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.
But 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.
So, 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.
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.
If 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.