The road ahead

HuddleOkay, 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.

Aidan O'SheaWe’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).

Mayo squad 2009In 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.

FlagsIn 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.

15 thoughts on “The road ahead

  1. great article w.j.Perhaps you could take eugene mcgees job in writing for the indo as he is a primeexample of the lazy journalism that you refer to.For me there is still great hope for the future with players like shane nally ,cathal freeman, aidan walsh, kevin keane and james cafferty to come into the squad.It is only last year that i heard plenty of supporters saying that aiden kilcoyne would never make it as an inter county player,yet this year when given the chance he has proven to be one of our top forwards .for some reason i have always found that alot of mayo supporters are always a little suspicous of players with a bit of class and style.The defeat against meath will sting for a long while as i would have loved to have had a crack at the kingdom.I have no doubt that our players will have learned a harsh lesson last sunday and hopefully this will stand to them in the years to come.

  2. Brilliant piece willie joe, we shall keep the faith with johnno for the next two years, lets try and retain our title next year and then see what croker brings..

    could anyone here shed some light for me on panellist Mike Sweeney? is he a fella who will make the breakthrough ?

  3. Roger when you see Mikey come on to a pitch for Mayo again [portion of comment deleted – WJ].

    Not good enough.

    Jason Gibbons is an interesting one though – maybe a bit slow and hesitant but did well on winter pitches this year. We need star forwards not lads that are much of a muchness to replace what is there.

  4. Excellent stuff WJ. Glad it’s of a positive note as well, as I think we do have grounds for optimism for the future.
    We are clearly behind the top 2 (or 3), but it’s not an insurmountable jump to catch them. I’ve always felt that if/when we do win Sam, it’ll be in a year when we don’t expect it, when we catch everyone by surprise.
    ’96 was almost like that. I remember standing in Ruislip watching us scrape past London, thinking – this will probably be the last game we’ll win in this championship. A few months later and we’re a hop of the ball away from the mother of all celebrations and probable liver damage.

    In our longing for an AI, sometimes we forget to appreciate and enjoy the moments that come before. Salthill this year was one of those moments that I’ll treasure for a long time, the pain of losing to Meath won’t change that.

    I agree totally though, we need to change our mentality and develop a harder edge. I don’t want any more of people from other counties complementing us on things like our ‘pretty’ football, great sportmanship, lack of cynicism etc.
    Obviously it would be great to win things that way, but I just don’t think it’s realistic.
    People can go on about what great footballers Tyrone and Kerry are, but they would of won nothing without that cynical side and ‘darker edge’. Same applies to the Kilkenny hurlers.

  5. Excellent article. As you said this is still a young inexperienced team, particularly at championship level. Maybe the management should bring in some past players to mentor the current squad. E.g. Peter Ford to do some coaching with the full back line. Or TJ or Willie Joe on Midfield play. John Maughan on Fitness. There is so much experience in the county it would be a shame to let it go to waste.
    Next year instead of trying to stay in Division one of the league, we should try to win it, I think if they put the effort in they could do it. It would do wonders for their confidence and set them up for the championship.
    Mayo Fans are optimists with short memories, roll on next year!

  6. Great stuff WJ.

    I totally with all you have said. I believe we have a team that is capable of competing and also we have great youngsters coming through.

    Salthill should not be forgotten this was a successful campaign and even back in the NFL they have gradually got better.

    I’ve no fears for the future and we’re another step closer to the holy grail.

    Up the maigheo

  7. This might sound harsh but is there any point holding onto to the likes of T Mort, Gardiner, McGarrity and Harte if they are unable to perform in Croke Parke on the big day. These guys have not done well in their last three visits there. it looks like Croke Parke has defeated them(not the opposition). I see little reason to be hopeful at this stage in their careers that any of these guys will improve to reallly make a difference when the going gets tough in Croke Parke. They played quite well(and only that) outside of Croke Parke this year but that is not the business end of things.
    I place very little value in our Connact title win as SAM is all that I am interested in.
    Let’s builld our forward line around O’Shea, Dillon and Kilcoyne. Try the other O’Shea, Barry Moran and Parsons for midfielders and the minor midfielders from last year. Forget abut the experienced boys mentioned as I have very little confidence in them and let the O’Sheas, Cunniffe and other youngsters that have not been overly exposed to Croke Parke nightmares be the future.
    I think we are wasting our time with the experienced players(3 or more defeats in Croke Parke) and push on with the new crop and see if they can stand the Croke Parke heat.
    It’s tough but it is the only way forward.

  8. While I don’t agree with the above poster about getting rid of the lads he mentions, there are issues with them when it comes to Croke Park. I don’t think fitness was the problem the last day (Kilty was still an ass to say what he did) but mental collaspe which drains the energy from all over your body. Time will tell and i hope I’m wrong but I reckon we’re gonna be in transition for a whileen . . .

  9. Agree with all of the above I also agree with the importance of support positive from ” supporters “….
    On the issue of the Croke Park freeze I have often wondered – and we have had many opportunities for this – to what extent do Mayo Teams analyze the video evidence of carnage in Croker, the reason for doubt is that recently I read of a player from the 89 team say he had never watched da video, and I,m fairly certain I have heard similar from survivors of 04 06.
    Now if that’s the case I would argue strongly for a review. In terms of post trauma etc its important to move on ..but it is even more important to acknowledge and deal with the trauma first , this avoids the very real possibility of denial of “how bad it really was” setting in avoiding the pain etc
    Now all this sound basic I’m sure but I just wondered especially having heard ” i never actually watched the video “

  10. Great article WJ. We came up short on Sunday but in doing so we have shone a light on our strengths and weaknesses. All in all we are not too far short of the standard required and with some adjustments I agree that we can come back stronger next year. Here’s my take for what it’s worth.

    Our midfield pairings are not strong enough for the business end of the championship and until we come up with ‘competitors’ in this area we will win nothing at national level. All our current midfield options are ‘nice’ footballers and I read a good description of the type required on the GAA board a while back as ‘someone with hairy hooves’ to complement our footballers.

    Our backline came up short the last day too. Keith Higgins is not a corner back. Trevor Howley should be put in the corner as he is our best man marker (Aiden Higgins was mised on Sunday by the way). We need to scour the county for another couple of corner backs that are capable of winning 50-50 balls, are mobile and know how to defend. They don’t need to have much football in them besides.

    Up front we look to be in better shape except when our full forward line needed replacing. At the end of the game we had Conor, Mark Ronaldson and Alan Dillon all on the pitch. Too many men that don’t have the size to win the 50-50 balls when the going gets tough.

  11. I agree with Richard. Reason Meath bet us was becasue they were bigger pysically and could handle the attention from the opposition while winning the ball. This present team needs bigger physical players and in key positions. I agree it does need Corner backs however if you block (or at least lessen) the supply in to big corner forwards then this in turn lessens the criticality of that size in the corners.

  12. i was at the game on Sunday but taped it at home. i only brought myself to watch it last night.
    it seemed much worse when i was there because you could feel the game swinging Meath’s way from the penalty onwards.
    looking at it again, we were level at 63 minutes and then they pulled away with a point every 90 seconds or so – it was an even game up until then, but it felt like failure because we were supposed to win.
    apart from the refereeing decisions, don’t underestimate the impact of the injuries to O’Shea and Kilcoyne. after that Meath had the better forwards.
    as someone said earlier if you lose every move is analysed and if you win it’s forgotten about.
    i feel real progress has been made, especially when you look at 2007.
    it looks a more settled side in at least 10 positions.
    they did look fitter, quicker and stronger in the tackle.
    despite comments above, I thought Trevor had a very good season and is a fine choice as captain.
    Kilcoyne, Dillon, Andy Moran and Higgins all played well overall.
    Cafferkey and Howley are settling in to a regular position in their first season
    Tom Parsons will come back to form, Tom Cunniffe and David Clarke will be back. Billy Joe was under-used.
    the midfield needs attention
    in the Meath and Galway games, it was lapses in concentration and decision-making (poor passes, shots dropping short) more than fitness that made the difference.
    the future is brighter than most give them credit for.
    as has been said already, talk of the House Of Pain, widow’s curses, Pat McEnananey, Script Of Hurt do the current team no favours. it is a lazy policy to dismiss Mayo based on games 3, 5 and 13 years ago (and beyond)
    By the way, i’m sure Joe Brolly is great company when he’s out, but his obsession with Conor and fancy Mayo players doesn’t do him any favours when he can come up with intelligent analysis now and again.

  13. The most successful Mayo team of my generation was built around the successful 94,95 U21 team coupled with some really good senior players. The same should be true of our 2010/2011 side however i share concerns like your previous poster around the physicality of our current crop. The 96 team in my opinion, was relatively successful because it had great backs/mid fieldbut as importantly we had BIG STRONG MEN all over the field. We won all 50/50 balls which ensured our really average forward line had sooooo much ball come into them that they(Maurice), always( well nearly always), managed to get enough scores. I have waked out of 2 horror shows( 04/06) convinced that we needed bigger men if we were to compete with the Kerrys of this world but im not so sure thats the mindset of management… be successful, that mindset will have to change. One other thing, we need Killer to become the new maurice sheridan( not mirrors his contribution from play of course). Dillon and mort and decent but once you go outside thirty five yards their success rate drops off considerably. Sheridan nailed most from either side of the pitch from distance. Killer has the ablility and we must ensure his talents arent lost.

  14. Our messing around with the ball at the end of the game in Salthill cost us dearly.
    It showed how vulneranle we were to the high ball.
    Meath learned the lesson well.
    Cunniffe was a big loss–Howley was not strong enough.
    How did we leave him at cb for the full game.
    Harte was very dissapointing .
    Midfield was well beaten & Kenny got all the breaks.
    Mc Garrity neverdominates a game
    We have made some progress but our FBL is a major problem

  15. I think you’re right to be positive and we do have good players but I seriously question the management’s ability to use those players to best ability. The changes and substitutions were not the right ones, and bringing Tom Parsons back on was just a travesty – he had not been playing well and his confidence was low why not give a fella a break from the bench – bjp should have got that shout. Nallen should have come on when the backs were getting roasted by Sheridan. But we’ll live to fight another day but I have totally lost confidence that JOM will bring Sam to Mayo.

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