today was why he didn’t make changes at the back when it was clear that our full-back line was getting whipped all over the place? We hadn’t just one full-back on the bench, we had two (Cathal Hallinan and Alan Feeney) and if either one of them had been pitched in when it was obvious the backline needed shoring up, I very much doubt that Connolly would have ended up with 3-3 to his credit.
Then, as PJ noted, it was only once we had completed our astonishing recovery from 14 points down (an achievement which shouldn’t be forgotten, even if I’m concentrating here more on negatives than positives) that he began to ring the changes. While this was understandable, we seemed to lose our shape and sense of purpose and we did little or nothing to prevent Dublin from easing clear of us for a second time. Once they were back in the driving seat, it was obvious we weren’t going to get anything out of the game, although if Jason Doherty’s late wide had ended in the net, the losing margin would have been less than five points.
It is, I know, still only March and it’s a bit early in the year to be writing off our chances for the summer on the basis of a few ropey league performances (with today’s being ropier than the others). But April is almost upon us now and we need to start seeing at least some evidence that our curve for the summer that awaits us is an upward one. While Freeman and Doherty went some way towards doing so today, their sparkling performances were more than outweighed by glaring deficiencies further back the field and it’s self-evidently the case that we need to see significant and immediate improvements in that sector if we’re to entertain any serious hopes of throwing shapes later in the year.
Mayo: Robert Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins; Richie Feeney (0-2), Ger Cafferkey, Kevin McLoughlin; Ronan McGarrity, Tom Parsons; Aidan Campbell (0-3, two frees), Alan Dillon (0-2, frees), Andy Moran (0-2); Peadar Gardiner (0-1), Alan Freeman (1-3), Jason Doherty (2-0). Subs: James Kilcullen for Parsons, Aidan Kilcoyne for Campbell, Cathal Hallinan for Cafferkey, James Burke for McLoughlin.