Mayo 1-19, Cavan 3-7: win still leaves questions unanswered

The qualifiers are an oddity, aren’t they? It’s still the championship – in the pure distilled sense, given that one slip and you’re gone – but it doesn’t really feel as if it is. Maybe it’s to do with playing the matches on a Saturday evening – what’s wrong with 3.30pm on a Sunday, by the way? – and the fact that the attendances are well down on what you’d normally expect. Maybe it’s simply that, having failed so dismally in our sole Connacht championship outing back in May, we don’t truly believe there should be a second chance for us this year. I don’t know what it is but it certainly makes for a different championship experience.

McHale Park was far from jammers this evening. I’d say that the crowd was certainly no bigger than the 15,000 or so that were at the league clash with the Dubs back at the beginning of April. Cavan brought a small enough support, but that wasn’t hugely surprising given their expectations about the game. I thought we’d muster more support but clearly the faithful need a bit more time to come around.

This evening’s performance won’t have convinced too many doubters, it must be said. We won – which, in a knockout tournament is a big plus – and, in doing so, we racked up a very respectable scoreline. The young lads who were pitched in did, by and large, well and they can expect to be named in the starting fifteen next Saturday. But we were so bloody loose all over the field, it simply wasn’t amusing and our full-back line – with the honourable exception of the excellent Trevor Howley – was torn to pieces. Further adjustments to the team have to be made, and fast, or else next Saturday (unless we get another soft draw) our championship season will be over.

First, the positives. Pierce Hanley did very well on his debut and showed why he’s been spoken about in such exalted terms. He’s a strong lad, well able to put it about and capable of bursting forward with intent. He can score too – he got two excellent points from play, one in each half – and he’s able to create chances for those around him. He’s a definite addition to the team.

Barry Moran did okay as well, especially in the second half when more decent ball started to come into him. His handling wasn’t always that assured and he got knocked off the ball more than perhaps he should have but he laid off a few neat balls to create scores and he did get the goal at a crucial time to cancel out Cavan’s second green flag. He also did enough to keep his place.

David Kilcullen was alright at centre-back, where Trevor Mort put in a strong display beside him. He didn’t do a whole load wrong over the seventy minutes and was busy throughout, always ready to receive possession, generally sound defensively.

Trevor Howley played a stormer but he needed to as his colleagues in the full-back line were all over the shop. The repeated interceptions, tackles and clearances that he made (as well as those made by young Cunniffe when he came on for Aidan Higgins in the second half) helped to prevent things from getting too uncomfortable at the back in the second half.

Both Conor Mort and Alan Dillon used the space the lax Cavan backs gave them to wreak predictable havoc. Mort ended up with seven points, four of which were from play, while Dillon chipped in with five, two of them from placed balls. While it’s true that better opposition than Cavan would have more severely rationed the time and space the two lads were given, it’s also true that they made hay while the sun shone and ensured that the winning margin was healthy enough, despite the horrendous leakages at the back.

Which leads us neatly onto the negatives. Liam O’Malley had another nightmare performance to place alongside his Salthill one and was run ragged by the Cavan attack. He was continually beaten to the ball, forever being caught out of position and directly responsible for two of the Cavan goals.

Aidan Higgins in the corner wasn’t a whole load better though, for whatever reason, Johnno chose to replace Higgins and leave O’Malley in place, despite the fact that Cavan, aware that we were all at sea there, kept raining high ball into the area. Cavan’s ineptitude in attack was what saved us – any half-decent team would have punished our shortcomings in that sector far more severely but even still, bad and all as they were, they still got three goals against us.

Peadar Gardiner was very poor too and gave further proof that his place on the starting fifteen is under serious threat. Two late, mistimed tackles led to a booking followed by a ticking, which prompted Johnno to haul him out of the action before the half-time whistle has sounded. Gardiner’s departure did allow Ronan McGarritty to make a welcome return to midfield – with Heaney switching to wing-back – and while Ronan looked rusty enough at times, he did do quite a lot of good work and, once he recovers full fitness, he’ll be back as a real force in midfield for us.

We’ll need him back there too because Brady and Heaney didn’t exactly work their cojones off in that sector. For long periods of the game, we were very loose and lackadaisical around the middle and I though we gave Cavan far, far too much time and space on the ball. We didn’t close them down quick enough, we lacked aggression in the tackle and we didn’t seem to play with the kind of intensity that we know will be required if we’re going to be able to live with the top sides later in the year.

Cavan were limited enough opponents and would have resigned themselves to their fate far sooner had they not smelled blood in our backline. Once they got the taste for it, they were happy to return for more and the three goals they ended up scoring made the contest look a lot closer than it really should have been. We were never really in any danger – despite the yawning fault lines at the back – of losing this evening but this was mainly because of Cavan’s obvious shortcomings.

So we’re back in the hat tomorrow evening, with another championship tie facing us this day week. Regardless of who we draw (please let it be Meath in Navan, please, please, please), we need to find a full-back, and quick. David Brady gets my vote – Pat Harte will return from suspension the next day and so DB could easily shift back – failing which we may need to recall James Kilcullen to the position.

Overall then, this wasn’t the kind of compelling performance I had in mind when I discussed our prospects ahead of the game. However, unlike Cavan (not to mention Roscommon, Longford, Down and Leitrim), we’re still standing and now we must wait to see who’ll we get paired against tomorrow evening.

PS: I got plenty of video clips of Mayo’s scores this evening and will endeavour to post as many of them as possible to the YouTube Channel tomorrow evening, once I get back to base after this short but, on balance, enjoyable trip to the West.

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