Trench warfare

Mayo v Kerry 2014

January and 31 teams plus New York and London are pounding the pitches, sweating the gyms and riding high in the saddle. Progress will be measured by progress in the FBD, McKenna Cup, O’Byrne and whatever Kerry blow out dirty petrol in.

In truth it’s an almost futile process for most counties. Like WW1 soldiers,  they go over the top to be mown down before the hay is turned. Flickers of success in the four division leagues merely prolong the inevitable.

One way or another, with Sky on board and players demanding more meaningful exposure, we are in the twilight zone of the provincial championships. They are losing their value and worth.

Dublin, Mayo, Donegal and Kerry have shown virtual domination in recent years. This is not an anomaly, we can measure progress particularly since 2011 when those four broke from the pack.

Picking four more teams to equal them is a challenge. Cork for sure, Dublin are without meaningful challenge in all of Leinster, maybe a resurgence from Kevin Walsh and Galway and Ulster’s attritional championship that might occasionally blaze by poking Tyrone or a McGeeney-inspired Armagh.

That’s it. Maybe four teams with a realistic chance of winning Sam. Worse case scenario, would anyone put their house against only Dublin or Kerry winning this year’s title?

I met a few Leitrim players last year. My admiration for them is unbounded. They train as hard as any county. They are as gifted – what would most counties give for an Emyln Mulligan? They dream and aspire like a Kerry man but they lack numbers, they lack tradition.

In Connacht Sligo and Leitrim combined possess five senior provincial championships over 135 years. Mayo have amassed that many inside the last six years. That’s not a boast – no, winning provincial titles often masks other weaknesses. From 45 Provincial titles Mayo have three senior All-Irelands. Donegal have an 8:2 ratio and Down have an impressive 12:5 ratio.

Eventually, either through TV demands or followers turning up in large numbers only for the August quarter-finals , the GAA will go for a three-tier championship, senior, intermediate and junior. In the meantime the gap widens and the annual cull continues unabated.

Where stands Mayo? According to the Irish Independent rankings, they are placed fourth. I assume that this is going on last season’s results. Kerry are ranked number one and Mayo should be ranked three on results based on last year’s championship. The resultant All -Ireland champions needed two matches, extra-time and controversial calls to knock Mayo out.

However, delving through the figures over the last six seasons show that of the Big Four, Mayo, are the only ones not to win the big one. Dublin with two, Kerry and Donegal with one apiece lead the way. That group were joined once over those four seasons by Cork and Tyrone.

Can we maintain our top four status? Certainly I see both Kerry and Dublin keeping the pace. Donegal without the driven McGuinness will be replaced by Armagh with the equally driven McGeeney. And us?

To go forward we must look back to 2011. James Horan benefitted from one trait not normally associated with Mayo managers … good luck. London were within minutes of scalping Mayo and had they then, added to the awful 2010, the county would have been reaching for the sedatives.

That let-off saw a solid run until they ran into a gnarled Kerry side led by Jack O’Connor. Kerry won handily enough in the end. Contrast both teams in Limerick last August. From the 19 players used by Mayo, only Trevor Mortimer, McGarrity and Campbell were absent.

Kerry lost Tomas Ó Sé, Tom O’Sullivan, Kealy, Darran, Gooch, Galvin, Bohan and Scanlon. Dropped for the start were Marc Ó Sé, Declan O’Sullivan and O’Leary. Wholesale change whilst we held virtually the same team from four years earlier.

Remember young Lyne and his two points in extra-time for Kerry in the replay? The heroics didn’t grant him a second on the pitch for the final. Eamon Fitzmaurice is cut from the same stone as Brian Cody. Tommy Walsh, arguably a notch behind King Henry, merited zero minutes in the All-Ireland final plus replay.

Fitzmaurice dropped Marc Ó Sé, Kerry royalty, for the Mayo replay. The sun didn’t stop shining in the Kingdom over that – no, Fitzmaurice backed himself and his philosophy. Ó Sé responded accordingly and Kerry rediscovered their mojo.

The soft centre cost Mayo over the last four years and was not addressed. Kerry 2011, Down and Coulter 2012, David Clarke’s size 12s against Dublin at the death in semi-final, Murphy for Donegal. Likewise the concession of an U16-type goal against Dublin in 2013 and Donaghy making merry in 2014 were costly.

It’s not the absence of that abused term “marquee forward” that has cost Mayo, the scores we got against Donegal and Dublin in 20012/13 were good enough to win many All-Irelands. No, Mayo have had a number of All-Star forwards over the years. O’Connor, AOS, Mort, Dillon and McDonald can be termed as “marquee forwards” though not always together or in tandem.

The panel was retained in total for this season. Yet the previous manager was reluctant to use that panel. When Cunniffe was injured against Dublin in 2013, instead of replacing him with a panel defender,  we saw Keith Higgins brought back from 11. Ger Brennan went from hands full to scoring a vital point with his weaker foot. Despite Donaghy running riot last summer, remedial action was slow in coming.

For the new management team to succeed they need their wing backs to continue their high energy game. There are issues in two three spots at the back. Clarke with his experience and calmness is a must.

After  1996 I figured if we obtained a “marquee forward” to supplement James Horan’s stellar ability and a keeper to steady the defence, anything was possible. We got McDonald and Peter Burke but fate ensured Brady, O’Neill and Cahill suffered broken bones. Flanagan and Sheridan nursed injuries all season and Horan’s form deserted him. In other words fate wasn’t listening.

For Mayo to break the final day glass ceiling, big decisions need to be made. Fortune favours the brave. Dublin Mk I won in 2011 with a defensive set-up, Donegal in 2012 crossed the line with their total belief in their manager and his style and methods. Dublin Mk II won 2013 with a brand of offensive football tailored with brutal pragmatism. Kerry gambled in 2014 with a huge injection of freshness and serious decisions made.

For us to achieve the winners enclosure nobody should be above the team. The goal is the ultimate. If the full panel doesn’t believe then those that are in the team are in for ever and those that are out are there for the ride and the training pitch matches.

Sentiment should be banned from the pitch, the dressing room and team. In 2004 Dara Ó Sé missed that year’s final through a broken leg. He vanished from the Kerry collective until the canister was won. No sentiment , no maudlin gestures from those serial winners.

We need that steel. Mike Hassett was  the 1997 Kerry captain . He lifted the Munster cup, missed the semi-final against Cavan and was relegated down the subs bench for the final. He wasn’t awarded a winner’s medal. Kerry minted 22 medals and Hassett hadn’t made that number. Tough, but like Kilkenny it’s winning that matters not the support cast. Hard work, hard calls and the smile of Lady Luck are a prerequisite. I wish them all on the team, managers and supporters in the year ahead.

16 thoughts on “Trench warfare

  1. Well written as john , the only thing I can say is we did not hav much luck either, in 96 if that ball went in one hundred times I don’t think it would have gone over the bar again, in97 if Maurice fitz got injured instead we would have won . However we have to make our own luck, I hope we caj get over the line with this panel but fear they might have peaked already

  2. A very interesting piece John and well put together. Since 2011, Dublin, Mayo, Kerry and Donegal have appeared in 2 finals each. Dublin have won two and we have lost two. Donegal and Kerry have won one and lost one. We have conceded a lot of bad goals at vital times but we have also lacked the killer instinct up front. In the 2013 final Andy Moran’s goal was our only score from play in the second half by a forward and in the 2012 final a point by Richie Feeney again was our only score from play in the second half by a forward (he came on a sub up front that day). Also we had 10 forwards that played some part in the 2013 final but only two, Andy Moran and Keith Higgins scored from play. You’d have to say thats not championship winning form either. We hardly ever manage to put in our best performances on the biggest day, heres hoping that Noel and Pat can change that or even if we can learn to win ugly, something we have never managed to do either. That is James Horan’s main legacy, we are now considered as a serious team, very close to been the best, only time will tell if we can take the next step.

  3. John,

    You speak a lot od sense in that posting but I have to disagree with you on a few points.
    1] Mayo’s lack of [or alleged lack of] a marquee forward. We have played 10 major games in Croke Park since and including 2011. I have excluded the 2013 Donegal QF as it was a totally one day experiance. From a quick analysis of scoring records from the archives on this site our main forwards [Cillian, Andy M, Alan D, Jason Doherty and Kevin Mc] have scored a total of 6 = 57 from play. Alan Dillon is our top scorer with
    0 = 17 followed by Cillian on 2 = 12, and Andy Moran on 2 = 10. I do not think that on those figures any of our forwards are approaching “marquee forward” status. Individually it is more in the “barely adequate category. I don’t suggest that high scoring records are an essential mark of a marquee forward [Donaghy and Michael Murphy are marquee forwards for the opportunities they provide to those around them] I do not have easy access to figures for forwards like Gooch or McFadden, but I would be pretty certain teams winning All Irelands have much better scoring records than Mayo. We are too dependent on our defenders helping out in scoring to the detriment of their defensive work.
    2] On your suggestion that the championship be graded into Senior, Intermediate and Junior categories you do not seem to realise that there is absolutely no interest in that idea in the weaker counties. Leitrim’s All Ireland is the meeting with Roscommon or Sligo and it is the same with all the other counties. And you can be damn sure that Roscommon do not want to be deprived of their crack at Galway or Mayo. OK, it works in hurling because there is so much less interest in hurling in the relevant counties. Mayo are in the second grade after the McCarthy Cup but what is the attendance at a Mayo Christy Ring Cup game?
    3] In proposing changes to the Championship people never seem to take the club game into account. If we were to adopt a champions league format club players would be pushed even further into the background and the early and late seasons for their games. My suggestion would be to have the championships run off as at present but with rigid three/four week intervals between games and the weekend after
    each county game reserved for club games, i.e the present regulation of not more than 13 days embargo on club games rigidly enforced. County team managers may not be happy but if it were the same medicine for all they would have little real cause for complaint.

  4. Have to agree AndyD i can’t see much interest for a inter,junior grade county championship. I actually think the current league format has created the gap between sides come championship. Before we had 1a v 1b and 2a v 2b and in the 90s any side could win just one league title as Offaly did one year.

    Armagh likely to take over from Donegal? 3 Armagh starters have since retired another 4 have left the panel due to McGeeneys OTT training schedule and they have to prepare for this years championship in div 3 which is far from ideal.

  5. Great piece John.

    Anybody watching Mayo going back to 04 has to identify the concession of goals as the key problem and it’s much easier to fix that problem than finding exceptional forwards anyhow.

    I agree with a 3 tier concept the critical thing though would be to make sure that the winner of the 2nd and 3rd divisions get a place in the quarter final with say the top 6 in division1.would ensure that div 2 & 3 have real meaning.
    prov championships could then be played instead of league and used as a seeding for the championship divisions

  6. Very good piece as always John.

    I think the problem with the League now is simply that it is too competitive at the top level. In my mind the championship starts next week with the majority of Div1 teams trying out only a few new guys but the overall priority is to maintain their level as the season progresses.

    Also the current format has the top teams playing each other all the time making them stronger. The lesser teams never get a chance to play a top team prior to the championship and at that stage it’s too late and they invariably get trounced.

    Personally I would have an open draw League that’s seeded based upon current standings with 4 sections. Each section would consist of 2 teams from current Div1, Div2, Div3 and Div4 standings.

    And still four trophies for those that make the top 4 of their sections i.e. those who finish fourth across the board play for a trophy at that level.

    The benefit I would see overall is that lesser teams would get a taste of what it is like to play a big gun and would be better primed then for what lied ahead in the championship when they need to be at their peak.

  7. Fully agree with you john about the marquee forward , we lost our finals through a combination of lads not turning up and bad decisions on the line , not because our forwards don’t get enough scores

  8. John I enjoy your pieces but you harp back to the past too much in assessing our current team.

    Its a different sport now. There are lessons from the past we will never learn and mistakes we will repeat but we all know those.

    2015 could be a sorry year for us going on early season form.

  9. There is nothing can be taken from 2015 early season form other than a few new faces are in form enough to possibly get starting or bench places. Donal Vaughan might be a full back option. The team is missing AOS, Cillian n Keith Higgins, our three best players.
    What I would hope is achievable is:
    – taller, more physical full back line (like to see Keane Vaughan ANother in league .. Coen/McHugh in corner as Higgins just back from injury)
    – bigger centre back (Cunniffe/Crowe in league)
    – a mobile midfielder to support SOS (currently not hopeful on this)
    – taller half forward option to help on kickouts(like to see Gallagher in league)
    – fast corner forward who can get 2/3 pts a game from play or win frees consistently (like to see Regan in league)
    Finally would like to see Alan Freeman n Doherty get a long run of games to develop their consistency.

  10. I’m not so sure about the concern for our midfield this early in the season. What we need is an injury free midfield for a change. Tom Parsons was going well at the start of the league last year before getting a nasty head injury.. Jason Gibbons was flying then before he got injured coming into the championship.. Barry Moran in my mind never seemed to get out of injury in that when it came to the business end of the year he was clearly a yard off the pace and lacking serious game time. While Barry had only an ok-ish game against the Ros I was impressed by the way he got around the field.. He looks much lighter, leaner and clearly has been sticking to some dietry plan which can only help with injuries.. All the lad needs is a run of games and that goes for the other two as well. Hopefully sos will have serious competition for midfield. To finish you can only say that sos has been a legend for us these past few years but we need others to step up to the plate

  11. Aye SOS has been a very consistent performer, plays a high work rate defensive role. That is s fair point on one of Parsons, Gibbons and Moran remaining injury free and claiming a place.

  12. Looking forward to next week against I heard midwestreadio analyst on the màyo news podcast saying that he would like to see cillian in position where he could get the ball I think is commentates on the minor games but full forward is his best position.

  13. The league campaign is where we can gather a bit of momentum and we also get an advantage over our provincial rivals in the sense we will be playing against tougher opposition in div one.

    I’d hope that the lads on the fringe that have any promise about them get to experience a few games especially the likes of next weeks game and Dublin in Castlebar as there’s always a bit of bite in the likes of them games. It’s the unknown factor of whether the hunger can be maintained by the experienced lads who have been on this long energy zapping run since Ruislip 11 that will be the difference in whether we get our five in a row .Its impossible to look beyond that at this stage imo it’s all bout retaining the nestor cup then we can have a look at where we are at.

    Gallagher in the hf line and Regan in a corner like Jp above has said is most certainly worth a look at . Keane is worth a shot in the full back line, I actually thought he did ok in Limerick when he came on. Clarke has always been my number one and for the very reasons mentioned above ,the line in front of you have to feel safe with you under the high ball. Coen x 2, Diarmuid o connor, Ronaldson , Parsons, Conor o Shea all worth a run too .

    We still have one of the best squads in the land and this journey is far from over if the level of hunger in last 3 years is still possible.

  14. Horan might have been lucky v London in 2011 but I didn’t see much luck after that. Anyway teams make their own luck according to the experts but that’s not something we have been good at. I still think we do not have the absolute top class forwards that some other teams seem to possess with the exception of Cillian but that’s not a criticism of the rest of the forwards who have plugged away manfully putting up decent scores regularly but as already being mentioned the performance of our forward lines in 2012 and 2013 was just not good enough. Then to compound that we have made crucial defensive errors at vital times, despite having some really outstanding defenders. Donegals second goal and Dublins first goal being particularly disastrous and our handling of donaghy last year was poor.To be successful we will have to eliminate those type of errors, get luck at the right times and avoid the Cormac Reillys of this world. Could it happen this year. Heres hoping

  15. Great article John, as always. We are a sentimental lot but there should be precious little room for sentiment over the next eight months as we face into one of our toughest years in a long time. The sideline will be a crucial factor in how far we get in our quest.

  16. Ger Bohan, what early season form are you on about. For God’s sake, don’t tell me you’re taking the FBD serious!!

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