Billy Joe was well pissed off, by all accounts, at the premature end to his involvement in last Saturday’s match against Donegal and while it’s difficult to argue against the correctness of that particular decision – given that his direct replacement, Pat Harte, was instrumental in hauling the team back from the nine points in arrears that they’d found themselves in when the substitution occurred – it was, I felt, yet another example of Billy Joe getting the kind of treatment that may broadly be termed as the shitty end of the stick.
Billy Joe made his first few appearances for the county in the spring league campaign eight years ago, when he was twice brought on as a sub. It wasn’t, however, until the first match of the 2004 NFL campaign that he made his debut in the starting fifteen, with John Maughan throwing him in at centre half-forward against Fermanagh up in Enniskillen. He scored a point that day as Mayo claimed a narrow victory against a team they were fated to become far better acquainted with as the year wore on. BJ held his place on the forty for all of that league campaign (bar the match against Kerry, where he played at wing forward) but, with Mac’s return for the championship, he had to be content with a place on the bench all summer, all the way up to and including that crushing All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry.
The following year, he turned out at midfield for the league before John Maughan handed him his first reinvention and it was here, at full-forward, that he made his championship debut for the county in the Connacht semi-final against Roscommon in June of 2005. He retained his place on the edge of the square for the rest of that campaign but when the John Maughan II era gave way to the M&M Show the following year, he was mainly deployed at wing forward. He held the no.10 jersey from the Connacht semi-final against Leitrim right up to and including the All-Ireland final, where he had the distinction of being the only Mayo player to score a point from play on that Ultimate Day to Forget for the county.
It was with the start of Johnno’s Second Coming, however, that BJ’s wanderings really took off in earnest. First, for the 2007 league campaign, he had a reasonably okay time in the pivotal centre-back role but was then named at full-back for the championship clash with Galway in May that year. In the event, he didn’t play there (in truth, it was very difficult to figure out who the hell was playing where that day) and instead spent most of the time at wing back. Come the qualifiers and he was back at wing forward again but by the spring of last year he had moved to full-back, an experiment that got cut short when he suffered an ankle injury in the third match of that campaign, down in O’Moore Park against Laois. He was out injured for a long while last year and so his two Connacht championship appearances were only as a sub and both times he came on, this supposed full-back ended up replacing the incumbent full-forward, Austin O’Malley. Then, just in case he was getting settled or anything, it was back to wing forward again for the qualifiers. Bringing matters right up to date, it’s there that he’s lined out twice for us in the league this year.
In all, BJ has played in eight outfield positions for the county but while he has lined out in every central position from full-back all the way to full-forward, his natural position – from what I can see, anyway – is where he’s currently deployed, in the half-forwards. So, after all these years of wandering, it does seem to be the case that Johnno wants to play the Belmullet man there but the issue then becomes one of what role he is tasked with. This cannot, of course, be viewed in isolation and it becomes instead a discussion on how we organise our efforts in the middle third of the field.
As I see it, his current role – or maybe it’s just the job he ends up having to do – is that of firefighter: lending support in grabbing all that messy ball around midfield and, in particular, minding the shop behind midfield when the half-backs go off on their rambles. He doesn’t seem to end up all that often doing what you’d expect to see a half-forward doing, like getting the ball in opposition territory with the object of doing damage with it. I don’t think this is necessarily his fault; instead, so much of his time is spent on extra-curricular duties further back that he’s missing from where he could be employed best.
I could be wrong but I’d say this was one of the main reasons why he was so pissed off at being hauled ashore the last day. From what I can gather (I wasn’t at the game but this theory fits with what I saw myself at the Derry game), all three members of the half-back line took the view that their main job was to attack and this resulted in too much space being afforded to Donegal in this area. Time after time, Vaughan, Cunniffe and Gardiner were caught out of position and this inability to stick to the knitting allowed Donegal to open us up at will in that first half. It also forced BJ, honest team player that he is, deep in an attempt to stem the tide and, in doing so, meant that he hadn’t the same latitude to help out further forward. Midfield was labouring at times too so a dig-out wasn’t going to be turned down there either.
The way in which our half-back line, in general, and Peadar Gardiner, in particular, put too much effort in supporting the attack and not enough on minding the shop is something that has been bugging many Mayo supporters for a good while (especially those of us who think back to famous half-back lines of old, such as the one comprising Noone, Flanagan and Finn). Sure, it’s good for the soul to see the half-backs get forward and join in the scoring but it can’t – as it so often seems to be the case with us nowadays – be at the expense of core defensive duties.
When Peadar defends – as he did to such marvellous effect against Tyrone last year, when he totally nullified the threat of Brian Dooher – he’s as good as anyone but he needs to bear in mind that this is his primary job. There are eight men further up the field from him to do the scoring and, with Barry Moran in the side and Mort and the others feeding off him, there’s now a good chance that the attack will have much more potency than it’s had of late.
A half-back line that sticks more to defending (and a settled midfield that can hold its own with whatever the opposition boasts in this area) would also free up BJ to make a more positive contribution to the cause offensively. BJ is as honest as the day is long and every time he plays for us, he works his nuts off. We should channel that energy better by ensuring that, instead of having to help out all the time to win that messy ball in the middle, he gets quality ball further upfield. When he gets good ball, he doesn’t have to be told twice what to so with it either, as he demonstrated in last year’s match against Tyrone at Croke Park:
It’s obvious that Billy Joe will never be the talismanic figure to Mayo supporters that his father so clearly was a generation ago. But that doesn’t in any way lessen his importance to us as we seek to build a team that can challenge the best in the country once again. Think back once more to that awful day in September 2006 and recall that BJ was, despite getting subbed then as well, one of the few Mayo players to emerge from that debacle with his reputation intact. It’s a reputation that could well be significantly enhanced if, five years after his full Mayo debut, we were at last to begin using his understated talents to the full.