Monday, September 07, 2015

Mayo Post-Mortem #64 - Defending Without Due Care and Attention

The attending physicians at post-mortems #61, #62 and #63 were in a position to debate whether or not the patient could have been saved. What if Michael Murphy’s goal hadn’t been scored, or Mayo had ever got closer to three points against Donegal? What if Cillian’s shoulder hadn’t been a problem all year? What if Rob Hennelly’s seventieth-minute free had floated over instead of floating wide?

For the current post-mortem, there is unanimity among clinicians. If you’re four points up you then have to go five points up and continue to tighten the screw. Shipping three goals is the diametric opposite of what is required. This year, the terminal event was clear. There is no arguing it.

This year’s is the sixty-fourth post-mortem report to be written in the history of Mayo’s dream-that-will-never-die. The dream-that-will-never-die is a bit of media mythologizing, of course – for many of the sixty-four years since Mayo last won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, winning just one game in the summertime would have been a cause for celebration. The recent history of Mayo is one of unprecedented success – with, to tweak a phrase from Raymond Chandler, just that one tarantula on the angel cake.

Coming into this Championship, Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo were the so-called Big Four. Within this Big Four, there is a Big Three – Kerry, Dublin and Donegal have all been sufficiently good enough to win an All-Ireland. Mayo have not. Whether this is bad luck or poor judgement or a hundred other things doesn’t matter. The Roll of Honour only records who won. There are no footnotes or asterisked seasons.

And that won’t change this year. Mayo will return to the fray having found yet another way to lose, and that will increase the pressure of them even more. You may say that isn’t fair, and you would be right. But reader – what on God’s green earth has “fair” got to do with anything? Winning isn’t about being fair. It’s about winning. Anything else is a detail.

The goalposts keep shifting for Mayo. For years the knock was that Mayo had no forwards. Half-way through the Horan era and the emergence of Cillian O’Connor, the knock was that Mayo had no defence. That Mayo’s big problem was Horan’s tactical stubbornness and his team’s Achilles’ heel of conceding soft goals.

This year, Mayo conceded three goals on Saturday against Dublin, and two in the drawn game. None against Donegal, two against Sligo and two against Galway. It’s hard to see this as an improvement.

The deployment of Barry Moran as sweeper looked like a brave new dawn against Donegal, and was hailed as such. Now, that new dawn seems less clear.

Moran’s selection as sweeper seemed a bold and courageous decision at the time. The subsequent selections in the games against Dublin were less so. Watching the game on Saturday, it was extremely difficult to figure out who was marking whom in the Mayo defence. The current substitution policy has not always been easy to understand.

Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly had trouble bedding in having taken over from James Horan, but they clearly have the team playing for them now. Whether or not they can push on and win an All-Ireland remains the question.

Roscommon’s imminent appointment of Kevin McStay as their new manager, over whom Pat and Noel were appointed in such unfortunate circumstances, will add spice to any meetings between the teams next year – and Roscommon are a Division 1 team now as well.

Is it fair to put such a spotlight on Pat and Noel? No, it’s not. But again, fair has nothing to do with it. The pressure will continue to mount on everyone associated with Mayo football until Sam is brought home or Mayo go into decline, as Meath, Mayo’s tormentors of the 90s, have. There is no law that says that Mayo will always turn out. They didn’t in the 1970s. The team have to make the most of their window while its open.

Talk of this being the current Mayo team’s last gasp is nonsense. While some players will retire from the panel, the core group are in their footballing primes. It’s not like they’re going to go stop playing football for the summer and go off playing cricket instead. They are footballers. This is what they do.

And the Mayo people will support them, because this is what we do. A new generation has been indoctrinated into football by the current team. Whether they will grow up to the same Mayo God Help Us tradition as your correspondent’s own generation or a new, winning one will be decided in the coming years.