Okay, the dust has started to settle following our exit from this year’s championship and while this doesn’t mean that I’m exactly straining at the leash for the 2010 FBD campaign to get going, it does afford the opportunity to look back on the year’s action at senior level in terms of what we’ve achieved and where we go to from here.
At the outset, I think it’s only fit and proper – as someone who sits and pontificates from my cosy position on the terrace – to recognise and applaud all the effort that the lads on the field have made over the course of the year. We often forget that these guys aren’t highly paid professional sportsmen and are instead people who have to work and study and earn a living and all the rest and that all they do for the county has to be fitted in alongside all that other more mundane stuff that we all have to do.
It’s also true that however bad we feel as supporters about last Sunday, we can be damned sure that the players feel a hundred times worse. Long after we’ve accepted the outcome and moved onto conjuring up fresh delusions about next year (I’ll get to that in a bit), they’ll be left replaying incidents from the game in their heads and thinking about how things might have turned out differently.
But we are where we are. Losing last Sunday was a huge disappointment and it’ll rankle for some time, I think, but, for me at any rate, this will be because it was an opportunity missed to make further progress in the campaign and to have a fresh tilt at the Kerrymen. We all know we should have won last Sunday, that the match should in fact have been over at half-time and that it was only a series of disastrously bad officiating decisions that kept Meath in it and which ultimately afforded them the opportunity to mug us over the course of the final ten minutes.
All of the crap that’s been spouted in the media since the final whistle was blown about the historical baggage we carry, about our failure to perform when it really matters and about how, in contrast, the Meathmen would eat their Grannies in order to get ahead in the world is just that – crap. It’s always easy for the lazy analyst to opt for the stereotype when he can’t be arsed to do any original thinking and while it may be a pain to have to listen to it, it’s not as if it’s the first time we’ve had to do so.
It’s also true that when you win, all your good points get amplified while the opposite is true when you lose. We only won the Connacht final by a point and yet the lads on The Sunday Game that night had prepared some reasonably convincing stuff about all the things that we’d done right and all the stuff that Galway had got wrong in that game. And yet had Galway won that last kick-out and nicked the winning point, you can be sure that a very different set of examples would have been used to tell a very different story about what had happened over the seventy minutes in Salthill. Likewise, had last Sunday’s game taken the kind of very different turn that it could have done the analysis would have shifted accordingly.
But it didn’t, we’re out and I, for one, wish the Royals the best as they prepare for their upcoming battle with the Kerrymen. I wouldn’t rule out a shock in that one but, then again, I fancied the Dubs to thump Kerry so maybe I should hold back on the predictions from here on in. In any case, I don’t want to focus on what’s left of the championship but instead on what the 2009 campaign says about us.
I was really pissed off when Tyrone beat us this time last year, so much so that I was on the verge of penning a furious “Johnno must go” piece a few days after that defeat (I actually started to write one but gave up after a few dispiriting paragraphs). While I’m hugely disappointed that we haven’t made it further than the quarters this year, I’ve none of the same anger as last year and, unlike last year (which I now accept I was wrong about), I don’t think that our exit should mean the end of Johnno’s tenure as manager. On the contrary, I think it’s very positive that he’s come out so soon and has committed himself to the cause for the next two years.
The reason I feel this is because I firmly believe that we’ve made progress over the past twelve months and that we could be set to make further advances in the not-too-distant future. At the start of the year, I felt it was essential that we should win Connacht this year and that, with a bit of luck, we’d make it to the semi-final. Well, we won Connacht but didn’t get much in the way of luck over the course of the seventy minutes last Sunday so that was our lot for the year. Winning Connacht, though, was tangible progress in itself, all the more so that we won it beating Galway in Salthill and, in the process, finally putting an end to all that Pearse Stadium hoodoo bullshit.
In 2007, we were a shambles during the championship and while we were in better shape last year, the team was only partially coming together going into last year’s Connacht final and there was then a further slew of changes to the first fifteen ahead the Tyrone game. This year, the team came together in a much better way and, in marked contrast to the previous two years, further changes were kept to a minimum over the course of the summer. It’s no coincidence, I reckon, that we enjoyed a better summer’s campaign as a result.
We’ve made a few big steps forward this year. The first of these was the way that things were improved in the backline where we’ve looked far more settled and where we’ve all but sorted that problem of leaking goals left, right and centre. I’m still not sure what our best formation is in the backline – Keith definitely shouldn’t be in the corner while Trevor might be better off there, Tom Cunniffe is surely worth a half-back place and so forth – but we’ll head into 2010 with a much better idea of the answers to these kind of questions than was the case over the past few years.
Midfield definitely needs some work done on it. Tom Parsons’ apparent collapse in form was a major negative for us this year and, as he showed in both the Connacht final and again last Sunday, David Heaney no longer has the legs for 70 minutes of championship action. What I can’t understand was why others – like Seamus O’Shea, Kieran Conroy or Barry Kelly – weren’t tried out at some stage. What’s the point in having these guys in the panel if we’re not going to use them?
Personally, I’d like to see O’Shea get a run from the off next year (I know he was injured for while earlier this year, which would explain why he wasn’t given game time in the NFL): if he’s only two-thirds the player his kid brother is, then he’s worth a shot. And, hopefully, next February or March will find Tom in a happier place too. I used to think one time that a Parsons/O’Shea midfield would be of the kind that WJ and TJ were back in the Eighties: who knows, maybe we’ll see such a partnership starting to develop next year.
That said, Ronan still has plenty of football left in him too and the main priority next year has to be to find the strongest partner for the Ballina man and the one that complements him best. Fourgoal has suggested that Barry Moran might be worth a look in midfield (and has also resurrected The Brother’s long-standing theory of redeploying Ronan at full-back). If the Twin Towers approach isn’t maintained next year – and I doubt that it will – then a role further out the field could well be an option for the big, but chronically injury-prone, Mitchels man.
We’ve also come out of this campaign in a better state as regards forwards, with Alan Dillon, Aidan Kilcoyne (arguably our most improved player this year) and Aidan O’Shea all looking like bolted-down certainties for next summer. That leaves plenty of competition for the last three spots and if we can start to bring through a few more of the young guns, guys like Cathal Freeman and Jason Doherty, we should have a decent pick in this sector too. O’Shea, after a storming first season, is destined to be our star turn in the forward line for years to come and we need to focus and shape our attack with this in mind.
Overall, then, despite the crushing downer that last Sunday represented, I don’t think we’re in such a bad place where it comes to playing personnel. I’d be more concerned, to be honest, with the training regime and the backroom stuff because it certainly looked as if the lads were unable to go the distance either in Salthill or in Croke Park. Does anyone know what Jim Kilty was up to when he went public the way he did in the Western last week? What possible benefit (except to boost his own profile) was there in his doing so, especially in the run-up to such a big game? Regardless of his motives, the evidence out on the pitch belied what he had to say and no amount of convoluted terminology such as “core stability functional screening work” (whatever the fuck that is) can undo what we all could patently see with our own eyes.
The other aspect to the team’s preparation that needs some serious work, one which a number of commentators have touched on already (both on this site and elsewhere), is that relating to the need for mental and physical toughness in how we go about our business. There were hints of a more determined approach at different points this year, most especially in the first half of the Connacht final, but it’s certainly true that we don’t set out our stall in the big games with a single-minded, get-the-fuck-out-of-my-way-or-I’ll-take-the-head-off-you approach to life.
It’s in this area, I think, where the lazy stereotype is perhaps closest to the truth and I don’t think anyone would disagree that we need to show a more rugged and determined exterior to the world. This can be done, even with teams that traditionally have never had such a style of play (take, for example, how Ger Loughnane transformed Clare’s hurlers back in the Nineties), and it’s definitely an outlook we need to develop. I’ve no idea how we might go about doing this, I have to confess, but I’d say it would require the services of a different type of gent than one that goes around the place talking about core stability functional screening work (even if the latter is still required as well).
In terms of looking ahead, it’s also important to remember – as has been pointed out in the Western this week – that this is a very young team. The average age of the starting fifteen the last day was just 24.4 years (I’ve just done the math using official stats so this figure is kosher) with only two players – Peadar Gardiner (30) and David Heaney (32) – the wrong side of the thirty. As a result, this is a team that can only get better and you can be sure that it’s better they’ll get.
It’s also the case that these lads aren’t the embodiment of past failures and while nine of Sunday’s team featured at some point in the All-Ireland final of 2006 (with six of them having started that final), only four of them were also there in 2004. As a result, we need to recognise that this is still a very inexperienced cohort of players and Sunday’s match, not least the manner of the loss, should stand to them rather than traumatise them. It will stand to the lads all the better if we supporters stand by them in the weeks and months ahead as we turn our attention to next year’s action.
Sure, we may never get to experience the feeling of winning an All-Ireland but I for one have no intentions of giving up just now. Tyrone were beaten by Sligo for chrissakes in 2002 and barely twelve months later they were top of the pile, and for the very first time too. The same county also got felled unexpectedly in 2007 at the same stage of the championship by the same county that did for us last Sunday and a year later they had reclaimed Sam, this time for the third occasion. Now, I’m not saying we’re about to emulate what the Red Hand has achieved over the course of this decade, I’m merely pointing out that significant year-on-year progress can and does happen.
In terms of where we currently sit in the pecking order, I’d say we’re bracketed in quite a large second tier of counties that includes the likes of Galway, Kildare, Meath, Donegal, Derry and Dublin (depending on how Cork get on from here on in will decide whether they form part of an elite trio with Tyrone and Kerry or whether they’re in our group – the same goes for Meath, I guess). While it will take enormous effort, commitment, hard work and, yes, a bit of luck wouldn’t go amiss either, we can realistically hope to make further progress over the next few years, hopefully of a kind that will enable us to get back in serious contention for Sam.
In the final analysis, while this year has ended up as a disappointment, we shouldn’t be too downhearted. We have that marvellous day in July to treasure and, of course, we had a clean sweep this year of Connacht titles at senior, U21 and minor level. In relation to the latter, don’t forget that we still have the possibility of another All-Ireland final ticket hunt to come next month. If you were to believe this kind of shite, we’d all be throwing ourselves like lemmings from the upper deck of the Cusack but the reality is that we have more good days than bad ones as Mayo supporters. And there’ll be more good days to come in the future too.
It’s definitely time to Keep the Faith, hombres.