Years of disappointment have warped Mayo football people’s ability to see the game steadily and to see the game whole. Mayo fans focus on all the opponents’ strengths, and all of Mayo’s weaknesses. There is never balance.
For instance, when Tyrone beat Mayo a few weeks ago in Castlebar there was general distress that Mayo were behind the times when it came to dealing with the blanket defence of the modern game. No reckoning was made of the fact that Tyrone’s own blanket, while all-enveloping in its pomp, has been somewhat threadbare in recent years.
Dublin are not easy to beat in Dublin. Fourteen men often beat fifteen in Gaelic football. Mayo were unlucky on Saturday night in Newry, but sometimes that happens. It doesn’t mean the sky is going to fall.
James Horan has sustained a certain amount of criticism for not making correct tactical switches to win games. This assumes that Horan’s chief priority is to win these games, which is not necessarily correct.
One thing we did learn after last summer was that Mayo may be one or two players short of an All-Ireland team. Horan’s job in the League is to find those one or two players and find out how they combine with the automatic selections, and he’s only got seven games to do that.
Seven games isn’t enough to run through all his permutations and, if Horan chooses to start someone and it’s not working out, Horan has to give the debutant time. If Horan starts a man and then calls him ashore after twenty minutes or a half, how does he then repair that man’s confidence and show him that Horan trusts him to do a job if he’s called on to do it later in the year?
These are what Horan has to think about. Ideally, the team wins as well. That’s ideal for two reasons. Firstly and most obviously, winning makes everybody feel better. There is no game worth playing that is not worth winning. Secondly, it’d be nice to stay in Division 1 of the National Football League.
However, Horan is surely thinking that winning is secondary to looking at players. Horan’s critics say that he isn’t looking at enough, and certainly he’s not ringing the changes that he rung during his first year in charge. But he doesn’t have to – he’s clearly happy in most positions, or as happy as the manager of the Mayo senior football team can ever be. It’s only those missing few that he’s hunting down, and how to combine them. Sufficient wins should add up to keep Mayo from the drop, and if they don’t, they don’t.
The short nature of the National Football League makes it something of a lottery. Mayo went into their last game last year looking at the drop and ended up in the playoffs instead. This means the League isn’t a true contest. It’s a lottery, a coin toss. It has no worthwhile meaning.
The people of Mayo, before rending their garments and setting their hair on fire in distress, should first conduct a thought experiment. Instead of looking at the team as the Mayo team, look at them at Meath, in the old Kepak golden-grid jerseys. Take away the agony of those lost All-Irelands, and replace it with the Team Who Were Never Bet. What do you see?
Well, you see a fullback in Ger Cafferkey who has grown into his craft to such an extent that extra-curricular impacts are necessary to put a stop to his gallop. You see a midfielder in Aidan O’Shea who may be the best in the country come the summer. Barry Moran beside him isn’t far off, and it was hard not to cheer when Moran made those barging runs into the Down defence on Saturday night.
In fact, those runs by Barry Moran may have excited the imagination to wonder what a Mayo full-forward line of Doherty, B Moran and Conroy – the very blueprint of a Mayo footballer – might do. A lot of the Mayo forward question depends on Andy Moran, of course, and what he can do when or if he returns, but in the meantime, the pieces are there. If the ball can stick inside, Doherty and Conroy can rattle up the scores and then where will we be?
Mayo stormed through the League in the first and last years of Johnno’s Second Coming and a lot of good it did them. This year, eleven weeks until hostilities commence in Salthill, Mayo are doing just fine, thank you.