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Midfield question pops up again

Sean Rice

AT A STRETCH Mayo’s Donal Vaughan contests possession with Laois’ Kevin Meaney during the Allianz NFL match in Portlaoise last Saturday night.?Pic: Sportsfile

Midfield question pops up again

Seán Rice

A SIX-POINT win may swell the egos of those Dublin journalists who have Mayo installed as the dark horse of league and championship… but dispassionate fans watching in O’Moore Park on Saturday night will remain unconvinced.
A good second half performance cannot expunge the imperfections of the first when there was no pattern to their game and no coherence.
For most of the opening thirty-five minutes on Saturday night Laois were the dominant force, and speed was their principal weapon. As Mayo strove unproductively to close them down you could not escape the notion that their football had yet to fully emerge from the swamplands.
Maybe the strong, cutting wind, against which Mayo toiled, in addition to the speed of the opposition, cramped the scope of their game, but failure to get the ball into Barry Moran at full-forward was a grim reality.
As a result the strengths of the big full-forward, whose hunger for a proper supply was obvious from the manner in which he snapped up Mayo’s opening point, were not sufficiently availed of throughout those torrid moments.
Maybe in those circumstances the big man ought to have been moved out to shore up a struggling midfield. Mayo needed some sort of leadership, some sort of guidance to shake off the dogged challenge of the Laois pack.
What leadership there was came from the defence after that sector was sent reeling from the loss of full-back Ger Cafferkey who picked up an injury in the 13th minute. That and Mayo’s anaemic start set the alarm bells ringing and for a long time they looked less than ambitious.
The Ballina man had proved an efficient foil for the big, experienced Laois full-forward, Padraig Clancy, and while his replacement Eoin O’Reilly lacked the experience of Cafferkey, he succeeded because of the generous covering he received from corner-backs Keith Higgins and Lee Keegan.
Higgins, in the left corner, rescued Mayo from some tricky situations in the first half in particular, and Keegan’s strength and graft and strong running were a feature of the game, and a source of relief when Laois threatened down the wings.
While the defence was under periods of unrelenting pressure throughout the first half, on a couple of occasions in rare breaks Mayo did come close to piercing the Laois defence and compensating to some degree for their disjointed play.
Alan Dillon took his point well in the eleventh minute following a move begun by Seamus O’Shea and in which Conor Mortimer and Barry Moran had a hand. It ended in a point, but Dillon was a tad unlucky not to have slogged the ball to the net.
Conor Mortimer had a chance in the closing stages of the first half to nail one down, but slipped in his attempt. The Shrule native is, irrefutably, still one of Mayo’s best forwards and those who frowned on his return may yet have cause to reverse their observation.
When the goal did come, in the 34th minute, it was against the run of play. To Alan Freeman, who began to flower in the second half, fell the privilege from a ball slickly set up by Dillon, and which received a fortuitous brush off a defender into the net.
Suddenly Mayo, deservedly trailing by three points as the thirtieth minute ticked over, were in fact leading by one… 1-4 to 0-6… at half-time.
What might have happened if Laois had not missed three easy chances of points at the beginning of the second half we’ll never know.
But Mayo did pull themselves together after that with unflagging effort if somewhat limited technique. Other than the tenacity of Keegan, Higgins and the somewhat less prominent Richie Feeney, Kevin McLoughlin, and Donal Vaughan, however, there were no quality performances. Even Vaughan lacked the commanding stature you expect in the crucial centre-back role.
Midfielder Seamus O’Shea put in a strong performance, but generally Mayo foundered in the centre of the field where Laois had the edge through the impressive John O’Loughlin, and in the first half won the vast majority of the breaks. Lack of primary possession and greater Laois tenacity for the breaking ball stifled any sort of real creativity in the centre until late in the game.
David Clarke crowned a return to the number one spot with a strong performance around the square, and bar a couple of needless short kick-outs would seem to have regained the confidence of the selectors.
When Mayo eventually revved up, Laois’s confidence began to fray, but up to the 57th minute only three points separated the teams… until Freeman and their very useful sub Enda Varley sealed it in the final minutes.

Dublin to provide a true test
SO the throbbing hopes of a new season begin to settle again on Mayo football and the advent of the Dubs on Saturday tenses us up for the outcome of a tilt at the All-Ireland champions that may reveal much about Mayo’s prospects in the coming months.
Smarting from their six-point defeat to a resurgent Kerry last week, Dublin will come determined not to further weaken their Division One stature… and no other clash will attract as big a league attendance to McHale Park.
In a similar meeting last spring, Mayo were on the end of a five-point defeat to the Dubs at Croke Park. It was a Dublin side still testing the waters, still shrouded in doubt about their ability to win the championship. Their prospects were boosted somewhat by a competent win over Mayo, and now that they have reached the summit will travel with the confidence that an All-Ireland title begets.
A suspected hamstring problem, which forced him to retire last Saturday, may again keep Ger Cafferkey from lining out at full-back for Mayo, and against the Dubs his loss will be severely felt.
The full-back berth also caused Mayo a skein of problems in last spring’s engagement when Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly made hay, scoring a hat trick of goals. Since then Connolly has not commanded a permanent place, and against Kerry last Sunday managed just a point at corner-forward.
In the enforced absence of Cafferkey, it is likely that Eoin O’Reilly will again be asked to fill the breach, and having emerged from his baptism of fire last week with honour, the Castlebar man will not be new to the responsibility.
But once again the support he gets from his corner backs — most likely again to be Keith Higgins and Lee Keegan — will be crucial.
Way back in the fifties Paddy Prendergast depended on his corner men Seán Flanagan and John Forde for protection when he went to contest a high ball. Without their vigilance he would never have achieved the acclaim conferred on him as one of the greatest full-backs of all time.
If chosen, it will be an onerous task for O’Reilly, but he is a capable young defender and he will have the good wishes of every Mayo fan as he stands in for the injured Cafferkey.
Victory in general though will depend on how much Mayo have improved from their win over Laois. There will be at least six changes from the side beaten by Dublin this time last year, and the selectors have a choice for several positions, including midfield, which disappointed at the weekend.
But Dublin will be favourites to succeed.

Just a thought …
Galway, under new manager Alan Mulholland, have signalled their return to serious contention for top honours with their four-points win away over firm favourites Derry in Division 2 of the league at the weekend.