Mayo’s Andy Moran wins a late free after being tackled by Cork’s Michael Shields during Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final.?Pic: Sportsfile
Has a new day dawned?
I WAS delighted when the final whistle blew. Like most Mayo people who were in Croke Park, I travelled more in hope than confidence, but we came out very satisfied with what we saw. The intensity from all the players was superb. Hats off to them. They gave us what we were looking for – a gutsy performance – and got a great result.
Hopefully Sunday’s game was a new dawn for Mayo football in Croke Park. They’re a young team. Most of them are 26 or younger, so they hopefully have four or five more years to play as a group. If they can replicate Sunday’s performance in the semi-final – with that intensity, work-rate and tenacious tackling – they’re in with a chance.
It was reminiscent of our own All-Ireland U-21 final against Cork in 2006. We started so poorly that day in Ennis, so off the pace it was unbelievable.
Last Sunday, the defence had to absorb a lot of pressure early on. Donal Vaughan was, I think, instructed to hold the number six position while his man, Pearse O’Neill, was going out the field and picking up all the breaking ball. I think a lot of Cork’s attacks in the first 15 minutes were instigated there. Jimmy Nallen came in and told them to go man for man, and that changed things.
Keith Higgins had a huge block-down, and the O’Shea lads contested every ball at midfield. While Mayo started poorly, they worked themselves back into the game. Kevin McLoughlin’s great goal gave everybody huge hope, so Cork’s second goal was very deflating. But Mayo didn’t lose heart, and by half time, they were only two points down.
TURNING THE TIDE
THE tide seemed to turn totally around the middle third of the field. When we went man for man and the midfield sector turned our way, the Cork players weren’t able to cope with what was being thrown at them. When I saw Cork coming out early for the second half, I felt that was a good sign. And they just weren’t let play in the second half.
Admittedly, Cork were missing some big guns, but their replacements had helped destroy Down, yet our guys dealt with them superbly.
All the Mayo players put their shoulders to the wheel for the whole second half. At no stage did they let up. It was relentless pressure, real bodies-on-the-line stuff and big hits from Vaughan, Kevin McLoughlin and Higgins. Things like that lift the team and its supporters. It was a huge performance and most encouraging.
But until Andy Moran went into the full-forward line, we were still having a problem finding our inside men from midfield early.
While the two O’Sheas played well, they’re inclined to hold the ball a little too long – taking two or three solos when they should put the ball into the danger zone immediately.
The link play from the half-back line and midfield into the full-forward line is one area that needs to be worked on. When Andy Moran went in there on Sunday, he gave Mayo huge relief out the field. Any ball that went in, he won it, he controlled it, he held onto it. He had a huge game.
I thought our full-back line really got to grips with the Cork attack. Ger Cafferkey, Tom Cunniffe and Higgins were immense in the second half. Any ball that came in, high or low, they were there.
As soon as a Cork man was going down for the ball, there was a fist or hand coming in. Nothing was won easy. They came out on top and mopped up every ball that came their way. After picking up early yellow cards, defenders went in with tight tackles but were still cautious enough not to get a second yellow. Trevor Mortimer did well on Paul Kerrigan when he picked him up in the latter part of the game.
A dry day suits the likes of Alan Freeman, Enda Varley, Cillian O’Connor and Jason Doherty. It’s very difficult, as we saw against Roscommon, for a player to have full control – both in winning the ball and taking his man on – on a wet, greasy day. I was very happy to see Jason Doherty getting his chance. People were writing him off after Roscommon, but on a dry day he can scorch any full-back in the country.
BACK TO WORK
THE game reminded me of the 1996 semi-final against Kerry. We went up as rank outsiders and just put in a performance similar to last Sunday. Like ’96, it’s a young team, just developing, and Sunday was the big game that I think they needed to turn the corner to become a very good team. Now these guys will grow in confidence and this performance will stand them in good stead in Croke Park over the coming weeks – and even years.
James Horan deserves huge credit for getting his half-forward line to funnel back. Mayo didn’t give the Cork half-backs any room. Sometimes, when you say to a forward ‘Look, you’ve got to go back and defend’, the forward won’t absorb it because he feels that that’s not his primary job.
But on Sunday McLoughlin, Alan Dillon, Freeman and O’Connor all worked back. On many occasions they were inside their own half-back line, picking up ball and breaks, and tracking their men. That work ethic and style hadn’t been seen in a Mayo team for a long time.
James and all the guys deserve huge credit for the shape Mayo were in on Sunday and the intensity that they brought to the game.
The bodies will have been sore, but there’s no better feeling for a player than waking up on Monday morning reading the papers having had a huge result. By Thursday night, they’ll be ready to go back it again. Like every other team in the country, we owe Kerry one. Everyone will be chomping at the bit again, because there’s huge competition for places now.
If I was Mayo manager, I’d be saying the club championship shouldn’t go ahead. By next weekend, we’ll be two weeks from the county’s biggest game of the year. If a player pulls a hamstring or gets a straight red card, you’re a lesser team straight away.
I’m sure none of the clubs would be too put out if James Horan was to call on the County Board to postpone the club championship.