Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mayo Championship Preview 2011

The fifteenth of August is the day of the fair in the great town of Belmullet, sentinel between the sweet county Mayo and the wild and wasteful ocean. They will talk about football in the bars in Belmullet on the 15th of August, because they must. What else is there?

What determines whether or not James Horan’s first year in charge of Mayo has been a success or a failure will depend on whether or not that football talk in Belmullet is looking back at a quarter-final loss or looking forward to a semi-final. That’s the measuring stick.

So far James Horan has been a complete success since he was appointed manager. Horan has been a success because he was appointed in the first place, showing that the Board put football ahead of money. They may have needed a twitch on the bridle along the way but no harm, no foul.

The second success of James Horan has been a perfect League campaign. Mayo did not get relegated, and Horan looked at as many players in as many positions as he could.

People have chosen to see Mayo’s scutching against Dublin as a sign that Mayo are in trouble. It’s the opposite. Horan never cared about the result. If he did, he wouldn’t have waited until the second half to make his first substitution. Horan had bigger fish to fry.

Horan got the name of Mr Mix-’Em-Up in his team selections. The smallest number of changes he made between one game and the next was six, but he made eleven changes once and ten three times. Horan was determined to look at everybody and give everybody a chance.

What’s particularly fascinating is when you chart out his teams over the League, you see a very clear method to his madness. Changes appeared random, but there are clearly patterns to be seen. (And we have to take a moment to once again salute the great Willie Joe of the Mayo GAA Blog, without whom these stats would have been more or less impossible to track down).

Three players started all the League games – Ger Cafferkey, Kevin McLoughlin and Andy Moran. Only Cafferkey always started in the same position. McLoughlin was either seven or twelve. Andy Moran was 10 once, twice 11, twice 12, and twice 14.

As the games went on, a clear evolution in Horan’s thinking became clearer. He knows whom he wants where. He’s given players chances – Tom Parsons started three games out of seven for Horan before being dropped from the panel.

Horan has problem positions, of course, but who doesn’t? His biggest problem may be where to play Aiden O’Shea – O’Shea’s been most effective at midfield, but that then leaves the question of whom to play at 13. Who takes the frees is another question. Or who goes where in the full back line.

But it’s always been the Mayo way to look at what’s not there rather than what is. It’s a loser mentality that’s held the county back for so long. So let’s treat ourselves for once and see what’s there rather than what isn’t – the thrilling prospect of a summer lit up by the deep and terrible threat that the inside line possesses.

Mayo haven’t had an inside line that’s been feared in years and years. But suddenly Jason Doherty, Horan’s great find of the year, and Alan Freeman, the one thing to come from last year’s disaster in Sligo, have claimed the 15 and 14 jerseys. They’re both young and unseasoned, but that has as many benefits as it has dangers. If Mayo can get ball to those men, they can do damage.

Defence continues to be a work in progress but it does seem that the players are there. Tom Cuniffee, the Feeneys, Cathal Hallinan, Keith Higgins, James Burke, Kevin McLoughlin, Cafferkey – the men are there. It’s just a question of where to slot them.

The shot in the arm that the Under-21 success has provided Galway is a headache that Horan didn’t need, but no matter. Even if Galway do win in June or if there’s a disaster in the Connacht Final, the odds are against Mayo getting a disastrous draw in the qualifiers. Mayo have the men and the manager to make the last eight. After that, it’s all to play for. James Horan has given the people of Mayo reason to hope once more. Maigh Eo abú.