Our 2011 season reviewed

As the dust began to settle after our All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry a fortnight ago a few contributors to the debate on gaaboard.com from outside the county expressed some puzzlement over the general feelings of satisfaction being voiced by the Mayo lads over how we’d done against the Kingdom. How could we possibly be happy having just lost an important match by nine points? Given that this losing margin was a point more than our 2004 All-Ireland final defeat to the same county (a match in which, we’d readily acknowledge, we took a hammering), one could understand why some might question our positive assessment of where we stood following this latest championship beating by Kerry.

But what this line of argument failed to factor in is where we were coming from this year and, in particular, how far we’d advanced since our car crash championship campaign of 2010. Sure, we were eventually outclassed by Kerry at Croke Park two weeks ago but that was a whole load better than being beaten in the first round of the qualifiers by Longford at Pearse park in late June last year. In the end, it’s all a question of relativity.

To underline this still further, it’s instructive to cast your mind back to twelve months ago when the process of selecting a successor to John O’Mahony – who bears such a heavy responsibility for those wasted four years while he was at the helm – was in full swing. It was clear that we needed a new direction if we were to have any hope of restoring our reputation in the world of Gaelic football but the behind-the-scenes attempts to parachute first Mick O’Dwyer and then Tommy Lyons into the job seemed to show that we were in danger of ending up with a celebrity bainisteoir in charge for 2011, a move that would surely only delay the kind of fresh start we so urgently needed.

Eventually, though, the County Board took the brave decision to appoint James Horan and although the appointment was in many respects a complete leap of faith, for those (including myself) who supported the move it felt like the new beginning we craved.

Retaining our Division One status, winning Connacht and then not making asses of ourselves in an All-Ireland quarter-final was always going to be viewed as a good first year for the Ballintubber man and so the fact that he banked this and more in 2011 provides the obvious answer to those who wondered why we were so happy after the Kerry game. Many might have felt that after 2010 the only way was up but we had no guarantee at the start of this year that this would be the case. Relegation from Division One looked a distinct possibility and with a Connacht semi-final date against Galway looming in late June, a provincial title wasn’t exactly a gimme either.

The house needed solid foundations and the dizzying experimentation that took place, first in the FBD and then in the league (with never fewer than five changes in the starting line-up from one game to the next), was James’ clear statement of intent about building for the future. Gone was Johnno’s bullshitting about managing a team in transition while failing to experiment as James cast his net widely and gave everyone a chance to be part of the new Mayo squad of 2011.

This widespread evaluation of available talent looked for most of the spring like it would cost us our Division One status, with narrow home defeats to Kerry and Armagh leaving us firmly in the danger zone. It was still hard not to be sanguine about such a fate, however, as it was obvious that this work needed to be done and the league was the time to do it. As long as progress was being made, relegation might perhaps be a price worth paying, even if it didn’t feature on the Year 1 to-do list.

Then came the Croke Park shootout and the first signs of panic about the new order. With the scoreboard reading 4-4 to 0-2 in Dublin’s favour after around 20 minutes of that game, it looked as if we were going to ship an unmerciful whipping, one which would surely have done irreparable damage to the squad’s morale and left us in no fit shape for the coming summer battles. Our subsequent comeback in that game was perhaps the first sign that James was building a side with strong mental character and even though we ended up losing that one, two weeks later we secured our Division One status with a game to spare by claiming a morale-boosting win over the All-Ireland champions Cork.

As our opening Connacht championship match against London came into view, we seemed to be in good shape with the team coming together nicely and hopes rising about what the summer would hold. Then came Ruislip.

Looking back on it, it seems obvious that many things were wrong about how we prepared for that match, not least the zany travel arrangements, and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that James viewed this as one final chance for widespread experimentation before the real stuff started against Galway the following month. Whatever it was, we were damn lucky to get away with the extra-time win: at two down with two minutes to go, it looked like we were dead in the water. Had we lost it, our championship campaign would surely have been a very different one and I doubt very much if we’d be heading into the winter feeling any satisfaction about how we’d fared in 2011.

But while sometimes the fates conspire to curse you, at other times they cut you some rope and this they did that day in Ruislip. Somehow – largely thanks to Andy Moran’s excellent point-taking in extra-time – we managed to dig out the win and scramble home red-faced to prepare for the clash with Galway.

At half-time in McHale Park, however, I wasn’t exactly filled with too much hope for us. A dirty, cold day was about to become a wet one too, we were four points down to one of the worst Galway sides I’d ever seen play championship football and we didn’t seem to have any discernible gameplan. And, like Ruislip, we were spurning chance after chance from frees. But the second half that day showed us the kind of team that James was assembling – one that defended like tigers, worked tirelessly all over the pitch and had the ability to get the scores when it mattered.

We eventually beat Galway with some ease and although we had to face defending champions Roscommon in their own patch in the final, a provincial title was now firmly on the radar. I wasn’t there to see it but I’m told the conditions were even worse than they were in Castlebar for the Galway game, which meant that the opening half against the wind had to be a containment job while the second saw us apply the same template to the Rossies that we’d used against the Tribesmen. We’d restricted Galway to a single point after the break and Roscommon only managed to get two while, in both matches, we were building a winning total at the other end.

With the Nestor Cup in the bag, most of the year’s wish-list had been achieved but when we drew Cork in the quarters, the chances of our completing a clean sweep and doing well in the quarters looked slim.

Few gave us a chance of winning and the small crowd of just over 20,000 in HQ that day hinted strongly that the team’s own supporters felt largely the same way too.  While I didn’t pitch up at Croke Park without any hope of seeing a shock victory for us, deep down I didn’t think we’d win it either and, like most other Mayo people in the place, after 15 minutes I feared that another Cork massacre was on the cards.

But then we got into the game. And then this happened:

The second half that day was pure bliss. It’s not often that with twenty minutes to go in a championship game involving Mayo, least of all in a big match against vaunted opposition, you could be sure we were going to win but that afternoon was one of those rare days for us. The fact that we’d been written off in advance – with Spillane making that crass remark about Connacht’s ‘junk’ status and Brolly boorishly dismissing us by claiming that Cork would ‘wipe the floor’ with us – only made it sweeter.

Beating Kerry in the semis would, of course, had been sweeter still but it wasn’t to be. We had our chances to put it up to them properly but then they too had a few opportunities to bury us at the outset. They always looked like they had the edge on us and while the final scoreline jarred a little, we knew that day we’d been beaten by a better team. Crucially, though, we also left Croke Park knowing we’d given our all and that, for a significant part of the game, this had been good enough to keep us in touch with a great Kerry side. Our efforts weren’t enough for victory but the Longford defeat the previous year did, at last, feel like it belonged to another era.

While I guess we still need to see how the final later this month goes before we can judge how far off the summit we’ve ended 2011, it’s pretty obvious that we’ve made enormous progress this year. The team is far from the finished article and more new blood will need to be injected next year but it’s now a team with real promise and one that we know can cut it against most of the teams in the country.

Defensively, we’re in better shape than we’ve been in ages. Ger Cafferkey had a very uncertain start to his inter-county career but against Kieran Donaghy the last day he showed that he has what it takes to make the full-back position his own. Donal Vaughan – out injured all spring – got better and better as the summer progressed and now looks for all the world like our new James Nallen. Tom Cunniffe (who should have been moved off the Gooch earlier) and Keith Higgins were solid all year in the corners (even if I still think Keith would be better further way from goal) while Richie Feeney and the reborn Trevor Mortimer were strong and combative in the half-backs.

Over the spring next year we need to see other lads – notably Lee Keegan, who I think is definite first fifteen material in 2012, Dermot Geraghty (who was recalled to the panel after the league and who started in Ruislip) and Eoghan Reilly – get a proper run in the backs and we also need to see if others, maybe the likes of Kevin Keane, Shane McHale and Shane Nally, are capable of making the step up to the senior panel. We also needs to see where Trevor Howley (out injured for much of this year) might fit best.

The two O’Sheas bring great strength and solidity to midfield but while I think there’s a place for both of them, it’s not clear that pairing them at midfield is the best option for us. It worked a treat against Cork’s highly rated pairing but against a limited enough Kerry midfield the lads struggled for long periods. Ronan or Pat Harte with one of them might be a better option and the league might also be a good time to give someone like Danny Kirby a taste of the real stuff. James also needs to decide what to do with James Kilcullen and Jason Gibbons, two players who featured strongly during the league but who seemed to fall out of favour after Ruislip.

In the forwards, Andy’s excellent form all year (our most likely candidate for an All-Star) and the emergence of Cillian O’Connor (surely a strong candidate for Young Player of the Year) were enormous positives for us. Andy steered us away from the abyss in Ruislip, was excellent against Galway and then gave Michael Shields the skinning of his career. Cillian took on the freetaking responsibilities in foul weather conditions at Hyde Park and then demonstrated his class at Croke Park, notably with his excellent goal against Kerry.

Kevin McLoughlin’s speed and intelligence on the ball added an edge to our attacks but our formation against Kerry meant that he was operating for much of that game in defence. This kept us in the contest that day but it also robbed our attack of some of its potency. Alan Freeman didn’t deliver this summer in the way that he suggested last year that he might (though his match-winning goal against Galway was a significant contribution to the championship campaign) while Jason Doherty’s inability to bring his goal-getting league form into the championship was also a disappointment.

There’s definitely work to be done in the forwards but we have talent there in spades if we can get the most out of then. There’s no reason why Alan and Jason won’t rediscover the kind of form they showed earlier in the year and Aidan Campbell can certainly contribute more as well. We do, though, need to rethink what we do at centre-forward as it’s obvious that Alan Dillon is not cut out to be a playmaker and the kind of man who can deliver the rapid, accurate ball that the inside men need. Could Cathal Freeman do this? Could Aidan O’Shea? The league is the time to find out.

Next year’s league campaign is sure to see further experimentation but we know from this year what the core of next year’s championship side is likely to be. However, we also know that, while a welcome improvement on the desperate underachievment of the O’Mahony era, the level we got to this year still isn’t likely to be good enough to land the big one anytime soon.

If we’re serious about competing at the highest level, we’ll need to improve markedly on our best form this year and it remains an open question as to whether or not we’re capable of doing this. But at least we now have the ambition to do so and after this year’s ultimately uplifting championship campaign, we have a fair idea where the target we need to reach is at. That’s more than we’ve had in a long while and, as the evenings start to close in once again on us, the prospect of good days ahead should give us plenty of encouragement for 2012.

24 thoughts on “Our 2011 season reviewed

  1. Pissing rain through the window. waiting for the hurling final to start. You said it all WJ. Well done…dont forget Michael Conroy as well. I still believe in him.

  2. WJ. A great read there and spot on as always. It was easy to forget how far we came this year after losing to Kerry, on the back of our excellent defeat of Cork. That win raised all our hopes beyond what was reasonable for a team and management in their first year.

    I look at Dublin under Gilroy as our template for improvement. In his first year they were hammered by Kerry but they have improved in both subsequent years and this years final will tell just how much.

    For our part, there is still improvement to come from the majority of our team as they are still young in terms of experience. The same goes for James and his management team. He can look back with satisfaction at getting the calls right against Galway, Roscommon and Cork in particular but I feel that he will look at the Kerry match as a game where he blinked first and changed our shape too soon, but at least he threw the dice. He will be more experienced next year and will have more time to devote to the tactical side as we should have a more settled side.

  3. By the way, I am sure that a big part in the improvement of Donal Vaughan’s performances at CHB must be down to the coaching and advice from James Nallen. He could have been a clone for a young Nallen at times as you pointed out.

  4. Great analysis of our year. But getting good players on the pitch is only half the battle.

    Was at the hurling final yesterday and from the moment Kilkenny burst out on to the field I knew they would not be beaten. I am not a mystic or a new age spiritual but there was an aura and an intensity about them that was tangible. They seemed to be fizzing and crackling with an energy that was controlled and purposeful. They were a step ahead of Tipp in thought and action all day and in reality should have won by more. When you have that attitude it makes it virtually impossible for the opposition to beat you.

    I was as neutral as it was possible to be in Croke Park yesterday. It was the most impressive team display that I have ever seen in any code and it was a privilege to witness that display by surely the greatest hurling team ever.

    How do we get to that level ? I do not have the answer but it is where we should be aiming.

  5. Yes Willie Joe – I think you have covered it all – it is desirable that James learns from this year in order to make progress. I was at two of the quarter-finals in Castlebar last Sunday – poor football – the only ones I saw putting up their hands for county selection were Danny Kirby(C’bar) and Danny Geraghty(B’tubber). Kirby looked strong, broke the tackles and banged in two goals – has potential. Geraghty (nephew of Ger – Mayo’s loss and Chicago’s gain a few decades ago) played at centre back, also looked very strong, made the tackles and not much got past him. Agree with you with regard to the midfield combination – while we definitely need the two(and maybe three) O’Sheas in the team – Pat Harte’s style and mobility might be better suited to accompany the high fielding and sheer hard graft of Seamus in the centre of the park thus allowing Aidan to take up a position in the half-forward line. Lessons to be learned from the hurling yesterday – the tigerish tackling of the Kilkenny half forward line making it virtually impossible for the Tipp half backs to get the ball up to their dangerman Lar Corbett. Brian Coady saw what happened last year to the Cats – – he made the necessary changes in personnel, was ruthless to a certain extent, also changed the tactics and peaked at the right time. Maybe James might take a leaf out of Brian’s book.

  6. It’s absolutely true that the role of James and his colleagues on the sideline is a crucial part of the process and I should have said a bit more on that in the review. What Brian Cody achieved yesterday has obvious lessons for us but we can also learn too from how Jack O’Connor set out his stall to beat us – as Darragh O Se predicted in his column a few days before the game, Kerry focused on our strongest area in the Cork game (midfield) and put us on the backfoot there. As Richard quite rightly says, with a more settled team next year James and the lads will be able to put more time into the tactical battles and if they get these right it’ll help to drive us on further.

    That’s good news, Samuel, about Danny Kirby and Danny Geraghty. I have to admit that I’d love to see a Geraghty from Ballintubber back in the Mayo panel – Ger was the real deal, probably the most important player in that star-studded 1983 U21 All-Ireland winning side, and, as you say, our loss was Chicago’s gain in the years afterwards.

  7. Willie Joe excellent summary as usual. I note what you said about the number 11 position and there is only one man to fill that void that currently exists and that is Pierce Hanley (for the time being we can only dream). I would still have dillon on the team doing a roving roll and play McLoughlin as an out and out wing forward. Looking forward to see what new faces James adds to the squad next year.

  8. I have to agree with the positive outlook to this year’s campaign and most of it have been created with the panel by the management team who would have looked on this as Year One to implement a framework.
    We lost by nine points to the perennial AI favourites and one of the greatest ever teams – there’s no shame in that.
    The positive aspect post-match was that James Horan saw that mistakes were made which he can improve upon and while most people would dismiss this from a losing manager, he had a point. If you watch the game again, you can see:

    the points we dropped short,

    Gooch’s high fetch and point was uncontested due to confusion over who was picking him up,

    Robert Hennelly’s foul on Donaghy,

    the marking became looser around the middle third

    Aidan’s run into the square and Donal’s point could both have been goals (to cancel out Darran O’Sullivan’s two attempts)

    As said here, we had to move Kevin Mc at some stage and it may have been too early, but two points could have quickly become four or five points behind and more of a chase.

    I’d rather see us going for it, mistakes and all, than do what Donegal did and not change at all when the game was there to win.

    Still in Division 1, Connacht champions and AI semi finalists is a very good year

    Every year the media have us in around 7th to 9th to win the AI and next year, we’ll be 5th or 6th, with the bonus of the young players having this year’s experience behind them so that’s solid progress

  9. Fatty Boom Batty. Forget the media, you and the rest on this site are as clued in as the media. The only difference being that they get paid for doing something the rest of us do as a hobby. I have read some woeful shite and listened to equally woeful slop from some so called media experts this year, last year and as long as I can recall.

    Take out Keith Duggan, Sean Moran,Ray Silke, the guys from the Mayo papers, Fintan O Toole from the Examiner and the rest should go on their bended knee at night and thank what god they still believe in for the handy number they possess.

  10. Well if Danny Geraghty has a drop of the talent his uncle had we need to get him on the panel asap. For those of you who dont remember Ger Geraghty his loss to mayo football was as big a loss back in the 80’s as Pearce Hanleys is todays. Mahony went on record as saying that if we had him in 89 we would have beaten cork….and for once he wasnt spouting shyte…he was right!

  11. We need to add on an additional 8/10 new players along the lines of the previous posts.
    Then with these new guys on board we need to up the intensity in the A versus B internal games and give next years FBD & League a real lash.
    The factor which separates winners from also rans is COLLECTIVE HUNGER as we saw as recently as yesterdays hurling final.
    And finally off the field is there any chance we could still get the discarded COUNTY PLAN up and running in its entirety ?

  12. Excellent article WJ.re trevor Howley,I heard during the week that he’s emigrating to Aus.He will be a loss to Mayo panel

  13. Good artcile Will Joe. We need to follow the Dublin line of progression alright. Kirby was a great minor so hopefully he can make the leap. I heard there was a young minor from Ballina this year who is supposed to be the real deal. We need a few more of them.

  14. Andy Moran & a 19 year old (O’Connor) carried or forward line in the Championship this year & others would want to step up if we are to make progress.

  15. Agree MayoMagic…without Andy and Cillian we would have had a very poor year indeed. Others need to step up to the plate next year!

  16. would be great to see conor back to his best next year and perhaps we could try aidan back at full forward in the FBD , no doubt JHO will give lots of players a chance at any rate

  17. why do people all of a sudden think Aidan O Shea should be moved from mid field? Was he really that bad against kerry? I didnt think so. Remember the same man was largely responsible for seeing off the Cork midfield in the previous game. One thing im certain off is that he is not a FF so please dont go there.

  18. I believe AOS is a midfielder full stop-not a midfielder in the mould of Sean Kavanagh(he’s just not mobile enough),but a midfielder that marks his territory between the two 40’s a la Dara o Shea/Kevin Walsh knockin lumps outta an’thin that moves in that space!.

  19. People seem to be forgetting that AoS played full forward for us for 2 seasons, and was shown to be not mobile enough to be inside either :p

  20. I think the point about mobility is a valid one. Aidan or Seamus are fine midfielders as they proved in Connacht and against Cork but may need a quicker partner to give us variation.
    There are plenty of young options out there who can be tried in the middle and JH will no doubt experiment with the midfield in the FBD and League
    I was disappointed to see Tom Parsons fade from the scene as I thought a few years ago, he looked like he had huge potential

  21. Echo ontheroads comments; excellent article.. Keith Dugans article was terrific on saturday in the IT, but equally so this review hits the nail on the head

  22. There will be changes to the panel next year for sure. if howley is going to oz then he will be a huge loss. ive heard also that rob hennelly has been offered trials by sunderland fc.

    Ronan mcgarrity will almost certainly not be involved next year. his failure to perform against kerry is the reason im informed. freeman too needs to sort himself out quickly.

    Players id like to see involved next year and get a good shot are regan, pat harte (ballina). kilcoyne(knockmore). kirby (mitchels), hallinan, danny geraghty, (ballintubber), Coen (Hollymount), Keane (westport), quirke (claremorris), slingermann, charlton (Kiltimagh), dempsey (swinford) and conroy (davitts). i think its imperative that young players are introduced quickly to give early experience and hopefully keep them from emigrating.

    Ive a good feeling about the future if JH gets it right. Id keep AOS in the middle with gibbons, kirby or harte battling for no. 9. keep seamus in the squad. Young Conor O Shea looks like a decent prospect too. There is alot to look forward to and talent is being produced. Its going to take time but Gilroy and Dublin got it right, And the younger guys delivered for them. Mayos young guns can too. Onwards and upwards

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