Emerging from the jacks at the back of the stand in Pearse Stadium last May with the shock of the hiding we’d just taken from Galway still only beginning to be accommodated by our senses, The Brother and I were approached by this beaked-nosed Herrin Choker who was clearly looking for a few forlorn Mayomen upon which he wanted to unload his considered thoughts about the just-concluded contest. “That little fucker Mortimor” opined our mandible-snouted new acquaintance “needs his hole kicked. Where was he today when ye needed him? Or any other big day as well?”
Now, neither The Brother nor myself are violent individuals so we didn’t opt for the obvious response in this little game of footballing expostulation and reply. Sure, we should have nutted the bollix (and, in truth, his nose could have done with a little cosmetic rearrangement) but, as I’ve said, that’s not our style. So instead we muttered some vague, non-committal stuff about how nobody in the green and red had covered themselves in glory out there and then we got the hell away from him – and the city of Galway – as quickly as we could.
He was talking shite, of course, but then again he wouldn’t have been the first to hurl a few brickbats of that kind in Conor’s direction. Indeed, you don’t have to wander outside the county boundaries to find detractors of the Shrule-Glencorrib man. I’ve heard many Mayo supporters voice the same kind of opinions about Conor as our Herrin Choker friend in Salthill. And it’s not all idle talk on the terraces, either. Other, more considered, commentators – such as Mike Finnerty of the Mayo News who said the other week that, based on current form, the only two forwards who could be sure of their places for our Championship opener in June were Alan Dillon and Andy Moran – have come out with the same line. But, you know what? Yez are all talking shite, and – you know what else? – I have the figures to prove it.
Conor Mortimor first lined out for Mayo in a competitive match at senior level when we faced Down in our opening league fixture in 2002. That match, played in Ballina on the 10th of February that year, saw Mort line out at top of the left. We won by ten points to five that day and Mort bagged half of our total. Since then, in all NFL and Championship matches from that day right up to last Sunday’s clash with Donegal, we have scored a total of 1,130 points, with 309 of those coming from Mort’s boot. This means that Mort has accounted for just over 27% of our scores in the time he’s been playing for us at senior level.
It’s also true that he’s been banging over the scores at a remarkably consistent rate. In all six Championship campaigns he’s played in since 2002, he’s easily been our leading marksman; in 2006 he was also the top scorer in the entire Championship. As well as that, he’s been our highest scorer in most of the NFL campaigns since 2002, though not in 2004 (when he rarely lined out during the league) nor in 2006 (when that daft DCU suspension ruled him out of some of the league campaign, although he did still come in second behind Alan Dillon in the scorer’s chart for that year’s NFL). Despite those two campaigns where he didn’t feature as much, Conor’s consistent year-on-year strike rate for the county is noteworthy.
As you can see, in every year he has played at senior level, Mort has accounted for at least 20% of our scores and in two of those years (2002 and again last year) his share has exceeded 30%. (The 2008 figure comprises just two matches and so the Statistics Police will be on to me if I don’t enter a caveat – which I’m now doing – about the invalidity of assuming any significance from results garnered from such a small sample size but I’ve included it merely to make the simple point that, on the basis of these two games, it looks as if Mort is going to be as important to us this year as he has been in previous ones).
Moreover, in every year since 2004, you can see that his relative importance to the county team in terms of scoring duties has increased. This is a trend that (a) should be of concern to us and (b) shows that anyone who thinks he’s not worth his place in the side needs his head examined.
But, I hear you cry, he takes the frees and so of course he gets most of our scores, like Maurice Sheridan did before him. And he’s failed to do the business in two All-Irelands, when the stage was set for him to shine. Where’s your answer to that, WJ?
My answer is this. Yes, he does take the frees – though not all of them. Alan Dillon takes the ones on the left (ones like this) and Mort generally doesn’t take 50s or anything outside his 30-yard comfort zone. But isn’t he a damn fine free taker, all the same? That second-half miss against Donegal last Sunday was a bit of a collector’s item as he rarely misses from that distance. Mort’s accuracy from dead balls is something I think we’ve largely taken for granted over the years but it’s an asset many other teams would kill for. (Compare him, for example, to Donegal’s Colm McFadden who was a living embodiment of hit and miss the last day in McHale Park).
In addition, and unlike Maurice Sheridan, Mort isn’t solely a dead-ball merchant. He scores bucketloads from play too and he also gets goals, though probably not as many as we would like or, if you want to be über critical, as he perhaps should. Anyone who was at McHale Park last Sunday will long remember that brilliant second-half point he got (which happened so fast I was unable to get a video clip of it) when he received the ball, swivelled and fired it over without even looking at the posts. There aren’t too many forwards around who can do that.
Yes, yes, but what about our bill-nosed Herrin Choker’s point? What about the bottle-headed blonde who, when the going gets tough, melts into the background? Evidence of this, please? 2004 All-Ireland final: one point. 2006 All-Ireland final: three points (all frees). Salthill last year: six points (all frees). Derry debacle last year: one point from a free.
I don’t think these figures prove anything of the kind (especially not the Salthill one, where Mort’s scores accounted for two-thirds of our admittedly forlorn day’s total – see, he really was talking out of his hole). Instead, what I think they show – in pretty stark clarity too – is that Conor is the only real offensive weapon we’ve got. Close him down and close down while you’re at it the supply lines to him and we’re not left with much in terms of attacking potential. Compare that to Kerry: if anyone concentrates on shutting down the Gooch and those who supply him, Kerry simply switch their attacking focus elsewhere, with equal productive reward. We don’t have options like that and it hasn’t taken the likes of Kerry and some others too long to figure that out.
The obvious conclusion from all this is that Mort isn’t, as his detractors would have it, occupying a place that someone else could be filling more productively. He should, instead, be the very first name on the teamsheet, every single time. Our problem is that we haven’t more like him, in the shape of other forwards who are able to offer the same kind of attacking menace that he does, match after match, on a regular and reliable basis. And, as the figures above show, our dependence on him is increasing year-by-year. This, to my mind, is pretty significant food for thought: not only do we need to find a backline – and sharpish – we also need to find at least a couple of other forwards who are willing to share on a consistent basis the scoring burden that Mort, with some help from Alan Dillon in more recent times, has been carrying virtually on his own for the past six years.