Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mayo Championship Preview 2014

A hallmark of what we may call Horan football is a commitment to defense. It was a feature of his Ballintubber teams, and it’s a feature that continued at county level. If you scored on Mayo, you earned it.

How odd, then, that in Horan’s fourth year in charge, Mayo conceded an average of two goals over their eight League games. Those sixteen goals include three against fourteen-man Dublin and two against fourteen-man Derry. Why are Mayo leaking goals? What’s behind it?

The theories are many. Some said it was the absence of Keith Higgins from his usual station. Some said it was the absence of David Clarke, or Chris Barrett, or Tom Cunniffe. Some said the attacking half-backs leave the full-back line too exposed, and more said it was just an All-Ireland hangover and everything would be fine once the summer came.

But An Spailpín’s mind keeps going back to St Conleth’s Park, that tight little bandbox of a pitch tucked in off the main street in Newbridge, where Mayo played Kildare in the first round of the National League this year. Aidan O’Shea made a clumsy challenge about twenty minutes in, and was served a black card and his marching orders in consequence.

It was a bit harsh and it didn’t seem that big a deal at the time. But there is a thing called the butterfly effect, where something very small can amplify to suddenly become catastrophic. Is it possible that black card awarded to Aidan O’Shea is such a trigger?

With the greatest respect to the man, people automatically assumed that the black card was introduced for the Ryan McMenamins of this world, the hardy wee men who will happily chew broken glass before letting their man score.

But on that cold day in Kildare, it wasn’t a Ricey-esque bit of a boyo that got the line. It was one of the most recognisable and stylish players in the country. And when that happened, did the Mayo players subconsciously think: hold on. I have to watch myself here, or else I’m off and someone of lesser ability than me is on, meaning I’m letting the team down?

Could that explain the suddenly leaky defence? The subconscious is an unruly beast. It can betray you when you least expect it, and without you even knowing about the betrayal until afterwards, if ever.

These are the shifting sands that Mayo must navigate as, once more, they try to pull themselves together for another tilt at the windmill. How do they play defence? Can they return to the full-blooded commitment of last year, epitomised by Tom Cunniffe’s famous hit on Peter Harte?

Mayo are in big trouble if they can’t, because there are few signs that they will be able to win any shootouts. The perpetual knock on Mayo forwards is easy shorthand for lazy journalists. Forwards are a team within a team, and teams can amount to more or less than the sum of their parts. Right now, Mayo are less and the clock is ticking on James Horan to find out why that is.

Nobody wants to hear whining at the time, not least when you lose to Dublin’s greatest team since the days of Sean Doherty, Brian Mullins, Jimmy Keaveney and the rest, but it is a fact that Mayo were bitterly unlucky in the All-Ireland Final last year.

Andy Moran was a risk in one corner after such a long layoff from injury, while Cillian O’Connor, had he been anyone else at all, would have sat this one out too because of his injured shoulder. Add in Alan Freeman’s sickness during the week of the final and James Horan was looking at three empty shirts where a full-forward line ought to be. That Mayo came within a point of Dublin at all was a tremendous achievement.

Horan’s chief mission in the League was to fix that problem, and make the Mayo forwards into a unit that is more than the sum of their parts – this, before the backs started devolving, as outlined already.

But the longer the League went on, the less comfortable Keith Higgins seemed at centre-half forward. Adam Gallagher flared brightly on the wing, and then disappeared. Cathal Carolan got injured. People began to question Alan Freeman. The midfield, strong to begin with, has been improved by the return of Tom Parsons and the excellent form of Jason Gibbons, surely Mayo’s player of the League. But fore and aft of the midfield, there are causes for serious concern.

And yet, with all that said, Mayo are still in a better position than the majority of teams in the Championship. They have experience of winning on the great stage, and are only a small tweak away of suddenly finding the accelerator again. Even now, as I type, barmats are being stripped and the bare sides covered with complex diagrams of forward interplay, drawn by the football people of the heather county as they exchanged theories and formations.

The work is being done, but will it be enough? Who knows? Mayo play the winners of Roscommon and Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final, which will be by no means a gimme. And although Mayo’s record in and aptitude for the Qualifiers is awful, maybe a loss to the winners of Roscommon and Leitrim would be no bad thing. It would give Horan a bit more room for further experimentation than a Connacht Final, where there is no room for experimentation at all.

Sligo have never not risen at the prospect of a Connacht Final and, while Galway appear to be struggling currently, they are not to be trusted even if their fifteen men limped onto the Connacht Final field of glory wearing bandages, ringing bells and shouting “unclean! unclean!” Since 1998, no sensible Mayo person will ever knowingly under-estimate the heron-chokers. They simply can’t be trusted.

But who knows what will happen, really? Championship exists on a different plane to the League, and always has. Were one of the surfeit of current midfielders to go inside as Kieran Donaghy did for Kerry in 2006, could that work the oracle? Or how about two of them, as Donaghy teamed up with Tommy Walsh in the second half of the last decade?

All the possibilities are there, and Horan has the players. Whether he can find the right combination before running out of road is, as ever, the never-ending question. Up Mayo.