It’s Monday and thankfully this week we’re already done with the match reports from Saturday night. I think we might be done too with the worst of the post-match outpouring of anguish and so we should, I hope, be able to start moving on to thinking about where Saturday’s result leaves us and where we go to from here.
The first thing to put to bed is the whole Pat and Noel issue. It’s understandable, I know, to lash out in this direction and, by extension, to aim a few blows at the County Board, digging up in the process the selection procedure and all that. But there’s no point – it’s all done, we have the management we have and nothing’s going to change there for at least the remainder of 2015 so there’s really nothing to be gained from ploughing that furrow all over again.
That’s not to say that there aren’t questions about the tactical acumen of the current regime – which I’ll get to in a bit – and that it’s not valid to wonder about where they’re leading us. I think supporters have every right to question how Saturday’s collapse was allowed to happen and what Pat and Noel are going to do to ensure that nothing like this happens again. But there needs to be an acceptance at this stage that they’re the guys in charge and with whom rests the responsibility of getting the maximum out of the players at their disposal.
Leaving aside for a minute the walloping we suffered on Saturday (but I’ll come back to it again shortly), it needs to be recognised that after five matches we’re not badly placed in Division One of the League. I don’t think we were ever on more points than this after five rounds any year in the James Horan era (though we often were in the reign of Johnno II – don’t get me started there) and more than once between 2011 and 2014 we went into the final Sunday needing a result to stave off relegation. Which, of course, we invariably succeeded in getting.
This year we may already have done enough to survive, depending on how results elsewhere go. The wrong combination of results over the final two rounds could still see us isolated with either Tyrone or Donegal on 6 points, in which case we’d go down due to the head-to-head rule, but they’re the only scenarios I can see that would relegate us and both involve us losing our last two matches, the final one a home fixture. So the bottom line is that we’re not badly placed as things stand now and we have our ultimate destiny firmly in our own hands.
Our League position, then, is a positive for the year to date and so too is the way that different players have been tried out in various positions over the five matches we’ve played. An infusion of new blood was needed after last year and the talent pool has been widened since the start of this year, though you’d be right to question the extent to which it’s actually been deepened. Still, it’s been heartening to see the likes of Kevin Keane being reborn at full-back and Mark Ronaldson coming back in up front, while the blooding of Michael Hall, Stephen Coen, Patrick Durcan and Diarmuid O’Connor is, aside from anything else, good succession planning.
So far, so good but then the whole horror of Saturday night’s thrashing comes back into focus and demands an explanation. And the concern I’d have is that it’s hard to find one.
The first thing that the 2-18 to 0-10 result did was to blow out of the water entirely James Horan’s dictum about making us what he termed ‘consistently competitive’. We had several great, great days under James but even an avowed Horanista such as myself can accept that we had a fair few not-so-good days as well. But under James we never, not once, suffered a trouncing like the one we shipped the other night.
The other thing that James did was to enforce a style of play on the team. Not everyone liked this or accepted that his playbook was the right one but he decided it was and he was the boss. His way turned us into a serious power in the game and we all know how close he came to leading us all the way to Nirvana.
My great fear – which is probably more pronounced now than it’s ever been – was that the post-Horan era wouldn’t see us building on all that James has done and adding to it but that instead we’d fail to match the achievements made under his watch and start sliding backwards. It’s too early, of course, to say that such a negative scenario is now coming to pass but it’s also surely too soon to be happy that it isn’t.
In both the Tyrone and Dublin games we weren’t at the races tactically. Faced with two very different kinds of opponents – who had common traits of being able to pass and move the ball confidently, defend with conviction and attack with venom – we were visibly all at sea. Tactically, we seemed to be operating on a different planet – wide open at the back and only one angle of attack, which involved running the ball at speed right into the opposing cover – and too often, especially the last night, we looked lacking in conviction too.
The bottom line is that, our solid League position notwithstanding, Pat and Noel haven’t done anything like enough as yet to convince that they have the tactical awareness to manage at this level, given the way the game is being played now. Instead of augmenting the style of play laid down by James Horan and making it more effective, it’s as if we’re now reverting back to the off-the-cuff approach of previous eras. There was certainly more than a hint of this at MacHale Park the last night.
In terms of adopting a smarter playing style, Billy Joe Padden, writing in the Mayo News prior to our first League game this year (no link to this I’m afraid – it was in the paper and digital editions), said that we need to be able to deploy a blanket defence, not all the time but as required. Billy Joe was absolutely right but despite the fact that every other serious inter-county team is now doing this – and it’s not just getting bodies back, either, it’s tackling hard (fouling it’s really called, but everyone does it and they seem to get away with it) and stopping teams from running right through your backline – we’re not. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, unless we cop on sharpish, we’ll pay a heavy price for this naïvety over the coming months.
It’s not too late, though, to get things going in the right direction. Some issues – like our stupidly one-directional kickouts – should be easy to fix and much of what was good about the hard tackling approach we deployed so well in the Horan era could be used to good effect in defining our version of the blanket. We’ve lots to work on in many different areas of play but we’ve also got plenty to work with. And lest it be forgotten, we’ve still got Donie Buckley in our backroom.
The focus now is a twin one – steadying the ship to keep us in Division One and firming up plans and tactics for the summer. We could have done without that trimming we got on Saturday night but we can’t at the same time undo it now. The defeat has, undoubtedly, dented Pat and Noel’s credibility but it’s now up to them to show their mettle and to prove their doubters – myself included – wrong.
As supporters, though, we shouldn’t forget our primary role in the scheme of things. Sure, we can question and we can point to all that’s wrong but what the team needs most of all right now is support and lots of it. It would only take a fraction of the support that turned up in MacHale Park on Saturday night to ensure that, not for the first time this year, we’re in the majority at an opposing venue when we pitch up at Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday week. We should aim to be there in numbers where hopefully, following Saturday night’s horror show, we’ll get to see the start of our road to redemption.