WALKING along Jones Road on the way back to the car on Sunday evening I couldn’t get over the huge crowd of Mayo supporters that were flowing out of the stadium.
They turned out in their droves to support the team and once again it showed win or lose, we’re all in this together.
It’s our team. They need us and we certainly need them! And they did us proud this year.
My pilot didn’t spare the horses on the way back from Dublin so I was home in time for The Sunday Game. From the comfort of my sitting room, it was easy to see where the match was won and lost.
The middle third of the field in the second half was where the battle-lines were drawn.
A lot of Kerry’s attacks stemmed from their half-back line after half-time. We really had no answer to what they threw at us during the third quarter and we seemed to run out of steam as time went on.
We didn’t make life difficult for Kerry in the second half and Mayo tapered off much too early for my liking. That was the most disappointing thing.
There’s no shame in losing to this Kerry team. You’d have to applaud the way they play the game, their individual talent, their team ethic, and the way they closed the game out. It was all very professional and efficient.
In keeping with their performances over the last few months, Mayo were competitive and honest. James Horan has got them playing a high-tempo game now that demands huge levels of constant effort. The only requirement at the other end of the field is that all the hard work gets its reward on the scoreboard. You have to be putting up scores.
Unfortunately, we didn’t take enough of our chances.
We were expecting Kerry to go for the jugular from the start but we didn’t think it would actually be right from the throw-in! If Darran O’Sullivan had stuck away either of his two early goal chances, it could have been another massacre.
But we weathered the storm and, like the quarter-final, we played ourselves into the game.
The tactic of Kevin McLoughlin dropping back to help out the defence definitely worked early on. It protected the full-back line, helped us to ferry the ball up the field, and we created chances.
It also helped that Kerry didn’t make use of their ‘free’ man in the first quarter but when Jack O’Connor switched Tomás Ó Sé into that role, he made a much bigger impact. He was a better playmaker than Eoin Brosnan and he broke into space and caused us problems.
Ó Sé also played a lead role in Kerry getting ahead during the second quarter and, psychologically, going in ahead at half-time was very important.
In the first 25 minutes, Mayo were excellent. Ger Cafferkey was outstanding on Kieran Donaghy, Tom Cunniffe was marshalling Gooch fairly well, and Keith Higgins was getting to grips with Darran O’Sullivan.
We also had Donal Vaughan breaking forward whenever he got the chance and that gave us impetus and momentum.
Up front, Enda Varley started well but we could have got more out of Alan Dillon and Alan Freeman. Cillian O’Connor, in that first half, also needed to get on the end of more moves.
Andy Moran, as usual, ran himself into the ground and led from the front. He will be disappointed though that he didn’t score a goal at either end after teasing Marc Ó Sé with a couple of dummy solos. You need to be taking those chances.
Behind by two points at the break, Mayo would have realised that they would have to go to Plan B and revert to a ‘15-on-15’ set-up. James had no choice really but by pushing Kevin McLoughlin back into the attack, it left the Mayo defence exposed.
They just weren’t able to cope without the extra player there to help out.
I’d imagine the Mayo dressing-room would have been a very positive place at half-time. The game was still very much alive and they would have been hoping to explode out of the blocks when the game got going again.
Instead, Kerry upped the ante and we ran out of steam completely around the middle of the field. The stats show that we only won 39 per cent of possession during the 70 minutes. Enough said.
Colm Cooper, in particular, made hay when Mayo went man-to-man. There’s nowhere to hide in Croke Park and Tom Cunniffe ran into some turbulence when The Gooch got into his stride. But any defender would have struggled with the quality, and quantity, of ball that was coming in.
Personally, I would have switched Tom off Cooper earlier than he was. Maybe Keith Higgins could have taken over that shift for the last 25 minutes. But it’s easy to be wise in hindsight.
We were cleaned out on breaks, lost half of our own kick-outs, and those things only added up to one outcome.
There was a need for Robert Hennelly to vary his kick-outs too; an odd short one, or a kick into space would have kept Kerry thinking. We were losing the 50/50 battles when the ball dropped and they were coming at us in waves.
Aidan O’Shea looked out on his feet early in the second half and Ronan McGarrity didn’t get motoring at all when he came on for the last 20 minutes.
Mayo’s half-forward line was also a disappointment on Sunday. Alan Dillon was out-of-sorts and Alan Freeman, who played on the wing for most of the game, struggled to make any impact.
On the positive side, Cillian O’Connor’s goal was a reminder that he has got great potential. The way he handled himself once he picked up the ball was lovely to watch; the dummy fist pass, the change of direction, and the way he placed the shot, with power and precision, was first-class.
But, based on the evidence of the entire championship, Mayo’s forward unit needs work in terms of running off the ball, making space, link-play, and taking the right options.
The Mayo management team will have four months now to work on their plans for next season. I’d be guessing we’ll see some new, and maybe some old, faces when the FBD League comes around next January.
Guys like Pat Harte, Barry Moran, Michael Conroy and Conor Mortimer are certainly worth another look. Conor needs to work harder, and get tougher to win more of his own ball, but he has shown that he’s a natural finisher and Mayo don’t have too many of them at the moment. We need players like him and Conroy who can take on their men, suck in defenders, and either make or take scores.
Mark Ronaldson, Jason Doherty and Aidan Campbell would also come under that heading and they have a lot more to offer.
Young guys like James Burke, Lee Keegan, Trevor Howley and Chris Barrett will have learned a lot this year too and they’ll be pushing hard again for places.
Cathal Freeman, providing he can get back on his feet again, also has the skills-set to break into the half-forward line.
But whoever is involved in James Horan’s panel has a lot of strength and conditioning work to do. They’ve got one season under their belts and it’s vital that they get stuck back into it again as soon as possible.
Andy Moran should be an All Star by the time the fun starts again next year and, possibly, Keith Higgins will be collecting one too. Donal Vaughan should probably look into renting a tux’ as well after his tour de force last Sunday. A nomination at least should be in the post.
It has been a good first season for James and the players. They had a solid league and, after the speed wobble in London, they went from strength to strength in the championship.
Now the hard work starts again.
The next two years will be crucial. If our ‘front eight’can develop, and get the hard pre-season work done, and start playing smarter football, then Mayo can definitely challenge again.
Of course there’s room for improvement, but that’s a good thing. Mayo went further in the championship than any of us expected and, as a certain man said back in ’89, we have to keep the faith.
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