I wasn’t in Ruislip last weekend but I know a man who was and so I’m delighted to give the floor to Edwin McGreal who provides his thoughts on the match and what it could mean for the remainder of our championship campaign.
I don’t mean to be condescending to anyone who wasn’t in Ruislip on Sunday but you really had to be there to appreciate just how bad Mayo were and just how close they came to arguably the greatest shock in GAA history.
This wasn’t one of those games where the gallant outsider was a nuisance for fifty minutes before the more accomplished team moved through the gears and did what they needed to and no more. No, London led by two points with three minutes to go and we were staring into the abyss and too many Mayo footballers didn’t know how to find the way out. I thought we were gone. Many more did too. James Horan was visibly ageing on the sideline. The County Board officials were too.
Praise has been heaped at a couple of Mayo footballers who steadied the ship, Trevor Mortimer and Kevin McLoughlin especially for the points they kicked. But McLoughlin’s score in particular was mainly the result of some lax defending from London and was in fact a goal chance. That London let him into that position at that stage of that game speaks of their inexperience, not Mayo’s experience.
Even when McLoughlin levelled the game for Mayo, we were still on incredibly shaky ground. Andy Moran had a 30 metre free, 20 yards left of centre to push us in front. He missed it. More surreal was the last Mayo free, from a similar position. Moran stood aside, Alan Freeman had already missed a kick and Alan Dillon was on the sideline. Mayo ‘keeper Robbie Hennelly was coming forward to take it. Instead it was handed to Jason Doherty, whose confidence was hardly sky high and is far from a regular free-taker. He kicked it wide. It is a pity Hennelly didn’t come up, put it over because it would serve to show perfectly how at sea Mayo were – their ‘keeper needing to point a free from a position most club forwards in the county would expect to point. That is how fragile and vulnerable Mayo looked.
The final whistle arrived, Mayo were able to gather themselves and London probably realised their chance was gone. Andy Moran, to be fair, took the game by the scruff of the neck and kicked three excellent points and despite the concession of a goal before half-time, Mayo saw it out.
But be under no illusions, Mayo didn’t control the last few minutes of normal time. Sure, they had possession, but they didn’t look like a team you knew would see off London. They were on the ropes and were spared a knockout blow as much by London’s inability to throw one as Mayo’s ability to dodge it.
It’s worth saying that on another day Mayo could have won this game by 20 points. Such a statement should not be too surprising. London are, after all, the team who only beat Kilkenny in the League. At times there was a gulf in ability in the first half. But Mayo often took the wrong option, turned over bad ball and didn’t enjoy a lot of luck – Aidan Campbell’s penalty hit the post, London scored a goal from a rebound. Reasons like that have seen Sunday dismissed as ‘one of those days’. But, while there is something in that, what worried me was how, once Mayo were in a bit of a battle coming into the final quarter, they showed little enough know-how about how to excavate themselves from it. I’ve heard some people say a lot of the players didn’t want to know.
That’s wrong. Of course they did, they care more than any of us. But doubts crept in, players looked shaky and Mayo, for not the first time in recent years, looked very vulnerable out there.
Andy Moran said as much afterwards, it wasn’t that Mayo dug themselves out, it was that Mayo played poorly and whereas last year Sligo took advantage of that, London didn’t just have the same ability or know-how to do likewise.
So where does this leave us? I’ve read with some interest interpretations of the game on various online forums and in some newspapers from people who weren’t there about the positives of this game. They vary from saying that this was a wake-up call, that we’ve discovered a lot more about ourselves than if we won by 15 points, that it will be good to go under the radar against Galway and that it won’t have much significance for the Galway game because ‘form goes out the window because there’s only ever a kick of the ball between Mayo and Galway’.
Was it a wake-up call? I’m not so sure that it was in a good way. Sure, we won’t be complacent against Galway. But were we going to be anyway? I’d be more concerned about the London game sowing self-doubt in players. This is a new year with a new manager but the players must be asking questions – are the same confidence and leadership problems still there? Have they inflicted the new players in the squad now as well? Galway, for their part, will feel that if they are close to Mayo with 15 minutes to go that they’ll be more mentally able down the home stretch.
Have we discovered more about ourselves? In ways, yes. The sweeper system needs work. It was ridiculous to play it against London with the benefit of hindsight. And worse still to persist with it for as long as James Horan did on Sunday with Trevor Howley’s man Barry Comer playing havoc by pushing on. Midfield didn’t function terribly well either on Sunday. But what have we really learned? Have a go at picking the team for the Galway game there and it won’t be easy. After seven league games and one championship game we’re as far away as we’ve been all year as to what our best team is. Sunday might have been a learning experience but sometimes the lessons can’t be dealt with in the short-term, especially if those lessons create more doubts than certainties. Sure, it is better to have work to do before the Galway game than halfway through it – the woeful attempt to make a full-back out of Kieran Conroy and a corner-back out of Colm Boyle in 2008 anyone? – but the work that needs to be done is significant. It is June and we have little shape to our team.
We’ll be coming in under the radar, I hear. Typical Irish sleevenism. Write your own chances off and talk up the opposition and the London game has given us license to do as much. No country feels the need to do this quite like the Irish. I’d sooner we were red-hot favourites based on being the better team than underdogs because of the flaws apparent on Sunday last. It says something when a Galway team who were relegated in the league, who we beat comfortably in Tuam, are going to be some people’s favourites in McHale Park. Except they aren’t favourites with Paddy Power, who obviously wasn’t in London either.
And last, but by no means least, ‘form goes out the window because there’s only ever a kick of the ball between Mayo and Galway’. That’s another myth in my humble opinion. Think back over the Mayo v Galway championship clashes this century. Put how many times have Mayo come out on top in these ‘kick of the balls’ games. There’s been eight jousts, Galway have won five, Mayo three. Of those, our 2004 win was the most convincing – a six point win. Mayo broke for home early and finished Galway off. In 2006 we did win a tight game by virtue of Conor Mortimer’s superb injury-time free. That, to me, was the only game where we properly won a tight game. What about 2009? Sure, Peadar Gardiner came up with a wonderful injury time winner but we had led by seven with fifteen minutes to go. The point I am making is this – in tight Mayo v Galway games, it is usually the Tribesmen who have the wherewithal to eke out the result. They couldn’t manage that in 2009 after their draining comeback. But their wins in 2002, ’03, ’05 and ’08 were all tight ones. Only 2007’s humiliation of Mayo in Pearse Stadium was more comfortable. If Mayo had hard work ahead of them to win a tight game against Galway as it was, what will it be like with the effects of Ruislip still lingering in their minds?
Can we beat Galway? Yes. Andy Moran rightly made the point that Mayo are capable of mixing it with a lot of teams when they find their groove. But if the game on June 26 is level with five to go, who would your money be on? Time will tell if I’m being overly pessimistic but, to use that word again, Mayo’s vulnerable nature was all too apparent last Sunday. It is hard to be confident. James Horan has a month ahead of him which will define his first year in charge. If he has Mayo confident, assured and triumphant on June 26 he will have gone a long way towards proving himself as an inter-county manager.