Monday, March 06, 2006

Have Mayo Finally Found a Full Back?

An tIolar Breá IorraisThe great Keith Duggan is waxing lyrical in this morning’s Times about Mayo’s win over Monaghan at Clontibret yesterday. He really is a joy to read, Duggan. However, all Mayo fans should beware of getting carried away by league results, as the National Football League is a rebellious bird – like Bizet’s Carmen, just when you think you’re getting on well with her, she’ll throw your flower back in your face, and run off with some bullfighter instead.

The best way to approach these league games is to, firstly, ensure that your team isn’t relegated, and secondly, try to learn what you can from each match. Then, if God is good and the luck is with you, maybe you’ll have a stronger team than you had last year, and might be able to keep it kicked out to the Kingdom next time out.

As a contest, that game against Monaghan was over after fifteen minutes, with Mayo cruising by eight points. David Heaney was charging upfield from the square, like one of those liberos that used to be all the rage among soccer cognoscenti a decade ago, and the entire middle of the Monaghan team, half-back, midfield and half-forward lines, were overrun by Mayo - Mayo wearing their traditional colours too, I should note. Every time you looked up there was another Mayoman striding through the Monaghan trenches with scoring on his mind.

When Heaney was sent off on the eighteenth minute, the prospect of Mayo clinging to the wreckage for the next fifty minutes was a depressing one, but Billy Joe went back to the square to man the redoubt, and Mayo waves continued to crash over the beleaguered Monaghan balustrades at the other end.

What Heaney did to get sent off remains a mystery. An Spailpín missed the incident, having been playing with his mobile telephone at the time, but the spectator next to me assured me that it was strictly handbags stuff. There was a bit of pushing and shoving, Heaney flipped a flipper at your man, the ref thought it was a punch, and sent Heaney to line. Flipping a flipper wouldn’t even have got anyone the line in a basketball game, but it is possible that the referee had been reading something-must-be-done! columns in the newspapers after the Dublin-Tyrone game, and it all went right to his head.

The spectre of refereeing consistency raised its head about ten minutes later when Ronan McGarrity clocked a Monaghan man with a right hook ten minutes after Heaney exited, stage right, but the ref either lacked sufficient bottle to send off two Mayomen within ten minutes in what hadn’t been a dirty game, or else thought that a punch from a basketballer doesn’t count as a punch at all, and is about the same as being slapped by a girl. Whatever the reason, Mayo escaped the ignoble stain of having three men suspended in a fortnight.

What is interesting, however, is how this inconsistency in referring will work out when Mayo play Dublin, in what is more than likely going to be a dirty game at Parnell Park. Paul Caffrey seems to have decided that the success of Dublin in the 1970s had more to do with timber from the likes of Mullins and O’Driscoll than talent from Keaveney and Hanahoe, and is intent on building a team in that black and blue image. How will Mayo react if the Dubs decide to come out fighting? Will Caffrey tell his charges – who may be simple and easily lead – that Mayo are a team of tough guys, and fire must be met with fire? One of the most chilling of the great Ger Loughnane’s coaching mantras was that the referee will not protect you – you must protect yourself. Patrons attending Parnell Park are asked to bring spare bandages and be aware of their blood type, should the need for emergency transfusions arise.

In the meantime, the Mayo focus turns to Fermanagh’s visit to Castlebar, a team that has been giving Mayo no small amount of grief in recent times. The suspensions of the two Davids should be seen as an opportunity rather than a hindrance – with six league points in the bag, relegation is now highly unlikely, so Mickey Moran has free reign to experiment.

Experimentation is not needed in midfield, where the Stephenite pairing of McGarrity and Brady are clearly the first selection. James Gill played very well against Monaghan but the fact that Monaghan gained a foothold in midfield after McGarrity came off tells its own eloquent story. This is McGarrity’s third year of Championship, it’s Gill’s sixth. McGarrity has definitely arrived, while Gill has always struggled to establish himself. McGarrity wins.

Much more interestingly, the suspension of David Heaney gives Mickey Moran a rare opportunity to look at his options at full-back. Heaney only went back to fullback as a stopgap move a few years ago, and has never been happy or entirely comfortable there. Also, Heaney’s placing at fullback is a waste of his attacking potential, thus making it doubly-disadvantageous to the Green and Red cause. But, in the flurry of excitement after the sending off, as Billy Joe Padden, scorer of an excellent goal only ten minutes before, marched back to the square, were we granted a glimpse of the future?

It’s not easy being Billy Joe Padden. It’s not easy being the son of a legend. Billy has been outstanding in his Mayo appearances, and has done more than enough to stand apart from his father’s long shadow. However, no-one seems quite clear on where Billy should play. They say he’s too small for midfield, too slow for wing-forward, and Mickey Moran doesn’t seem to favour last summer’s experiment of Billy at full-forward. But, as An Spailpín craned his neck from the stand in Clontibret yesterday, watching Billy Joe marshal his man in Heaney’s absence, a little light bulb went ping! above my head. Have Mayo found their fullback?

Stranger things have happened. Didn’t one of the Down midfielders of the nineties finish his career at fullback? Didn’t Darren Fay finish his time in midfield, having started as a fullback? When we consider Gaelic footballers, should we consider them across the lines, or along a centre spine/peripheral model?

What is the one factor you want in a fullback, above any others? Tenacity. He has to be ball-hungry. He can’t give up, and know as his guiding principle that the square must be guarded as a miser guards his gold. Billy Joe has all the qualities to wear the number 3 for Mayo, and free up David Heaney for a spot further up the field. If An Spailpín is right, that’s three pieces of the puzzle solved in one go – the No 3 berth is filled, Heaney is free to roam and we know what to do with Billy Joe. If An Spailpín is wrong and Billy isn’t suited to fullback, better to find out now than to get torched in Croker in high summer. That’s the great thing about the League – nothing goes so wrong that it can’t be fixed next time out.

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