Reasons to be cheerful?

sam-maguire_With less than five days to go until our first championship match of 2009, I guess it’s time to set down a few thoughts about what the summer might hold for us.  The last two have been as bad for us as the weather was – remember this? – but, with the long-range forecast for this summer apparently positive, does this mean that our fortunes on the field are going to experience an upswing too?

I think they could but this is very much a feeling from the heart rather than one grounded in any hard analysis.  Maybe it’s just a bout of the usual pre-season optimism that tends to afflict the average Mayo supporter before the first throw-in of the summer, maybe it’s just a case of wishful thinking.  Whatever it is, I’m hopeful that we’ll have something to shout about over the course of the summer though what that something will be is open to question.

I can’t, though, see us challenging seriously for the All-Ireland.  When you look at the likes of Kerry and Tyrone and thumb your way through the kind of personnel they have and the insatiable drive for honours that they’ve got in their bellies, it’s simply not credible to think that we’re close to them in terms of the strength of our squad or, indeed, our will to win. Sitting high up in the Cusack last September, what struck me was the sheer intensity of the contest that unfolded below me and I couldn’t help but wonder about how we might fare out in such an environment, bearing in mind our recent travails on the big day. If we did manage to find our way back into an All-Ireland final this September, would you back us to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Kerry?  Could we do a Leinster on them?  Hand on heart, I don’t think we have – at least at the minute – that kind of fire within us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  There’s a fair bit of ball to be kicked before we could ever think about another September day.  If we are to get that far, then recent history tells us that we need to collect two major scalps: in 2004 it was Galway and Tyrone, two years ago it was Galway and Dublin.  Which leads me to the blindingly obvious conclusion that if we’re to do anything of substance this year, we’ll need to start off by beating Galway.

gaelic-park-nyBut I’m getting ahead of myself again.  First we need to go to New York and beat the Exiles over there, which, Mort or no Mort, we’ll do handily enough.  June 20th is a potential banana skin but, then again, neither Leitrim (who, under M&M, failed to emerge from Division 4 of the NFL) nor Roscommon (who, under Fergie O’Donnell, almost ended up getting relegated to Division 4, once the benefits of training collectively in November and December had worn off) set the world on fire this spring.  The Rossies could find it tough enough to take out Leitrim up in Carrick but, paradoxically, I’d say the Sheepstealers would give us a tougher match in Castlebar than Leitrim might be expected to do, the M&M factor notwithstanding.

Regardless of which of them it is, we’d be expecting to make it through to the Connacht final and, unless Galway suffer an unlikely collapse when they face up to Kevin Walsh’s Sligo, it’s short odds to be a rematch of last year’s final, only this time at Pearse Stadium.  If we’re to make any impression this year, this is a match we simply have to win.  Up until that unlikely one-point win over them in Tuam at the end of March, I don’t think we’d have fancied our chances against the Herrin Chokers but – despite the fact that they should have hammered us that day – all of a sudden they don’t look all that invincible and we can approach a possible final meeting with them in a more optimistic frame of mind.

If we do beat them, we’re off and running again – back into the All-Ireland series for the first time since 2006, with the knowledge that the last two times we won Connacht we made it all the way to the All-Ireland final.  Who we might pull in the quarters would, of course, be a complete lottery – Kerry and Tyrone could both find themselves taking the scenic route again this year – but that’s the championship for you.  At least we’d be at the table, unlike the last two years, and we’d just have to take whatever hand we’re dealt at that stage.

If we don’t beat Galway, then we’d be facing into another qualifier campaign, one which may or may not also lead us to the All-Ireland series, albeit by a more circuitous route.  We shouldn’t, of course, turn up our noses at such a scenario – don’t forget that both of last year’s All-Ireland finalists made it to the big day in September in this way and we’d most likely have made it to the quarters last year had we drawn anyone but Tyrone in the final round of the qualifiers.  However, until we fully embrace the second chance that the current championship structure offers – in the way that the likes of Kerry and Tyrone so transparently do – the best way for us to progress is to do so via the direct route.

ger-cafferkey-v-corkSo, can we have confidence in terms of how the squad is shaping up?  I think that, up to a point, we can but there are still major question marks over our ability to live with the best.  This is especially the case in the forwards and, to extent, it’s true of midfield as well.  The major positive from the league campaign is, of course, our increased meanness at the back, with Ger Cafferkey slotting in confidently to the troublesome full-back position in a defence that hasn’t conceded a goal for five matches now.  We seem to have options coming out our ears in the backline, what with the likes of Trevor Howley and Keith Higgins ready to come back into the team and where old hands like David Heaney and James Nallen are waiting in the wings as well.  As a result, we can be confident enough that we’ll have a stronger backline this summer than we’ve had for several years.

We have options at midfield as well and although Ronan McGarritty and Tom Parsons could do the business for us here, it’s far from certain that they’ll do so.  A lack of authority at midfield, especially in the opening half of games, has been a persistent problem for us and it goes some way towards explaining why we’ve found ourselves repeatedly staring at a significant deficit on the scoreboard at half-time.

ronan-mcg-2009_Back in the 2006 Connacht final, Ronan was the dominant midfield figure and he was the reason why we put it up to Galway right from the off that day.  We need Ronan back performing at this level again if we’re to trouble Galway in Salthill this year and we also need Tom to push on from his promising debut season last year.  We also need back-up options – from the likes of Seamus O’Shea, Barry Moran, Pat Harte or whoever – to keep Ronan and Tom on their toes and to be able to join the fray where necessary.  Maybe it’s the rose-tinted glasses but I think that, with sufficient effort from the guys in the middle, we should be able to hold our own in this sector when it comes to the crunch.

I’d be less confident about our ability to do so in the forwards where it’s obvious we’re not suffering from an embarrassment of talent.  We have Dillon and Mort, who between them have garnered the bulk of our scores for the last few years, we have Austie, who has yet to convince on the hard ground, we have Aidan O’Shea, a young man with too much responsibility being thrust on his shoulders and we have others, like our newly-appointed captain, as well as BJ, Killer, Mark Ronaldson and, if he’s not needed at midfield, Pat Harte.

In other words, we have a number of decent, committed players but we don’t have a single free-scoring forward (Mort was but no longer is, Dillon blows hot and cold) and there’s precious little evidence that the forwards are playing to any kind of coherent game-plan.  Contrast that with Kerry, who have more talented forwards on the bench than we have on the field, players who move the ball forward with such purpose, are always capable of giving the right ball and who seem to score with such little effort.  They rarely run into the kind of cul-de-sacs our lads so frequently end up in and their shot selection doesn’t look much like ours either.

We’ll be doing well, I think, to come up with a front six that’ll cause problems to the likes of Galway and, should we get past them, whoever we meet in the All-Ireland quarter-final.  Could a forward unit of, say, BJP/Trev/Dillon/Conor/AOS/Austie do the business for us?  We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.

And so, as we face into another championship campaign, we’re in the not too unusual position of not knowing what our best team is and with question marks over a number of important positions.  But, as we know from other years – and we don’t really have to go further back than 2004 and 2006 – Mayo teams have the capacity to surprise and often when we least expect them to.  I recall leaving Carrick in 2006 muttering dire predictions about what Galway would do to us in the Connacht final and look what happened then.

connacht-final-2006If we fail to raise our game, if the forward line continues to under-perform then another underwhelming championship season surely lies ahead of us.  But, with a bit more effort and – yes – a little slice of luck, those narrow defeats of last year could give way to narrow wins.  We need a few big days out this year, we need to see the team win matches when it really matters against difficult opponents.  We’d love an All-Ireland, of course, but even my optimism doesn’t stretch that far.  A Connacht title is, though, a reasonable target and, if we achieve this, we can then think of what might lie beyond.  We might, perhaps, be in for an interesting summer.

11 thoughts on “Reasons to be cheerful?

  1. I think that setting an aim of going as far as we can in the Championship makes more sense than setting a Connacht title as an aim Willie.

    The thing about Connacht is that Galway are clearly the class of the province. Mayo can beat them with the blood on fire but Galway have to be favourites going into any encounter.

    It’s easier, then, for Mayo to be more positive about the qualifiers than to think the season already lost if they don’t win Connacht – either by losing to Galway in the final or, God forbid, the risen Ross in the semi.

    Suppose Mayo lose the Connacht final to Galway. Mayo beat, say, Cavan, again, in the qualifiers and then beat Kildare (losing Leinster finalists) in the next round. Galway get the same draw as they did last year and get Kerry, losing Munster finalists. Mayo beat Kildare, Galway lose again to Kerry. Who’s had the better season now?

    Connacht titles are nice but if Mayo want to be bigtime they have to look at the Championship as it is now, the way that Tyrone and Kerry do. For them, there is nothing serious until August. Now, as a traditionalist, I am not in favour of that and would bring back the old knockout system, but I have to go with what is.

    Mayo would be better served looking at the big picture rather than focusing on the Connacht title. The Nestor Cup won’t make up for a Croke Park spanking next time out. But not winning it should not mean that the summer ends there, because the Championship is not set up that way anymore.

  2. Well called Willie Joe and the upshot is a dearth of scoring talent up front. I agree with Trevor as captain but the last few days has me thinking that JOM made him captain to offset the possibility of younger Mort not making the first xv, a strong possibility, what with injury and a diminishing return from play plus not too accurate from frees anymore. Since Conor got dropped for the Galway national league game the team has improved.No point in having two cross Mortimers.Heres hoping for a decent run this year, a bit of cavaliar and caution to the wind, less doom and gloom for a change.

  3. Looking foward to the championship. pity there is such a gap between the first and second games. thats a debate for another day. How will mayo fare this year. difficult to say. there are alot of positives and negatives to winning connaght. It is a trophy in the bag and a guarnteed trip to CP. However looking at past results, teams that come through the qualifiers seem to be more battled hardened. Take Tyrone last year, they lost in the early rounds, but they regrouped, played a number of tough games. and won it. Take connacht Mayo and Galyay are two division on teams the rest are division 3 and 4. no disrespec to these other counties but Mayo and Galway will only have one proper championship match befor the quater finals, this is poor preparation when facing the likes of Derry, Kerry Cork, Tyrone, Armagh, Kildare, Dublin or whatever team comes through the qualifier route. On the other hand Mayo only seem to do well when we win connacht. As regards our fowards what about playing Barry moran and young O’Shea as a two man Full foward line, looking at the stats from the league both are good at scoring goals.

  4. Hypothetically, I’d rather have us winning Connacht and getting knocked out in the quarters, rather than going through the qualifers and losing in say the semis or even the final.

    It’s fine saying that the likes of Kerry and Tyrone look at the bigger picture of Sam, but we don’t have recent All-Ireland wins to justify thinking that way. We should think that way, and I hope the players do, but there’s a reason we’re 25/1 to win Sam.
    We normally seem to be a team that works well with momentum, so lets get Connacht won for a start and see where that takes us. The momentum gained from beating (assuming it is)Galway in Pearse Stadium could lead to a long summer for us.
    It would be nice to think that JOM could at least win one trophy for us during his tenure.

  5. Well i’d have to agree with Willie Joe’s beginning, this has to be a bout of pre-season optimism for us Mayo supporters to think that we might beat Galway in a Connacht Final in Salthill. Our recent performances there speak for themselves.

    I’d definitely agree that we’re seriously short of scoring power in the forward department. A half forward line of T Mort, Dillon and BJP as might be the case, isn’t going to deliver very much in terms of scores discounting Dillon’s frees. As for the inside line, Conor Mort has not been going well and the injury stops him from having a confidence boosting run out against New York to get the radar right.

    On a positive note i think the defence is on the improve and for some reason i’d always have far more confidence in a Mayo team with a strong backline and a weaker forward line than vice versa which has i think to some extent been the case over the last 5 years.

  6. Ontheroad – that is ridiculous to suggest that Trevor was made captain just to appease the Mortimer’s if Conor is dropped. Would be ridiculous to have such an agenda in the first place, but more so to suggest that Conor may be dropped – look he has not been in top form, but he is MILES ahead of others in respect of natural forward play and producing a scoring return (except maybe Dillon sometimes). Yes he is a head case at times, but if we are to do anything at all this year, we need him in the team. What we need to be doing is taking the scoring dependency off him.

    One more point – a lot is being said about the ‘solving’ of our defense – I’m not so sure. Yes, we have a lot of competition, but no-one stands out in any position (that includes K Higgins who is a fine player, however grossly over-rated by Mayo fans, and still has a lot to prove, particularly in defensive duties). We have rookie full-back and CHB and likely a debutant in one corner. Hope I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t say it’s solved yet….

  7. Well done Willie Joe with the thoughtful analysis. I always look forward to the championship with a sense of optimism. We are after all one of the stronger counties in the country and we are always there or thereabouts. We have some options in the forwards, I think based around AOS on the full forward line but our strength lies in our fantastic backs. As Barney rightly says this is a serious positive for any Mayo team.

    I agree too with An Spailpín Fánach when he suggests the hard route through the qualifiers (as in more games and less pressure initially) is the best way to go. The only problem with this is you need depth in the panel to absorb any injuries. Teams that come through this way seem to be better prepared. Personally I would rank, beating Kerry and putting an end to their season the same as winning a Connaught title. Ouch am I that bitter? Mmmm yes I am.

    I don’t question Mayo’s commitment, but their preparation sometimes seems to be questionable. This is noticeable if you compare their energy (or chi levels) to Kerry in those disaster finals. There is no excuse for this and it is something that can be very easily rectified. Again if we were to look at the “Masters”, have you ever noticed how every Kerry forward manages to put 5 points over the bar before the first whistle is blown, thus testing the pitch and their range. All we have to do is sharpen our preparation a bit.

    I reckon Mayo at 25/1 to win the All Ireland is a definitely worth a tenner.

  8. Just on a point of clarification lads – I’m not saying that the qualifiers is the best route for Mayo to take. I think the best way to go is to win all your games the old fashioned way.

    But setting your goal for the year as the Connacht Championship means that you’re then necessarily ruling out the qualifiers, which doesn’t make sense. They’re there, we should make the most of them if we have to. It’s just that if you aim for Connacht and then lose it, it takes a lot of rebuilding. More so than it would if you aimed to just survive for as long as you can, whether on the qualifiers or not.

    Best of luck with that tenner ChangeManagement. I’m on Down myself at the princely price of 66/1. Up Down!

  9. WJ, Good article as usual,
    I think Mayo are a top 6/8 team, but on our or their best probably 10 points inferior to Kerry and Tyrone. 25 to 1 sounds about right to me.

    Lads, simple question: What has really changed since ’06 to make us think we are realistic challengers for an AI or even in better shape than 06?

    Some of the things people pointed to after the 06 debacle.

    1. Poor physical conditioning relative to top team: The infamous ‘ladeens’ comment. Are we really better off? The team may be taller on average than ’ 06 but stronger?
    Lack of scoring power. Would any Mayo forward get in Tyrone or Kerry starting 15? I am not even sure if one would make the Cork or Derry teams. (AOS possibly)
    Lack of Intensity: Mentioned by WJ in his article. Mayo teams are often entertaining to watch and I am not questioning the players commitment but as a unit, they just lack that nasty/canny ‘edge’, that intensity, that AI winners seem to have.
    Lack of leadership: There just don’t seem to be many real leaders on that team. Honest, committed player, yes, but ‘leaders’. I don’t think so.

  10. Sadly I have to agree with the majority view. The bookies odds are possibly generous, I wouldnt touch 25/1 though. The league gave no comfort. Our forwards are not a unit that challenges.

    On the positive side, were we any more hopeful in 1989, 1996 or 2004?

    I’m not as concerned as some about winning Connacht. Talk of “Galway or bust” is the same attitude that certain players had last year. We (supporters and players) have a similar self defeating attitude towards the qualifiers. Our goal should be the quarters, how ever we achieve it.

  11. All valid points but I think targets just get in the way of our normal game. I like the rest of us would like connacht and an AI but if the team are improving and looks like we are moving in the right direction then with the current crop of youngsters then our time will surely come.

    That aside you annot escape that winning and losing beome a habit and I think that winning connacht would give the team confidene going into the summer.

    There are big questions about the forward line and no doubt we will have our answers in the coming months. I would put AOS in with conor a mix of experience and youth and see how it goes. AOS has not let us down yet at senior level and being a first pick for the championship might just lead him onto bigger and better things.

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