Mayo Gaelic football is a bit of an enigma. In the last twenty years, it has achieved the longest unbroken run in the modern Division One of the league, it has won more championship semi-finals (6) than any other county except Kerry and yet a single Sam Maguire victory eludes it.
“Why, oh why?” we ask.
External commentators point to a variety of reasons: a fear of finals, a curse, bad luck, a poor refereeing performance, a row in the camp, etc. Many also suggest how to make the final step, but though many brave men have come and tried, none have succeeded.
Leaving Croke Park last September, I met some young Dubs that I coach. They were delighted to win, but even they could see the torture that I was suffering and to their credit, they resisted the temptation to rub it in. “Never mind” said one of them “there’s always next year!” But the thought of that didn’t do me any good – I have seen a lot of “next years” and had no reason to be optimistic that one such year would see me leaving Croke Park having witnessed Mayo taking the ultimate prize.
“Why, oh why?” I asked. “Why not Mayo?”
Some see Spring as a time of healing, I look to Winter for that. I concentrated my football time back at the club with the Minors and then the Juniors before emerging in the Spring with new hope. But this time it is hope tempered with reality. I have every expectation that we will get back into the shake-up this year – maybe even all the way to the final, but there are problems with the approach of the Mayo team. We only see them at times but they must be addressed if we are to avoid that horrible late-September-leaving-Croke Park feeling.
The first issue is that we are always playing catch-up. A few years ago (2011), we measured ourselves against the then All-Ireland champions, Cork. We played them at their own game and beat them. We repeated the dose with the Dubs (in 2012) and with Donegal last year.
We had caught up, but in each case, we then came up against teams that were on a mission and seemed to be destined to win the All-Ireland. They had each brought their own game further and we were still concentrating on beating the best from the previous year. In each case, we lost.
And I am now concerned that again this year, we seem to have taken the 2013 Dubs “you can score 4 but we’ll score more!” mantra. Yes, I really believe that by Summer we could beat the Dubs of 2013, but if we keep going the way we are going now, we may well still be behind the level needed for the big prize of 2014.
To get beyond this, we must stop thinking of last year’s opposition and concentrate on bringing more to our own party. This is about laying down the marker that we don’t care who we are playing – we just will not be beaten! A huge part of this is attitude (best displayed at present by both Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle) and James Horan has done a lot of good work on this – but it is also about structure and style of play, a factor that changed just too much during the course of the game in last year’s All Ireland Final. We must have a style and a structure, work to perfect them, and have the confidence to build our championship ambitions on them. And if it doesn’t work, at least we won’t be scratching our heads wondering why seemingly inexplicable decisions were made in the course of a game.
The second issue is about developing different attacking options. These would seem to be coming along nicely given the amount we have scored in the league to date and our running game is excellent, but it can be countered if over-relied upon. Jim Gavin did that last year when he pinned our attacking half-backs back in our own half, thereby leaving our forwards with no running support on which to initiate attacks. The following are some of things that would bring further purpose to our forward play:
- Use the long ball to the full forward line (played brilliantly in Connacht last year, abandoned in Croke Park but beautifully resurrected by Freeman with his goal last Sunday);
- Play a dominating No 11 (Cillian O’Connor was devastating in this role against Galway last year);
- Play two fast utility wing-forwards like we did for the first part of the All-Ireland Final last year;
- Play goal-hungry guys close to the target area (Doherty and Freeman have shown in recent weeks that they are two of them).
All of these force the opposition to defend against OUR game and takes their collective minds off playing THEIR game.
The third issue is at the back and again, work is required:
- Work with Rob on decision making. He is a fine goalie, but he has to catch the ball (or punch it well away) when he comes for it;
- Sort out our kickouts – On Sunday last, all 12 in the 1st half were broken (of which we subsequently won 7) and we won just 2 out of 8 in the 2nd half – an overall return of 45%! (hat-tip to Ed McGreal of the Mayo News for the stats);
- Use match-ups more effectively. Does anyone else remember the marking job Shane McHale did on Connelly when we beat the Dubs in April 2012? And also, when it is not working, move the markers around (like Caff was moved on to Hurley last Sunday but not like when Caff was not moved off Brogan in the All-Ireland).
- We need to resolve the No.6 issue – Donie is a fine footballer but he does not dominate the No.6 area and at times he gets dragged out of position leaving a big hole in our defence. Either he needs to change his style or someone else must play there. A No.6 must lead the defence; marshal his troops and issue orders as necessary. Running half forwards have to be prepared to pick up a wandering opposition No 11.
Addressing these three would put us in a better place. In the meantime we have the Dubs in our sights on Saturday week. They play a high tempo energy sapping game. They are constantly moving, they move the ball quickly, someone is calling for the ball as soon as a foul is blown, frees are taken immediately to a runner in space, kickouts are precise. But the high tempo game has drawbacks. Half way through their game with Kildare, they looked knackered and it was only when Kildare heads went down having missed three goals that they pushed on to win well. Their only other win was against Westmeath.
To beat them, the match-ups must be thought out in advance, marking must be tight, NO TURNOVERS allowed, defend tenaciously, attack relentlessly, protect the ball, pin them back in their own half, use a variety of attacking options and punish them with goals whenever possible. Dublin display an air of superiority in Croke Park, but put them on the back foot and anything can happen.
They beat us three times last year so it’s time to lay down a marker and begin building for the championship.
2013 is over. Welcome to 2014.
Keep the Faith!